Jay Coman – Local Foods Coordinator

Alleghany County’s local food movement has an unusual connection to a building supply business founded in Durham, NC.  The Coman brothers opened Coman Lumber in the years following World War II.  When the business was sold in the 1970s, one brother, James, bought a farm in Piney Creek and permanently located to Alleghany.

Many remember James as a sheep farmer, but some of his most important work was through the Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust (currently The Blue Ridge Conservancy).  Through the land trust and conservancy over 18,000 acres of northwestern North Carolina have been protected through conservation easements or set aside for public use.

james and jay

James and Jay Coman

Jay Coman spent his high school summers on his Uncle James’ farm.  Jay was a state champion high school wrestler in Durham and his father felt that a summer of farm work gave Jay a better overall workout than time in the weight room.  Through his Uncle James, Jay was exposed to a unique combination of business acumen, love and respect for the mountains and mountain life, and shown the value of hard work.  During those summers in Piney Creek, Jay also grew to love Alleghany County.

IMG_4206Jay was awarded an athletic scholarship to wrestle at North Carolina State University.  In 2007 he was part of a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.  He struggled with injuries during his final year at NCSU and became interested in coaching.  Jay says that for the first time he fully understood the role his coaches had played in his development over the years with their devotion of time and experience.  Jay determined that it was time for him to repay that debt by coaching others.

After graduation from NCSU, he taught history and coached wrestling in Durham.  In 2009, his Uncle James succumbed to cancer, and Jay took over the farm in Piney Creek.  He traveled back and forth for three years before fully transitioning from city to farm life in 2012.  He loved the local dedication to wrestling and he began the New River Wrestling Club which practices at the Briddle Creek School in Independence, Virginia.  He also began coaching Grayson County High School Wrestling team.  And during all that, he went to graduate school at Virginia Tech.


In what little free time Jay could claim, he began to work the farm.  His operation has grown to 45 sheep, 20 cows and toggles between five to ten pigs.  Although he spent many summers on the farm with James, Jay quickly realized how little he knew about farm life.  He credits his neighbors as being patient with him as he learned to build and repair fences that actually kept his growing herd and flocks where they belonged.  He said the winters have been tough but that each year seems to get a little easier.

This spring Jay took on yet another job – local foods coordinator for Alleghany County.  Working through a grant with the Cooperative Extension Service, he promotes and delivers locally produced farm products to a variety of locations.  Everything from steaks to honey to produce is available the Alleghany Meat Center or Becca’s Backwoods Bean in Sparta.  Jay also services farmers’ markets in Sparta, Roaring Gap, and Independence, Virginia.  Many local restaurants serve Alleghany grown products delivered by Jay.

farmers market

Alleghany Farmers Market

Jay sees great retail growth potential for Alleghany products in the Raleigh/Durham area.  He currently delivers products directly to home customers in Durham.  He says that there is a growing demand in Triangle restaurants for ethically grown meat that is pastured raised with no growth hormones.  Chefs recognize that these products have superior taste that customers appreciate.

Perhaps one of the strongest selling point for locally grown products is the story behind where their food is produced.  There is an increased aversion by some to animals that are raised in large commercial operations.  Customers prefer to know the name of the farm where the products are produced and the farmers who produces it.  They seek a personal connection to their food.  Jay views “Produced on a family farm in the mountains of western North Carolina” as a great way to begin those stories.

In yet another iteration of life, Jay will teach history this fall at Grayson County High School and will continue to coach wrestling.  But he will remain solidly anchored to Alleghany County through Stony Knob Farm, tending to sheep and cattle and an occasional pig.


Alleghany grown farm products can be ordered at http://alleghany.locallygrown.net/.  Jay can also cooridanate special purchases for customers.  He can be contacted at jcoman103@yahoo.com


You can experience a Taste of Alleghany on Saturday, June 18th at 6:30 pm.  This event is sponsored by the Alleghany Farmers Market.  Proceeds will be used to promote locally grown foods and to support the farmers’ market.


