Thanks for making it another great year

As 2010 comes to a close, all of us at The Erwin Record – from management and our commercial print shop to advertising and circulation and, of course, the newsroom – would like to thank our readers for continued support.
Producing our community’s newspaper of choice has been the guiding force for The Erwin Record for nearly 83 years. Our founder, Alma Broce, set everything in motion in 1928, and dozens and dozens of employees over these many years have made our newspaper one of the best in Tennessee and the nation.
But no matter how many stories we write or how many photos we snap, it’s never about the staff. It’s always, always, always about YOU, the reader. Our job is to tell the story of Unicoi County each week, and it’s our pleasure to do so. Thanks for your support.

Conflicts of interest are problems for politicians here and everywhere

When the Unicoi County Ethics Committee looks into an accusation of a conflict of interest against Commissioner Doug Bowman this week, perhaps members should broaden the scope.
The committee will meet Wednesday, Dec. 15, at 3 p.m. in the conference room of the Unicoi County Courthouse, and the meeting is open to the public.
For Bowman – who is actually a member of the Ethics Committee but will not be allowed to participate – it may put to an end or answer the accusation that he and his family unfairly benefited from construction contracts at the new jail.
To be fair, Bowman brought the scrutiny on himself after saying that the county took “bread off my table” when it contracted with the road superintendent’s office to provide some construction services at the jail.
It was a stupid thing to say – especially since Bowman’s company had already earned a nearly $80,000 jail contract.
But the real problem for the Ethics Committee – and many local government agencies – is that conflicts of interest are often problems. Until recently, the county commission was made up of several county employees, who, during budget time, voted on raises for themselves.
In a website poll conducted by The Erwin Record over the past week, 91 percent of respondents said the county has a problem with politicians having conflicts of interest.
As for Bowman, County Mayor Greg Lynch has pointed out that he didn’t vote on the measure that awarded his family a winning contract.
But there are other problems. For example, even if a commissioner doesn’t end up voting on a measure, has he or she contributed to discussion that could end up favoring their personal interests? Of course.
The public would obviously be better served when politicians decline to have anything before them that would be beneficial to them personally or financially.
But voters often return these same people to office. Who’s really to blame? Voters or politicians? Or both?

Downtown Merchants Association does it right

Erwin’s Downtown Merchants Association has done it again.
Saturday’s trick-or-treat event was well attended, and it brought a lot of people to downtown on a cool autumn night.
It’s so exciting to see what the association has been doing, especially considering the members are only loosely organized and haven’t officially established a formal group with officers and by-laws and such.
Nevertheless, these business owners and managers have really pulled off success after success. The summertime concerts and sidewalk sales were enthusiastically attended, and the community outreach for Halloween was exactly what one would expect from a business-oriented group.
Many years ago, the Downtown Merchants Association was a strong group that made things happen for the business district. It was, however, dormant for a long time until Harry and Teresa Lewis of Plant Palace got things going again. There’s not enough praise to go around for what the Lewises and other downtown merchants have accomplished in a short amount of time.
When the town of Erwin and the Unicoi County governments are handing out funds for community advocacy and tourism promotion, we suggest leaders look at what the association has accomplished.

Park will be wonderful tribute to Gene Price

Last week’s announcement that a new children’s park being developed by the Erwin Kiwanis Club will be named after the late Gene Price was wonderful news.
Not only was Gene Price a longtime and prominent member of the Erwin Kiwanis Club, he was also a valuable member of our community. He served for years on a number of important boards, including Erwin Utilities and the United Way.
As a club member, he was the only person from Erwin ever to be elected governor for the international service organization. He brought attention to Erwin and Unicoi County everywhere he went, and we could have had no better ambassador.
Gene Price, who worked as a professor at Milligan College before his retirement, had a strong intellect, but he never made anyone feel inferior. In fact, it was his infectious sense of humor that many still cherish.
No one could tell a story – or twist a tale – like Gene Price, and his kindness was evident in everything he did. That his name will be forever part of a new children’s park, one created by his beloved Kiwanis Club, will long be a testament to a good man who loved his community and went about every day making other people happy.

