With the 4
of July celebrations over for this year, you might not be thinking about national events and treasures, but shouldn’t we celebrate our nation and its treasures every day? Here in Waynesville, you can do that without having to travel to our Nation’s Capital or fight the crowds of the Smithsonian Institute. Don’t get me wrong, Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian Institute are awesome, but so is Shelton House and its right here, in your own backyard…literally for some of you.
The Shelton House, built in 1875 for High Sheriff of Haywood County Stephen Shelton, is of itself a piece of local history but, several things about it make it a state and national treasure as well.
Locally, Shelton House stands as a reminder of our late 19
century southern heritage and agrarian lifestyle. Local farmer, Stephen Shelton, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. As most small farmers in Haywood County, he most likely didn’t own slaves but, as most of the people in North Carolina who supported the Confederacy, he was born and raised here and loved his state. Although a difficult decision for many, “statehood” for people who had rarely traveled out of their local area, was a stronger concept to them than “The United States”. So yes, Stephen Shelton, as a Confederate Officer in the NC 25
North Carolina Infantry and as a man who served as High Sheriff of Haywood County, is a part of our local and state history but how and why is Shelton House considered a national treasure?
In 1977, Mary Cornwell purchased the Shelton House and soon after, with the help of the Department of NC Archives and History, the home was nominated for, and included in, the National Registry of Historic Places.
At this point, some of you are thinking that there are several other places in Waynesville listed on the National Register and there are; Main Street, Frog Level, The Spread Out District and several other houses including the Way House on Main Street and the Boone Withers House on Haywood Street but, Shelton House is the only Nationally Registered House in Waynesville that is open to the public for tours. That in itself makes Shelton House a National Treasure but there is so much more!
William Shelton, the son of Stephen Shelton, served as an “Indian Agent” for the Cherokee and later the Navajo from the late 1880’s through 1917. This was a controversial time in our Nation’s History, as the National Government attempted to “civilize” the Native Americans and claim their lands as western expansion continued. It is well documented that the Native Americans were often forced to give up their traditions during these times, forced to learn English and become “westernized”.
Interestingly, as our nation was dealing with westward expansion, the railroad, the question of the Native Americans and land, Western North Carolina was also facing the challenge of westward expansion. At the same time that Will Shelton was sent to work with the Navajo, the railroad first entered Waynesville and with it came the tourist industry and an influx of people moving into the area. Local mountaineers, who had lived a somewhat solitary life up until that point also feared for their traditions, mountain dialect, music, arts, crafts, and land. The comparison may seem far-fetched but to the mountain people, often looked upon by “Easterners” as uneducated and ignorant “hillbillies”, this was a great concern.
Here, at Shelton House, we pay homage to the struggle of the Native Americans to maintain their culture and traditions while, at the same time, learning to adapt to a more modern, commercialized America.
Will Shelton was sent to Shiprock, New Mexico to teach agriculture, crafting, and marketing to a native group that had survived without such help for hundreds of years. Easterners moved into the mountains of Western North Carolina buying up land for lumber and other industry and expecting the mountain people to readily accept this more commercialized, often destructive way of life. And so, at Shelton House, we also honor the cultural heritage of the people of Western North Carolina, forced to eventually give up their agrarian lifestyle to begin working in the factories that littered this area in the early 1900’s. Cotton Mills, Textile Mills, Lumber Mills, Paper Mills…they all came and changed a way of life forever.
When, in 1980, Mary Cornwell opened the “Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts” here at Shelton House, she also was trying to preserve a part of that Appalachian and North Carolina heritage. She had seen throughout her lifetime, the waning of hand made crafts, so skillfully done in a traditional style. Not just in Western North Carolina but throughout our nation, the skills to create utilitarian art were quickly being replaced by manufactured items, less time consuming for a generation now having to labor in the factories to make ends meet. Mary Cornwell created a museum, inside a 19
century agrarian homestead, that would recognize the skill of “heritage crafts"; traditional, utilitarian art that was fast becoming a piece of the past.
From the traditional crafts of the Cherokee, Navajo, Hopi, and Sioux that represent the national struggle of these and all Native American groups at the end of the 19
century, to the handmade dulcimers of Haywood County’s Edd Presnell, who was such a skilled craftsman that the Smithsonian Institute holds three of his dulcimers in their collection, and to every piece in between, a visit to Shelton House is a cultural and historical adventure that is sure to rival some of the best nationally recognized historic homes and museums throughout our great county. Small, but packed with artifacts that tell a story of Haywood County, North Carolina, Native American, and America’s struggle to preserve and carry on the traditions, culture, art, and crafts of the “melting pot” of humankind that share this great land.