Living History: Funk Heritage Center Preserving the Past for the Future, Part I
In a beautiful corner of northwest Cherokee County, Georgia lies Waleska, a village that boasts one traffic light and the United Methodist associated Reinhardt University. I could write volumes about what the college has meant to my family. Generations have studied there, beginning with my father and his siblings who, some time in the 1920’s, had to leave their home in the Salacoa Valley in order to continue their educations beyond what their little one room community school offered. If it hadn’t been for the Reinhardt Academy, a secondary school that would grow into the college, my father would not have graduated high school. As it was, he went on to complete his junior college education at Reinhardt, his BS at the University of Georgia, and his MS at Duke University. Reinhardt was the foundation of his very successful career as a research forester. He met my mother at Reinhardt. One might say I owe my very existence to that lovely school sitting on a hill overlooking a pretty village.
While diplomas and degrees have always been Reinhardt’s raison d’être, in 1999 the university began offering educational experiences that do not take place in a classroom. On land donated by the late Atlanta physician Dr. James Funk, the university built a heritage center with the goal of honoring Native American and Appalachian cultures. Through the hard work of staff, donors, and volunteers and with excellent leadership, the Funk Heritage Center has grown in such importance that in 2004 it was named Georgia’s Official Frontier and Southeastern Indian Interpretive Center and in 2013 became a certified National Park Service Trail of Tears Interpretive Site.
One particular exhibit holds a special place in my heart. I am one of the Bennetts whose ancestors arrived in the Waleska area in the early 1800’s. We have traced our family’s path in the New World from late 16th-early 17th century Virginia to South Carolina to Hall County, Georgia and finally into the Salacoa Valley of far northwestern Cherokee County. The Funk Heritage Center’s Appalachian Settlers exhibits feature a replica of the John H. Bennett Store on Salacoa Road. While the store is no longer open for business, it is still a notable landmark where Salacoa Road and Barron Road meet.
I have many wonderful memories of the store and of my Uncle John and Aunt Ethel’s home which sits on the same property. In many ways, the store during my childhood was the weekday heart of the community. In summer, the men of the valley gathered in the afternoons on and around the side porch for conversation, checkers, and cold “Co-Colas” or Nehis from the store’s red Coke “icebox.” The side porch faces east and was usually well shaded by late afternoon. In winter, they sat around the blazing stove, rested their feet on the stove’s fender, and gossiped about the living and the dearly departed. They would never have admitted to gossiping, but the stories they told made for very interesting listening for a small girl already in love with all things from the past.
The store had a particular odor as so many old buildings of its vintage do. It was a combination of unsealed heart pine floors soaked with burnt motor oil to keep dust at bay, burlap sacking from the feed section, and the general mustiness and dust that comes from years of operating a business patronized by the public. I loved that smell. It represented fun with cousins, cold Cokes, occasional candy treats, and a touchstone to valley history.
I feel certain Uncle John kept the store in business long after it ceased to be profitable, but he always felt he had an obligation to serve the community. Instead of driving six unpaved, rutted miles into Waleska for a bottle of milk or loaf of bread, the neighbors could simply run by the store. And they did. At all hours of the day and night.
Until the 1960’s, Salacoa was considered to be so far back in the country and to be so sparsely populated that the county did not pave the roads or build bridges over places where one could ford the creek that creates the valley’s lush bottom land and from which it takes its name. I can remember being disappointed as a young child when I saw that we no longer needed to drive over rocks and boards laid across the creek to get to my grandmother’s house. The county had built a wooden bridge and a little bit of the valley’s Appalachian experience disappeared with it.
In addition to the Bennett Museum where visitors can get a feel for rural life during the early-mid 20th century, the Funk Center also has a huge collection of antique tools and farm implements in the Sellers Gallery of Historic Handtools. Demonstrations of how work was accomplished before mechanization and electrification are offered during two of the living history celebrations presented by the center.
In recent correspondence with Dr. Joesph Kitchens, Executive Director of the Funk Heritage Center, he described the events as follows:
…our Appalachian Settlers interpretation… [has] two major events during the year that are focused on this theme-the Georgia History Timeline in October and Pioneer Days in May. In both, our own presenters provide demonstrations of woodworking, blacksmithing, folk music instruments , and other pioneer crafts and activities. In October we also add on historical reenactors , including a Creek Indian hunting Camp, Abraham Lincoln, Cherokee Sequoyah and his writing system and-our star-General James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia-and much more!. Every school [K-8 students on field trips] may choose to include an outside tour with demonstrations of basic pioneer life in our settlement with its log cabins and blacksmith shop.
The pioneer settlement he mentions is a collection of authentic cabins and other structures. The center’s website (here) describes it like this:
The Appalachian Settlement is another major attraction on the Funk Heritage Center grounds. Designed to interpret the pioneer experience, the Appalachian Settlement includes two authentic log cabins, a blacksmith shop,… and other 19th century farm buildings that have been moved from their original locations in the area. Cabins have been faithfully reconstructed and furnished. Other village structures include a syrup mill, threshing floor, wooden truss and kingpost bridges and a kitchen garden.
As one can see, the Funk Heritage Center offers wonderful opportunities to learn about and experience life as it was once lived in northern Georgia. The Center’s extensive Native American exhibits and presentations will be the subject of my February 3 post.
For those readers interested in studying creative writing and/or pursuing an MFA, Reinhardt University’s Etowah Valley Writer’s Institute headed by Donna Coffee Little (website here) is a well respected program in a beautiful setting. If I didn’t live 1,500 miles away, I would definitely apply!
In closing, I offer these books as related reading in historical fiction. They are all set in northern Georgia.
I began my teaching career in Cherokee County with 6th and 7th graders in one of the rural schools. My students loved this book.
1. https://www.reinhardt.edu/funkheritage/highlights/appalachian-settlement.php, accessed January 10, 2017