A welcome surprise for economy

There have been few pleasant surprises when it comes to the economy lately, and that made our story last week that Morgan Crucible would reopen its closed Erwin industry all the more wonderful.
The company closed its Morgan Insulation plant last year and moved production to its Augusta, Ga., company, but an improving national economy has enabled the plant to reopen – and, for some, a return to employment once thought gone for good.
In these precarious times, news of an industry reopening is almost an unheard of story.
David Messina, the operations manager for the soon-to-reopen Thermal Ceramics (the name’s been changed), called the reopening “exciting.”
We agree. It’s a sign that things are getting better not only locally but around the nation, too. Granted, there’s still a lot that must happen for America’s return to economic prosperity, but there’s not a clearer sign that the nation is finally on the right road than the reopening of once proud industrial plant.
Locally, it’s another great sign for the Unicoi County economy. We’ve had a large number of retail shops and restaurants open in recent months, and now we have great news on the industrial front.
We’ve not seen local politicians or economic development personnel doing happy dances just yet, but don’t be surprised if you do. After all, news like this can be a little rhythm in your step.

Memories come alive again when I get out the American Corn Cutter


Carol Bunton-Benkie lives in Indiana, the area some folks call the heartland of America. To be precise, she lives in corn country.
For the past 31 years, Carol has made her living selling the American Corn Cutter. Her product is billed as “America’s finest corn cutter,” and I can vouch for that.
An American Corn Cutter is a bright yellow, 13-inch-long, two-blade device (for double-cutting action) used to strip corn from a cob in one quick movement along a durable plastic holder.
There’s been one in my family for, well, as long as I can remember, and I’m 41 years old.
My grandmother, Verna, used hers to cut corn she packed away in plastic baggies, canned in Ball jars or prepared fresh for the Sunday dinner.
I loved my grandmother with all my heart, but she’s been gone for 21 years. So it’s the little and unexpected things — an American Corn Cutter, for example — that still keep her close.
Last summer I asked my mother whatever happened to Mamaw’s corn cutter. Mom had it and still used it when she made creamed corn. I asked if she could bring it down and show me how to use it. (That I had to be taught how to use such a simple device is the perfect indicator of just how poorly I perform in the kitchen.)
Since then, my grandmother’s corn cutter has remained in my possession, and I use it, on a regular basis, to make creamed corn, which basically consists of stripping every bit of corn from several cobs and dropping in a little butter. I, as my mother instructed, heat it on high, stirring constantly, and adding salt, to taste, near the end.
This is how my grandmother did it. It’s how her only daughter-in-law, my mother, learned to make it. And it’s how I make it.
I realize this is a very basic “recipe.” Many creamed corn dishes call for cream or milk, sometimes even sugar or creamed cheese. But the Stevens’ version of creamed corn is all about the sweetness of the corn itself, and the American Corn Cutter, which pulls out every morsel of corn from the cob, makes it perfect every time.
Recently, I noticed that the cutter’s two blades were getting a little rusty. On very close examination, I noticed the side of the cutter had been embossed (being yellow on yellow, almost impossible to read) with the words, American Corn Cutter Co. Inc., Winamac, Indiana, U.S. Patents #2.863.478.”
I wondered if the company still existed, so I went to the Internet. To my surprise, I immediately located a website — — where I could order a brand-new corn cutter or just replacement blades.
But, because I am, after all, a reporter by trade, my curiosity had been piqued. So I picked up the phone and dialed the number on the website for orders.
A friendly woman answered. I assumed this was one of the many unnamed folks working in some massive room taking online orders. I explained I was calling from a newspaper in Tennessee and would there be anyone there who could tell me about the history of the American Corn Cutter?
“Why, yes,” the friendly voice on the other end of the line said. “Hold for just a moment.”
