A mingled portrait
Old Fort is a mix of images: the railroad that has hauled freight through town for more than a century, a towering granite arrowhead displayed prominently, an annual rodeo, and weekly sessions of gospel, country and bluegrass music.
And just outside town there’s Pisgah National Forest, which draws hikers, campers, anglers and others who enjoy outdoor recreation, and Catawba Falls, McDowell County’s largest waterfall, with a 340-foot cascade. Add the lure of strenuous cycling events that pass through Old Fort each year, and there’s a lot of activity for a town of about 1,000 residents.
The Mountain Gateway Museum downtown, which chronicles some of the early activity in the area, depicts the late 1700s up to the 1900s. The free museum, now a branch of the North Carolina Museum of History, contains exhibits on farming, clothing and music. The building was constructed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration and used as a community center from its completion in the late 1930s until the ‘60s, when the museum opened. Two 19th-century cabins in the county were moved to the museum’s grounds and are furnished with a loom, spinning wheel and other artifacts.
The museum hosts some of McDowell County’s annual festivals. Pioneer Day in April features crafts, blacksmithing, spinning and weaving demonstrations and re-enactors from the Revolutionary War and Civil War eras. Blue Ridge Traditions in Old Fort is a free summertime concert series with traditional mountain music, ballads and bluegrass and craft workshops. Old Fort Oktoberfest in October includes music and crafts.
A popular year-round activity in town is Old Fort Mountain Music, a free series of jam sessions open to all musicians every Friday night at the Rockett Building downtown.
The town’s connection to the railroad is depicted at the Old Fort Railroad Museum in the refurbished depot that dates to 1881. The building also houses the McDowell County Tourism Development Authority and the Old Fort Chamber of Commerce and is used for community events.
Another attraction just outside town was inspired by the railroad. Andrews’ Geyser, at one of Old Fort’s municipal parks, is a gravity-fed geyser developed in 1879 to entertain rail passengers and visitors to the former Round Knob Hotel. A different form of entertainment in town is the National Championship Rodeo around July Fourth each year.
When it’s time to switch from play to work, Old Fort has a number of businesses that keep the economy humming. They include companies that serve the automobile industry, a furniture plant and textile mills.
Old Fort boasts a landmark that perhaps no other town can claim. An arrowhead chiseled from granite and about 30 feet tall stands beside the depot. Unveiled in 1930, the marker commemorates the peace achieved between pioneers and Native Americans in the previous century.
Also unique to Old Fort is a monument from author Thomas Wolfe’s father, W.O. Wolfe, a stonecutter. The novelist was born in nearby Asheville. The story is that S. A. McCanless won an angel statue from the elder Wolfe in a poker game. Now the monument marks the grave of McCanless’ wife, Hattie, in the Old Fort Cemetery. Wolfe bought angel statues from a marble works in Italy.