Preservation is deciding what is important, figuring out how to protect it, and passing along an appreciation for what was saved to the next generation.
Perched on the crest of the Blue Ridge atop the Eastern Continental Divide, the Orchard occupies a unique spot in both America's landscape and history. Geography has been a key to the Orchard's story on both counts. Occupying a commanding location above two important watersheds - the North Toe River, which eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico, and the North Fork of the Catwaba, which finds its way to the Atlantic - the Orchard has been a vital travel route since our continent's earliest settlers began exploring these mountains. Buffalo and elk traversed here, followed by the Cherokee Indians and eventually European settlers.
The ancient game paths became foot trails and then trading routes. Early settlers defied British attempts to make peace with the Indians by disallowing settlement to the west of the mountains. Their resentment of British rule culminated when they formed the Overmountain Men during the Revolutionary War, marching to King's Mountain and handing the British a stinging defeat recognized as a turning point of the conflict.
The Orchard's first permanent resident was Charlie McKinney, whose legend has grown due to his prodigious family. McKinney had 48 children by four wives he somehow managed to co-exist with simultaneously. The mountain pass where the Orchard sits was named for him, and you will still see the McKinney name everywhere in the area today, with dozens of families tracing their lineage to him.
America's industrialization came to the area in the 1890s. The Orchard's location on the lowest pass through the Blue Ridge in the surrounding 100 miles dictated that the nation's railroad barons would find it. Several bankruptcies hindered the line's construction, but in 1908 the Clinchfield Railroad opened, complete with an engineering marvel: the Clinchfield loops, consisting of 18 tunnels in 13 miles of track built beside and below the present-day Orchard. Four thousand immigrants crowded those slopes to build the bed and tunnels, with many dying in accidents, fights and murders.
The railroaders rechristened McKinney Gap as Altapass, or high pass. A resort soon blossomed on the spot, with two hotels and a golf course sprouting near the railroad station. Within a few years, though, Clinchfield discontinued passenger service and the resort withered, its demise quickened when a highway was built through nearby Gillespie Gap.
But the railroad gave direct birth to the Orchard. Recognizing an opportunity, the Clinchfield planted trees on several hundred acres. Once again, geography played a key role: facing southeast, the land is frost-free most of the time, with cold air sinking into the nearby valleys, replaced by warm air. The operation soon prospered, growing state champion apples repeatedly and at its peak producing 125,000 bushels of apples a year. It became a mainstay of the local economy, with dozens of families supported by its jobs.
The arrival of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930s was yet another key chapter in the Orchard's history dictated by geography. The route following the ancient buffalo trails promised a tourism boom, but it also split the Orchard in half, sparking a bitter court fight that eventually reached the NC Supreme Court. The road builders won the battle and the Orchard lost its momentum as an agricultural enterprise. Local residents despaired as its prosperity and jobs waned. Many feared the land's spectacular views would fall prey to real estate developers, but the current owners forestalled that by purchasing the property in the 1990s. They sold the upper half of the acreage to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and on the lower half established a nonprofit Appalachian cultural and history center - while maintaining the operation of the apple orchard - that is dedicated to keeping this unique history alive.
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The children of some distant day, thus to some aged man shall say, "Who planted this old apple tree?" -- William Cullen Bryant At the Orchard at Altapass, the answer to that question is "The Clinchfield Railroad." Creighton Lee Calhoun, noted pomologist and author of Old Southern Apples, defines heirloom apples as those varieties that were grown prior to the time when "groceries" became the main source of fruit for most people, which he believes was the late 1920's. Many of our apple trees were planted by the original owners, making them heirlooms in every sense of the word. Our Monarch butterfly preservation project has once again been featured in Blue Ridge Country Magazine, this time in an article by naturalist (and Orchard volunteer) Elizabeth Hunter. Elizabeth describes her work with Judy Carson to revamp the Butterfly Garden in the summer of 2012. Read the article, entitled "Saving the Good Stuff," . Without dedicated volunteers like Elizabeth, our preservation programs would not be able to function! We raise Monarchs in terrariums in the Orchard shop from egg to larva to chrysalis, to butterfly, and each fall we tag the migrating generation prior to release. So far we have had six of our tags recovered in the over-wintering grounds in Mexico. Why do we do it? We hatch Monarch butterflies to help save them from natural enemies and to delight in the life cycle of this beautiful gift of nature. Each step is exciting every time we experience it and we love to share ...See More this experience with our visitors. Milkweed, the larval plant for the monarch, is plentiful at The Orchard and so are Monarchs. Unlike some species of butterflies, Monarchs have only one larval plant, so they depend on milkweed for survival. In areas where milkweed is scarce, Monarchs are too. Unfortunately, the milkweed plant is frequently mowed down when housing or commercial development projects are begun. We encourage you to plant milkweed around your home or property, and to remind others to do the same. We are happy to share milkweed plants and seeds from our grounds to help others contribute to preserving this species. Show Less