Aaron Gambill – Same Song, Different Verse

As Aaron Gambill winds through the barn, the images are those common to many family farms in Alleghany County: cattle eating corn silage from a trough; four or five sows and their piglets grunting and jostling around a large stall; a patrolling red cattle dog ensuring all critters are in their proper place; and a suspicious barn cat peaking around corner at the commotion. It all seems familiar until Aaron begins describing a subtle shift in their farming philosophy: “We are becoming a farm that focuses on maintaining nutrient rich soil and growing high quality grass. We use cattle, pigs and chickens to accomplish that goal.” Aaron laughs after making that statement. “I usually get a confused look when I share that with folks.”

The Gambills are a Century Farm Family. The cattle on the farm today are descendants of Aaron’s great-grandfather’s herd. Aaron points out that his family has farmed this tract nestled in a bend on the north side of the New River for 200 years. The farm was once a thriving dairy, but they sold the dairy cows in 2007.

Aaron is the middle child of David and LeAnn Gambill. He graduated Alleghany High School in 2009. He went on to earn a biology degree from Emory and Henry University with an eye toward veterinary school. Instead, he met and married a veterinary student, Melissa. Melissa is now a large animal vet with Healing Springs Large Animal veterinary services in Galax, Virginia. They have two children, Elijah (three years old) and Carson (one years old).

Last year, Aaron, his sister, Ashley Weaver, and brother, Adam, formed the Pure Farm Project. Their vision is to continue a family farming legacy of stewardship and to connect more directly with their customers. They understand a growing desire of health-conscious customers to know where their food comes from and how it is grown. As Aaron described this evolution, the conversation circles back to grass.

“In a traditional pasture, cattle will naturally go to where the best grass is located. This often results in those sections being overgrazed and the root systems damaged. The soil can also become compacted which lessens rain penetration and increases rainwater runoff. The cattle then move on to graze less desirable areas which can also be damaged. It’s a tough cycle for the land. The most common remedy is to add synthetic fertilizer. That feeds the grass and can give a nice green pasture, but it doesn’t replenish the soil.”

As Aaron feeds the chickens, he uses them as an example of how to manage the farm more broadly. “We keep the chickens on the ground in this tractor (a large mobile coop built from repurposed materials on the farm). I move them at least once and sometimes twice daily. They eat grass and seeds from the weeds in addition to supplemental feeding. Their manure creates a natural fertilizer.” He points up the slight hill. “You can see that after a week or so, the grass is back up and is nice and green.”

Aaron envisions a system of paddocks in the pastures that will allow the same process for cattle. The paddocks will be a series of sections of fence that range in size from one to several acres. Ideally, the cattle will be moved once or even twice a day. This will prevent overgrazing and allow them to trample the weeds. As the microbes and number of insects increase in the soil, those will breakdown the manure quickly and allow those nutrients back into the earth.

As Aaron points across a section of pasture he describes water as being one of the biggest challenges to this process. “You can see that our pastures are hilly, and the water is naturally in the low places. Our goal is to have a series of wells and troughs that can get water on the ridges.  We are currently working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service for grant funding to fence the cattle out of the creek. Those funds will help us with the wells. Once the wells are in place we can put in the paddocks.”

In the meantime, Aaron and his family have begun selling at the Alleghany Farmers’ Market. He has found that customers enjoy connecting directly with the producer and that he enjoys those interactions as well. While the Gambills have a long history of beef production, the recent inclusion of pork has been a hit with customers. Aaron said one return customer describes their link sausage as “divine.”

It would be easy to view Aaron’s vision as a hard turn from their traditional farming practices. While there are differences, he is quick to point out that he learns something new from his father, David, every day. “All that experience and knowledge from my grandfather and dad are still valid,” Aaron acknowledges. “My end goal is the same as theirs: to produce a quality product that benefits people, be good stewards of the land and earn a living for our family.”

It would be easy to assume Aaron Gambill is singing a different song about their farm these days. But by listening closely one realizes it is just a different verse of the same song sung by his family for 200 years.

Gladys Parks – Before the Parkway Came Through

As Sparta resident Gladys Church Parks recalls her almost 102 years, she does so with a dismissive wave of her hand as if to say they were nothing special. Yet her stories include accounts of her using teams of horses and oxen to harrow the rocky soil along the edge of the mountain escarpment now covered by Blue Ridge Parkway and the Fox Hunter’s Paradise overlook. She tells as a girl of catching a ride on the back of a milk truck to Galax where she shopped all day before riding back on the same truck with empty cans being returned to Alleghany dairies. Sadly, she describes her friendship with Elva Brannock whose Depression era murder was the source of local author, Stacy Hawks’ book, Dividing Ridge.

