It was a warm July day in 2001 when I first saw the blueberry farm. My partner Johnny Burleson and I were visiting his Aunt and Uncle, Ode and Geri Burleson, at their family cabin on Big Horse Creek in Ashe County. Johnny grew up spending his summers playing in the cold waters of Big Horse. I was raised in the nearby foothills of Surry County and spent about every available adolescent minute helping my dad restore two old log cabins along the Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia. The stage was set – the mountains were in our blood.
On that warm morning Aunt Geri, thinking we were in need of entertainment, suggested picking blueberries at a nearby farm. Of course, in the mountains “nearby” can be relative and although the farm was just a few miles away, getting there involved a mind-boggling number of curves and turns, a journey that eventually brought us to Swansie Shepherd Road. We hesitated, “surely this can’t be right, it’s too narrow, it’s a gravel road, what if we go up there and there’s no place to turn around. “ But up the road we went toward a mountain hollow farm that Ashe County residents had known for decades as Swansie’s place.
For those of you who have been to Swansie’s place, you know how it is – the road begins surrounded by woods and slowly climbs up the valley and then it happens, the woods fall away, and there it is! What we saw that beautiful July day was a bowl-shaped hollow framed by incredibly steep green hillside pastures, a cornucopia of apple and pear trees, grape vines, and literally thousands of blueberry bushes. And right in the middle was a ramshackle 1880s farmhouse begging for attention. Like so many people, we felt an instant connection but had no idea of the important chapter that would soon unfold.
Fast forward two years to another beautiful summer day in June 2003. I don’t remember who saw it first, me or Johnny, but as we strolled down West Jefferson’s main street, there it was – a sign taped to the window of a real estate office reading “blueberry farm for sale.” There was nothing about the sign that gave away the farm’s location, just a photo of an old rusty pickup truck, a few blueberry bushes and a local phone number. Whether it was fate or just the serendipitous nature of life, three hours later we found ourselves back at Swansie’s place meeting with a realtor.
Buying a house or land is a big decision and usually calls for a slow and reasoned approach but not that day. The decision to move forward “felt” right and within five months we were the proud owners of a blueberry farm. As we quickly discovered, this was no ordinary farm but a part of Ashe County’s heritage – a place where local folks and visitors had picked apples and berries for generations. We were stewards of a very special place.