Benita Hampton and Wilkes Community College’s Alleghany Center

There are many things that define our sense of self.  We adorn our cars and trucks with decals signifying our allegiance to various colleges, teams or organizations.  For much of our lives we are someone’s kid and later someone’s husband or wife.  For the past 25 years, Benita Hampton was known simply as Jeramiah, Luke and Jake’s mom.  Drumming up support for Little League equipment, yelling encouragement from the stands during wrestling matches, and staffing the concession stand at ball games all reinforced that identity.  But Benita’s identity goes much deeper that “those Hampton boys’ mama.”

Drawing by Benita Hampton

Drawing by Benita Hampton

Benita’s family was from Ashe County.  But as a military brat, she traveled the world.  As is the case with military families, they moved often.  Benita spent her school years in Hawaii, Virginia, Germany, Kentucky and New Jersey before moving back to Hawaii.  She jokes that when someone asks what school she attended that her response is, “Many.”  She counts her 2nd-4th grades in Germany as her favorites and most memorable.  She tells of visiting the Black Forest and castles.  She recalls a rich community of artists and craftsmen that fueled her interest in art.

By her freshman year of high school, Benita’s family was back in Hawaii.  Episodes of the original television series Hawaii Five-O were filmed at her high school in Honolulu.  She hung out at one of the largest malls in the U.S.  She spent much time on the beach and attended luaus. Her dad retired as she started her senior year and the family moved to Galax, Virginia.

Bentia laughingly describes the move from Honolulu to Galax as, “A bit of culture shock.”  She asked her new classmates what they did for fun and they told her they rode around.  Benita asked a logical question – “Ride to where?”

She came to Galax only needing one English credit for graduation. But, school guidelines called for her to take at least one other class.  She settled for a spot on the yearbook staff.  After graduation, she took her newly honed skills and worked with the Galax Gazette.

An instinct for home is an interesting phenomenon in the natural world.  Birds and butterflies travel from continent to continent, returning to the same locations year after year.  Fish leave small inland streams for the ocean only to return to that same stream in a later phase of life.  To complete her personal migration, Benita went back to the family home place in Ashe County.

After working a stint in a blue jean factory in Troutdale, Virginia, she took a job with the NC Employment Security Commission in West Jefferson.  When the shoe factory closed in Sparta, she was sent to help those displaced workers develop new skills for a changing job market.  She spent even more time in Sparta as the sewing plants closed.  During this period, she was offered a job with Wilkes Community College (WCC).  At WCC, working through the Trade Allowance Act and Trade Readjustment Act, she continued to help workers develop new skills that would lead to new careers.  Alleghany residents such as Carolyn Osborne still point to Benita as helping them through an extremely difficult time in their lives.  In the midst of all that, she married Alleghany native Randy Hampton and began a family.

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Today, Benita is the director of WCC’s Alleghany Center Continuing Education Program.  Through continuing education, Alleghany residents maintain various certifications from law enforcement to real estate, develop a variety of job specific skills, and sometimes just take classes for fun and personal enrichment.

It is sometimes difficult to understand our purpose in life.  We often seem to knock from one place to another with no specific feeling of direction.  When we can’t see our purpose clearly, we have to lean on others for discernment.  For Benita Hampton, her life has been defined by helping guide people through difficult transitions in life.  Whether it is workers who have lost their jobs or her own son who suffered a tragic accident, Benita has always been there to steer them through the obstacles thrown their way with practical skills, a smile and an encouraging word.

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Laura Murden and The Vintage Cottage

It is always interesting to ask folks who move to Alleghany County – “What path brought you here?”  For Laura Murden, owner of The Vintage Cottage on Main Street in Sparta, the short answer is that her family came each December to buy a Christmas tree and one year decided to stay.  The long answer involves a bit more travel, tasty pastries, scented candles and organic soap.

The daughter of a cowboy, Laura was born on a working ranch in Montana.  Her family lived there until she was three years old when they moved crossed country to Virginia.  She spent her teenage years in Suffolk, Virginia before drifting south to North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX).