Superintendent Mark Woods – Blue Ridge Parkway

Mark Woods’ love of the outdoors was kindled through scouting.  A native of South Carolina, Woods worked his way through the program attaining its highest level of achievement – Eagle Scout.  His educational path led him from Newberry College to Lander University to Texas A&M and finally to the University of California – Davis.  His work place journey was just as geographically varied with time spent in national parks in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and the Virgin Islands.  He also had a stint with the South Carolina State Park system.  Married, he is the father of three and grandfather to two.  He and his wife, Ginny, live in Lake Junaluska, NC.

The Boy Scout Code of Honor continues to serve him well in his role as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  When he assumed this position 2½ years ago, he inherited a 10 year, $450 million backlog of deferred maintenance.  The Parkway’s current maintenance budget of $7 million can do little to chip away at this perpetual maintenance issue.  He addresses these and other challenges with a strong sense of duty and commitment.

Superintendent Woods recently spoke to approximately 60 citizens and elected officials in Sparta about the current state of the Parkway.  In spite of the challenges he faces, he spoke in optimistic terms of the future of this linear park.

A part of the national park system, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited park site in the United States with over 15 million visitors in 2015.  Snaking along 469 miles that winds through 29 counties in two states, the Parkway is anchored to the north by the Shenandoah National Park and at the southern end by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  The Parkway is designed for visitors to “Ride and while, and stop a while.”  900 vistas and overlooks combined with over 300 miles of hiking trails make those stops worthwhile.

But encouraging visitors to explore beyond the Parkway boundary is also part of its design. Superintendent Woods described the Parkway as a “carefully landscaped window from which to view southern Appalachia.”  He said the goal is to, “whet the appetite of visitors for further exploration into adjoining communities.”  He identified nurturing and strengthening the connections between the Parkway and local communities as a top priority of Parkway staff.

Woods listed a number of upcoming projects that will directly impact the Alleghany County section of the Parkway.  The wood shakes on the Bringer Cabin are scheduled to be replaced.  Maintenance crews will be removing hazard trees and clearing overgrown vistas.  Potholes between mile markers 216 and 228 are scheduled to be repaired.  And picnic areas will be enhanced with new tables where needed.


Perhaps the most exciting news was his announcement of a $100,000 donation that will be used to mitigate the mold issue at the Bluff Coffee Shop.  The coffee shop was closed in 2011 and has since developed a serious mold problem.  Renovation of shop and camp store cannot take place until this problem is resolved.  It is hoped that this work can begin soon.  He emphasized that reopening the coffee shop is one of his personal priorities.

A similar problem exists with the Bluff Lodge.  The current plan is to focus first on the coffee shop and then assess the lodge.

coffee shop

from National Park Planner

Moving forward, Woods listed three goals for the Parkway.  First, he and his staff are committed to providing a high level of public service.  While they have suffered the loss of staff positions in recent years, volunteers contributed over 100,000 hours of labor annually.  He pointed out that it is sometimes difficult to strike a balance between competing values, using grass mowing as an example.  He said he gets many requests for more manicured look to the Parkway through frequent mowing.  He said he also get requests for less mowing to enhance wild flowers along the drive.  Striking a balance with issues such as these are always challenging.

Second, he plans to continue strengthening the working relationships with local communities. Along the length of the Parkway, visitors spent $952 million in local communities.  He pointed out that the Parkway is a tremendous economic driver for towns and counties along this 469 mile corridor.  By working cooperatively, this economic benefit can be enhanced and grown.

And finally, he is committed to enacting short and long term strategies for taking care of the Parkway.  Over 200 miles of the Parkway have not been paved in 20 years.  The harsh environment of the higher elevations creates continual maintenance issues on both the roadway and structures.  The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has proven to be a great advocate and partner in taking these strategies forward.  Maybe most important is for the Parkway to begin preparing for the next generation of visitors and stewards.  To do this he and his staff will focus on engagement and education.  Officals are taking the long view on how to best protect the resources while promoting the economic connection to local communities.

Mark Woods speaks with passion about the Blue Ridge Parkway and its unique ecosystem.  Those principles gleaned from the scout code are evident and sincere.  Perhaps most apparent is his view that the Parkway an integral part of communities such as Alleghany County that lay along the spine of the southern Appalachian mountains.


