“You owe a fair amount back to your community,” Rob Tiger ’73’s grandfather always said. His grandson was listening.
Tiger, husband of Holly Stearns Tiger ’73, is a resident of Hayesville, a town about 60 miles southwest of Cullowhee with wide mountain views and perched just north of Georgia. A Clay County native, he is the fourth-generation owner of Tiger’s Department Store on Hayesville’s town square, in business since at least 1894. For more than a decade, as a founder and organizer of the Clay County Communities Revitalization Association, Tiger has been a leader in an effort to develop the region’s economy through projects that increase quality of life for locals and attract visitors from the region and beyond.
In the mid-1990s, residents of Clay County gathered to consider possibilities to offset the county’s economic decline. CCCRA quickly coalesced: In its infancy in 1997, it had its nonprofit status by 2000. Since then, the organization has received half-a-million dollars in funding and tackled a roster of ambitious projects, many with tight budgets and advanced through volunteer help. The organization led the exterior restoration of the historic Clay County Courthouse, located on the town square, replacing windows and stripping the 1888 structure of years of paint to reveal its original two-tone brick. “No one alive could remember the original color scheme,” said Tiger, currently CCCRA president. The building now is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Working with the U.S. Forest Service and the Southern Appalachian Bicycle Association, the CCCRA helped establish the 15-mile Jackrabbit Trail system for hikers and bikers on Lake Chatuge. A long-term project, Jackrabbit opened in 2010 with trails of varied lengths and skill level and quickly became a favorite of riders in the region.
Arguably the most ambitious project to date is the outdoor Cherokee Homestead Exhibit, just a couple blocks from the center of town. The exhibit, under construction since 2007, portrays a Cherokee village from 1650 through 1750 and features to-scale replicas of a Cherokee summer house, winter house and corncrib. This is set against the backdrop of a large-scale mural with details of elements of Cherokee life and contemporary metal sculptures referencing the seven Cherokee clans and other symbols of the tribe. The organization’s members envision the outdoor Cherokee exhibit as an enhancement for local quality of life and a regional destination for visitors. Already it serves as an outdoor classroom for regional schoolchildren and was the setting for a 2011 Cherokee Heritage Festival that attracted approximately 300 people.
Realizing the expertise and resources available through his alma mater, Tiger, an anthropology major, reached out to Jane Eastman, WCU associate professor of anthropology and director of the WCU Cherokee Studies Program, for help with the exhibit. In addition to serving as a consultant since the project’s inception, Eastman and her students have helped strip and set posts for the structures, weave river cane siding onto the structures, and in the case of the winter house, pack the woven cane with mud for its wattle and daub construction.
Tiger and Eastman first began working together in 2005, when interested parties contacted Eastman about conducting a field study on the site of a planned housing development on a Hayesville archaeological site. The development never materialized, but Eastman continued working toward a broader picture of the site, a sizable Cherokee settlement inhabited as early as the 14th century, by leading students on summertime digs there. Tiger actually participated in digs in the area while he was a student at WCU, and for the past two summers his organization has helped support Eastman and her students in their work. Tiger, who in 2009 received WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award for the anthropology program, is proud of the ties his organization has cultivated with WCU. “I think it’s kind of unusual for a grassroots organization like us to be as involved with a university like this,” he said.
In fact, Tiger credits his time at WCU with fostering his love of service. As a member of Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, his volunteer activities included painting a church in Dillsboro, participating in food and clothing drives and cleaning up the Tuckaseigee River. “I wasn’t so interested in the partying and that kind of thing,” Tiger said. “We had a really focused group of people.”
The same is true today of CCCRA. “I’m kind of amazed that [the organization] hasn’t fallen apart from people overworking themselves,” Tiger said. Perhaps the results keep them going. The organization has “really made a difference in how the little town looks,” said Beverly Sanders Adkins ’65, who with her husband, John Winston Adkins ’65, are CCCRA volunteers.
Judi Jetson, Handmade in America’s director of economic development, works with 13 Western North Carolina communities with populations under 2,000; Handmade’s Small Town Revitalization Program was instrumental in helping CCCRA achieve nonprofit status. “In terms of small town leaders we have around the region, I think he’s one of the most effective in advocating with elected officials,” Jetson said. “He attracts good people to work with him. He’s very dedicated.” Tiger received a Small Towns award for leadership at a Handmade gathering in May.
As much as Tiger is tied to Hayesville and Clay County, he sees a bigger picture. “I’m hoping that what our group has been involved in will do things for the region,” he said. “I kind of don’t look at things as just for the local public consumption.”