When the voice came back on the phone, she explained she was the owner and could tell me all about her product.
Carol Bunton-Benkie and her first husband purchased the American Corn
Cutter Co. from the product’s inventor, John Drybread, in 1979, and she’s made her living making and selling it ever since. She put children through college with the money earned from sales.
Now 70 years old, Carol still makes her living the same as she’s done for the last 31 years.
She declined to say just how much she and her husband paid for the company — only saying that Drybread demanded a lot for his product and buying the company required a “giant leap of faith.”
Looking back today, Carol wonders if it was kismet that led her to Daybread’s product, which she discovered in a classified ad in a newspaper that arrived by mail.
“It was the one and only time we received that newspaper,” she said. “We’ve never gotten it since.”
Drybread, Carol said, had trouble selling the company.
“He wanted quite a bit of money for it,” she said, “but he wasn’t giving people a lot of information. But, for some reason, we felt like it was something we could try and develop as our family business.
“We could see the potential, and it’s certainly been good for us. It’s supplied our livelihood all these years.”
Because Drybread was so secretive, Carol wasn’t really sure how long he had been selling the product before she and her husband bought the company in 1979 — but, she said, it had been for many years.
That I know was certainly accurate. My grandmother had hers long before 1979.
Carol estimates she sells 10,000 corn cutters every year — from her home in Wanatah. You can find them in seed catalogs and some hardware stores.
She was proud to point out that the American Corn Cutter, as its name implies, is completely made in the U.S.A. The only thing that’s changed with the cutter over the years is the move from rust-prone Swedish steel to rust-resistant stainless steel for the removable blades.
“It is a totally U.S. product,” Carol said. “Nothing is foreign on this product whatsoever.”
The plastic mold is made by an American company. The stainless steel is bought in the United States, and the blades are stamped here, too.
“And then,” Carol said, “we assemble each one. It’s an at-home business. … A lot of people have had our American Corn Cutter for many, many years. They don’t wear out. I have calls like this all the time, just calling to compliment the product, saying how much they love it, that it was a Christmas gift or they had used their neighbor’s and now had to have one of their own.”
Running her company, Carol said, “keeps me young, keeps me interested in life.” She hopes her children and grandchildren will, one day, continue to operate the company.
For me, the American Corn Cutter comes with precious memories of my grandmother, so it was especially pleasing to learn the product’s legacy as a true American success story and proof that American ingenuity is alive and well.
It was a great privilege for me to talk to Carol, surely a great American businesswoman who still believes in making a quality, durable, made-in-the-U.S.A. product.
Contact the American Corn Cutter Co. by calling 1-888-797-5385

Public appeals, too, for DA’s ‘better nature’

The exploitation of Christmas isn’t anything new, but using it as a means to an end for a woman accused of stealing nearly $21,000 from the Unicoi County School System puts it at a new low.
Angie Williams entered a plea of “not guilty” last week as her case finally made its way into court.
Rather than getting on with the business at hand, Williams’ defense attorney, Jim Bowman, asked Judge Lynn Brown for a December court date. Surprised at the attorney’s request to extend court proceedings for nearly five months, Bowman explained it was his attempt to “appeal to the better nature of the district attorney.”
“In other words,” the judge said, “you want the date closest to Christmas.”
Appealing to District Attorney Tony Clark’s “better nature” is a good idea – in particular for the nearly 17,000 residents of Unicoi County who haven’t been accused of stealing money from the workers and children of a school system. At Christmastime, many residents, having done all they could to honestly get by, may still struggle and come up painfully short.
Let’s hope the DA’s “better nature” extends to all the victims – in this case, the taxpayers of Unicoi County.

