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On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs

Family putting up hay, 1986, Shelton Laurel, Madison County, NC.— Tim Barnwell

“If a fellow farms hard enough to make something out of it, it’s got to be the hardest work a man’s ever done.” — Lloyd Rigsby

Acclaimed photographer and author Tim Barnwell grew up observing the traditional ways of rural farm families in western North Carolina. Church dinners-on-the grounds, country stores and mule-drawn plows were still part of daily life in the 1950s and 1960s.

By the late 1970s, Barnwell realized this traditional way of life was fading away as fast as farms were declining in number. He focused his lens on documenting this disappearing lifestyle for the next quarter century. His timeless images appear in On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs, opening Friday, April 3, at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. On view through Oct. 4, the traveling exhibit is based on Barnwell’s book of the same title (W.W. Norton, 2007). Admission is free.

“These photographs provide a window to the beauty and the brutal reality of farm life in a region long isolated from the rest of the state by the Appalachian Mountains,” says RoAnn Bishop, curator of agriculture, industry and economic life. “They chronicle a time when people still eked out a living from the land by practicing ways of work and worship handed down through generations.”

Captured in black and white, images in On Earth’s Furrowed Brow range from farms nestled in valleys to a woman proudly displaying garden produce. Here are the weathered faces of farmers tilling fields, the smiling eyes of a Cherokee blowgun maker, the studied gaze of a fiddler, and the wrinkled hands of a woman shelling beans for perhaps the millionth time.

To further preserve the past, Barnwell recorded interviews with some of the mountain residents he photographed. Most exhibit images feature quotes from these interviews, words that express the joys and challenges of these hardworking and self-reliant individuals.

Plato Worley of Shelton Laurel recalls growing up in a large family, “We had so much to do, and carving out a living was from one day to the next. We made everything we needed ourselves.”

A.J. Plemmons of Big Sandy Mush describes contentment, found even in old age, from living close to the earth. “Uncle Toney is 99 years old . . . and still setting out apple trees and grapevines. Gosh, it takes five or six years for them to produce, but he looks forward to that, you know.”

Of course, the men and women tell of changes, such as high-tech industries and housing developments, that have altered their landscape and lives. One resident laments that most people don’t know how to grow a garden anymore. To help visitors better understand farm life before these changes, On Earth’s Furrowed Brow features a dozen artifacts that include a handmade quilt and a pitchfork. Since smells evoke strong memories (or create new ones), a hands-on interactive gives visitors a whiff of some mountain farm commodities, such as Christmas trees, cured tobacco, ripe apples and sorghum molasses.

Plan to see this exhibit curated by the Asheville-based photographer, who has spent decades traveling the back roads of western North Carolina to preserve a lifestyle steadily slipping away. As Barnwell notes in his book’s introduction, “I am amazed by these people who have seen hardship and drawn strength from their adversities, and I am captivated by a way of life that has endured.”

Brief Biography of Tim Barnwel

Barnwell is a commercial and fine art photographer, whose career has spanned more than 25 years as both a professional photographer and a photography instructor. His images have been widely published in dozens of magazines, including Time and Newsweek. Barnwell’s prints are in permanent collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta and the SoHo Photo Gallery in New York.

His images of Appalachian life appear in a second book, The Face of Appalachia: Portraits from the Mountain Farm. A third book, Hands in Harmony, which focuses on traditional Appalachian music and handicrafts, is due out this fall.
For more information, call 919-807-7900 or access ncmuseumofhistory.org. The museum is located at 5 E. Edenton St., across from the State Capitol. Parking is available in the lot across Wilmington Street. The museum is part of the Division of State History Museums, Office of Archives and History, an agency of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, http://www.ncculture.com.

North Carolina’s Vanishing Farmland
Between 2002 and 2007, North Carolina lost more than 1,000 farms and 600,000 acres of farmland, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

As high-priced housing developments and high-tech industries move into western North Carolina, rising property values and resulting higher taxes are threatening family farms at an unprecedented rate. These changes are making it harder for farmers to hold onto their land, their lifestyle and their livelihood.

More information from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services about North Carolina’s loss of farmland and the agency’s efforts to save it is available in the exhibit On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs.