RUNION – Jan C. Plemmons has published 25 books, but her most recent one, an examination of Madison County ghost town Runion, might have been extra special from the rest, the author said.
Plemmons’ book, “A Visit to Runion,” is a narrative and pictorial history of the sawmill village, where her father was born, dating from the late 1800s until 1925, when the mill was sold.
Though it has been nearly 100 years since the mill’s sale turned Runion into a ghost town, the initial idea for Plemmons’ book started long before that, according to the author.
“I came about these photographs in 2005 when I put my father in a nursing home,” Plemmons said. “The people that owned the sawmill, what used to be Hartford Tweed Saw Mill (now DT Ramsey Lumber Co.), the Stackhouse Road area, they called me and said, ‘Your dad’s always down here, and we just love him. understand he’s going into a nursing home. We’ve got pictures of Runion, and we understand he’s born there. I’ll bet he’d like to see them.””
Plemmons said she made copies of the photographs and put them on a DVD so her father could sit in his chair and reminisce on his childhood hometown.
“He told me something about every photograph,” Plemmons said. “I mean, this was home for him until he was about 6 or 7. I made (the family of the mill owners) a promise and said I wouldn’t share them with anyone. So, I just put them up and didn’t t think about them.”
That all changed when Plemmons – who left Madison County after graduating from Mars Hill at 21 years old and lived in Florida for years – returned to Madison County in January for a funeral.
“A friend at the funeral said, ‘Jan, you’ve got all those pictures. You’ve got to do something with those photos. You’ve just got to share them,'” Plemmons said. “It’s a shame to have something that’s just going to waste.”
Plemmons credits Jackie Painter, who wrote The Stackhouses of Appalachiafor helping her in her research.
“I used a lot of her research, because there’s no need to reinvent a wheel,” Plemmons said. “She’s an excellent researcher. But then I went further. I took newspaper articles, because newspaper articles tell you what’s happening today. I tried to put a description to every photograph I had. I had a little over 100 photographs. So I just met with anybody that knew about sawmills that would help me.”
The village’s first sawmill, Putnam, went into bankruptcy and sad idle until Harriet Betts, from Troy, New York, purchased the mill, as well as the railroad and additional acreage for timber.
“Most all the saw mills, and the big timber industries in Western North Carolina were rich entrepreneurs from the north,” Plemmons said. “They came down, and it was cut and run.”
Betts founded the Laurel River Logging Company and placed her son, Anson, in charge of operations. The family doubled the size of the mill, modernized it by making it electric and expanded the railroad.
As Plemmons writes, the family even built a church and school, and provided housing for the mill’s employees, which at one point totaled 1,200 people, and even included a baseball team.
In the early 1900s, Southern Railroad built a depot, and officially changed the name of the town from Putnam to Runion.
“The family found out there was another Putnam in eastern North Carolina, so that was out,” Plemmons said. “There was supposedly a mailman that walked and delivered mail from Stackhouse down to Putnam. He had a lame foot, and they called him ‘Paddlefoot.’ His last name was Runion. So they named the town after the mailman.”
In 1916 though, a flood and the mismanagement of the environmental resources changed Runion’s fate forever.
“The 1916 flood had some bearing on it, but the family cut all the trees,” she said. “The Putnam Mill started in 1898, but it went defunct, and it sat idle for five years. The Betts came in and bought it in 1909.”
According to Plemmons’ research though, Anson Betts eventually tired of the saw mill’s operations.
“Anson, in my opinion, he lost interest,” the author said. “He got involved with mines, and he moved all of his office stuff to Asheville, and left the saw mill in charge of a Hot Springs family. So, in 1925, it is officially closed out. But the Betts had moved out earlier than that .”
The houses built for the mill families were not built for sustainability, and after decades of exposure to the weather, only the foundations remain, as depicted in the book, which uses photos of the homes from 1977 captured by Dan Slagle, as well as photos from this year captured by Brian Chandler.
Runion is now owned by the US Forest Service and is listed in the Pisgah National Forest division as the Laurel River Trail, #310. The trail is 3.6 miles and follows both the Laurel and French Broad Rivers.
“Most of my stuff in Madison County was indexing – I’d go to cemeteries and write everything off the tombstones,” Plemmons said. “Then I went to the courthouse and indexed death certificates, birth certificates and marriage certificates.”
Plemmons’ past work includes historical indices of Walnut School, “Walnut School, Years to Remember: 1838, 1924, 1932, 1962, 1998,” as well as a comprehensive collection of Madison County families, “Cemeteries of Madison County North Carolina Volume I.”
She has written three history books on Transylvania County, where she now resides, in Lake Toxaway.
The author said her work on her latest book consumed her for the past few months, and she is relieved to have finished it.
“When I do something, I don’t sleep. I do it 24/7,” she said. “I’m an old woman. I don’t have a lot of life left. So, if I want something accomplished, I better do it now while I’m still here.”
“A Visit to Runion” was published May 1 and is available on Amazonas well as at Laurel River Store in Hot Springs and Penland & Son’s Department Store in downtown Marshall, where Plemmons will appear June 4 for a book signing to coincide with the Mermaid Parade in downtown Marshall.
“This will be fun for the people who have heard of Runion,” Plemmons said. “I feel like it’s an accomplishment. I think I’ve done Madison County proud. I say that not bragging on myself, but it’s something that needed to be done. I had the drive and the need to do it.”