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Mother, son die in fatal collision in Ashe County

JEFFERSON — Two passengers were killed in a two-car collision on U.S. 221 near Shatley Road on Monday, Oct. 18, according to the N.C. State Highway Patrol, who responded at 7:15 p.m.

A 2005 Honda CRV, driven by William Calhoun, 65, of Laurel Springs, was traveling south on US 221, drove left of center and collided head-on with a northbound 1988 Ford Mustang. The initial investigation indicates the driver of the Ford swerved to the left in an attempt to avoid the Honda, according to Master Trooper Jeffrey Swagger of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and Highway patrol.

Calhoun was seriously injured and transported to the hospital by medical helicopter, according to Swagger.

The driver of the Ford, Hunter Luther, 23, of Jefferson, was not injured. The front seat passenger, Harley Marie Taylor, 22, of Jefferson, succumbed to her injuries at the scene. The rear seat passenger, Bentley Taylor, 3, was transported to Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem with critical injuries, but died early Tuesday morning, Swagger said. Bentley was the child of Harley Taylor, and he was properly restrained in a car seat. Neither Luther nor Taylor was restrained by a seatbelt, according to Swagger.

Charges are pending the ongoing investigation and consultation with the Ashe County District Attorney’s Office.

A selection of champions: White House chooses Ashe County Christmas tree for the Blue Room

JEFFERSON — Christmas at the White House has been an extravagant event for years and Ashe County has been no stranger to fulfilling the First Lady’s tree selection with the finest fraser firs the country has to offer.

Peak Farms from Ashe County was selected as the winner of 2021 with a 30 year old 19 foot tree to the White House.

In previous years, Ashe County tree farmers have been chosen as the Grand Champions of the National Christmas Tree Association Tree Contest — more specifically in 2008 and 2012 when a native county tree was placed in The Blue Room of the White House for former First Ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.

This year, Rusty and son Beau Estes, owners of Peak Farms located in Jefferson, were the Grand Champions for the selection of the White House’s Blue Room Christmas Tree. The Estes clan were also the providers in 2008 and 2012 for previous presidents as well as in 2018 when a selection was made for the vice president’s residence.

Peak Creek Farms has been growing trees since 1979 and now have over 400,000 Christmas Trees growing on their farms as a multi-generational family farm operation.

The honor of presenting a Christmas Tree to the White House is earned by being named Grand Champion Grower of NCTA’s National Tree Contest, which has been going on since 1966. The tree itself must be between 18 and 19 feet tall to reach the ceiling of The Blue Room. In August of 2021, the Estes clan received the title of Grand Champion as they entered the fraser fir contest.

White House Superintendent of Grounds Dale Haney has been picking and choosing the tree since the beginning of his role, saying he was more than honored to have Ashe County represent this year’s Christmas celebration.

Executive Director of the National Christmas Tree Association Tim O’Connor opened up the ceremony praising the Estes’ farm for their beautiful trees and third title of Grand Champion.

“This is the 56th year that a member of the National Christmas Tree Association has presented the official tree to the White House,” O’Connor said. “It’s a wonderful thing that we really enjoy doing, it’s an important opportunity for the industry, it’s a wonderful partnership with the White House and we continue to appreciate and enjoy that.

“Beau and Rusty have now won this event three times. That means they’ve been an incredible National Champion Grower. This ties them with two other farms in the country that have had three trees go to the White House. This is a layered contest and is not open to the public. You first have to compete at your state or regional Christmas Tree Association and win, then moving on as the state organization enters you into the National Contest. Congratulations to Peak Farms.”

North Carolina Christmas Tree Executive Director Jennifer Greene then took to the podium to express her gratitude to the White House and Peak Farms for offering up a wonderful selection of trees.

“North Carolina is very proud to be a 14-time champion of the National Christmas Tree Association Contest,” said Greene. “That honor is credited to our hard-working, passionate and dedicated Christmas tree growers. I’m thrilled that North Carolina will once again provide a fraser fir Christmas tree for the White House. Fraser firs are native to the southern Appalachian Mountains and it represents 94 percent of the Christmas trees grown in North Carolina. As the executive director for the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, it’s my honor to be a very small part of such a large industry that contributes to the economic and agricultural success of North Carolina, while bringing smiles to children’s and families faces.”

Travis Birdsell, NC Cooperative Extension Director, then stepped up to give a brief history and congratulations to the winners of this year’s contest.

“We are gathered here to witness the selection of the perfect tree for the most famous house in the country,” Birdsell said. “We can call this a win for the home team. It takes years of hard work, time and care to get a tree ready for Christmas. It must be cared for all-year round. This tree that will be selected will be the eighth from Ashe County and the third from the Estes family. At any given moment, Ashe County could be the largest Christmas tree producing county in the entire country, with over 24 million trees in production. Our collaborative partnerships allow farmers resources to support the largest economic commodity in Ashe County. This is our community and this is indeed the coolest corner of North Carolina.”

Joe Shimel, Park Superintendent at New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, then kicked off the tree selection by introducing the Estes Family and Dale Haney.