For more information about Alleghany County’s role in the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway, click here

To watch the presentation in its entirety, click here



Backwoods Beat Music Festival

Singers, songwriters, and storytellers will converge on Sparta, NC, May 13 & 14, as SkyLine/SkyBest presents the first Backwoods Beat Music Festival in Sparta’s Crouse Park.

Tim & Myles Thompson, a Nashville father/son duo perform Friday, May 13, 7pm, and will teach a songwriting workshop Saturday, May 14. Kate Campbell, a popular performer with Sparta audiences, returns to teach songwriting with Tim & Myles on Saturday, and performs Saturday evening at 7pm. Galax native, Dori Freeman, opens the Saturday evening performance at 6:30pm.

The festival events will open Friday and Saturday evenings at 6pm. Admission Friday is $5/person. Admission Saturday is $10/person. If you bring your ticket from Friday night, Saturday’s admission will be half-off. Kids 12 and under are free.

A variety of food vendors will be on-site before the performances begin. Craft beer and wine will be available from Round Peak Winery and Skull Camp Brewery. Crouse Park is located at Grayson & Whitehead St., Sparta. Free parking is available in surrounding lots.

“We want to bring all types of music lovers to Sparta,” says Festival Chairman, Barbara Halsey. “The Festival will encourage a sense of community while it offers Workshop participants the chance to learn songwriting skills from experienced artists.”

The Saturday songwriting workshop is free to the first 60 registrants, with a $10 registration fee covering lunch and a tee shirt. The morning session begins at 9am. After a lunch break, the afternoon session goes until 3pm. Students will have the benefit of a session with Tim & Myles, and a session with Kate. Private sessions with the instructors are available after the workshop for $30/half-hour, $60/hour. Call the Alleghany Chamber,  336-372-5473 for details.  Registration closes May 9.

To register for the songwriting workshop, visit the Backwoods Beat Facebook event page, the Alleghany Chamber website, http://www.VisitAlleghanyNC.com, or pick up a form at the Chamber office, 58 S. Main St., Sparta. Funding for the workshop was made available through the Arts Guild of Alleghany and the North Carolina Arts Council.


Tim and Myles Thompson are a father-son duo who will be teaching songwriting workshops during the Backwoods Beat Music Festival, and headlining on the Crouse Park Stage Friday evening at 7pm.


Tim and Myles Thompson

Tim is a Nashville based session player, singer/songwriter and the 2008 International Fingerstyle Champion. He has recorded 11 CDs and two DVDs. He has been featured in three magazines and has taught several songwriting and guitar workshops, much like the one planned for the Backwoods Beat Festival.

Music has always filled the Thompson home; unknowingly it inspired Myles to pick up the violin at the tender age of five! By the age of twelve he was studying music theory and improvising with skill beyond his years – it was clear that music would be his life. Today at the ripe old age of twenty-one Myles is also a prolific singer/songwriter and mandolin player.

No one music genre totally encompasses the Thompson’s repertoire. Is it acoustic rock, pop, country, Celtic, jazz, funk? The simple answer is yes to all of the above. To experience a Thompson performance is to remember the experience.   http://timandmylesthompson.com/

Kate Campbell is a singer-songwriter whose past performances have developed a strong Sparta fan base. On Saturday Kate will be teaching workshops during the day and will perform on Saturday evening at 7pm on the Crouse Park Stage.

kate campbell

Kate Campbell at MerleFest

Campbell has a musical career spanning over 20 years. She has always resisted the temptation to follow musical trends, and instead has decided to set her own pace for her unique musical journey. Campbell is originally from the Mississippi Delta and is the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Her formative years were spent in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and the experiences she gained from that difficult period of time shaped her life as well as her songwriting. Campbell’s music, which effortlessly combines Southern rock, rhythm and blues, and soul, is filled with cultural themes from her upbringing. Her music continues to inspire and excite a growing fan base. http://www.katecampbell.com/

Dori Freeman is a 24-year-old singer and songwriter from Galax, Va. who will open for Kate Campbell  at 6:30pm on Saturday evening.

d freeman

Dori Freeman

Freeman comes from a family rooted in art and tradition. Her grandfather, Willard Gayheart, is an artist and guitar player, and her father, Scott Freeman, is a multi-instrumentalist and music instructor. While her style subscribes to no one genre, the influence of her Appalachian upbringing lies at the core of her music — heard especially in the lulling mountain drawl of her voice. She sings without affect and with striking clarity, delivering each song carefully and earnestly. Her recently released CD was named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 35 most anticipated country CDs of 2016.

