Historic Happy Valley
Farming Traditions Grow Rich Cultural Treasures
Place means something in Historic Happy Valley, a 28-mile stretch of rural road in North Carolina’s Caldwell and Wilkes counties. The residents and the soil are connected, a bond forged by familiarity with the land and traditional ways of life.
The land is how many of the residents make their living from raising cattle or goats to beekeeping and shrubbery farms. Even for those who don’t work the land, their stories, their music traditions and their family heritage are rooted in the landscapes where hunter and explorer Daniel Boone once roamed.
There are no gated communities in this valley, no billboards advertising fast food restaurants at the next exit, no signs of the big city. Happy Valley is a quiet agriculture community where residents know their neighbors.
“The land is where I get my strength,” says farmer Tony Jones, who will tell you he has no college degree and that his passion for the land inspired the Historic Happy Valley Project. “I don’t have a formal education. The land is a safe haven for me.”
Several years ago, Jones contacted the state about conserving his land as a “working farm.” The Historic Happy Valley Project, spearheaded by local residents and the N.C. Arts Council, included the documentation of important cultural traditions in the valley by folklorists and the development of several public programs, including an annual fiddlers' convention.
Jones’ 142-acre farm, northeast of Lenoir on N.C. Byway 268, is the home to the Historic Happy Valley Old-time Fiddlers’ Convention, now in its sixth year. Fiddlers and their families camp out along the Yadkin River, taking in the valley’s cool summer breezes and the old-time mountain music.
Like many Happy Valley residents, Jones values the old ways of doing things. He grows field corn and raises cattle, traditional ways of farming that have been practiced for generations in the valley. His neighbors are beekeepers, vegetable and poultry farmers, furniture makers, musicians, molasses makers, quilters and crafts people.
Jones decided one way to survive as a farmer is to bring people to the land. “Bring the customer to the farm,” he says. “I wanted to promote the local heritage.” The Jones Farm on the Yadkin River has one of the most scenic views in the valley and the farm preserves important historic and cultural resources. Part of the old farm road traces the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail and is home to the Laura Foster gravesite.
The site is used for heritage events that present the valley’s folklife traditions to the public including Plow Day and Mow Day. Through the Historic Happy Valley Project, the Jones family has partnered with the Foothills Conservancy to apply for funds needed to create a conservation easement on the farm.
After all, this soil has its stories as spellbinding as any soap opera. One of the most popular is that of Civil War soldier Tom Dooley or “Dula,” and whether or not he killed his lover Laura Foster in the late 1800s. Dooley, Foster and Foster’s cousin were believed to be part of a love triangle. Dooley was supposed to meet Laura Foster for a romantic rendezvous on the mountainside with the promise of marriage. Instead she was found dead and he hanged for her murder. The story is repeated in the legendary song The Ballad of Tom Dula. But some speculate the real murderer was the jealous cousin.
Happy Valley also produced its share of writers and musicians. The late James Larkin Pearson, N.C.’s second state poet laureate, was a Happy Valley native. Pearson was born creating rhymes and matching lines. Pearson, who grew up moving from farm to farm, was a “self-taught” writer. When his first published piece received eight dollars from the New York Independent in 1900, he considered himself a "professional." Pearson served a life term as N.C. Poet Laureate from 1953 until his death at age 101 in 1981.
The Happy Valley Fiddlers’ Convention draws notables like the singer/storyteller Bobby McMillon, Brown-Hudson Folklore Award-winner Glenn Bolick and the nationally renowned bluegrass band the Kruger Brothers. Then there are the long time residents that play music all year long in area hot spots like blues man Pop Ferguson and his son, Clyde Ferguson that play old-style blues.
So explore the valley, you won’t get lost. The Historic Happy Valley has mile markers along Highway 268 to guide visitors looking for the reconstructed village, Whippoorwill Academy or historic sites such as the Chapel of Rest, a peaceful chapel on a hill, or Fort Defiance, the home of General William Lenoir built in the late 1700s. Grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts and the N.C. Arts Council supported the design, fabrication and installation of the twenty-one mile markers that were crafted by Morganton blacksmith and artist Dean Curfman.
The N.C. Arts Council produced podcasts highlighting stories and traditions of the area along with a Web site that includes maps, descriptions of sites and programs, an events calendar and artist profiles, and information about the cultural traditions of African-American communities in the valley. To find out more about Historic Happy Valley, visit