“My daddy, John Church, went west at an early age,” she said recently. “Out there, he spent time pruning apple trees and herding sheep. When he had earned enough, he came home and bought the family farm.” Gladys’ niece, Sandy Walker, filled in the details of the farm in Ennice. The family had held a deed that was handwritten in 1850 and signed by members of the Dickens’ family, Gladys’ mother’s family.

When asked about how the family fared during the Depression, she recalls that it was “rough.” “But,” she is quick to add, “We had plenty to eat. Dad grew all types of grains. We put up vegetables and butchered our own hogs and beef.”  During those days in the mid-1930s, Gladys has vivid memories of when the Parkway construction began near Cumberland Knob. “It was exciting to see the work they were doing.”

Gladys takes on a sad, dark tone when she discusses the murder of Elva Brannock. “Our farms bordered, and Elva was my best friend. We went to school that morning and Elva didn’t show up. Everyone spent days looking for her before her body was found near the school. Nothing like that had ever happened. It was awful. The church at Saddle Mountain was full for her funeral. That whole thing really got on me and after Elva was killed it seemed like I couldn’t learn anymore. I left school for good after that.”

As the conversation shifted to the 1940s and World War II, Glady became introspective. “It seemed like all the young men were off fighting the war. We had a battery powered radio. In the evenings we would gather around the radio to listen to news. Our neighbor didn’t have a radio and they had sons in the military. So, they would join us, hoping for a bit of news about their boys.” She went on to describe being issued ration stamps for items that became scarce because of the war. Again, she spoke with a sense of resolve and acceptance instead of expressing hardship and difficulty.

After the war, things began to change quickly in Alleghany County. In the early 1950s, Hanes opened a textile plant in Sparta and Gladys was one of the first workers hired. After she and her cohort were trained, Gladys’ sister, Ilene Church also went to work at the plant. Together they saved their money for a year and bought a new 1955 Ford. Gladys says proudly that she got her drivers’ license on the first try and teases that it took Ilene two tries to receive hers. This gave them much more independence and they no longer had to count on others for transportation into town. Finally, in 1956, electricity reached the family home and farm.

Like many during that period, Gladys moved away from Alleghany. She and her husband. Virgil, settled in Roanoke, Virginia. She spent those days “taking care of the children of working mothers.” When Virgil died in 1995, Gladys moved back home.

These days Gladys lives independently, still doing her own cooking, cleaning, and laundry. She received a pacemaker at age 99 and only takes one prescription medication. Ilene has spent much time with her as Gladys recovers from a broken hip. Their gentle teasing and laughter brighten Gladys’ apartment.

Gladys Parks has not only lived a long life, but one that is filled with milestones that seemed commonplace and inconsequential in the moment. Yet in hindsight, these events changed the direction of our community and region. Gladys will be 103 years-old on June 21, 2022.

Susan Edwards – Taking Life One Step at a Time

In the Lord of the Ring series, author J.R.R. Tolkien offers a quote that has become popular with the hiking community: “Not all who wander are lost.” This notion builds on Henry David Thoreau’s observation that “Every walk is a sort of crusade.” Both authors capture a thought expressed by Susan Edwards that hiking is therapeutic for both body and soul.

Susan is a native of Alleghany County, having grown up in the Glade Valley community. She attended Glade Creek School and later Alleghany High. She has been a nurse for 22 years and is currently a nurse practitioner with United Healthcare, primarily working with older patients. Working alongside the patients’ primary care physicians, Susan’s goal is to provide the home health care needed by these individuals that will allow them to remain in their homes as long as possible. Healing is a recurring theme in conversation with Susan. Her provision of care for her patients is obvious. Less obvious is how she has determined to heal herself.

Camping and hiking are activities Susan has enjoyed for many years. She has been aware of the Appalachian Trail (AT) since she was a teenager. In December of 2019, Susan was in a transitional period of life. She did some research and decided a way to test the AT was by utilizing Boots Off Hostel and Campground near Hampton, Tennessee.

For the hiking community, hostels offer amenities that we often take for granted while at home. It is a place for a hot shower and facilities to wash sweaty clothes. It is a chance to eat “real” food and resupply for the next leg of their trip. And most hostels have a building with a warm, soft bed. Susan reached out to Boots Off and scheduled her first trip.

