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Saving Seeds, Saving Stories: Sowing a New Generation of Growers: Jim Barlow


Jim Barlow's family has been in Ashe County since the Revolutionary War. His great-great grandmother was Katie Cox Hardin. “Her father was John Cox, who was one of the first commissioners here in the county. He was the captain of the militia in Prince William County, Virginia.” He sent Katie to France during the Revolution.

“When she came back home, she met and fell in love with a guy named Henry Hardin. [… Captain Cox] refused them [to get married], so they did what people do. They got on horses and they eloped and rode south. When he found out they were gone, he mustered his cavalry and chased them down, and he caught them out here at Beaver Creek. As a young boy, he had been captured by the Delaware Indians in Lancaster, [Pennsylvania …]. He saw some terrible things and that affected him. This was Indian country, at that time. [...] He and Henry made a deal that if Henry would not take Katie any farther into Indian territory, then he would buy them some land and he would move here, too. His grave is over on Cranberry Creek […], and Henry and Katie are buried in the cemetery next to my home out at Beaver Creek.”

Jim grew up in Ashe County, was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War, and worked elsewhere as a banker until he retired. Jim moved back to Ashe County after retirement, and now that he has some extra time, he spends much of the growing season farming heirloom vegetables and trying to save seeds. Jim and his wife, Cathy, grow and enjoy a wide variety of beans, and Jim describes several of their favorites, as well as his preferred methods for drying beans.

“You can’t make a living at farming, but [...] it keeps us out and doing. […] We can [our vegetables] and preserve and dry. We’ve got a building where we dry beans. We leather them, leather britches. [...] We had leathers for supper last night. […] A bean that we have thoroughly enjoyed is the Scarlet Runner.” 

One of Cathy’s friends, Clara Fletcher from the Idlewild area, gave them six Scarlet Runner seeds that she had gotten from the Harris Lemly farm. They began saving these seeds in about 2010, shortly after Jim retired. He describes it as a big bean with beautiful red blossoms.

“We planted them down close to the road where I had a fence section up and they ran on that, and we gathered them and saved [the seed]. Then several years ago, we had probably two rows 75-foot long of those beans. They're just absolutely wonderful beans. They're very earthy and got a big, huge hull on them, and so you have to let them kind of dry on the vine.” According to Jim, this is not the only way to dry them. They have a utility building with racks, which gets really hot in the summertime. They string them and break them and put them on the racks. Jim has a fan in the building that stirs the air and keeps it from getting too humid in the summer, but he says you don’t have to have a fan. “Cathy’s daddy [...] had an old Rambler car, and he’d put them up in the back where the sun would come in, and they would dry just fine back there.”

Jim also loves the story behind and the taste of Turkey Craw beans.

“Turkey Craws are absolutely wonderful. [...] Somebody in the North Carolina-Tennessee-Virginia area, which is obviously right here, was hunting, and they killed a turkey. When they were butchering the turkey, they cut its craw open and they found some bean seed in there. They saved those seeds and they planted them the next spring, and it developed into what was called the Turkey Craw bean. […] It’s a bigger bean, it’s a bigger hull, and you string and break them just like a regular green bean.”

Jim goes on to explain their family connection to the Cherry bean. “Cathy’s mom and daddy always grew those beans, and they saved them. It’s a dark brown bean, and you cook them fresh. But it’s a late bean. It doesn’t come in until on up in the summer or early fall. [It’s got a] white hull. That’s why they call them white hull beans. [...] But I think the real official name is Cherry bean. They’re very good, but you have to eat them fresh and they’re only at the end of the season.” At one time, Jim lost the Cherry bean seeds, but he was able to get more from Ralph Reeves, one of his Shriner brothers. 

Like many others in Ashe County, Jim also grows pink tips. “David Grubb gave me half a medicine bottle worth of pink tips, and we’re still growing off that half a medicine bottle full. They’re wonderful. [...] It’s a white bean with pink tips. That’s why they call it a pink tip bean. It’s milder. [...] It’s kind of different than some of the others.” 

The Greasy Back beans he grows have a local connection as well. “I got my Greasy Back beans from G. C. Green, at W.J. Hardware. […] It’s like a half runner, and we love them. My mama always wanted to get the last mess of half runners. [...] Greasy Backs are like that from the start of the season and it’s got a bigger bean in it. They’re kind of bumpy, and then the backs, it looks greasy.”

Jim continues to share the origins of the many types of beans he has gathered and grown over the years. “I got Spotted Eye beans from Barry Goodman. […] And Brenda [Powers] down at Used To Be Buster’s Produce, [...] she gave me some Case Knife beans, which is a really good bean. They leather really well because they’ve got a big heavy [hull]. And they look like a Case knife. Another seed that we got from online, which I thought was very interesting, is the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean. It’s a black bean, [... and] you just let them dry on the vine and then you collect them and shell them out. You can take a lot of beans, it was not very heavy. It’s just like a Mexican black bean or very similar to it. It’s a little bean.”

In addition to beans, Jim also has grown black raspberries in the past. “I didn’t spray them as I should have, and consequently, they got an orange rust, and it goes to the root of the plant. So I had to take all those down. I’m getting too old. That’s hard work, because it’s a two-year process, and you have to go and cut the old cane. […] Somehow the wild blackberries will tend, if they’re in the same vicinity as the other blackberries, the rust comes off of them and they’re immune to it.” 

According to Jim, one of the wonderful things about heirlooms is knowing exactly where your seed comes from.

“You don’t have to worry about any genetic modifications or anything like that. If you buy from the store, you assume that everything is okay, but you don’t really know.” 

Jim’s knowledge of local and heirloom beans is extensive, and the memories that accompany each bean—whether a simple acknowledgement of who shared it or a personal memory of how it was preserved or eaten—remind us how important food is to the stories of our lives. As Jim continues to grow and share seeds with family and friends, new memories and connections are made, heirlooms are preserved, and everyone benefits.

Interview with Jim Barlow by Brenda Smith 2/9/2023

Jim Barlow's Interview Transcript



This project is funded in part by a grant from South Arts’ In These Mountains, Central Appalachian Folk Arts and Culture initiative.

Photographer: Jay Wild

Interviewer: Brenda Smith