Downtown merchants bring back good times

Seemed like there was a shift in time Saturday night in downtown Erwin.
And it wasn’t just because of the many antique cars lining the streets. No, it was the number of people shopping, dining and enjoying a summer evening in the historic business district. It was reminiscent of decades past when downtown was bustling with people and energy.
A car show, a band playing good music and businesses staying open late – that’s a winning combination, and it’s all thanks to an informal group calling themselves the Downtown Merchants Association.
Years ago, there was a very active merchants group that worked hard to promote downtown, and it seems the time has come again for another similar organization.
When some of the merchants met recently at Erwin Town Hall, the common refrain was “let’s put feet on the streets” – that is, customers back in downtown. But merchants weren’t just asking for a hand out. Business leaders discussed ideas that would bring folks to downtown (concerts, a sidewalk sale, holiday events), and they were putting money into the plan, too.
There are many new businesses in downtown Erwin: Hawg-n-Dawg BBQ & Coneys, Under the Apple Tree, the Blue Ridge Pottery Shop, The Next Best Thing and Forever A Diva. We have a wonderful movie theater, a video rental store, more antique stores and eateries, banks, a florist and more.
Unicoi County’s two oldest businesses – Liberty Lumber and The Erwin Record – are operating there, too.
Some downtown merchants feel like they’re often forgotten or neglected. But despite that, they still have optimism and see promise in Erwin’s vital and historic business district. And they’re willing to put money and the needed marketing into it to make success happen.
We applaud them for a job well done – now and in the past.

Tennesseans need calm talk, smart words in governor’s race

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam emerged as the victor last week in a five-man race for the Republican nomination for governor that really came down to Haslam, U.S. Rep. Zack Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
Haslam pulled away from Ramsey and Wamp because he found a middle ground – something Ramsey and Wamp couldn’t do as they continued to play to a far-right base.
Wamp, in particular, raised – for a second time – a secessionist tone late in the race. It’s doubtful the majority of Tennesseans believe that separating ourselves from the United States of America is the right move. And, certainly, we don’t need that kind of talk from a man who might be governor.
Haslam will face Democrat Mike McWherter – son of the immensely popular former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter – in November.
Immediately following Thursday’s election, the Republican Governors Association called McWherter “an Obama ally who embraces growing governmental interference into the everyday lives of law-abiding citizens.”
That Republican strategy may not work. Wamp and Ramsey, after all, played the national card too much – and they lost.
Both Haslam and McWherter need to tell us what they’re going to do here in Tennessee. President Obama isn’t on the ballot, and voters need candidates to tell us what they’re going to do in Nashville – and leave Washington politics out of the equation.

What long-lasting lessons will students keep over the years?

Whatever is being said about former Unicoi County High School Band Director Brad Williams these days, it’s undeniable that he has had a lasting – and, it would seem, positive – influence on many students.
Williams is facing a theft charge from, state auditors say, the inappropriate use of a band boosters’ credit card. A state official has called Williams’ actions “unconscionable” and “a blatant abuse” of the trust between students and parents.
Last week, The Erwin Record spoke to five band members who, despite acknowledging the potential wrong doing by Williams, were insistent that their former leader deserves forgiveness. He was, they said, a “friend,” a “father figure,” a mentor, a “really sweet person.”
In the wake of the allegations against Williams, including the revelation that the director had “forgotten” $3,900 in cash from an Apple Festival fundraiser in his closet for eight months, it would be easy for these students to be mad, deflated and even cynical. So what makes them just the opposite?
It’s clear that their positive outlook stems not from inexperience but, rather, a positive experience that Williams, throughout his career, obviously provided for his young students and musicians. Now that his career at UCHS is over (Williams was first placed on unpaid leave before he opted to resign), his students are left to ponder what’s right and what’s wrong. That forgiveness can be found somewhere in the middle is a lesson Williams may have taught, in word and/or by actions, many times to those very students.
Good teachers also want to impart long-lasting life lessons to their students. It is doubtful, however, that the events of recent weeks is how Williams would have wanted to demonstrate to his students that actions have consequences. That makes all of what has happened even more sad.