Freeman’s style was shaped by American Roots music:  Bluegrass, Rhythm and Blues, and Old Country. Her early introduction to musicians like Doc Watson, The Louvin Brothers, and Peggy Lee have heavily influenced her modern yet timeless sound. Dori learned how to play the guitar at fifteen and began writing her own material a few years later, citing Rufus Wainwright and his haunting melodies and achingly honest lyrics as the spark that inspired her to pen her first song. Her songs often center on heartache and pining; unrequited and sometimes unconventional love are common muses for her melodies and lyrics.  http://www.dorifreeman.com/


This post was based on a press release by Jennifer Swenk.

Sam and Julia Simmons

In Alleghany County, Christmas is never far from conscious thought.  It is difficult to drive far on any road without seeing a hillside covered with rows of Frasier Firs.  According to a USDA report almost 900,000 Christmas trees were shipped out of Alleghany in 2012.  Christmas and all that surrounds the holiday are an integral part of our county.

IMG_4172For Sam and Julia Simmons, Christmas takes on an even stronger presence in their daily lives.  Wrapped in a full white beard and styled mustache, complimented with twinkling eyes, Sam embodies Santa Claus. And Julia fully embraces the role of Mrs. Claus.

Sam grew up in Nashville, Tennessee.  At age 13, he and his family moved to Raleigh, NC.  He attended Broughton High School just blocks away from the capital grounds.  After graduation he wound his way through undergraduate studies and then to dental school.

In 1971, Sam joined the US Air Force and served there as a dentist.  He was stationed in England where he met a young local woman, Julia.  They were married 1973 and a year later Sam and his new bride returned to the United States.  They opened a dental practice in King, NC in 1975 and served patients there for over 30 years.

As Sam worked to establish his practice, Julia worked in the dental office and poured herself into their growing family.  Then at age 27, she considered returning to school. Julia did not think she would do well in college as she had not been tracked towards college in England.   She took a tentative step by enrolling in Surry Community College (SCC) and never looked back.  Over the course of time, she graduated from SCC, then Salem College.  She received a scholarship to Wake Forest University where she received a masters degree in counseling.  She finished up with a PHD in human services and counseling from Cappella University.

While Sam served the dental needs of the King community, Julia worked with the Wake Forest Medical School to help internal medicine residents become more aware of the mental health needs of their patients.  She also worked with others in the community to develop a suicide prevention program in Stokes County. They jokingly refer to themselves as the Doctors Simmons – dental and mental.

The Simmons’ residency in Alleghany County was an incremental process.  They began by looking for a weekend home, focusing their search in southwest Virginia.  There they met a man who told them that he had a small farm for sale in Alleghany County.  They made arrangements to view the farm and found it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for.  On their way out, the man said, “Oh, there is a house for sale just up the road.  You may want to take a look at it.”  They pulled into the drive and fell in love with the house and Alleghany County.  After Sam’s retirement, they moved to Alleghany fulltime and bought a new home with a breathtaking view.

Sam and Julia immediately began plugging into the community.  They sing in the Highland Camerata and are active in promoting the arts.  With some 25 years of mental health intervention experience, Julia worked with others to develop Alleghany Lives, a suicide prevention program.  Sam volunteers as a tutor at Sparta Elementary School.  They are active in Mountain Laurel Moravian Fellowship in Laurel Springs.

Then in 2005, a question steered Sam and Julia into a different service direction.  A child saw Sam with his white beard and a touch of red clothing.  The boy, in a moment of pure innocence, asked Sam, “Are you Santa Claus?”  Sam laughs as he recalls that in spite of momentous efforts, many children were always afraid of him as a dentist.  Now, he had the chance to go from someone feared by children to someone revered.

Santa Sam was born.

