Mountain peaks overlook pastures and meadows along the mountain streams that meander through the valleys and mountainsides, eventually flowing into the French Broad River.
It is said that large willow trees once bordered the main mountain creek, thus it was named Willow Creek.
This is the traditional Big Willow community that once also included what is known today as Laurel Park.
Today, the community is bordered to the north and east by the town of Laurel Park. The community of Horse Shoe borders Big Willow to the north and Etowah is to the north and west. The community of Crab Creek is to the south and west; and Valley Hill borders Big Willow to the south and east.
Willow Creek rises in western Henderson County and flows northwest into the French Broad River. Little Willow Creek is the headwaters of Big Willow Creek. The names of the creeks are seen in early land deeds from the 1790s.
Early land deeds also mention Willow Mountain. Today, Willow Mountain could not be located on the USGS topographical maps. Topographical maps do show Cantrell Mountain and Hebron Mountain. It is not clear if possibly one of these mountains was once known as Willow Mountain, or if Willow Mountain is a small mountain and simply not noted on topographical maps today.
A portion of Jeter Mountain (formerly called Underwood Mountain) at 3,300 feet, the 35th tallest peak in the county, is partly within Big Willow; as also is a section of what old-timers call the Follies.
Hebron Mountain and Cantrell Mountain both have elevations of 2,980 feet. Cantrell Mountain was named after the Cantrell family who were among the first settlers into the community. Hebron Mountain had another name prior to Solomon Jones moving into the community. Jones re-named the mountain Hebron. (For more information on Solomon Jones, visit http://hendersonheritage.com/solomon-jones-grave/)
Sentell Creek and other mountain streams also flow into the French Broad River.
The French Broad River flows through Big Willow near the border with Etowah and Horse Shoe. This section of the community was once known as Bowman’s Bluff. An old mountain legend tells of a girl named Mary Bowman riding her horse off the bluff and falling into the river below; thus the name Bowman’s Bluff. There is, of course, no documentation proving the old legend is true. But, there was an early Bowman family living in the community. The family lived in the community as early as 1793 when a land deed is described as bordering Polly Bowman’s line. And James Bowman is listed in the community in the 1820 census living near the Sentell, Orr and Shepherd families with a wife and four children (two sons and two daughters). It appears that the earlier mentioned Polly Bowman may have been male, as later records of a Bowman family have a male ancestor with the name James “Polly” Bowman.
A deed for this Bowman has not yet been located, but some of the families within this community are listed within the Old Walton County, Georgia. (Visit http://hendersonheritage.com/early-settlers-walton-county-war-war-of-1812-carson-vance-duel/).
The earliest deeds located to date for the community are those of Joseph Henry and William Davidson. These deeds date to the late 1780s. By 1790 Joseph Henry owned extensive land holdings near the French Broad River in the Etowah and Big Willow sections of Henderson County.
On Jan. 23, 1793, Joseph Henry and William Davidson conveyed to James Blythe 250 acres of land near the French Broad River on the east side of “Polly” Bowman’s line.
On Oct. 25, 1797, James Blythe purchased 100 acres on Big Willow Creek from the state of North Carolina. James Blythe Sr. was born between 1750 and 1755 and died about 1804 based on estate records.
The family of William Sentell was living in the Big Willow community by about 1800.
Benjamin King, son of Samuel King Sr., bought land in the area of Finley Cove in the early 1800s.
Prior to 1820, the Shepherd (Sheppard) family was living in the community and the Cantrell family moved to the Big Willow community between 1816 and 1820.
Prior to the Civil War, the family of Lindsey Baker Anders and the Evans, Mace and Huggins families were within the community. Solomon Jones also purchased property in the Big Willow area sometime prior to the Civil War and re-named the mountain Hebron Mountain.
A group of people from England, some of whom were Welsh, entered the community about 1882 and established a settlement near Bowman’s Bluff. One of these men was a Morgan J. Evans, born about 1847 in England according to census records. This is not the same local Evans family that settled in the communities of Big Willow and Crab Creek in the early 1800s. Morgan J. Evans had left the community prior to the 1900 census. Another member of this group was George H. Holmes. He left the community prior to 1910 when he died in Polk County. One of his sons was John Simcox Holmes for whom Holmes Educational State Forest in the Crab Creek community is named.
For more information on the English colony at Bowman’s Bluff read the article entitled “A Little Bit of Old England in North Carolina” written by Marion Wright at https://archive.org/stream/upliftserial29151ston/upliftserial29151ston_djvu.txt
Later James H. Cummings of Buffalo, N.Y., owner of a pharmaceutical business, bought the Holmes property and raised cattle on the farm. The Ives family purchased the property from the Cummings family and named it Pine Crest Farms.