“This is a very unique partnership that was created a few years ago and we can manage this seed orchard that you’re in,” said Shimel. “It’s been a neat opportunity to be able to work with this guys and I’m glad we can do it.”

Rusty and Beau then introduced their family, including Riley, Colin, Ann, Amanda and Katie.

“This is such a special occasion,” said Rusty Estes. “We’re blessed to get to do what we do and we’re proud to represent Ashe County and the rest of the country in presenting the tree this year to the First Lady.”

Haney then began the selection journey and led the group on a walk-through to take a look at some of their favorite trees.

After mazing through the trees and taking looks at a few possible contenders, Haney chose a 30-year-old fraser fir, standing a little more than 19 feet tall. The tree itself has a width and height desirable for the Blue Room centerpiece and both Haney and Estes said they were pleased with this year’s selection.

The tree will make its way to the White House in November.

Local conservationist surprised with Order of the Long Leaf Pine, Paddy Mountain under contract

LANSING — Ashe County resident Walter Clark has devoted much of his life to preserving many of North Carolina’s natural treasures. Now, Clark’s many contributions to the state have officially been recognized, when on the evening of Oct. 21 he was surprised with one of North Carolina’s most prestigious awards — The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

The ceremony took place as part of a Blue Ridge Conservancy event held at The Old Orchard Creek General Store, which is owned by both Clark and Johnny Burleson.

Clark was presented with the award in the presence of several state and local officials, including members of the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce, county commissioners Chuck Olive and Todd McNeill, county manager Adam Stumb, North Carolina Representative Ray Pickett and State Senator Deanna Ballard.

Also in attendance was the Chief Deputy Secretary of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Staci Meyer, who made the trip to Lansing to present Clark the award on behalf of Gov. Roy Cooper.

Clark stated that he was both surprised and honored to have received one the state’s most treasured awards.

“It was a big surprise. I can’t believe they were able to keep it a secret,” Clark said. “It’s an honor to get this. The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is probably one of the most special awards you can get in North Carolina. So, what can I say, I’m privileged.”

Through the years, Clark has worked for NCDCR where he served as the Director of the Land and Water Fund, and has also served as Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Conservancy where he worked tirelessly to preserve some of the High Country’s most iconic landscapes.

In the past Clark has played a key role in establishing the Pond Mountain Game Land, and assisted with the expansions of Grandfather Mountain and Elk Knob State Parks. Earlier this year, Clark was named Conservationist of the Year by the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.

Following the presentation the of The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, Charlie Brady, the executive director of the Blue Ridge Conservancy, took to the floor to announce that Paddy Mountain, the iconic peak that has long served as a backdrop for West Jefferson, had been preserved for the ages.

“After many years, about two weeks ago the Blue Ridge Conservancy — with the help of a lot of people in the community — were able to put Paddy Mountain, 153 acres, under contract to protect that land forever,” Brady said. “This is really a monumental accomplishment. We will close on the property approximately Dec. 10. So, at that point in time that beautiful mountain side that is completely wooded, with no homes, no buildings, will forever remain in that undisturbed way.”

Brady noted during his speech that acquiring the land on Paddy Mountain was a true community effort, with the conservancy receiving help from several sources including the town of West Jefferson, Ashe County government, Skyline-Skybest, Blue Ridge Energy Ashe County Chamber, Lifestore Bank and scores of private donors who have helped raise more than a million dollars for the project.

“It’s really an incredible story of community participation,” Brady said. “We’re working now will the county and the town, ultimately to transfer ownership so it will become public space, with public access and recreation space.”

Speaking on the protection of Paddy Mountain, Clark stated that he views Blue Ridge Conservancy’s most recent conservation victory as a win-win for everyone.

“The protection of Paddy Mountain is a game changer for West Jefferson and for Ashe County, if that mountain had been logged, or whatever, it would have been such a travesty for the town,” Clark said. “I truly believe that conservation is an economic driver for everybody, so the more that we can do the more it makes Ashe County a better place to live.”

Currently, the Blue Ridge Conservancy has protected 22,000 acres of land across the High Country. For more information about the conservancy’s work visit or call (828) 264-2511.

Habitat for Humanity sets off on new house for family

JEFFERSON — On Saturday, Oct. 23, the Ashe County Habitat for Humanity traveled up West Hickory Hill to continue working on a house for the Mullis family.

The house is set to be two stories with three bedrooms. It will contain insulated concrete walls and solar powered electricity, which makes the building three times more sustainable and efficient than a standard house.

This will be the eighth house that Habitat has built in Ashe County for those in need.

Charles Mullis and his family were on site helping with the structure of the house and said he couldn’t be happier to have been given this opportunity.

“This is something I never thought I’d get to do,” said Mullis. “It’s really opened my eyes.”

Habitat began working on the house in September and is hoping to have it done within a total of nine to 12 months.

Gerry Tygielski, treasurer of Habitat, said that he’s excited to continue working on the house for the family and that they will continue even when the weather gets rough.

Habitat meets every Saturday to work on the house.

They offer an interest-free mortgage to those who are eligible for the service and those who will own the house typically work on it along with the volunteers.

To volunteer, visit or call the Habitat office at (336) 846-2525.