Robinson Creek – Family, legacy, mountain coves and memories

Photo by Courtland White

In the northwest corner of Buncombe County, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) has been working for decades to preserve a network of protected farmland and forests for future generations. Families with long-standing history in the area have spent generations loving, working, stewarding and being sustained by the land. They feel a sense of commitment to the land because it connects them with the people that they love, and we are grateful they have partnered with SAHC in permanently protecting this special place.

This year, Fred and Donna Pratt worked with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to protect 82 acres of land in Sandy Mush through a conservation easement. Fred inherited the land from a much larger tract his grandfather once owned – much of which has already been protected by his uncle and aunts – Bill and Mabel Duckett, and Myrtle Duckett. The tract connects to SAHC’s Robinson Rough Preserve and other conserved lands, helping to secure an unfragmented landscape in this beautiful corner of the county.

Photo by Michael Fredericks

“As you get more generations in the same family, the land tends to be split up and sold off,” observes Fred. “I think that it’s great work that SAHC is doing. It had to be a pretty good organization for my uncle [Bill Duckett] to get involved; there had to be trust and understanding built before he conserved his property. My uncle was one of my best friends. He’d talk with me about a lot of things, and that was one of the things we talked about – the conservancy and protecting the land.”

The recently protected tract contains a portion of the main branch of Robinson Creek and one of its headwater tributaries. Robinson Creek flows into Sandymush Creek, a tributary of the French Broad River.

“Establishing connections among conservation lands is a critical factor in protecting watersheds and wildlife habitat,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “The ridgelines along Sandymush Bald and Little Sandymush Bald, and the mountainsides and coves laying in their shadow, exemplify SAHC’s dedication to securing these connections. The Robinson Creek property is part of over 1,800 acres of protection there, including conservation easements completed with Bill & Mabel Duckett and Myrtle Duckett. Our work in this landscape expands on the impressive Duckett and Pratt family legacy of conservation, and I am personally proud to be a part of it.”

Photo by Michael Fredericks

Although all of this 82-acre property is wooded, with some steep areas, it was once part of a family farm totaling several hundred acres which provided sustenance and livelihood for the Duckett family. Fred fondly remembers his experiences working on the farm with his grandfather and uncle. He plans to keep the property in the family and pass it on to someone else, but is glad that the conservation easement means it will remain protected in the future.

“Conserving the beautiful Robinson Creek property in Sandy Mush adds to the contiguous protected landscape of the Sandy Mush Community and helps to further Buncombe County’s Land Conservation Goal of protecting 20% of Buncombe County by 2030,” says Ariel Zijp, Soil and Water Conservation Farmland Preservation Manager.

The landowners donated a portion of the value of the conservation easement to accomplish permanent conservation of the land, and SAHC was awarded a grant from Buncombe County to cover a portion of the transaction costs. We are grateful to all of our members and philanthropic leaders for helping to secure another important piece of this landscape!

Connection to Farming and Family – Landowner Perspective: Fred Pratt

Fred says that preserving his family’s legacy was one reason he wanted to do a conservation easement with SAHC. The other reason, he adds, is that “Here in Buncombe County there is a lot of pressure on landowners, particularly farmland owners, to sell for development, and I think we should try to save some of that property so it’s not all built on.”

Fred recalls how connected he felt to the land because of frequent experiences visiting his grandparents’ farm and home place, although he mostly grew up in the Oakley community east of downtown Asheville close to where his father and mother both taught school.

“My grandfather farmed for a living, and my uncle Bill Duckett was the same way – he loved it,” remembers Fred. “They grew tobacco, corn, beef cattle, and hay. Their cash crops were mostly beef cattle and tobacco, but they were pretty well self-sufficient. They always had a garden for produce and would put up all kinds of beans, corn, and stuff from the garden. They had chickens for eggs and meat, milk cows, and a couple of hogs. The old house where my grandparents lived didn’t have a bathroom in it for most of their lives; they always had an outhouse. My grandmother cooked on a wood cookstove and used the old ringer type washing machine to wash clothes. They would go to the store for flour, sugar and coffee, and there was a store at the junction of Ball Creek and Willow Creek where people would bring their corn once a week to grind into corn meal.”

“As a little boy, I remember grandfather and Bill driving cattle from around where they lived up Robinson Cove to where they could go on up the mountain, to Sandy Mush Bald, so the cattle could eat the grass on the mountain,” recalls Fred.  “They went up every week or so to check on them. They’d carry up salt – the cattle loved the salt – and call them in to check them over and treat any illness or injury, and make sure they were all there. It was a good day when they would all come when you called. But if not, you’d have to go and find them – there might have been two or three that became separated from the rest, and you’d have to walk all over those 200+ acres until you found them.”

Fred helped on many occasions. His legs weren’t as long as his uncle’s and grandfather’s, and when hunting for lost cattle he remembers it felt like “they walked me to death.”

As the oldest grandchild, Fred admits his grandparents “spoiled me a bit.”

“I’d go out there and stay, and even stayed all one summer with them,” he remembers. “I thought it was wonderful and that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. Then I realized what I thought was fun at the time was really hard, hard work – and I went a different direction with my career. But we had regular family gatherings out there. When my grandparents were still healthy we would go out every Sunday afternoon to have a meal and sit out on the big porch, talking and enjoying the visit.”

“Farming was a hard way to make a living,” says Fred. “But 60 years ago or so things moved more slowly. It was hard work, but at the end of the day you could see what you had accomplished. I enjoy talking about the property out there and the family, keeping those memories and feelings alive.  Honoring them, that history, that legacy is important.”