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JERE BRITTAIN: Who was Mac McGough?

Jere Brittain Jere Brittain

Travelers along future I-26 from I-240 to the Buncombe-Madison County line may have noticed the designation, Morris L. McGough Freeway.

The main indoor venue at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center is called the Mac McGough Arena. Years pass and memories fade. People are beginning to ask, “Who was Mac McGough?”
Morris L. "Mac" McGough (1922-2011) was the godfather of the rural community development movement in Western North Carolina. During the second half of the 20th century Mac created a legacy of accomplishments unmatched by any other regional leader. He used his position as Director of the Western North Carolina Community Development Association as a bully pulpit to get things done in the region. Unfazed by political or financial obstacles and with unusual skills at networking, Mac played a leadership role in creating the WNC Ag Center, the WNC Farmers’ Market, the Mountain State Fair, the Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, the North Carolina Arboretum, and even the completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. He advocated successfully for community colleges and for the UNC Asheville campus.
A less conspicuous but very important part of Mac McGough’s legacy were the scores of community centers organized in relatively isolated rural neighborhoods beginning in the 1950’s. With support from the NC Cooperative Extension Service, these centers hosted lifelong adult education activities, 4-H and Scout meetings, social and entertainment gatherings, and provided a voice in county affairs.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, several of these community centers in Henderson and Transylvania counties became deeply involved in opposition to a Tennessee Valley Authority plan to build dams and reservoirs that would have destroyed the very communities represented by the centers. These included North and South Mills River, Hoopers Creek, Crab Creek and Little River. Joanne and I had some contact with Mac McGough during this time in our role as co-chairs of the Henderson County Community Development Council. There can be little doubt that Mac was under great pressure to endorse the TVA plan along with the Upper French Broad Economic Development Commission and all elected officials with the lone exception of Charles Taylor. The fact that Mac resisted this pressure and gave us behind-the-scenes encouragement as members of the WNC Community Development Association contributed to the success of the opposition and is an unheralded part of his amazing legacy.
WNC Communities is now the umbrella organization for community centers in the region. Several centers remain active, or at least alive. Big Cove, Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, Otto, Caney Fork. Sandy Mush, Crab Creek, Pea Ridge, Thickety and Cowee are listed as “communities of promise.” Ironically, many of the old centers have become victims of their own success by incubating volunteer fire and rescue organizations. The centers that survive need to be reinvented, perhaps for cultural preservation, performing arts, and advocacy for improved internet and cell phone services in isolated areas. Finally, all these centers are monuments to Mac McGough.
My superficial search has not turned up books or other scholarly works on the history of the community development movement in WNC. It seems like an inviting topic for graduate students in social sciences.
Journeying on ...

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A sixth generation native of Mills River, Lightning columnist Jere Brittain is a retired professor of horticulture at Clemson University, a musician and songwriter and Henderson County history enthusiast who writes about life in and around Mills River.