The Woodstock of the South
A Rock Festival’s Unmaking Of An American Town
When he was eleven years old, Andy Barker knew what he wanted to do when he grew up: build a real-life Old West town in his home state of North Carolina. When he was twenty-one and writing letters from the World War II foxholes of France, he told his mother about his plans for his “Western town,” calling it one of his “best ideas yet since I’ve gotten my new partner, the Lord.” In 1954, when he was thirty, Barker found the perfect plot of land in the Brushy Mountains just outside Statesville, North Carolina. He gave up his contracting business in Charlotte and moved his wife, Ellenora, and his two kids, Tonda and Jet, to a one-room cabin without water or power.
He called his town Love Valley.
It may have been true that Barker was just overly fond of old John Wayne flicks. But he was also a religious man with an optimistic vision of the future. In 1998, Conrad Ostwalt, a professor of religious studies at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina, published a fawning exegesis called Love Valley: An American Utopia. “Andy Barker was concerned with space disappearing,” he wrote. “For twentieth-century Americans, there is no longer an unlimited western frontier… His visions were based on the image of the pioneer, who in Barker’s mind lived in harmony with nature and neighbors and lived the heroic life of independence and freedom.”
When Barker died, in 2011, at the age of eighty-seven, he was the oldest currently serving and most tenured mayor in North Carolina’s history. There was only one time, in 1991, when Barker’s name had been on the ballot and he hadn’t been elected. Primarily, however, it was Barker who ran the place—with the notable exception of the one time he willingly abdicated his office and moved out of town entirely, in 1971, following a disastrous rock festival he’d masterminded, likely in part because the town needed a new sewer system and this seemed like a good way to raise money.
The festival was called, prophetically, the Love Valley Thing.
In Love Valley’s early years, Andy Barker was concerned with maintaining a level of perceived authenticity. However, his main reference point was always Hollywood, never history; for a while, the town’s strictest building code stated that “all main street buildings must look a century old.”
Before building his family’s permanent home, Barker built a church. It eventually joined with the North Carolina presbytery, but remained largely ecumenical. Barker’s intentions were so simple as hardly to register on any theological scale: “We can keep young boys occupied and out of trouble by letting them help run the place,” he wrote from his foxhole.
The town grew slowly in its first few decades; in the 1960s, the population hovered around seventy. Its first residents were Barker’s own parents, later joined by others enchanted by the promise of community-focused values spiked with rugged frontier individualism in the Carolina Piedmont of the twentieth century.
The surrounding Iredell County communities were agrarian, politically conservative, more traditionally religious, and a bit skeptical of Barker’s venture, but from the start he was in the business of winning them over. His flair for the occasional big to-do was a keystone in the life and health of Love Valley. Rodeos, square dances, trail rides, big Fourth of July blowouts—they all helped foster the town’s deliberate image as an epicenter of wholesome family entertainment, and they mostly helped the town’s bottom line, too. Building the town up from nothing meant having to cobble together its economic base from the same timber and shingles as its main-street buildings, and, at first, Barker’s proto–Field of Dreams-ish approach worked: he built it and they came. (They came, yes, and they did not drink: for quite some time, the town was entirely dry—even the saloon.)
But in the late ’60s the blitz slowed. A few attempts at founding vocational programs for underprivileged youth had fully tanked, a land rush staged in 1967 drew precisely zero takers, and the rodeo crowd was being slowly nudged out of town by motorcycle clubs. Barker was excited about 20th Century Fox’s plans to shoot the Civil War–era flick John Brown’s Body in and around the town in 1968—but that fell through, just like an earlier attempt to relocate the gravesite of North Carolina folk hero Tom Dula to Love Valley for no particular reason other than that the man may have walked through the general area on the way to his famed trial and hanging.
By the early summer of 1970, a rock festival seemed like one of the only things Andy Barker hadn’t given a try.