Surely making the transformation to Santa would be an easy one.  Put on a red suit, polish a perfect “Ho, Ho, Ho,” and listen to the kid’s requests.  But, it was one of those early requests that struck Sam with the seriousness of his new role.

A shy girl climbed onto his lap and as is sometimes the case, she went silent.  Santa Sam probed for her Christmas wish but the girl remained quiet.  Finally Santa suggested a Barbie and the little girl nodded enthusiastically. She climbed down and rushed over to take her mother’s hand.  As she moved to leave, she suddenly rushed back to Santa Sam and exclaimed, “I know what I want for Christmas.”  Santa Sam leaned forward and asked her request.  “I would like my grandmother to be cured of cancer.”

Sam struggled to maintain his composure.  He promised to ask his elves to pray for her grandmother.  To fulfill that promise he asked members of his church to pray for this child’s request.

This revealed the true role of Santa to Sam and Julia.  They now use Santa as a vehicle to emphasize giving to others.  Sometimes they share the Nativity Story using a model to tell about the greatest gift of all – the birth of Jesus.  Their message whether secular or religious is one of faith, hope and love.


The funds generated through their role as Santa and Mrs. Claus are plowed back into the community.  The Simmons support Camp New Hope in Glendale Springs where the staff minister to children with life-threatening illnesses.  They also support the Solid Rock Food closet backpack program, help buy art and music supplies for local schools, and support the animal rescue program.  Through their giving, Christmas lasts all year for Sam and Julia.

sam and julia

Santa and Mrs. Claus

A year round beard, a red Jeep, the wire rimmed glasses, and the rosy cheeks required the question be posed to Sam, “You know you are not really Santa – right?”

Sam only responded with a smile – a smile that hinted of a secret – a secret whose answer is only known to him and Julia.


For more information on Sam and Julia visit http://www.blueridgesanta.com

Chris Durgin – Luthier

For those in the south, especially the rural south, the term “Jersey Shore” brings to mind the MTV series set along the coast of New Jersey.  It conjures an image of young profane characters whose accents are distinctive and attitudes are legendary.  For Chris Durgin, the image of “Jersey Shore” is one of his childhood home in a town surprisingly similar to Sparta.  While the hometown of his youth was quite small, New York City and all of its glitz and glamour was only 55 miles away.


In 1980, Chris began working at the Metropolitan Opera.  By day he built and installed the scenes for some of the world’s most famous operas, and at night he worked on lighting during the performances.  “The Met” hosted six concurrent shows.  There were six nighttime shows each week, and Wednesday and Saturday matinees.  It was a grueling 32 week season of extremely long hours with only Sundays off.

The artistry of the opera extended beyond the music and acting.  The intricacies of sets and scenes helped the patrons feel a part of the bohemian lifestyle of the Latin Quarter of Paris in the mid-1800s (La Boheme – a personal favorite of Chris’) or allowed them to be swept away as mythological Valkyrie fly across the battlefield choosing which Norsemen will live or die in battle (The Flight of the Valkyrie).  Working on these sets, Chris developed technical and artistic talents that enhanced his sense of style and attention to detail.

Chris left the Met and its relentless grind in 1990.  He went back to New Jersey.  There he began building custom exhibits and displays for trade shows.  When the company sold out to Nomadic Display, the new owners asked Chris to move to their new site in northern Virginia.  Chris worked with them until 1995 when the urge to move on took him to Key West.

durgin table

A Chris Durgin original

Settling down in Big Pine Key, Chris went to work in a cabinet shop.  His innovative designs soon caught the eyes of those who were willing to pay for quality work.  He worked on one home renovation for two years, work that was later showcased in Florida Design Magazine.  Then around 2000, Chris joined an exodus out of Florida.  He returned to his native New Jersey and opened a studio building furniture.


A headboard from reclaimed lumber

But some of his south Florida friends settled in Alleghany County.  Chris visited them a couple of Thanksgivings and others times throughout the year.  Back in New Jersey, he was building furniture for people from Maine to Florida.  After staying in Sparta multiple times as a layover when making deliveries, Chris realized that Sparta’s central location would be a great place for his studio.

