The Coroner Takes a Ride: Prologue

When I took the chief’s job at the West Hepzibah Police Department – 21 years ago – I spent some time looking at town and road maps of the area to get the lay of the land, so to speak. I reasoned if there was a West Hepzibah there must be an east equivalent – maybe even a north and south. In fact, where in hell was Hepzibah proper?

Everett Hartsell set me straight. He was 62 then –20 years older than I at the time. He knew everything about everything – and everyone – it seemed to me. Amazingly, neither he, nor his wife Jane, was a gossip. He was the county coroner and had survived every election challenge for so long that he ran unopposed most of the time. Jane was a couple of years away from retirement as principle of the East Sykes middle school. Between them, I am sure they knew all of the town’s betrayals and selfless loyalties – all deeds scandalous and laudable – but they kept their own counsel.

 I latched onto Everett as a mentor almost immediately, to help me understand all things West Hepzibah. Margot and I became friends with Everett and Jane. They loved to play cards, and we occasionally went to their big house on Upper Linwood Avenue – they had better hosting facilities than we did at that time – for a few games of pitch. We mixed and matched our playing partners, had great conversations and learned a lot about our new hometown.

 Everett and I would frequently meet at Nelly’s downtown for coffee. I brought up the question of Hepzibah’s whereabouts during one of these breaks. Everett laughed, then said, “Come with me.”

 He led me to his pickup truck outside, and we headed out of town. Up Main Street, left on Linwood Avenue, and then a couple of miles up the hill until Linwood turned into Foster Mountain Road – a two lane black top not particularly distinguishable for anything but a nice view of the Brushy Mountains to the east, and the ramp of the Blue Ridge to the north. In another two miles or so, the blacktop road narrowed. Maintenance was spotty. The shoulders were crumbled and potholes more frequent. We passed several mobile homes. They weren’t arranged in the rows and columns of a conventional trailer park. Many were in small clan-like groupings that suggested family compounds. At some point we passed a sign that marked the entrance to North Carolina Game Lands, and a couple of miles beyond that, we came to a crossroads. Everett turned left onto the gravel road intersection, and parked his truck. “Here we are,” he said.

The remains of an old gas station were on one side of the road. A Sinclair gasoline sign was hanging by one chain and swung in the light breeze. A pump island was still there, but the pumps were gone. Weeds grew up through cracked and broken paved sections around the station, and most of the windows were shattered or missing. The stone foundations of a half dozen other structures clustered around the crossroads. Over one of the larger ones, a lone chimney stood above the remains of whatever it warmed at one time. Cater-cornered from the gas station on the other side of the crossroads was an abandoned church – a framed derelict missing most of the windows and doors and much of the siding. A sign had been spared. It hung on the skeleton of the church next to the front steps. The primitive lettering ‘Hepzibah Baptist Church’ was faint, but still legible.

There were blackened spots dotting the landscape here and there. Some on bare ground; some on whatever paved sections still existed. They looked like the remains of old campfires, with dark ashes, and partially burnt sticks and pieces of scrap lumber. Bottles and cans were strewn everywhere and broken glass littered the area. I looked to Everett for an explanation. He told me the story:

Colonel Jonathan Foster got out of the Confederate Army toward the end of the Civil War. His own little piece of that army had dissolved around him somewhere in Virginia shortly before Appomattox. He and many of his men – yeoman farmers – were reluctant combatants. They knew well what North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance meant when he characterized the conflict as “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” Foster headed back to claim the plot of land in the North Carolina mountains that his family had owned for generations. He married Hepzibah Bennett – the daughter of a Charlotte businessman – to help him run it. They raised two sons.

He found a promising seam of granite and used it for the foundation of the large house he built – then decided to make a go of the quarry, and hired workers. He timbered the land and planted tobacco. A settlement grew around him and he opened a small store. A church was built, but the region was sparsely populated, poor, and poorly defined – as were many North Carolina counties at that time. Foster named his little outpost Hepzibah and lobbied for its designation as the county seat of Foster County. The state legislature didn’t grant it.

His enclave gradually disbanded, even as his army of farmers had. The winters were harsh, the tobacco migrated to lower sections of the Piedmont and granite was found in Mount Airy.The road builders preferred the land below and to the west of him. A West Hepzibah began to grow and prosper. His wife, in what might have been a final indignity, moved away from her namesake town to a fine house in West Hepzibah and began efforts to improve the cultural climate there. Foster stubbornly clung to his mountain.

He set out one day to plead his case, yet again, to the legislature. His apparent intention was to ride to Morganton and make his way by rail to Raleigh. His horse returned the next day, but he did not. The remaining settlers, with an occasional reinforcement, clung to the site for a few more years as automobiles improved accessibility, but all eventually moved to more promising locations. The not-quite town became a collection of tumble-downs, furnishing fuel for the campfires of hunters and hikers. Locals scavenged the quarry for their own projects, until even that was too much trouble. Two boys drowned in the water that collected in the bottom of the quarry and a gate was put across the single road leading in. Hepzibah vanished from the maps.

Chuck Thurston

 

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