Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: A Funny Story

Burnsville Walking Tour Combines History and Humor

Ann Berdeen offers tours of Burnsville. Photo courtesy of Ann Berdeen

By Lauren Stepp

In October of 2017, Ann Berdeen found herself in a predicament. The Burnsville antique store where she worked part-time was closing and there were few other local job opportunities for a self-described “woman nearing ‘over-the-hill’ status.” The technology learning curve—so steep “it’s a wonder you don’t get a nosebleed,” Berdeen quips—only made matters worse.

At a loss, the retired marketing guru strolled around town, glimpsing landmarks like the 1833 NuWray Inn and the 1939 Yancey Theatre. That’s when Berdeen realized her next career move: She was going to start offering history walking tours.

“We have a lot of history in Burnsville,” Berdeen says. “But it’s scattered, and the old-timers are dying and taking it with them.”

Determined to preserve the narratives of Burnsville’s past, Berdeen spent the next year and a half interviewing Yancey County elders. As she listened to their stories, Berdeen realized a common throughline: “Most were funny as hell.” And so, the seeds of the History & Humor Walking Tour were sown.

Today, the tour begins at Town Square. After cracking a few jokes, Berdeen explains why and how the town was named after Otway Burns—a seafaring guy who “never even set foot here.” Then, without missing a beat, the historian launches into Burnsville’s wet and wild past.

Though wholesomely picturesque today, Burnsville was once the bootlegging capital of the High Country, with 53 stills producing some 6,000 gallons of alcohol. According to Berdeen, drunks grappled in the streets and women rarely ventured out after nightfall.

“Alcohol was the cause of most murders and mayhem,” Berdeen confirms. But if you shot your neighbor in a drunken rage, there would be very serious consequences. “There were stocks on the square for minor infractions,” says Berdeen, “and hangings for major ones.”

While on the square, Berdeen also shows photos of the old jail and courthouse (both built around 1855) and explains how trials were high entertainment back then.

“People dressed up in their Sunday best and fortified themselves with moonshine for the fun to come,” she says. “In the courtroom, they’d take sides. Some would boo at court decisions while others would whistle and yay, and the inevitable fight would break out much like in today’s sporting events.”

To some, this may all sound more morose than humorous. But Berdeen is sure to temper the grimmer bits of history with side-splitting asides. (Though unwilling to share many of these hilarious anecdotes over the phone, she does rattle off a story involving a spittoon and frustrated bank teller.) Combined with a bevy of historic photos from yesteryear, these narratives make for a “heck of a good time.”

“At the end of one tour, the group—still laughing at the final story—gave me a standing ovation,” says Berdeen. “But it didn’t count because they were standing anyway.”

Of course, Berdeen does frame her whole spiel with a caveat: Memory is fickle. One old-timer might recall an occurrence quite differently from another. As Berdeen notes, “Any trial attorney will tell you how false memories can be. But you can’t let facts get in the way of a good story.”

The History & Humor Walking Tour happens on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 1 p.m. in the winter and 11 a.m. in the summer, weather permitting. Cost is $10 per person. Reservations must be made at least 24 hours prior. For more information, visit BurnsvilleTourCo.com.

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