A Place, a Name, a Reason

2015 mountain laurelby Cindy Carpenter

Every place has its story, its history. I enjoy knowing, though often can just imagine, what a place looked like in the past and what may have happened there. Place names often tell us. Sometimes they tell us what we’ve lost, such as a scene I long enjoyed while driving to town. A lovely, little stone house stood amid a tidy yard at the end of a long driveway flanked by wildflower fields. Now the house is gone, replaced by half a dozen new homes, the driveway now named “Stone House Road.” I expect everyone sees subdivisions or shopping centers named for what used to be there.

I’ve been thinking about the name of the valley where my interpretive center was built. It has quite a history as all places do, part known, part mystery. Archeologists found evidence of hearths, arrowheads and spearheads that span 5,000 years of human history. Records document settlers living in this relatively flat place in North Carolina’s mountains since the late 1700’s. They grazed cattle and raised families on subsistence farms dotting the 4-mile long valley, depending on its timber, soil and streams. They built a little schoolhouse on its southwest end.  A century later the valley was owned by George W. Vanderbilt and part of the over 100,000-acre Biltmore Estate. From 1898 to 1909 it was the outdoor practical classroom of America’s first forestry school.  So how did it get the name “Pink Beds?”

Visitors often ask this question. My answer is sometimes simple. According to a historian, “pink” is a general Anglo-Saxon word for flowers, and the valley was settled by folks of this ancestry. I don’t always stop there though, because the answer is really more complicated.

In their memoirs Vanderbilt’s two foresters wrote the name came from the abundant mountain laurel and rhododendron blooms. They likely learned this from locals in the 1890s, but maybe they both deduced that by observing the landscape. They must have not been aware of an earlier writing that credits a wildflower, downy phlox, said to have bloomed in such profusion people ventured from surrounding towns to enjoy their beauty during an era when travel was challenging. An expert on Southern Appalachian ecology and flora trusts the phlox story. He would even argue against the mountain laurel and rhododendron- “they don’t grow in beds….” Since I respect him greatly, I trust the phlox story, too, even though today I see only patches along roadsides since the forest has long reclaimed the farms.

These past few weeks though I believe the foresters’ accounts. The mountain laurel blooms have been so abundant, so full, so unbelievably beautiful that I can see how they could have inspired the name “Pink Beds.” I have been walking around in awe, snapping photo after photo, not being able to get enough of a flowery phenomenon I have never experienced, and neither have locals living here longer than my 25 plus years.

So flowers it is, despite a geologist who told me “Pink Beds” comes from the rosy quartz found here (I haven’t seen it here) and the hydrologist who claimed the name is actually from the numerous bogs the settlers called “sinks” where a rare lily, the swamp pink, blooms. Ahh…another flower.

No matter what the true origin, Pink Beds is an old romantic name for a beautiful place that captures the imagination today. Maybe where you live or work names do the same. Places with family names and land features long recognized all enrich our stories. Now if I can learn how a gap in a ridge above the Pink Beds changed from Chubb Gap shown on old maps to today’s Club Gap…

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