Guy Fieri and Laura Murden

Guy Fieri and Laura Murden

On the Outer Banks, Laura went to work in one of the area’s oldest restaurants, Owens’ Restaurant, as a pastry chef.  The demand for her desserts grew and she was soon furnishing pastries to another OBX culinary landmark, Big Al’s Soda Fountain and Grill.  It was through Big Al’s that Laura was invited to spend the day off-shore tuna fishing on Big Al’s yacht with the Food Network’s star chef, Guy Fieri.  She was the chef for the day for Guy and the Food Network crew.  Yet even with that level of success, life isn’t simply filled with pastries, yachts and ocean winds.

It is an unfortunate fact that in areas such as coastal North Carolina, the core businesses – restaurants, retail, and real estate – are somewhat seasonal in nature.  That leads residents to explore sources for supplemental income.  For Laura, that took the form of homemade soaps and laundry detergents.

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Using paraben and sulfate free ingredients, her soaps proved attractive to those concerned about the impact of chemicals on their health.  She utilizes goat’s milk and also produces a vegan variety.  Owens’ carried Laura’s soaps in their gift shop.  As word of the quality of her products spread, she was soon wholesaling to 17 retail outlets.

The soap business led to candle making.  Following her focus on producing a healthy alternative to commercial soaps, she uses nongmo vegetable oil wax and scents her candles with essential oils.  She doesn’t use petroleum based paraffin wax which has been linked to health risks.

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Once her family decided to trade the smell of suntan lotion for evergreen, she explored options for her soap and candle business.  Moving into a shop on Main Street in July 2014, she added ice cream and smoothies (Laura managed two high traffic Dairy Queens for a while at OBX, giving her a good grasp of the ice cream business).  She tagged the shop The Vintage Cottage.

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The Vintage Cottage is moving toward only selling North Carolina produced products.  As with her previous experience at the Outer Banks, retail business in Sparta has slow periods.  So, Laura continues to sell her products wholesale and online at The Vintage Cottage Soap and Candle Co.  She can be found throughout the summer at the recently renovated Alleghany County Farmers Market.  As many small businesses have discovered, being adaptable and taking a multifaceted retail approach are key elements to success.

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Laura and her family are committed to service and community.  She and her husband have four children and are active in Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Sparta.  Laura employs high school students in whom she seeks to instill business skills that they can use later in life.  She believes in helping the students along the path to entrepreneurship.  It is one of many ways she seeks to invest in her adopted home.

Alleghany County Law Enforcement Officers Killed in the Line of Duty

This week we celebrate National Police Officer week.  Originated in 1962, the week is set aside to remember those officers who were killed in the line of duty serving their communities.  Memorial services are held across the country and a national ceremony is conducted in Washington, DC on May 15th.IMG_3167

On the sidewalk in front of the Alleghany County Law Enforcement Center is a granite monument erected by the Alleghany County Fraternal Order of Police.  The inscription states the monument is, “Dedicated to the memory of those law enforcement officers who gave their lives in the line of duty while protecting and serving the citizens of Alleghany County North Carolina.”  While it is difficult to summarize personal sacrifice, the following gives some insight to the circumstances leading to these Alleghany County officers’ deaths.

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Deputy Charlie B. Shepherd was shot and killed on April 14, 1938 while he was off duty working in his mother’s garden. A man approached and shot him in retaliation for having a confrontation with his son a few days earlier.

Charlie Shepherd retreived from www.odmp.org

Deputy Charlie Shepherd

Deputy Shepherd’s killer became the first Alleghany County resident to receive the death penalty. He was executed in the gas chamber on January 19, 1940.

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Trooper Weaver Hogan

Trooper Weaver Hogan

Chief Charles Taylor

Chief Charles Taylor

Sparta Police Chief Charles Taylor and NC State Highway Patrolman Weaver Hogan were killed when their patrol car was forced off the road into a bridge abutment on US Route 21 south of Wytheville, Virginia. The two officers, along with a third officer, had chased the bootlegging suspects into Virginia from North Carolina.

Trooper Hogan

Trooper Hogan

The bridge crossing the Little River on Highway 21 south is named in honor of these two officers.

