Monday, July 2, 2007

Balsam Hatchery Menagerie

For anyone driving along Highway 74 near Balsam Gap, the old place hardly merits a second look. But people still recall when the Balsam Hatchery was a favorite destination for a Sunday outing.

In 1919, the state purchased 12 acres of land and began work on what was called a “rearing station.” In the 1930s the Works Project Administration provided the labor for constructing concrete raceways and ponds.

Canton, NC native Fred Chappell alluded to those days in a poem entitled “My Grandmother Washes Her Vessels”:

“Wasn’t Grandaddy a good carpenter?”

She nodded absentminded. “He was fine,
Built churches, houses, barns in seven counties,
Built the old hatchery on Balsam…"

Paul Pittman of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission wrote about the old Balsam Hatchery in a 2005 article (with photos). He spoke with Gordon Smathers, who had worked at the hatchery and lived nearby for most of his life. Smathers recalled that the site was as much a zoo as hatchery, containing two monkeys (named Herbert and Joe), a mountain lion, deer, prairie dogs and snakes. A black bear kept at the hatchery was the first known bear in the region to have a cub in captivity.

Pittman related that visitors to the hatchery were tempted to snag a trout or two from raceways of the facility:

“One enterprising boy had a fish line rigged inside his pants running down and out the bottom of his pants leg. Baited with a red worm, he would put his foot up on the raceway, dangle his lure in the water and pull a fat rainbow up his britches leg! This worked fine until a hatchery worker noticed the boy’s leg twitching uncontrollably.”

Countless times, I passed by the towering hemlock and Norway spruce that surrounded the site, but never turned in to explore the hatchery. Too late now. Though it's still owned by the state, it ceased operation as a hatchery in 1983.

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