Conservation Easements as a Tool for Preservation
The Gott’s 218-acre farm in Madison County is an icon of responsible land management and sustainability.
Peter and Polly take seriously their responsibility of stewarding the land. Being able to hand their property down to their children intact is one of their highest priorities. To do that, they decided to put their land into conservation easements with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC). The first conservation easement was completed in 2002 and protected 210 acres. The farm is now protected in its entirety; the second easement was signed on April 1st, 2011, and protects the remaining eight acres, which are adjacent to Pisgah National Forest. These conservation easements assure that the land where Peter and Polly live and raised their family will be here, relatively the same, for generations to come. “Without the conservation easements, who knows what could happen to our farm when we’re gone? said Polly. “The conservation easements ensure that nothing will happen.” The property is also within the viewshed of the Appalachian Trail and adds to the large contiguous area of protected lands in Madison County.
Newlyweds Roderick Shelton and Sarah Briggs were the first people to migrate to the rugged wilderness of Madison County, North Carolina in the late 18th century. They and their thirteen children began the community that is now called Shelton Laurel. Almost two hundred years later, Peter and Polly Gott, also newlyweds searching for land, beauty, and of course good banjo music, were drawn to the southern mountains.
Former students at Cornell University, Peter and Polly piled their possessions in their Volkswagon bug and traveled to the place on the map where the mountains looked the most rugged, right on the North Carolina and Tennessee state line, in 1961. Their plan was to buy some land, learn to farm it, and Peter would make banjos to sell in his friend’s folklore shop for money. They drove back and forth between Virginia and the Smoky Mountains for two months, looking for land and camping in farmers’ fields. One April morning they were driving over the mountain into Shelton Laurel and the grass was green, the apple trees were blooming, and it just looked so beautiful that they knew it was their place. “We wanted to find a place way back in the holler with nobody behind us, a beautiful view of the mountains, a stream big enough to turn a water wheel and at a price we could afford,” Peter explained. “We never found it.” That is, they didn’t find it until later.
The Gott’s first home in Madison County was one of Delph Kimball’s old shacks where she used to hang tobacco. When they asked how much the rent would be, she just shook her head. So they moved in with their sleeping bags and Coleman stove and stayed there for two years. Delph gave them a gallon of milk each day until they got a cow, as well as food from her garden. Eventually, they acquired an assortment of animals. When they got a horse they knew they would have to move because they didn’t have enough pasture. Peter asked a neighbor if he knew of someone he could rent pasture from. He told him, “Well, I’ve got another farm a few miles from here, its got plenty of pasture, a big house, two barns, a hog pen, chicken house, and out house; you can live there as long as you want and it won’t cost you a cent.”
After living on their neighbor’s farm for two and a half years, they bought thirty-seven acres from Lisha Shelton, a banjo player and ballad singer, and a descendent of those first pioneers of the Laurel. They paid $1,500 total, forty dollars an acre, plus a hundred dollars for a patch of fifty trees that Peter used to build their house. He had learned to build log homes using hand tools and historic methods.
“I didn’t build any more banjos after that because my neighbor asked if I’d build him a log house.” After Peter built his second log cabin, he built houses for four more people in the community. That drew the attention of several reporters who wrote articles about his work, and then people began to call him from all over the country to build their homes. Polly learned to make pottery and all types of baskets, including the impressive Adirondack traditional pack baskets. She also learned to paint, which is now her primary focus. Both took part in the job of growing, harvesting, and preserving their own food.
Eventually, their neighbor passed away and his farm came up for sale. It was exactly what they had been looking for; Pisgah National Forest surrounded it on two sides, there were abundant springs, wet coves full of wild edibles, viable soil for farming, and breathtaking views. That farm, combined with the first property they bought, became their home where they raised their two children and live today.