Drive as far west as you can in southern North Carolina and the last town you’ll find before crossing the Tennessee border is Murphy. Despite being the county seat for Cherokee County, Murphy is an incredibly small town with a population of only about 1,500. Even though they’re small, Mayor Rick Ramsey explained that Murphy is full of personality and, “treasures in both people and places.” Executive Director of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, Sherry Raines, says that Murphy has truly come into its own the past 15 years, holding a variety of festivals, welcoming in tourists from all over the country and many people who want a second home in the mountains, and greatly expanding their downtown area.
It’s hard to stay away from Murphy and Mayor Ramsey can attest to that. Ramsey was born and raised in Murphy before moving to places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Fort Worth before finally retiring and settling back home. Mayor Ramsey explains that many tourists feel much the same as him when it comes to the reason they love Murphy so much; something just feels right about it. The relaxation of living in a quiet mountain town is unlike anything else in the world. This is a key reason Murphy has done so well in the pandemic. So many people have sought out Murphy as an escape from the stressors of the pandemic. Because of its isolation in the mountains, many people have felt safer visiting Murphy rather than other travel destinations. According to Sherry Raines, some businesses reported this year as their strongest year ever, despite fears of major business closings earlier in the year. RV parks have seen a massive increase in visitors, some restaurants have thrived with new curbside options, and many businesses have taken this opportunity to switch to more effective business models. Mayor Ramsey says that the town has taken the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously, implementing mask mandates and necessary business and school shutdowns earlier in the year. The mayor says this has led to the rates of cases in the area being far lower than that in the rest of the country.
When it’s not a pandemic, people visit Murphy to see the stunning waterfalls, streams, rivers, and mountains and take part in the unique attractions the town provides. This includes the Murphy Art Walk which highlights local artists, the Christmas Festival which includes a parade and long-awaited tree lighting, and the annual Spring Festival which includes craft beer and food vendors, music, a car show, and more. Murphy is also home to the John C. Campbell Folk School which provides visitors with the opportunity to learn unique skills such as blacksmithing, quilting, calligraphy, canning, and more. The school also provides a chance for visitors to take part in activities such as folk dancing, live music, and storytelling. According to Mayor Ramsey, this combination of Danish and Appalachian culture is so special that visitors from all over the world flock to the school.
Murphy is so much more than just a small mountain town. It is a bustling, growing community that provides visitors with the charm so many seek out when visiting Appalachia. Visitors immediately feel like part of the community when they visit, it’s why so many choose to settle down there after retirement. With people as kind as Mayor Ramsey and Executive Director Raines, it’s no wonder so many people want to call Murphy home.
Bud Ogle Cabin Snapshot
Built in the late 19th century by Noah Wilson “Bud” Ogle, the Bud Ogle Cabin provides a sense of history to Murphy, North Carolina. The cabin was built by Bud Ogle for his family which included his wife, Lucinda Ogle- a practicing midwife, along with their eight children.
Due to its remote location within the mountains, visitors are transported to another time when agriculture was the main source of income for most and the environment was still considered a wild and dangerous place to colonists. In multiple online spaces, visitors report feeling a sense of wonder and nostalgia, despite having never lived in such a time.
The Murphy Art Walk
Art walks. More professional than a craft fair and more commercial than a gallery, art walks are events that have begun popping up all over the nation in the last decade. Essentially, an art walk is an event where artists bring their works to sell, whether their mediums of art are jewelry, drawings, metalwork, or really anything else that people find creative, unique, and worth spending money on.
When researching the mountain region of Highway 64, I stumbled upon the news of an Art Walk in Murphy, North Carolina, a little town with a population of only about 1,700 people. I almost overlooked the event, thinking it may just be a small community-organized event that only a few dozen people attended each month. I was more than surprised when I looked further into the number of artists with a variety of specialties scheduled for this year. This event wasn’t just community-organized, it was truly part of the community, something that brought the small town and even those who lived outside of it together to see the amazing works locals have to offer.
The Murphy Art Walk is organized by the Valley River Arts Guild, which, according to its website, is a not-for-profit organization that supports local artists and promotes art in the community, which directly matches the goals of the Art Walk itself. The first Art Walk took place 8 years ago and has occurred every first Friday of May and December since then. Because I can’t attend the Art Walk myself due to COVID-19, I contacted the President of Valley River Arts, Debra Vanderlaan, and she gave me a look into just how impactful the Art Walk truly is.