From Boots Off, Susan was shuttled up the trail and then hiked back to the hostel where she slept in a bunkhouse.  After that trip, Susan realized how unprepared she was for that level of hike. She lost two toenails and her knees “killed her” for days afterwards. Despite those negative aspects, Susan was hooked.

Beginning at Springer Mountain, Georgia and ending at Mount Katahdin, Maine, the Appalachian Trail stretches out over 2190 miles as it crosses 14 states. As the trail traverses mountain peaks and descends into valleys, hikers experience almost 500,000 feet in elevation change over the course of the trail. Most “thru hikers,” (those hiking the trail from end to end) begin in Georgia and wind their way north. A smaller number, begin in Maine and work their way south. The trip usually takes 5-7 months. Others choose to hike the trail in sections. These “section hikers” hike as their schedule allows with some taking years to complete the entire trail. Susan is a section hiker.

Susan at Springer Mountain – The white blaze on the left marks the trail

In April 2021, Susan got serious about hiking the AT. After a few other short trips, she fine-tuned her equipment. She discovered that the use of trekking poles took the pressure off her knees. During one of her first full pack trips, her pack weighed 34 pounds. She has since learned what equipment is essential and has trimmed that weight by 12 pounds for a much more manageable pack. Her goal is to schedule three-day trips, utilize shuttles and hostels, and cover 45 miles per trip. She has now hiked 800 miles of trail and hopes to finish the southern section (all the AT south of Harpers Ferry, Maryland) this year. Her long-term goal is to finish the entire trail over the next three years.

Susan is often asked why she hikes and why the AT. She shared that since her daughters are at an age when they are much more independent, it allows her time to do something for herself. She envisions a day when she will gather her grandkids around and share stories of the people, places and adventures gleaned from her time on the trail.

But mostly Susan hikes because of the impact it has had on her life. “When I first begin,” she said recently, “I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the past. Nowadays, I think more about the future. Each one of these sections I’ve hiked has changed me in subtle ways. I’m a different person than I was when I started this journey.” 

In her wanderings Susan Edwards is far from being lost. She is striding purposefully into the future, blazing her own trail. Perhaps she is on a crusade.

Chris Pernell – The Discovery of Home

For some, Alleghany County is a destination, but for Chris Pernell it was the discovery of home at the end of a long and winding road.

Chris and Kelley Pernell

Laurel Springs resident Chris Pernell learned to work at an early age. His father purchased a franchise restaurant, Blimpies, in 1973 in their hometown of Raleigh. At age 8, Chris was going to the restaurant and helping with food preparation. As he recalls this period of life, he laughs and says, “I chopped a lot of lettuce back then.” Laughter flows easily from Chris as he recounts the twists and turns of his life.

After three years of owning Blimpies, Chris’ dad sold out to his partner and opened another restaurant, Deli King, in Wake County. Chris continued to work in the family business through high school, only taking a break during football season. He describes Wake County in those days as still having a small, hometown feel. “Because of working so many years in the restaurant, I felt like I knew everyone in the county,” he said recently.

Reflecting on those high school days, Chris readily confesses that he “liked to have fun.” In calculating what qualified as fun and what didn’t, he determined that high school wasn’t fun, so he dropped out. He worked for a friend in a food equipment business and later spent a few months in Florida.

When he returned from Florida, he decided it was time to make some changes in his life. He got his GED and enrolled in NC State University (NCSU). He spent the next seven years working through his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

After college, Chris took a job with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that now specializes in diabetes medicines. Back then, Novo had a food group, and Chris worked in the industrial enzymes division. He left Novo for a research and development position with Kraft Foods in Chicago.

Chris says that he regretted that decision after two weeks in Chicago, but he stuck with Kraft for 2½ years before moving back to Wake County. Back home again, Chris worked a short stint with Burt’s Bees, an international, personal care product company. Then in another shift of direction, he managed a dry wall distributorship for several years.

While doing his graduate work at N.C. State University, Chris also worked for the university. After his dry wall experience, he returned to NCSU and for the next seven years managed a research lab in the college’s Food Science department.

In 2012, the college developed a small beer brewery that focused much of its research on the development of various types of yeast. Chris filled various roles from laboratory manager to brewery manager, brewer and Brewing Science Instructor.

He points out that much of the technology in the food industry was first discovered by the brewing industry. As an example, Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the milk pasteurization process took place through his research of how yeast and microorganisms cause fermentation in beer.

When NCSU shut down the campus on March 13, 2020, because of C0VID, their staff were directed to work from home. In May of 2015, Chris had bought a house in Laurel Springs. He and his girlfriend, Kelley, had fallen in love with Alleghany County and now with the quality of the local Internet, he could teach his classes from Alleghany as easily as Wake County. In December of 2020 they moved here full-time and married in 2021.

