Some people were born for a time such as this, others were born with an old soul that seems to date back to a previous era. Dylan Wilson, Farm Manager at The Center for Pioneer Life, has a true love and passion for the pioneer life in the North Carolina mountains and believes his soul was born and bred in that time period. “I often can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do every day because it’s as if I was trained my entire life for this position,” he said, “even though I love the pioneer time period and lifestyle, I know I was born in the right era to help keep their legacy alive for years to come.” Although the Center for Pioneer Life looks like a dream come true today, it actually started as a coincidence grown on a simple family farm.
In 1845, a mountain farmer named James Ray built a log house near Shoal Creek where generations of his family were raised until about 15 years ago. Before the building was torn down by the current owner, a man named Ralph Young, who recognized the buildings significance, purchased it, took it apart log by log and transported it to where the center is now located in Burnsville. “There wasn’t really a true plan for this farm before then,” Dylan said, “the family had always grown crops on this land, but once the log cabin got here the idea for the Center for Pioneer Life developed and has continued to grow ever since.”
Today the Center for Pioneer Life operates on the mission of preserving the legacy of Southern Appalachian pioneers and experiencing how they lived, and that is exactly the type of experience individuals receive when they visit. Not only is the log cabin mentioned above found at the center, but also a larger homestead, a chicken house, blacksmith shop and another cabin that Dylan recently built in the same style as those that early pioneers lived in. “Many people don’t know how to do box framing anymore, which is how the newest cabin was built,” he said, “dirt floors and a chimney complete this cabin, giving it the true feel of a first settler home in our mountains.” Throughout the spring and summer, you can even find high school students performing stories of their ancestors on-site. Although this was unable to happen last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dylan is hopeful that students will again provide this added experience in 2021. “When you visit our facility it truly immerses you in a life once lived. It’s like taking a step back in time,” he said, “you can feel the chill of life in the winter, hear the water running in the spring house, and gain a real understanding of what life was like for pioneers in our state.”
In addition to the buildings on-site, visitors can see how farming was done in those days, with horses. “My horses, Claude and Chubby, have been with me for about 15 years and they still help me do all our farm work,” Dylan said, “from planting corn and wheat to potatoes, pumpkins and beans, my horses work just as hard as I do. I am honored to be one of the few remaining farmers to do life in this way and I enjoy teaching people the value of that.” The center also contains a small apple orchard on-site that has been there since the farms inception.
A typical day at the center for Dylan can often include a variety of tasks, but always starts by feeding Claude and Chubby. “They get into a routine just like people do,” he said, “once they have been taken care of and fed they are ready to take on the day with me and accomplish the tasks that need to be done.” From working the farm to finishing buildings, stacking hay, taking care of chickens and looking for Arrowheads, there is always plenty to do and Dylan certainly never gets bored. In fact, the hardest thing for him is having to leave at the end of each day. “I love what I do. I love being here and living this lifestyle that I adore with my animals that have a special place in my heart,” he said, “so it is very hard for me to leave at the end of each day, even knowing I will be coming back the next morning.” Although he loves every part of his job, Dylan’s absolute favorite is seeing the faces of visitors light up as they understand the concept and importance of pioneer life. “When I take tours through the buildings and explain to people what each one was used for, where the pioneers slept and what they used as a freezer, my job comes to mean that much more as I see their eyes light up as they picture it and understand it,” he said, “that’s why we are here. To preserve the legacy and keep it alive. Any day that I am contributing to that cause is a job well done.” Tours and farm visits can be made by appointment on their website or by calling (828) 536-0337.
The Center for Pioneer Life partners with Participate Learning in Chapel Hill to bring international teachers to the United States and learn about life on a farm in the southern Appalachian mountains. “Before COVID-19 hit, we had several groups of teachers come out in 2019, stay for about a week or so and learn about the farming lifestyle” Dylan said, “I teach them all about our place here, its importance and what it means not only to me but to people across the state.” These teachers are then able to travel back home and teach students around the world about pioneer life and farming in the N.C. mountains.
The biggest misconception that Dylan faces when trying to educate people about the life of a pioneer is their personal viewpoint on the time period itself. “Some people believe that life back then was this terrible, difficult thing that people just had to sweat and live through and then others believe it was a whole lot easier than the way things are done now because in their eyes all they did was sit on the porch,” he said, “times may have changed but at the end of the day life is always middle of the row. There are hard times and there are good times but the pioneers worked hard, loved their families and lived well just like we do.”
In the future, Dylan hopes to continue growing into a fully working farm with milk cows, hogs and a barn on-site where hay can be stored and fundraising events held. He would love to get agriculture groups across the state involved in their efforts, including county 4-H clubs. Most of all, he hopes to continue impacting the lives of individuals around the state and beyond by educating them about the importance of our history and the life lived by those before us.