"A true Appalachian icon"
Deep within the heart of a remote region of Appalachia, in a small town in North Carolina, take a walk in the shoes of a distinct Appalachian man as he recalls stories on his experiences of growing up and living in the wonderful region. Mr. Sam Shumate was born on April 19, 1937, and raised in Warrensville, North Carolina. He has lived in the region for 84 years. Warrensville is a small, close-knit mountain community in a rural area of Ashe County, North Carolina.
“It was a good place to grow up, a good village to grow up, and a good time to grow up in the 1940’s,” Shumate said. “We were poor, but we didn’t know it because nobody told us. This was how it was for most of the area in this part of the state.”
Growing up in this area was tough; although, he did not see it that way. He was raised by his grandmother and three of his aunts, who acted as his guardians.
“Living with four different ideas on how a child should be raised caused me quite a bit of anxiety at times,” said Shumate.
Life in rural Appalachia in the mid-1900s was a lifestyle some have only seen in movies. It took more of an effort to live and survive than many endure today. Shumate recalls the intense labor that was necessary to maintain heat in his home with the coal fired furnace. Neighbors from the community would come to his house to bathe and go to the bathroom, and he used his own two feet for transportation. To know how he was educated as a boy, I asked him the major differences of schooling from then to now.
“I was just taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. The school had only two rooms for six grades; first, second, third in one room and fourth, fifth and sixth in the other. Two teachers only, and one of them was the principal,” Shumate said.
As his situation early in life seemed to be quite difficult, he said he was keen on living in the moment and embracing the area.
“One of my favorite things about this area is the freedom of the mountains and wilderness," Shumate said. "The mountains speak to me as a calming place of freedom, and they were always an outlet for me as I grew and learned more about life.”
As a teenager, he got his first job working on a cornfield for a neighbor, making just 50 cents an hour. After completing high school at 18 years old, Shumate was not interested in going to college.
“I had no money, and my guardians could not afford it either,” he said.
Following this decision, he chose to serve his country. He joined the Air Force in 1955, a post he held for four years. It was his first time living away from Ashe County.
“Serving is one of my proudest accomplishments," said Shumate. "I am thankful I had an opportunity to do that, and I am honored to have that memory.”
After a four-year tour, he wanted to further his education. He pumped gas and serviced automobiles until he had the funds to enroll at Lees McRae Junior College. However, he eventually transferred to Appalachian State Teacher’s College, where he worked alongside attending school.
Shumate was introduced to success while attending Appalachian State. While in a creative writing course at Lees McRae, he was assigned to write a first-person article. His article was about an African American male named Oddie Cox. Mr. Cox was a lone educator at the only African American school in Ashe County. With a 90 percent white population during this time, he faced many hardships in the South. Cox lived on the notion of creating opportunity and equality for every resident in the small mountain region of Ashe County. Unfortunately, he died in a house fire, with the cause still a mystery to this day.
“On the night I met Oddie, he seemed to already know me," Shumate said of Cox. "His mild manner and genuineness impressed me greatly, and we struck up a friendship that lasted as long as he lived.”
Shumate’s professor loved his article about Mr. Cox, and suggested that he send it to Readers Digest, for their most unforgettable character series. However, as time passed, Shumate forgot about his submission. During his senior year at Appalachian State, Shumate began student teaching, with his first intern job at Beaver Creek High School. The high school is located in Ashe County, around 15 minutes from his Warrensville home.
“My student teaching experience convinced me I wanted to be a teacher,” he said.
However, Shumate struggled to finance his last semester of college.
“I was on the verge of dropping out to recoup but I really did not want to, as I knew how hard I had worked to get to this point,” said Shumate.
One day, while feeling depressed, he stopped by the post office to pick up his mail. There was a letter from Readers Digest and inside he found a check for $1,500, giving him the funds to finish school.
“Mr. Oddie was looking out for me even after death,” Shumate commented.
He continued his education and earned his Master of Arts degree in 1965, from Appalachian State. In 1967, he secured a teaching job at Northwest Ashe High School, located roughly a mile away from where he was raised. Here, he taught English and started the school's first journalism course.
“He was creative in the classroom, and he used song lyrics to teach literacy," said Judy Moser, one of Shumate's students from the late 1960s. "He had a way of making students feel important and he valued their opinions.”
The Appalachian region, and especially Ashe County, is known for having welcoming people. When asked about his three favorite things growing up here, Mr. Shumate said the people were at the top of his list.
“The people here always seem to want to help each other and be there for each other. I don’t believe it is like that in many places,” Shumate said.
Mr. Shumate is a prime example of the authentic, helpful people that he so loves from his home in the mountains. He exemplifies the mountain man’s heart and soul by constantly giving back to the community.
“He is as fine and smart as they come. He wanted everything to be just right for customers, and he is one of the most respectful people I know,” said Pearl Brown, an employee of Shumate’s at his Christmas wreath business, and a longtime friend.
After retiring from teaching, he wrote an autobiography titled “The Bridge Crew.” The book was published by Parkway Publishers Inc. out of Boone, North Carolina in 2006. Today, at 84 years old, he resides in the home he grew up in, as welcoming and true as they come. His story is a fascinating look into a man’s journey of finding his purpose. Growing up with challenges, serving his country, and receiving an education during the mid-1900’s are all things that speak to how this Appalachian man represents the American Dream.
“All we can do is do the best we can with what we have to work with,” said Mr. Sam Shumate.