Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

Panhandle Pete

Panhandle Pete blew, plucked, picked, elbowed and kicked his way into Haywood County musical history as a one-man band carrying around his 104-pound instruments that were strapped onto his body.

Born in 1913 in Buncombe County, James Howard Nash adopted the stage name “Panhandle Pete” as his one-man band persona gained a reputation. Panhandle Pete combined 14 instruments and gadgets on a backpack-like system that included cow bells, cymbals, a tambourine, a banjo, a kazoo, harmonicas, a garden hose, a bicycle horn, a car horn, an exhaust whistle, a
train whistle and a bass drum.

A self-proclaimed “Poor Man’s Philharmonic,” Pete played at area festivals and made appearances on TV programs such as “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Part musician, part comedian, Pete was an unforgettable entertainer who performed in 33 states and recorded several albums of old-fashioned ballads for the U.S. Library of Congress.

By 1961, Pete took a job as the director of the Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, N.C., and over the next decade performed three or four shows a day during its six month season. James Howard Nash died in 1972.


Panhandle Pete
Panhandle Pete - Sounds of Summer:

In 1906 most of Western North Carolina's residents still called their job the farm. Industry had not found its way into the hollows of the Appalachians.

But before the year ended, Champion International's Canton paper mill would open, forever changing the face of the region's work force. Farmers slowly became Champion employees. People's lives no longer depended on this year's crop but instead on the mill's success.

The year also marked the beginning of another tradition that has endured through the years Ñ the Canton Labor Day Festival.

The festival began as a Champion-sponsored picnic for its workers, according to Richard Watts, Canton Historical Museum director.

"When Champion was still under construction, company officials decided that having a parade, athletic competitions (boxing, foot races, horse shoes, etc.), music and dances and contests commemorating the new holiday (Labor Day) would help people understand the importance of working," Watts said. "Champion has always been a paternalistic company, and at the time the festival began it was a means to make people aware of the importance of labor and workers. ... It helped instill as sense of family and encouraged moral character and stability."

"There weren't a whole lot of 9 to 5 jobs back in the early 1900s. People worked on the family farm, and what they couldn't grow themselves they'd barter for," Watts said. "The festival was a way to let people know the importance of holding a steady job."

The festival would become much more than a company picnic. Over the years it would become an annual gathering place for all of Haywood County as well as thousands of visitors. It became a Haywood County event like no other.

"I remember it ever since I was a kid, "C.W. Hardin recalled of the Labor Day Festival. "I remember the rides and the crowds that came to Canton," said the 71-year-old Canton native who is a former town mayor and state senator.

Early newspaper accounts of the festival placed the size of the crowds at more than 10,000, and one article stated 15,000 people crowded into the downtown streets in 1957.

"It was a big day; people from the coves and farms came into town ... work stopped on Labor Day," Hardin said.

The festival always had a feeling of family," he said. "A community atmosphere where people would see old friends and make new ones.

"I remember my daddy giving me 25 cents to spend one Labor Day. I'd get a carousel ride or two and a hot dog on it, and that'd be it," Hardin remembered.

Rose Haynie's late husband Jimmy played an intricate part in the festival for years, first as the emcee of the musical portion of the festival and later on as an organizer.

"Back in those days they'd put up a (covered) platform where the baseball field is now," Rose said. "I remember that the music would start about 1 o'clock and it went on all day and into the night. There were always so many people there at night that you couldn't find a seat."

Finding performers was easier than finding a seat sometimes, Rose recalled.

"Anybody who wanted to take part (in making music) got to, even if they weren't any good," she said.

The Labor Day Festival began around 10 a.m., according to Watts. People enjoyed carnival rides, cotton candy, hot dogs and hamburgers, socializing, music and dance. And the day would always end with a public square dance in the town square, he said.

"You'd see whole families come in," Watts said. "Everybody piled in and it was hard to get a seat for singing and entertainment. Families would come down from the coves and spend all day at the celebration."

The festival's early beginnings were of an oversized company picnic, but by the 1920s and '30s its focus was on the music and dance portion of the celebration. And by the late 1940s, it really had become a platform for entertainment, Watts said.

In the 1950s and '60s the Labor Day Festival slowly became more of a town function and less of a Champion event, according to Watts. By the mid-60s it was completely out of ChampionÕs hands and under the control of Canton.

Today, it's still a constant in the Haywood County summer, but its focus of music and dance has lessened, and the parade has become the main event.

"It has always been a carnival type atmosphere at the festival,"Watts said. "Wall-to-wall people. They came from all over Western North Carolina for the Labor Day Festival It's starting to get back to that type day."

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