Remember when I said I thought the event would likely only have a couple of dozen people? I’m not ashamed to admit I could not have been more wrong. Debra explained that sometimes as many as 500 people attend the Art Walk, composed of both locals and visitors who come just to experience the event. It’s no surprise why so many people choose to attend the Art Walk, from Debra’s description alone I was wildly jealous I couldn’t attend myself. With streets filled with the music of local artists, sidewalk art demonstrations, performances from cheerleading teams and dance companies or even Taekwondo demonstrations, ghost tours on Halloween, and of course, incredible artists showcasing their work to the public, it’s no wonder the event frequently wins Best Event of the Year in their local newspapers’ Readers Choice Awards.
From the sound of it, I assumed the event was massive, but once again, I quickly realized I needed to stop assuming. Downtown Murphy, as explained to me by Debra, has only one traffic light and four short streets that meet in the middle. It’s lined with historic buildings and one of everything; a deli, a coffee shop, a bookstore, and a history museum. That said, what Murphy does have multiple of (other than restaurants) is art galleries. Debra says that since the inception of the Murphy Art Walk, Murphy has become somewhat of an “art destination,” the economy has grown, and larger numbers of people are making their way downtown every day.
This year, the Murphy Art Walk was unfortunately canceled for two months (May and June) due to COVID-19 restrictions. Slowly, but surely, the Art Walk has started up again, bringing art and community together once more. August was the first outdoors Art Walk of 2020 and already nearly a dozen artists ranging from painters to woodworkers to jewelry-makers signed up to make appearances this year. While Debra says attendance has been lighter, loyal attendees have made sure to come out to see some wonderful art and support an equally as wonderful event.
I am so lucky to have spoken with Debra Vanderlaan and learn so much about Murphy and the Murphy Art Walk. I will no longer assume small towns cannot have large cultures- Murphy has changed that for me. Someday soon, I hope the Murphy Art Walk can return to its full capacity, with music, dancing, and art. Further than that, I hope I’m able to make my way over to what Debra calls the “sweet Smoky Mountain town of Murphy,” so I can experience the budding art destination and all the creativity and vibrance it and the Art Walk have to offer.
The Magic of Murphy
Standing at a stark 5’8”, Rob Winthrow looks almost childish in comparison to his 8-foot pot, shaped like a gnome. “He hasn’t been named yet,” said Winthrow. “Usually it takes me a couple of weeks to figure out what I want to name them.”
This was the first and only encounter that I would ever have with the bearded man, whose smile was as infectious and warm. The ease with which he began unfolding his life before me was as if e were narrating his own biography—only stopping the narrative to take small sips of black coffee.
“I originally grew up in Colorado where I spent most of my younger life,” said Winthrow. It wasn’t until after I stopped working labor jobs, that I found I wanted to do something artistic with my hands.”
At the time, Winthrow hadn’t a clue what that idea meant. Using your hands? He had no sense of direction, no driving force, no influence, he simply wanted to do something with his hands. This started a season of his life, he titled trial and error. During this period, he experimented with a plethora of work including painting, drawing, and constructing, but nothing seemed to stick.
Finally, he received a ceramic kiln from his wife. Having no background or experience in ceramics, Winthrow just began spinning, practicing his new craft each day. His passion quickly grew as he enrolled in classes at John C. Campbell Folk School—an art school in Brasstown, N.C. Here, his work was fostered and encouraged by other local creatives and his skills grew exponentially.
“The Folk School really made an impact on me because it was an environment full of encouraging people all looking to express themselves,” says Winthrow.
Over the last 25 years, Winthrow has resided in his quaint home nestled in the valley of Cherokee County, throwing a variety of pots and vases that have earned him awards in local craft shows. Some of his work is displayed in local shops in both Murphy and neighboring towns. He also has taken up teaching at the Folk School, as a way of giving back to the art community that helped him discover his passion.
“What has always struck me about Murphy is that time stops here. We are literally 20 years behind everyone and that says something about us,” said Winthrow. “In the last 25 years, I never once have had to lock the front door to my home or take the keys out of my truck.”
Winthrow’s love for Murphy extends far beyond his comfort, he even asked me if I wanted to come to his art show to see the work of other Murphy artists. There is an aura about the place as if each person was feeling the same thing that he felt, a common bond amongst all those folded into the jagged mountains. When asked what this is Winthrow says it’s pretty simple:
“It’s magical here, and no, I don’t mean some type of metaphor for magic, I mean the real stuff. This place and these people are truly magical.”