Bill and Judy Carson will be honored at the 34th Annual Music in the Mountains Folk Festival on Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Burnsville Town Center. It’s true that Bill has two left feet and is made of clay from the Midwest, not the south, but if you’re at the Orchard at Altapass in the afternoon, you’ll probably see him on the dance floor shuffling through the thin layer of cornmeal.
Judy, who was a great dancer, pushed him into taking dance lessons three times. That still didn’t work, but he’s out there practically every day. That is in between working the sound system, talking to folks about the Orchard, leading a “heyride,” telling true and/or factual stories of the region, or taking care of a burnt-out light bulb, missing chair and standing behind the mike on stage introducing the next band.
Until about five years ago, Judy would do the same. Now suffering from Alzheimer’s, she attends only Orchard special events, but still with a huge smile for everyone she sees; everyone smiles back, and everyone gives her a hug. Such are the days of the Carsons. Busy, focused, and fun, but it wasn’t always like that.
In 1995, Bill was struggling with retirement and his weaving patterns. It’s hard to take a former rocket scientist, put him in front of a loom (his choice) and have him not try to create the most challenging designs possible. Judy, a graphic designer by trade, was keeping house and taking care.
On one such day of busy work and busy times, Bill’s sister, Kit Carson-Trubey, visiting and trying not to listen to his mutterings, read the local paper. There was an ad for an “orchard and surrounding lands on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” and it was just down the road, mountain style. She called the number. The seller picked the phone up before listening to the messages blinking on the answering machine. Kit liked what he said. So, the three took a break and a look. What they saw was an overgrown apple orchard with equally overgrown peach trees poking here and there, a dilapidated old processing building with rusted equipment taking up most of the open space, all surrounded by acres and acres of pristine, green mountains.
Kit said, “I’ll take it.”
Those three words began the Carson legacy. For the next two years, Bill and Judy worked tirelessly to restore the orchard, to make it a working, productive enterprise that would blend into the hillsides. They pulled up weeds, repainted the red barn, created walking paths to the trees, consulted experts and made it work. Volunteers came to help. Folks dropped by just to sit awhile and watch the day roll on. Eventually the building became a stage for local musicians in search of a venue. Then more folks came by to listen. After two years, Judy started to manage the talent, creating a sounding board to preserve traditional music with set days and times for performances. She created a logo, flyers and brochures, and the people came. Both Bill and Judy knew that music belonged to everyone, so they made it free, and more people came. They gave budding musicians an opportunity to “take the stage” and play on Wednesdays, and the musicians did.
The Carsons sold the upper half of the acreage to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. On the lower half, they established a nonprofit Appalachian cultural and history center, The Orchard at Altapass — while maintaining the operation of the apple orchard that is dedicated to keeping the unique history alive. The lands would never be developed.
Without the vision of Bill and Judy Carson and Kit Carson-Trubey, the Orchard at Altapass would not be celebrating its 25th year. Without their hard work and dedication, the Orchard at Altapass might well have become a gated community with more buildings on the way. And, without their good-humor, generous spirit and dogged determination, traditional music and the culture of the region would not be so prominent in our lives.
Come celebrate their 25 years at the Orchard on Saturday, Sept. 21 at the Burnsville Town Center. For more information, please visit Facebook or www.altapassorchard.org.