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Sheriff Porter Collins was shot and killed while serving a warrant on a man who had failed to appear in court on a drunk driving charge. Before taking the suspect in, Sheriff Collins allowed the suspect to go back into his home to get more clothing. The suspect returned with a shotgun and shot Sheriff Collins once at close range, killing him instantly.

Sheriff Porter Collins

Sheriff Porter Collins

The suspect fled the scene and was captured the next day when officers found him hiding in the attic of a cabin near Lowgap in neighboring Surry County.

The suspect was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison on February 1, 1955. He was paroled December 10, 1981.

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Alleghany County Deputy Sheriff Clint Caudill died of a heart attack while on duty.  Due to a combination of accumulated stress and poor dietary habits, law enforcement officers are 25 times more likely to die from heart disease than at the hands of suspects.

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Law enforcement officers often go about their jobs in relative obscurity.  We tend to take for granted that our community is safe and that we can fill comfortable anywhere in the county.  Yet, that safe feeling doesn’t just happen.  It is cultivated by county’s deputy sheriffs, town police officers, wildlife officers, state troopers, and state and federal park rangers.  Each has a different area of responsibility, but all work together to make our community safe.

We can’t say “Thank you” to those officers killed in the line of duty.  However, we can offer our thanks to those officers that carry on the mission of serving the citizens and visitors of Alleghany County.

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Information and photos for this post was gathered from the Officer Down Memorial Page

Jim Keighton and the Blue Ridge Birders

Alleghany County possesses a rich tradition of wildlife related activities.  The New River offers a premier smallmouth bass fishery.  Miles of streams and creeks give trout anglers’ many opportunities to catch rainbow, brown, and brook trout.  For the hunter, both turkeys and deer are abundant.

Yet one of the most popular wildlife related activities is wildlife viewing.  According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, 2.4 million North Carolina residents participate on wildlife viewing.  One the favorite activities of this group is bird watching.

James Coleman helped organize the Blue Ridge Birders (BRB) in 1997.  The group was formed to address two broad goals:

  • To share information and educate people about both resident and migratory birds in Alleghany and surrounding counties
  • Promote habitat conservation that benefits both birds and all other species
Jim Keighton watches for passing hawks at the Mahogany Rock Overlook

Jim Keighton watches for passing hawks at the Mahogany Rock Overlook

These days, Jim Keighton, is one of the more visible members of the group.  He can be found most days from mid-August through November at the Mahogany Rock Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There, he and other enthusiasts, track the hawk migration as the birds move south for the winter.  Maybe more importantly, Jim talks with visitors traveling the Parkway about their birding project and about Alleghany County as a whole.

Jim is a former middle school science teacher.  He taught in Pennsylvania, Delaware and finally at the Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C.  After 23 years of teaching school, he went to work at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.  There he designed exhibits and continued to teach, but focused on teachers, for another 13 years.

When they retired in 1996, Jim and his wife Alice moved to Alleghany County.  They were drawn to the mountains and the rural environment.  Alice is a volunteer at the Books and Friends Bookstore which aids the Alleghany County Library.

Alice and Jim Keighton

Alice and Jim Keighton

Even in retirement Jim remains a teacher at heart.  He seeks to broaden and diversify the membership base of the BRB.  He has a strong desire to see more kids involved in birding.  He points to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch as a simple way of exposing school aged kids to citizen science.  The students set up bird feeders and then conduct a two day count of the number and species of birds that visit the feeder.  They then enter their observations into Cornell’s data base.  The BRB also takes part in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  The local counts or “circles” report their observations in the North Carolina Regional Summary.  Again, this is a scientific survey conducted by citizens across the country.

Birds are often referred to as ecological barometers and as such serve as indicators environmental health.  Maybe the same can be said of birders.  Jim and Alice Keighton are great examples of the diversity of the people of Alleghany County.  Jim seeks to connect people with nature and help them to experience the richness of our mountains.  Both Jim and Alice are committed to being lifelong learners and view the world with an inquisitive eye (often aided by binoculars!).  Most importantly, they want to take others along on their learning journey.

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For more information about the Blue Ridge Birders, Hawk Watch NC, or how you can expose kids to birding, contact Jim at brbirders@skybest.com.  Or you may be added to the Blue Ridge Birder list serve at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/blueridgebirders