WEST JEFFERSON — Over the past 20 years, West Jefferson was hit with the double whammy of closed factories and a new Walmart on the outskirts of town.
Such blows have crippled plenty of communities in Northwest North Carolina, turning once bustling and charming downtowns into veritable ghost towns with vacant storefronts and empty streets.
West Jefferson was able to weather the shifting economic landscape with the help of fiddles, barn quilts, books and galleries, reinventing itself as an artsy mountain hamlet while becoming the envy of other small towns.
Most people in Ashe County will point to Jane Lonon as the reason for the transformation.
A one-time singing waitress, music teacher and Los Angeles resident, Lonon has been involved with the Ashe County Arts Council for 38 years, including the past 31 as executive director. She will retire on June 30, having left paint-smudged fingerprints on this small mountain county of 27,000 people.
Painter Joan Bell was among those who Lonon encouraged to open a downtown gallery after Walmart opened on U.S. 221 several years ago.
“I really give the arts council — and the arts council is Jane — credit,”
Bell said. “I think she is responsible, single-handedly, for the changes you see in the county and in West Jefferson.”
Throughout the state, West Jefferson, and the county as a whole, are heralded as examples of how the arts and cultural tourism can soften the blow from the loss of manufacturing jobs, said Leigh Ann Wilder, the creative economies director for the N.C. Arts Council.
Factories close/galleries open
In the past 18 years, Thomasville Furniture Industries, Black & Decker Corp., and Gates Corp. closed in Ashe County, eliminating 750 jobs.
“For the best rural communities, it’s all there. They have to believe it, embrace it, invest in it and brand themselves as a place you want to be, and I think Jane Lonon has a 30-year legacy of doing that in a small community like West Jefferson and turning that town around,” Wilder said. “All you have to do is visit it to know how arts-centric it is, and we’re starting to see that all over North Carolina.”
Today in West Jefferson, just a stone’s throw from the closed Thomasville Furniture factory, there are public sculptures and painted pedestals on its main thoroughfares, 18 murals on downtown buildings, 13 galleries and craft shops and an art school. Beyond downtown, there’s the 232-seat Ashe County Civic Center and at least 120 barn quilts sprinkled throughout the county that are featured on six driving trails.
The arts council maintains a packed schedule with five monthly gallery crawls, a popular Christmas in July festival, a summer studio tour, concerts, plays and a literary festival that has brought in such writers as Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle. Five years ago, the arts council took over the Ashe County Bluegrass and Old Time Fiddlers Convention, after its longtime sponsor pulled out after 50 years. It expanded the festival by a day and added workshops.
“The arts council said, ‘We can’t let this go,’” Lonon said.
In addition, the arts council is involved in local schools, putting on productions, teaching classes and offering artists residency programs. In a given year, each K-12 student in Ashe County will see four to five performances a year.
Cathy Barr, the director of economic development for Ashe County, grew up in the area.
“West Jefferson was like a little mill town almost. It was factory-driven,” said Barr, who lived in Texas for several years before moving back in 2010. “I laugh and tell people it looks like the town you wished you had grown up in. What Jane brought has been phenomenal.”
Ashe County has always brought in a fair number of tourists, with its mild summers, state parks and the Blue Ridge Parkway. More and more folks are not just passing through, but visiting galleries, eating at local restaurants and staying in a growing number of Airbnbs. Since 2010, the amount of tourism dollars spent each year in the county has grown from $43 million to $57.6 million, according to Barr.
Lonon, 70, reflected on her tenure last month in the arts council office, a beautiful stone building built by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. The building, which also houses a gift store and gallery, marked a big leap forward for the fledgling arts council, which was formed in 1978.
Lonon had yet to arrive in Ashe County, but she was eyeing her return to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
She grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and during breaks from studying music education at Florida State University, she worked as a singing waitress at a Blowing Rock restaurant. There, she met her future husband, Grady.
“It was fabulous to go from St. Pete to the cool mountain air of Blowing Rock. It was the dream job,” Lonon said. “Blowing Rock and the mountains of North Carolina always held a special place for me.”
As a young married couple, she and Grady, an attorney, lived in Washington D.C., and Los Angeles before moving to Ashe County to raise their children.
“We drove around to find an old farmhouse to fix up, and here we are, still fixing it up. That was in 1981,” Lonon said. “I tell people that I got here as fast as I could.”
Lonon answered a call for volunteers for the newly formed arts council, thinking it would be a nice night out. She said with a laugh that she really didn’t know what an arts council did.
The group was small, but they made some long-range goals, including having their own gallery and beefing up the arts in the schools, which at the time amounted to a full-time band director splitting his hours between the elementary and middle schools.
She became executive director of the arts council on a part-time basis in 1988, working out of a small office in the former hospital in Jefferson.
“I remember my husband guiding me through bookkeeping,” Lonon said. “I had never made a flyer before.”
But she had other, perhaps more valuable skills.
She proved to be a tireless networker, joining various arts and civic boards that promoted community.
Get ‘er done
“She’s been involved in damn-near everything,” quipped R.T. Morgan, who owns a gallery on North Jefferson Avenue. “And she volunteers for everything. I don’t know how she has the energy.”
Ed Perzel, a longtime member, and former president of the arts council, pointed to another skill.
“She can get about anything done that she wants to get done and get people to do it,” he said. “Even when you don’t volunteer for something, you do, and you don’t even know it. She’s one of those.”
One early project involved commissioning Robert Johnson to paint a mural for a downtown building. The mural, depicting wildflowers on nearby Mount Jefferson, was such a draw that the arts council found grant money to commission more murals that tie into the area’s natural beauty and heritage.
“It got people walking and moving and got people understanding how the arts could contribute to the economical well-being of a community,” Lonon said. “Once a mural was done, that building was going to sell.”
West Jefferson also got an assist from the N.C. Department of Transportation, which made Jefferson Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, replacing streetlights with stop signs, adding landscaping and removing overhead power lines, changes that have set a tone as a welcoming area.
The idea for the barn quilts came from an arts council in Madison County. Directors of arts councils routinely get together to share ideas, and the barn quilt idea struck a chord with Lonon, who saw it as a way to take art out into the county’s remote corners and honor its agricultural tradition.
“We have some drop-dead gorgeous barns. The architectural significance of the barns is important, and it’s important historically to preserve and protect them,” Lonon said.
A grant from the N.C. Arts Council funded several of the early barn quilts, fueling an interest among local barn owners. Two barn quilt businesses have even popped up.
Lonon has overseen an annual budget that has mushroomed from $4,500 to $350,000. Local governments and schools contribute about 20 percent of the budget, with the remaining coming from income from programming, grants and fundraising.
County residents have responded to the call, exceeding the arts council’s goal of $77,000.
“That’s pretty significant for a county of 27,000,” Lonon said.
Perzel said much of that funding comes from the county’s large population of retirees and people who own second homes in the mountains.
“We have very few corporations here, and every nonprofit in the county goes to them, so they’re stretched thin,” Perzel said. “So fundraising here is not easy, and the fact that the arts council is as successful as it is, is amazing.”
Lonon’s replacement, Jeff Fissel, started last week.
Meanwhile, Lonon is looking forward to reading in the middle of the day and traveling.
Her career highlights might surprise people. Rather than point to a few specific milestones, Lonon recalls moments — the quiet that overcomes an audience after a piece of chamber music, the joy in the face of a young person who has made a clay pot.
Lonon recalled a fifth-grade student transfixed after a performance by the Winston-Salem Symphony.
“He nudged his buddy and said, ‘I’m gonna play one of those instruments one day.’ I don’t know if he did,” Lonon said, “but it meant so much to him at the moment.”