'Growing Up on Hazel Creek' uncovers an old-fashioned way of living

By Shelby Harrell | Feb 15, 2017
Photo by: Donated photo Lee Woods, 70, of Waynesville holds up her book, "Growing Up in Hazel Creek."

As the old saying goes, “a picture’s worth 1,000 words,” but for Waynesville resident Lee Woods, her family photos mean a whole lot more.

Since 1974, Woods has been passionate about to collecting more than 1,000 pictures that document the history of the thriving communities that once existed on the north shore of Fontana Lake, dating back from 1800-1944.

The book is a look back through pictures and short stories of the life and the times of the people from Hazel Creek and the Fontana Basin area before the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) started the Fontana Dam Project.

Due to this project, more than 12 communities of the area were forced to leave their life behind to make room for the Fontana Dam.

For Woods, these lost communities reflect the lifestyle of her parents and ancestors dating back 100 years.

“It goes back five generations,” said Woods, referring to her family, the Cables. “This is all we have left of Hazel Creek.”

Her family roots and more have been compiled into a book recently published called “Growing Up on Hazel Creek,” which Woods treasures as the only memories she has of her family's small town way of life that vanished in 1944.

The area once known as Hazel Creek is now a part of the Great Smokies National Park, and the nearly 1,200 graves that were relocated to Bryson City as a result of the dam are now all maintained by the park service.

There was a time when this wasn’t the case, Woods said. From 1944-1976, there was no maintenance of the graves at all.

“The ones that were going to be under water were moved to Lauada Cemetery in Bryson City,” Woods said. “But there were 26 (cemeteries) left — they left the ones that were above high water.”

This changed when The North Shore Cemetery Association was formed in 1977. The association is a non-profit group organized for the purpose of preserving the graveyards and general history of the Fontana Basin.

Flooding Fontana

Lee’s mother, Helen Cable Vance, is still alive and lives in Sylva at age 90. Vance can remember her days growing up in Hazel Creek’s small town known as Proctor, and she remembers leaving it behind when she was 17-years-old.

Woods said her mom remembered rumors of a Fontana Dam being created, but originally everyone thought the dam was going to be small. Then World War II happened, and after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, they started clearing the area to make for the dam in 1942.

“They knew they would need a larger dam to power Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” Woods said, referring to the nuclear energy research facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The Hazel Creek families were asked to leave in March of 1944, and were told they were being patriotic and helping with the war effort by relocating. These families from Swain County were forced to move into the Bryson City, Haywood County and other states so their hometowns could be flooded with water.

“Today that would be like saying you’re gonna flood half of Haywood County,” Woods said. “They were chopping it in half — that was half of their tax base and half of their revenue.”

Many families migrated to Haywood County and are still living in the Haywood area. Some of the family names hailing from Hazel Creek include the Laney’s, Chandlers, Hall, Rhinehart, Oliver, Cables, Marcus, Hicks, Cantrell, Calhouns, Birchfields, Jones, Myers, Maynor, Herron and more.

“There aren’t but about 20 people left who were born in that area,” Woods said, referring to those remaining Haywood residents. “The book is just a small glimpse of back then, and a way to preserve what was in there and not forget the sacrifices that the people made. They had given up their life.

“It’s a way of visualizing where my mom and dad were born,” Woods added. “This was where my family lived for 100 years. This way I can picture it and hang onto it, and to give my kids and grandkids a look at what it was like.”

Both of Woods’ parents, Helen Cable Vance and Harry Vance relocated to Sylva after leaving their hometown of Proctor in 1944. It was in Sylva that the two of them met, and shared their life together.

A labor of love

Woods admitted that working on this book for years had been a pleasure and she learned so much about the Hazel Creek history from other families who shared photos and stories for the book.

“I wanted to get it done before something happened to my mom,” Woods said about Helen. “We weren't going to forget Hazel Creek.”

The completed 644 page book was officially published last year, and Woods is selling copies to anyone who is interested. Her first order has sold out quicker than expected, and she is waiting for a second order to come in.

For more information on the book, call Lee Woods at 828-421-1332 or 828-456-3298.