A Cullowhee native digs in to restore her family’s farm and reclaim her heritage

By JILL INGRAM MA ’08

Growing up in Cullowhee’s Tilley Creek community, Vera Holland Guise MPA ’91 longed to leave home. “I was one of those little mountain girls who couldn’t wait to get away from here,” recalls Guise, who at 25 settled near Asheville. Married and raising four children, Guise made regular trips to Cullowhee to visit her parents, and it was after the death of her mother that she began to feel a tug. “I had been in the same house in Arden for 25 years, and I started to feel like I didn’t belong there,” Guise said. “I felt like it was calling to me, and I needed to come back home.” So she packed it in, returning to Cullowhee in 2002.

Vera Holland Guise ’91 shows Malcolm Newsome how to plant
corn at Appalachian Homestead Farm and Preserve in April.

The move allowed her the opportunity, along with her husband, Don, to care for her father, the late Claude Holland, a WCU cafeteria employee in the 1970s, in the last years of his life. It also presented Guise with a cause: to restore a historic family farming homestead dating back nearly 200 years. The original homestead, on the line between Jackson and Macon counties, was on land once held as hunting grounds by the Cherokee Indians. The state acquired it by treaty in the 1800s and subsequently granted it to Guise’s ancestors, the Adams and Bennett families. In 1835, Guise’s great-great-great-grandparents, John and Cynthia Bennett, built a cabin there, raising 12 children. Then 225 acres of land, it stayed in the family for generations, but by the middle of the 20th century, in bits and pieces, it had largely fallen from family hands. According to Guise, the last parcel was sold in 1952 for $300 and a cow.

In 2005, with a $250,000 grant, Guise orchestrated the purchase of a 52-acre parcel of the original homestead. (Two years later, the Guises added another 14 acres slated for condominiums.) The farm, adjoining National Forest Service land and remarkably unspoiled, includes the chimney – still standing – where Bennett built his cabin, and a portion of a chestnut log barn. Named the Appalachian Homestead Farm and Preserve, the entity operates as a nonprofit with the mission of re-establishing the land as a traditional working farm and inspiring, by example, the preservation of mountain farmsteads, landscapes and culture. Now in its fourth season, the farm operates on sustainable practices, and the Guises and a team of volunteers have reclaimed and replanted fields with fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers made available to area residents through a limited number of farm-shares. Conservation easements with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee ensure that the farm will never be developed and that the headwater streams and plant and animal habitat are protected. With help from Catch the Spirit of Appalachia Inc., the farm hosts annual summer day camps for children focused on gardening, heritage arts and outdoor education.

WCU art students painted the farm’s vegetable markers (top)
and a rendering (bottom) of the land in the 1800s, when Guise’s
ancestors settled and built a cabin there.

As president and founder of Appalachian Homestead Farm and Preserve, Guise – experienced in community organization around such issues as mental health, aging and Alzheimer’s disease, and natural resource conservation – works tirelessly to re-establish the farm while remaining committed to its role as a place to learn. One morning in mid-April found her in a field, hat on head, hoe in hand, teaching a family of home-schooled children how to plant corn. “She puts a lot of heart and soul into everything she does for the farm,” said Krista Robb, former resident manager at the farm and a parks and recreation management major at WCU. “She is so determined to make this farm into her dream of what it could be.” Robb met Guise through an Appalachian studies class, which led to the yearlong manager’s position. Her responsibilities included caring for livestock, pruning fruit trees and tending the gardens, and for Robb, who plans to graduate in August and wants her own farm, the residence was instrumental. “I’ve learned a lot that I can take with me and keep building on,” she said.

While most don’t gain Robb’s depth of experience, WCU students are a big presence at the farm – it’s among the most popular of the university’s more than 100 community agency partners, said Jennifer Cooper, interim director of WCU’s Center for Service Learning. Part of the attraction is the farm’s proximity to campus (a mere four miles), its availability (volunteers are welcome Saturdays and throughout the week) and its flexibility. As Robb puts it, Guise welcomes “anyone who wants to get their hands dirty,” from individual students to groups, across curriculums and interests and for projects that take a few hours or a semester. Beyond that, “Vera is just very personable and enthusiastic and devoted to what they do at the farm. She’s good to work with in that sense,” Cooper said. “She always takes the time to orient the students so they know why they’re up there and how what they’re doing fits in with the mission of her agency.” WCU contributions at the farm include a GIS mapping and a forest management plan by geosciences and natural resources students, garden art and summer camp instruction by art students and faculty, hikes led by faculty botanists and dozens of hours from members of fraternities, Sigma Chi in particular, toward setting fence posts and cutting trails. The Guises share a reciprocal commitment to the university. She is a visiting professor in undergraduate studies and a fellow with the Coulter Faculty Commons. He works part time as a driver for Cat-Tran, the campus shuttle service.

Guise has a simple perspective on the farm’s attraction to students: “We praise them and we feed them,” she said. But digging deeper, as farmers will, she believes students are drawn to the farm’s history, natural setting and mission. “They understand the long-term project we’re trying to build here,” she said. “They’re proud of being a part of that.”