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
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.