By Bryan Mims
In the search for that perfectly fragrant, sap-seeping Christmas tree, symmetrical as a party hat and nurtured by cool mountain air, West Jefferson could well be your North Star. Fraser firs, the darling of the Tannenbaum trade, drape the hillsides and hollers of this Ashe County community like deep-pile throw rugs, beckoning minivans and SUVs on December weekends. City-dwellers navigate unfamiliar twisty roads, bound for the choose-and-cut family farms that adorn the landscape.
West Jefferson is the centerpiece town in Ashe County. With a population of about 27,000, it produces more Christmas trees than any other U.S. county. Twenty million trees are planted across 12,000 rolling acres, according to the Ashe County Christmas Tree Association. It has sent a record seven Christmas trees to the White House, most recently in 2012. This year’s tree comes from nearby Avery County. Tree farm names are as tuneful as carols: Shady Rest and Smokey Holler; Mistletoe Meadows and Frosty’s Choose and Cut.
Christmas is such a big part of the local economy that even West Jefferson’s signature summertime festival is “Christmas in July.” It’s more Fourth of July than fa-la-la-la-la, with Santa dressed in Old Glory instead of Ol’ St. Nick’s red fur and the evergreens decorated with red, white and blue tinsel.
“We’re too busy at Christmas, so we have to celebrate in July,” says Paula Harrington, manager of The Hotel Tavern, a restaurant that opened in July 2013 in the town’s second-oldest building. Harrington enthuses about life in West Jefferson, with a population of about 1,300. “Most people come up, I guess after doing their Thanksgiving, and tree farmers will put you on a tractor or trailer and take you up through the trees. How much fresher can you get than right off the hill?”
Even with so much money growing on the evergreens that wreathe West Jefferson, the town is a mosaic of hues and livelihoods, of points of interest and points of pride.
Downtown, you can get your fingers sticky from guava pastries at the Havana Café; load up on jars of mountain honey from The Honey Hole; or swig an amber ale while gnawing on chicken wings at Boondocks Brewing. The town also has become something of an art enclave, with 18 galleries and craft shops and a monthly “gallery crawl” during the warmer months, when musicians strum in the streets and art enthusiasts drift in and out of shops.
The town’s artistic streak began to take hold in 1974, when North Carolina native Ben Long painted three magnificent frescoes inside St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. The quaint church south of town is one of West Jefferson’s most popular destinations. The little sanctuary, open to the public 24 hours a day, is a soothing place to savor the solitude before getting back to the happy hustle and bustle of a West Jefferson weekend.
On Saturdays, “you’ll find it hard to get a parking space, even in January,” says Dot Green, a local real-estate agent who has benefited from sales of second homes. People from across the state have bought vacation properties in what the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce bills as “the Coolest Corner” of North Carolina. Visitor spending increased 44% over the last decade, topping $57.6 million in 2017.
“Fifteen years ago, I’d say 50% of the storefronts were vacant,” Green says. A streetscape project launched in 2010 brightened downtown’s curb appeal, encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk around. Working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the town removed all traffic lights along Jefferson Avenue and buried unsightly power lines. The project, which has garnered widespread kudos including a national infrastructure award in 2016, also enhanced downtown with fresh landscaping, street furniture, wider sidewalks and decorative lighting. “These efforts have really paid off,” Green says.
The town also takes pride in being, well, a little cheesy. West Jefferson lays claim to Ashe County Cheese, the state’s largest and oldest cheese producer. It’s located in the same spot along East Main Street where Kraft Corp. opened a cheese factory in 1930. Having consolidated several small cheese plants in the area, Kraft, now the Kraft Heinz Co., ran the operation until selling it in 1975. After changing hands several times, today the 30-employee company is owned by four individuals and churns out about 40,000 pounds of cheese every week. From a viewing room, visitors can watch as four huge vats of milk are steamed and thickened into cheese. People come by the busload, especially during peak leaf-peeping season.
Walk past the 23-foot-long steel Holstein cattle standing sentry in front of the factory and step into the store across the street, which is chock-full of the choicest cheese: Hoop cheese, cheese bricks, cheese spreads, cheese curds, sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, pepper jack – all crafted in West Jefferson. “We’re giving people the opportunity to see it and try it and buy it,” says co-owner Josh Williams. “There are not many places where you actually get to see something made, especially something you eat. Everything we do is pretty traditional. We’re still making it the way it was made many years ago.”
While it’s a charming, strong-rooted business, Ashe County Cheese is among the county’s smaller manufacturers. The top industrial player with 500 employees is American Emergency Vehicles, a unit of Milwaukee-based Rev Group, the nation’s leading maker of ambulances. AEV opened in 1990 and sells vehicles across the country and abroad. Another marquee manufacturer is GE Aviation, which makes rotating parts for commercial plane engines. It employs about 270 people at a 200,000-square-foot plant.
West Jefferson, as the name implies, sits just west of Jefferson, a town with a slightly smaller population and less distinctive business district. The Ashe County Courthouse and other government offices are clustered in Jefferson, which was designated the seat of Ashe County in 1800 and became the first U.S. town to be named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. The town’s more prosperous offshoot, West Jefferson, is 17 miles south of the Virginia state line and was incorporated in 1915. It mushroomed into a major stop along the Norfolk and Western Railway, better known as the “Virginia Creeper.”
Trains, of course, gave way to automobiles, and today U.S. 221 brings the masses to the mountains. “We have that small-town atmosphere, and people just flock to it,” says Green, the real-estate agent. The highway is undergoing a 16-mile, $154 million widening project that should make getting in and out of this small town a little easier and safer. Call it tax dollars at work, ensuring many more Decembers of Ashe County evergreens strapped to roof racks, bound for living rooms near and far.