In Sparta, he continued to build furniture.  Chris’ work caught the eye of Phil Hanes.  Hanes was well known across the country as a champion for the arts and had served on the National Council on the Arts under President Lyndon Johnson.  Hanes commissioned Chris to build pieces of furniture for the Hanes home in Winston Salem.

Chris also has a love of music.  He began hanging out with local musicians at the Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention in Sparta.  He met Tim Lewis who suggested that Chris try his hand at building a guitar.


Building something beautiful is second nature to Chris.  He steers clear of the ornamentation often found on some instruments.  The sleek, clean lines of his guitars allows the character of the wood to be the focal point. Each is a true work of art.

But, Chris wants to do more than build a pretty guitar.  His desire is to build instruments that look and sound beautiful.  He knew he had gotten it right when Wayne Henderson of nearby Grayson County played one of Chris’ guitars and declared it “a good one.”

This artistic bent has landed Chris’ shop as a favorite stop on the Alleghany County Studio Tour each June and October.  He also displayed his instruments (he also build banjos and dobros) last year at the International Bluegrass Music Association and will be there again this fall.  And he does all this incredible work in the small studio in his home a block off Main Street in Sparta.


Curly Red Ironwood back

A conversation with Chris reveals a man widely traveled with a long list of well-known friends across the country.  The obvious question is, “Why Sparta?”  Chris has fielded that question many times.  He can describe how he enjoys the people here and how they have accepted him in the community.  He jokingly says, “Sparta is like a good Italian neighborhood except there isn’t an Italian restaurant.” But in a more serious tone, he admits that he didn’t really find Sparta.  He says, “Sparta found me.”


For more on Chris Durgin, read this 2015 post from the late TJ Worthington’s blog, Waterfall Road.

Chris can be contacted at 336-372-4776.

The Alleghany Brand – Part 1

Nike has one of the world’s most recognized commercial brands.  The company was founded in 1971 by University of Oregon track and field coach, Bill Bowerman, and one of his runners, Phil Knight.  Coach Bowerman envisioned a light weight shoe that would increase a runner’s grip on the track which would lead to faster times.  Using his wife’s waffle iron, Bowerman poured the prototype soles for the innovative track shoes.  The company was started with $1200 in the bank.

Nike’s brand stems from the founders’ approach.  They valued risk taking, they rebelled against conventional wisdom and design, and they produced a shoe that was “edgy.”  They took those characteristics and coined the term, “Just Do It.”

But what does that phrase really mean?

To reinforce that brand, Nike began a marketing campaign in 1988 that strengthened the notion that the company stood for risk, rebellion and living on the edge.  The first commercial showed an 80 year-old man running across the Golden Gate Bridge.  “Just Do It” began to make sense.

Over the next 25 years, the brand was solidified with athletes such as Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Andre Agassi, LeBron James, and Tiger Woods.  Musicians such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and OutKast provided soundtracks for the commercials.  Actors Dennis Hopper and Spike Lee showed up in the ads.  And in one famous commercial, an overweight teen hammered home the message that we are all capable of greatness.  The famous – the outrageous – the common seeking to do the uncommon.  Risk-taking rebels living on the edge – Just Do It.

And now, almost 30 years later, we don’t even have to hear those words.  The Nike swoosh has come to symbolize the term and when we see that swoosh on a cap or t-shirt we know exactly what it means.  In fact, when we wear that clothing we begin to feel like risk-takers and rebels.  We “feel” that we are in the game – that we can be great.

Can we apply that same concept to Alleghany County?

A question I often ask people who live in our community is “Why do you live here?”  Whether it someone whose roots run deep or someone who has been recently transplanted, virtually everyone is in our county by choice.  They could live anywhere, so why here?

While we may give many different responses to that question, those answers can be distilled down to a few basic values.  Those values are our brand.  I believe we can sum up those values up in a few words or a short phrase. That phrase or even a symbol can then communicate what means to live, work, and do business in our community.

But, can we market that brand in a way that creates economic vitally for our county and generates jobs?

The answer to those questions is a definite yes.  But it will take work, time, and collaboration throughout the community.  We have to deliver a consistent message that inspires people to want to open businesses, buy homes, visit, and invest in our county.  We have to become a destination of choice.   We have to identify and communicate what sets us apart from every other mountain community in North Carolina and Appalachia.