Chris has once again made a slight shift in direction. He is now with University extension through NCSU, but not a part of our county extension group, and continues to work remotely with the acidified foods group. His role is to help primarily home-based businesses who want to sell pickled vegetables, or barbeque and hot sauces – foods with a pH level of less than 4.6 – ensure that their processes and products meet the standards set by the N.C. Department of Agriculture. He finds the work rewarding because he is helping entrepreneurs become successful.

Chris and Kelley have immersed themselves in Alleghany County. Kelley has taken a position as general manager of Alleghany CARES. Chris described one of their favorite activities as “we porch.” That is, they enjoy sitting on their porch soaking up the stillness that is absolutely Alleghany.

Amanda Wiles – A Life that Changed Directions

The British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once described how a jeweler displays a diamond on black velvet when showing the gem to a customer. As the facets and angles of the diamond catch and reflect the light, its full brilliance is amplified by the contrast of the dark background. Such is the life of Amanda Wiles.

Amanda’s family has Alleghany roots, but they spent much of her childhood in Wilkes County. As she talks about her early family life, Amanda describes an environment of addiction and domestic violence. There were instances of suicide in her extended family. “While I was a good student,” she said recently, “I definitely fit the modern label of ‘at risk youth.’” As she entered her middle school years in Wilkesboro, she began acting out in a variety of ways. “I wasn’t a bad kid,” she continues, “But, I was moving in a bad direction.”

When she was 13, Amanda and her family moved back to Alleghany County. She had trouble adjusting to her new school and struggled to fit in. She continued to act out and set her mind on dropping out of school as soon as she turned 16.  As she relates her story, Amanda becomes reflective. “You know how there are pivotal instances in your life that go unnoticed at the moment, but seem obvious in hindsight,” she asks rhetorically? “I had two of those moments as a 14 year-old.”

The first was a visit from David “Squeak” Edwards. Edwards later became the Alleghany County sheriff, but he was a probation officer when he paid a visit to Amanda. He had caught wind of the group Amanda was spending time with and saw where she was heading unless she shifted direction. She recalls Edwards telling her that she was much too smart to be traveling the path she was on.

Her true life changing moment occurred when she met Jamie Wiles. As Amanda describes their teenage relationship she says, “Jamie was stable. He went to church with his family, and he treated me well. Jamie gave me a glimpse of what a relationship could and should be.”  At this point of the conversation Amanda laughs, “I know that all sounds crazy.” Then she adds more seriously, “It points to how chaotic my childhood was and how steadying Jamie was for me.”  But true to her plan, Amanda dropped out of high school at 16 and she and Jamie were married. She describes them working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. Again, she laughs and says, “That’s what you have to do when you do dumb things.”

At 21, Amanda breezed through her GED with little studying. Her 20s were filled with several futureless jobs and raising their family. At 29, she began thinking about going to college with an eye on becoming a police officer. Jamie wasn’t thrilled about her becoming a police officer but viewed her return to college as a positive step. She completed her associates degree, and then enrolled in a criminal justice program offered at Wilkes Community College (WCC) by Gardner-Webb University. Amanda describes these as financially difficult years for their family. It required her to make tough choices about what she valued most. She had to give up a nice car with payments for an old one. It required her to accept grants and loans for college tuition. Government subsistence programs helped fill the gaps as they stretched every dollar.

But the rewards came quickly. Amanda began teaching criminal justice part-time at the Ashe Campus of WCC in 2013. She continued her education and received a master’s degree from Liberty University which lead to a full-time teaching position with WCC in 2017.

Her new job helped create the opportunity for Jamie to open his own garage, Jamie’s Auto Solutions. Amanda laughs once more and says, “Of course as with most everything in our lives, opening a new business wasn’t easy. The day we opened; our checking account was overdrawn by $7.00. Jamie had to change oil using ramps for several weeks. But we looked long-term and made it work.” Amanda helps manage the books and both their children, Auston and Courtney, work at the garage.

As we assess our lives and those around us, we often take a short-term view of how we define success. It is tempting to place labels on others that mark where they are at that specific moment in time. In the case of children, those labels can have a negative impact that follows them into adulthood. Unfortunately, many of us have spoken some version of, “She won’t ever amount to much” about a child who is struggling in a challenging situation. Amanda Wiles’ life forces us to challenge those assumptions and instead look for the sparkles of a diamond against a dark background.