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The Overlooked History Of Women In Western North Carolina

Photo of women's history trail in Western NC, cutting through red tape and blazing new trails.
Courtesy of Karen Lawrence
Women's history trail in Western NC, cutting through red tape and blazing new trails.

A new women’s history trail in Franklin, North Carolina highlights the overlooked stories of entrepreneurial women in the western part of the state. The trail celebrates both individual women and women’s organizations, like the Main Street Milliners: a group of hat-makers and business owners who worked in Franklin in the 19th and early 20th centuries — a time when women rarely owned businesses. 

Host Frank Stasio talks to Lilly Knoepp about the opening of the women’s history trail, which is the first of its kind in North Carolina. Knoepp is a reporter who covers Western North Carolina at Blue Ridge Public Radio.

Stasio also learns about some of the stories of the history trail from Barbara McRae and Mary Polanski. They are the co-leaders of the project. McRae is the vice mayor of Franklin and has been writing columns about the history of Macon County since the 1970s. Polanski is a board member of the Folk Heritage Association of Macon County, North Carolina.


Knoepp on her favorite part of the women’s history trail:

Knowing the role that women had in business in the 19th century — that's something that people don't really talk about … The local general store, which used to be in the Macon County Historical Museum — a woman ran the store. Running the accounts is running the store. And you can talk about her husband being in charge of it all day long, but it's really wonderful to hear the important roles that women played. And that's something that we don't get to highlight very much, especially not in Western North Carolina.

I'm from Franklin, and I learned a lot that I did not know that is all just right in downtown Franklin. - Lilly Knoepp

Franklin on her proposal to put her house on the National Register of Historic Places because it was once owned by Arrah Belle Johnson, the first female editor and publisher of the Franklin Press:

[The study committee] turned it down. The reason — I learned later — was that [Johnson] is not listed in the book “Women of North Carolina.” And the woman who told me that explained it to me. She said: No women in Western North Carolina — from Asheville west — were in that book. And I was just horrified. And I thought: Well, we just have to change that … I wasn't quite up to writing my own book, but a friend of mine gave me a book about women's historical sites, which included a chapter on women's history trails. And when I read that I thought: This is the answer. This is how we'll do it.

Polanski on the focus on inclusivity in designing the women’s history trail:

Making sure we stay connected to the significant history there of the Native Americans  — that is a priority. But also these smaller numbers of the African-American women bring forth stories that Barbara has helped us know that create a sense of connectedness — not only between the Cherokee women and then the white settler women, but those lives that were bridged by the commitment that the slaves had to the sustenance of life: taking care of children, the work of survival on the farm. And those lives were all connected.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.