Forget the covered bridges, languorous adultery and mellow Iowa of James Robert Waller’s bestseller, “The Bridges of Madison County.”
This Madison County, near the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, is a place of ear-popping drives and breathtaking views of forested peaks carpeted with wild laurel thickets.
It is also a hardscrabble place where people struggle over what little level or arable ground there is, eking out a subsistence on the steep slopes, river banks and denuded hilltops called “balds.”
“No covered bridges,” said Hugh Koontz, editor of the weekly News Record. “We got a good number of washed-out bridges.”
Marshall, the county seat, was described in an old “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as “the town that cannot grow.” Hemmed in by a mountainside and the French Broad River, locals say it is “a block wide, a mile long, sky high and hell deep.”
In many hollows here, politics falls somewhere between a blood sport and war because election outcomes are directly tied to government benefits and contracts.
For four decades, the source of precious public jobs and the state-funded roads to get to them was a family named Ponder, whose colorful clan ruled Madison County as a virtual fiefdom.
Overturning 104 years of Republican rule in 1950, they created a boutique bastion of Democratic machine politics that rivaled any in U.S. history--including Daley’s Chicago and Tweed’s Tammany--one where hard-fought precinct tallies often were determined by litigation or at gunpoint.
“We had battle after battle, and we won them,” said 74-year-old patriarch Zeno Ponder, who exercised power through the county Democratic Party, “not because we were ruthless, but because we were right.”
Zeno, whose pencil-thin mustache led newspapers to compare him to an old-time riverboat gambler, had a simple philosophy for delivering government goods and services: “If the people didn’t have it, and it was available, we had to get it for them.”
Democracy is taken seriously here, said his brother, E.Y. Ponder, who is 83.
“It’s a good form of government,” said the former sheriff, who in 32 years in office never carried a gun, wore a uniform or drove a marked patrol car. “If a man doesn’t take part in his process, he’s got nothing to be bellyaching about.”
Early in its history, the county was dubbed “the kingdom of Madison.” After the Ponders’ victory, the county of 17,000 people came to resemble a medieval monarchy--complete with Zeno as the ruler, E.Y. as his vizier and a third brother who served as Marshall’s mayor.
A multitude of Ponder princes from the next generation controlled the county boards of education, election, tax assessment and alcoholic-beverage control.
But over the years, allegations of strong-arm methods, from the polls to the courthouse, provoked a substantial amount of Zeno-phobia.
“It was the worst damn dictatorship you’d ever seen,” said Joseph B. Huff, 75, a local attorney and dissident Democrat. “If you weren’t one of the faithful, you didn’t get a job.”
Thirty years ago, Wilma Dykeman wrote in her book, “The French Broad,” that this area of Appalachia offered a “confusion of contrasts: rugged scenery inhabited by ragged people, riches of folklore made picturesque by poverty of cash, isolated mountain coves existing next door to crowded cultural Meccas, sturdy independence of spirit flourishing in a generation of welfarism.”
Dykeman’s description still fits Madison County, where a recent study counted half the people as “working poor.” These days, the county’s glossy tourist literature prefers to extol skiing, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, golf, vacation homes, fishing and fabled fiddlers. There’s no mention of the Ponders or an infamous 1863 massacre that left the county with an uncomfortable nickname.
“The county’s had a bad rap ever since the ‘Bloody Madison’ days of the Civil War,” said Glenn Goodrich, who operates a whitewater rafting outfit on the French Broad and directs the Chamber of Commerce’s tourism promotions. “I would like to change that image. We have beautiful scenery and great recreation.”
But when North Carolinians think of Madison County--despite such efforts to transform its image--they think of the Ponders.
Since a revolution against the “Pondercrats” was launched by a coalition of Republicans and insurgent Democrats in the late 1980s, the dynasty has been in steady decline. Recent spring rains have been heavy, flooding Marshall’s Main Street, and some here say they believe that the political tide may also be running against the Ponders.
Their last hurrah could come May 3, when the lone family member still holding countywide elective office faces a strong test to hang onto control of the school board, Madison’s largest employer.
Incumbent Chairman Bobby Ponder faces three challengers, including the current Democratic Party chairman--a job long held by Uncle Zeno--in the county’s first nonpartisan contest.
While a defeat at the polls could “put a stamp” on the Ponder era, Huff said, Zeno and E.Y. will probably continue to exert behind-the-scenes influence in Madison County.
“It takes a long time for the dead trees to fall,” Huff said.