Heriot Clarkson & Little Switzerland in Black & White
By Ann Kernahan, March 2010
"It's so easy to sweep parts of history aside." That's what my niece told me when I revealed to her that I would be writing a local newspaper column about Judge Heriot Clarkson and the making of the town I now live in called Little Switzerland, NC. Cyndi is a Social Psychologist teaching the issues of racism and racial privilege at the University of Wisconsin. I asked her for some advice and that's what she told me.
Heriot Clarkson was the founder of our little summer colony. Raised in South Carolina, his family later moved to Charlotte when they lost their property in the Civil War. He graduated Law School at UNC, became a member of the State Legislature and the State Supreme Court. He became a powerful member of the State Democratic Party and a proponent of the "Good Roads" movement, the beginning of our state's Highway Commission.
In 1909, Clarkson rode by mule back alongside some investors to a grassy mountaintop above the Catawba River. They thought the place was breathtaking. By 1910 they had purchased 100 acres, subdivided parcels and installed a water and sewer system. The Clarkson story continues with the opening of the Switzerland Inn, the railroad station at Gillespie Gap, the building of an Episcopal Church and Kilmichael Tower, among just a few of their accomplishments.
A white supremacist, Clarkson was involved in the local "Red Shirt" campaign and there is evidence he was present at Negro hangings near the turn of the 20th century. His views could not help but impact the way his little colony was formed. Deeds in Little Switzerland today still include the now unenforceable restriction barring Blacks from owning land here.
His beliefs were common for the day. It was a time when the roles of Blacks and women were changing. Cars were replacing the old horse & buggy. The second Industrial Revolution had begun which brought about economic change and thus a change in societal roles. It's like sitting in a classroom in 2010 and trying to decide if Thomas Jefferson was still a good guy, though you just learned he owned slaves and slave mistresses. We can't judge behavior that is 100 years old by our modern values. It's not fair and it doesn't work.
However, we cannot celebrate the 100th anniversary of this town without talking about that part of its development. It was Clarkson's intention to create a "whites only" town. That was a major part of his vision for Little Switzerland.
I have lived here for 17 years. I raised my two girls here. So I feel somewhat qualified to speak about the culture of our town in 2010. Clarkson's Little Switzerland is beautiful and the residents are educated, friendly and kind. We are not a racist town. But it is possible that we are all just a bit complacent in our Shangri La. Which, if any, of Clarkson's views still exist here today? It's so easy to sweep parts of history aside.