Madison County History, Towns, and Heritage: • Madison County Overview • Town of Mars Hill, NC • Town of Marshall, NC • Town of Hot Springs, NC • Popular Culture •Traditional Music Heritage • Visual Artists
Who We Are — Our Madison County Towns & Music and Art Heritage
History and musical heritage abound in this beautiful setting just north of Asheville. The county is known for its traditional mountain music which is highlighted at several festivals during the year and every week at locations throughout. There are also artists throughout these Blue Ridge Mountains who derive their inspiration from the people and the natural surroundings. The three towns each have unique qualities. Hot Springs has one of the few natural mineral springs east of the Mississippi plus easy access to the Appalachian Trail. Marshall’s Main Street parallels the French Broad River and celebrates the old and new with its 100-year old Courthouse and influx of artists’ studios and eclectic shops. Mars Hill is home to the beautiful campus of Mars Hill University as well as the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre. These hills inspire authors to write books about the area and attract filmmakers to use the beauty as a backdrop for movies.
The County itself is rich in history from the times of the Cherokee Indians through the colonial settlers and into the Civil War. The County seat boasts a courthouse that is over 100 years old which was designed by the architect of the Biltmore House. And, when you drive out through the rural areas, there is evidence of the important role played in education, medical, and craft history. Trace its history of prosperity as a major route along the French Broad River from the time of the Drovers’ Road through the era of the Railroad.
The unique geography of the county is created by the presence of two important geographical features. The French Broad River flows through the county–flowing north. And the county sits in the midst of the Blue Ridge section of the Appalachian Mountains. We are fortunate to have approximately sixty miles of the Appalachian Trail carved across the northern portion and actually run right down the main street of the town of Hot Springs. Most of the land is part of the Pisgah National Forest attributing to the natural beauty that is such a draw to settlers and tourists alike.
The town of Mars Hill was built around the educational institution which was to become Mars Hill University. And, strolling down Main Street you can feel the influence that still permeates the small downtown area. Owen Theatre on the university campus is the home of the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre which draws theatergoers from the surrounding area. The town has a rich music history as it was the birthplace of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians.” And, just a short distance from the town and a long distance in elevation, is a ski area for winter outdoor pleasure.
The town of Marshall’s history was defined by the French Broad River. The Main Street has the river on one side and a cliff on the other. Transportation routes along the river and the subsequent railroad created a booming economy for the town in the past. The courthouse demonstrates the town’s importance as county seat and the historic Allen House sits amidst historic businesses, both exhibiting architectural beauty. The mix of the government and the eclectic art studios creates a unique atmosphere for the town. Across the bridge, Blannahassett Island provides a peaceful setting for picnics and recreational activities.
The town of Hot Springs is a jewel in the county, situated where the Appalachian Trail crosses the French Broad River. This haven for outdoor enthusiasts originally was a draw for the rich society in the 1800s because of the natural mineral springs for which the town is named. Not only does the town have natural beauty, but it also has rich music heritage as well as a place in the history of current-day Warren Wilson College in nearby Asheville. To add to that, there is fascinating history with a skirmish during the Civil War and an Internment Camp during World War I.
The county provides a beautiful setting that draws musicians, authors, photographers, and moviemakers alike to our mountains. Madison County has a rich music heritage and both ancestors of the original musicians who settled here and those drawn because of this heritage have produced CDs of traditional music. Authors are inspired to write fiction using the area as a backdrop but some write non-fiction about the history and heritage. Photojournalists find inspiration for their work in both rural and town settings. Filmmakers are also drawn to the area to use the settings and the culture as backdrops for their movies.
Music heritage is at the heart of Madison County. The ballads brought by Scots-Irish settlers were passed down through the generations and today there is still that same traditional music and clogging. In the early 1900s Cecil Sharp traveled from Great Britain to collect the music and Bascom Lamar Lunsford (a native of the county) made it his work to do the same. They found a rich tradition still alive. There are historical markers throughout the county and music venues everywhere celebrating this heritage. The movie “Songcatcher” was loosely based on the effort to collect and preserve these ballads. Stories of the musical families permeate the history of the county.
Just as authors and musicians are drawn to the county, so are artists. Madison County can trace its desire to preserve traditional craft to the 1800s but it is now so much more than that. The area is home to talented artists in all areas from painting to woodworking. Ceramic artists are delighted in the quality of the clay available and inspired by fellow artists. The natural beauty provides subject matter for photographers as well as painters. Some of the artists open their studios to the public or exhibit their work in the galleries and shops throughout the towns.