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When two worlds collide, there’s only one thing left to do: Square dance

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The evening ended with square dancing at the second annual Upper East Tennessee Fiddlers Convention on April 27 in Flag Pond, Tennessee.


By Mark Rutledge

Saturday, May 5, 2018

We made it up to Flag Pond for the Upper East Tennessee Fiddlers Convention again last weekend, and I realized a couple of things: The old school building is seeing brighter days, and square dancing is something I probably ought to do.

Flag Pond is a small community in Unicoi County that sits just below the North Carolina line atop Unaka Mountain. It's a perfect spot for two worlds to come together — the one where my daughters spent most of their lives and the one where I have lived most of mine.

Last year's visit marked the first time I'd been to Flag Pond in the nearly 20 years since I covered news in Unicoi County for the Johnson City Press.

The county's biggest story during the ’90s was the massive removal of ancient rock to carve out Interstate 26. That project further isolated Flag Pond, which sits on the old highway and had already lost its school to consolidation. Residents lobbied to preserve the building as a community center, which began a constant struggle to keep the building dry and its lights on.

I used to wind my way up to Flag Pond each spring for ramps and hornyheads (high-elevation wild onions and delectable mountain-stream sucker fish). The yearly Flag Pond Ramp Festival has been the largest gathering at the old school since it stopped being a school.

I would leave each festival a little more concerned about the future of that old school building. When I went up last year, the building's precarious condition was nearly unchanged from the last visit during the late ’90s. This year, however, the old place was showing definite signs of new life.

Rocky Fork State Park and the Upper East Tennessee Fiddlers Convention are two reasons behind the better conditions. Since Rocky Fork officially opened in 2015, state park officials have occupied temporary quarters inside the school building. The park and East Tennessee State University's Department of Appalachian Studies collaborated last year to establish the fiddlers convention.

The celebration of Appalachian musical traditions appears to be evolving as a marquee event for the old-time portion of ETSU's Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studiesprogram. It’s a marvelous way to learn about and celebrate the region's culture and music.

And it's drawing people from other regions. Some of this year’s performers were from the world where my daughters grew up.

The Green Grass Cloggers originated 360 miles east of Flag Pond, in Greenville, N.C. We lived there between 2001 and 2016 and enjoyed their performances many times during the Sunday in the Park Summer Concert Series on Greenville’s Town Common.

In Flag Pond, I finally got to meet the founder of Green Grass Cloggers, Dudley Culp. And best of all, I watched one of my daughters square dance for the first time, and she loved it. I think it’s in her blood.

Along about the same time Green Grass Cloggers started kicking, my parents were helping to form the Johnson City Grand Squares, which remains an active dance club to this day.

I never thought I would say this, but I’m experiencing an urge to do-si-do. Something about it feels like home.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.