Beech Mountain Stories
The richness of the oral tradition around Beech Mountain is indisputable. When one talks about storytelling in the United States, it would be hard not to mention a long list of tradition bearers from the Watauga and Avery County community: Council Harmon, Sammy Hicks, Jane Hicks Gentry, Ray Hicks, Stanley Hicks, Sam Ward, Orville Hicks, and others. From narrative-driven folk ballads to Jack Tales to local, place-based legends, Beech Mountain has been an epicenter for the American storytelling tradition for over two centuries.
The close relationships between the primary families of the region – including the Harmon, Hicks, Ward, Presnell, and Proffitts – distilled a strong storytelling tradition perhaps unmatched anywhere else in Appalachia. So strong were the foundations established by those first families of Watauga that there is still a living tradition of storytelling, in spite of technology’s growing monopoly on our time and attention, with storytellers and ballad singers like Orville Hicks and Rick Ward sharing their ancestral traditions.
As noted by Barbara Rice Damron McDermitt, “It is unlikely just one individual brought the Jack Tales over from the ‘old country’ [to Watauga County]. The Hicks-Ward-Presnell-Harmon interlocking family line offers many possibilities for speculation about story origins. The most prominent name among the early storytellers was Council Harmon.” Folklorist William Lightfoot adds, “Perhaps the most propitious event in the development of Hicks-Harmon family folklore occurred when Little Sammy’s grandson Samuel III (1848-1929) married Old Counce’s [Council Hicks’] daughter Rebecca (1842- 1919),” further weaving together the families’ traditions. (It should be noted that that marriage also led to the incorporation of the Proffitts and Wards into the family lineage.)
Of all the oral traditions carried forward by these families, the telling of Jack Tales may be the most unique. Though early outside folklorists believed these tales to have gone out of favor in the American storytelling tradition by the 1920s, stories of the trickster Jack were actually alive and well in Watauga and Avery Counties, most famously from such tellers as Jane Hicks Gentry and, years later, Ray Hicks.
– TJ Smith