As early as 1839 a school opened in the Big Willow community. Early records describe the location of the school as at the “mouth” of Big Willow Creek. This was School District 16 in Henderson County. “ Beginning at the main road where it crosses Mud Creek on the line of number 2 and runs in a westerly direction with the line of the same to John Shipman’s thence in a southwardly direction with the dividing ridge between the waters of Mud Creek and Willow to the top of the Willow Mountain at the same point between Samuel Cantrell and Robert McMinn’s.” Charles Greer, Leonard Cagle and Jacob Shipman were appointed the school committeemen.
A school in the Big Willow community is mentioned again in 1904.
In 1907, the following men were listed as trustees of a school in Big Willow when a tax levy was approved for the Big Willow School: S.A. Mace, J.B. Patterson, R.J. Fletcher, J.W. Revis, Hilliard Cantrell and T.L. Hamilton.
Visit http://www.etowahncheritage.org/historic-schools-of-nearby-communities.html for photos of this school.
There is also mentioned in some records a Mount Hebron school house. The school is described as a “one-room school house.”
During the mid-1920s the school in Big Willow closed. Depending on where the students lived within the community, they attended the Etowah School or the Valley Hill School. By the 1930s, high school students who attended the Valley Hill School began attending the Flat Rock High School.
In 1960, West Henderson High School and East Henderson High School opened. Depending in which section of the Big Willow community the high school students lived, they attended either West Henderson High School or East Henderson School.
Today’s students attend Atkinson Elementary School or Etowah Elementary School, Flat Rock Middle School or Rugby Middle School, and East Henderson High School or West Henderson High School.
In 1856 a post office opened for the community. This was the Bowman’s Bluff Post Office. The first postmaster was James Merritt Davis, a son of John Davis of the Oakland estate in the Green River community. He had married Mary Henry, daughter of John Henry and Melinda Williamson Henry. He only served as postmaster one year and, after his wife’s death in 1865, the family moved from the community.
Other early postmasters were Robert Blythe, George Mace, Jeremiah Orr and John Leander Blythe.
The post office closed in 1872 and re-opened in 1874 with John M. Mace as postmaster.
It closed again in 1881, re-opening in 1883 with William Hamilton Blythe as postmaster and later Charles Sherman Orr.
The post office closed permanently in 1904 when rural routes began serving the community. Today, the community is served by rural routes out of the Hendersonville post office.
Grist mills, stores
There were several early grist mills in the community. One of the most famous is that of legend, where a “Haunted Mill” was said to be located. The grist mill was located on Little Willow Creek. This is most likely today near a road named Mill Creek Road. This was the site of an early grist mill owned by the Mace family. Later it was owned by a Hughes, Allison, and then Huggins. The community blacksmith worked at the mill site. It was later a restaurant. This story can be read in the books “From the Banks of the Oklawaha” by Frank FitzSimons.
The Blythe family had an early grist mill in the community.
Luther Mace owned a general store in Big Willow.
Cave and Observation Tower
There are several caves in the Big Willow community. There are many reports of violence in this area during the Civil War because of deserters from both armies hiding out in the numerous caves.
One of the most famous caves is Indian Cave. There is no documentation that any Indians ever used the cave and the drawings within the cave were made in the late 1890s or early 1900s according to experts who studied the drawings. These drawings are not actual petroglyphs.
Indian Cave Lodge, also called Hebron Lodge, was built about 1917 and is actually on the top of Cantrell Mountain. Jack Dempsey trained inside Indian Cave. Dances and picnics were held inside the cave.
In the late 1800s, Solomon Jones built an observation tower on his property at the top of Hebron Mountain where visitors had panoramic views of the valleys below.
Beulah Baptist Church was established in 1815 in today’s Etowah community. In 1843, the church moved to the Big Willow community. For more information, visit http://hendersonheritage.com/beulah-baptist-church-cemetery/
Jones Gap Baptist Church began as Mt. Crystal Church within what is today the town of Laurel Park in 1892. The early members were McCarson, Mace, Johnson, Allen, Orr, Cox and Staton. The first church was located on McCarson land. When developers began buying the early settlers land to develop Laurel Park, the church moved. In 1912, the Toms family, who owned a peach orchard near the church, donated money to move the church to land on Hebron Mountain. Hicks Jones, a descendant of Solomon Jones, gave church members the land at this location. This new church on Hebron Mountain opened in 1913.
Hicks Jones, a son of Solomon Jones, suggested the name Jones Gap Baptist Church. Church trustees at the time were M.S. McCarson, J.R. Carver and William M. Mintz.
In 1995 a new brick church was constructed across the road and dedicated in 1998.
George Holmes, a member of the English community, built Gethsemane (Little Church of England), an Episcopal chapel, on his land in 1886. The church was discontinued about 1907 and torn down in 1923. Materials were used to build St. John Episcopal Church in the Upward community.
Today, the Big Willow community is served by the Valley Hill Fire Department and the Etowah-Horse Shoe Fire Department.