Nike has spent 25 years building its brand into what it is today.  It’s time for us to get off the sidelines, get in the game, take the long view, and just do it.


In Part 2 of this series, we will take a look at the internal communication component of branding.

Nathan Cox – NC Wildlife Officer

Officer Nathanial James Cox.Class of 2015.

Officer Nathaniel James Cox. Class of 2015.

Since he was in the 9th grade at Ashe County High School, Nathan Cox dreamed of becoming a wildlife officer.  He grew up in a law enforcement family – his father, Jim, retired as a sergeant with the North Carolina Highway Patrol.  His family farmed and hunted and fished.  Since childhood, Nathan has felt a closeness and connectedness to the land.  But, it’s not just any land that arouses this physical and emotional attachment.  The Cox family has lived along the Alleghany/Grayson County (VA) line for 13 generations.

So, back in the 9th grade, Nathan began plotting the course he hoped would lead to him becoming a wildlife officer.  He knew the odds were against him.  The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) only has 208 officers spread across North Carolina’s 100 counties.  The turnover rate is low with roughly 15 officers being hired every two years.  To break into those ranks requires an applicant to stand out from the hundreds that apply for those limited slots.

After high school, Nathan attended Wilkes Community College (WCC), studying criminal justice.  During that time he worked two years at Grayson Highlands State Park near Whitetop, Virginia.  There he was involved in educational programming where he honed his presentation skills, guided hikes and canoe trips, and assisted with search and rescue operations.

Knowing that he needed a strong law enforcement background, Nathan then enrolled in the Basic Law Enforcement Training program at WCC.  After graduation from that class, he worked part-time at the West Jefferson Police Department.  He then went to full-time employment with the Alleghany County Sheriff’s Office and later the Sparta Police Department.  With the conservation and educational background from Grayson Highlands and the law enforcement experience with the local departments, Nathan was ready to pursue his dream job.

Nathan applied and was chosen to attend the wildlife officer recruit training in 2015.  The six month course is housed at the North Carolina Justice Academy in Salemburg, NC.  When asked how he would describe the training, Nathan simply said it was “life changing.”  A typical day began at 5:00 am.  The recruits would roll out of bed, get their rooms straightened up and then be ready for physical training (PT) at 5:30.  PT lasted an hour to an hour and a half.  Then it was back to the room to shower and change into their classroom uniform.  Classes began at 8:00 am and ran until 5:00 pm, though some days the classes may stretch well into the night.  Nathan described the schedule as physically and mentally exhausting.  The recruits applied the classroom instruction in realistic training scenarios. The program was intentionally stress filled – the instructors were demanding and pushed the recruits toward a goal of perfection.

After graduation, Nathan was assigned to Stokes County.  Nathan credits his training officer, DJ Woods, with reinforcing the skills Nathan learned in recruit training.  Officer Woods showed Nathan how to apply those skills in day to day patrol.  Most importantly, Nathan said he learned how to go about the business of enforcing the law while treating people respectfully.


On March 1st, Nathan begins serving the people of Alleghany County.  He hopes to assist with established programs such as the high school hunter skills program and Hunters Helping Kids.  He said he plans to become a part of the community and seeks to do his job fairly.


The precedent of local residents’ involvement in wildlife conversation has been repeated many times.  Former Sparta Mayor R. Floyd Crouse was instrumental in forming the NCWRC in 1947 and served as a commissioner with the NCWRC from 1947 until 1962.  For his dedication, Crouse was named the North Carolina Conservationist of the Year in 1962 by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.  WC Phipps left Alleghany County in the 1960s and went on to long career as a wildlife officer in Davie County.  Many other Alleghany citizens continue those conservation efforts today through various sportsmen groups.

A connection to the land that stretches back three centuries and a community of people who value the natural world – this is foundation upon which Nathan Cox’s career will be built.  He sums it up quite succinctly in a drawl that is familiar to all in northwestern North Carolina – “The mountains are in my blood.”


For more information on how to become a NC Wildlife Enforcement Officer click here

To report wildlife or boating violations call 1-800-662-7137.