Hate speech won’t get any ink from us

It’s an odd thing for a newspaper to ignore what some people might consider a news event, but The Erwin Record made a decision last week to not give any coverage to Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.
The infamous hatemongers at Westboro had threatened to protest at Senior Airman Benjamin D. White’s funeral, and it got a lot of media attention. The Internet was buzzing, too.
But here at The Erwin Record, we made the decision to ignore Westboro. We didn’t try to interview the folks at Westboro, because we don’t think a hate group is worthy of our attention. We didn’t write about if for this week’s newspaper or even post anything on our website.
We simply weren’t going to give Westboro what it wants more than anything – media attention for its distasteful beliefs.
The fact that an American soldier died to preserve our freedom IS worthy of attention. The fact that he was a local person makes the hurt deeper, our sense of appreciation greater – actually, unspeakably so. Our native son died for love of country and fellow man. Love as a motivator cannot be overrated. Hate as a motivator cannot be underrated.
We don’t know if you, the reader, expected us to cover Westboro’s threatened protest – or the anti-protests, for that matter. If anyone thinks we’ve failed as a newspaper for not telling the “whole story,” we’re prepared to stand behind our decision.
Maybe we’ve erred, but we don’t think hate speech of any kind deserves our attention.
We hope you agree.

Higher taxes, fewer services? Yes, thank the thieves of Unicoi County

Did you hear about the 17,000-plus people who were victims of a pickpocket? Of course you did, because you were one of the victims – again.
It seems crime is rampant in Unicoi County, and it’s going on right under our noses. It’s happened to you and all your neighbors. Yes, each of us can be called a victim here.
The accusation last month from the Unicoi County School System that Angie Williams, the director of finance, had taken nearly $21,000 in public funds for “personal use” was only the latest chapter in a sad, seemingly ongoing tale of corruption from folks with their hands in the public cookie jar.
One day after the school system made the claim of wrongdoing, Mrs. Williams’ family immediately supplied a check for $20,967.36 in “repayment.” To be clear, Mrs. Williams hasn’t been officially charged with any crime, and the letter from her husband accompanying the cashier’s check offers no admission of guilt or apology. It’s one more layer of confusion in an already complex issue that is bound to get more detailed as time moves on.
If you’re feeling a little déjà vu here, you’d be correct. This is the third time in recent years the taxpayers of Unicoi County have been cheated out of their own money.
In 2006, former Circuit Court Clerk Gregg Masters pleaded guilty to stealing at least $10,507 from public funds. He repaid the money, but he never spent a night in jail. (He was sentenced to six months of home confinement).
Only a couple of years later, auditors once again found thousands in missing funds from the circuit clerk’s office. The district attorney and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said there was no doubt money had been stolen, but a grand jury refused to indict because it couldn’t be clearly proven who specifically took the money. We may never know who committed the crime.
So here we are, taxpayers, with at least $50,000 – maybe more – taken from us all.
It’s outrageous and deplorable.
Think about what could have been done with $50,000. Imagine the public needs that could have been financed – newly paved roads, books for the library, better school buses, new uniforms for student athletes, more road salt during the winter, and the list goes on and on.
But the county didn’t have the funds, because a series of thieves decided to take what doesn’t belong to them – YOUR money.
Your county tax rate is higher because someone took YOUR money.
They have taken from all of us. They took from the rich and the poor. They took from innocent children and from senior citizens on fixed incomes. They took from every single taxpayer and resident of Unicoi County.
Enough is enough.

Majority of candidates disappoint by not pledging

Our publisher, Mark A. Stevens, asked every candidate seeking office in Unicoi County this year to sign off on a pledge promising to follow state law in regards to the state’s open meetings and public records law. It should have been easy. After all, the pledge simply promised to follow the law.
Disappointingly, though, only a handful of candidates returned their pledge to follow the law and promise to “always be honest with you,” the voters.
Not only was the pledge published in the March 16 newspaper, but a follow-up reminder was posted on the newspaper’s Facebook page, too.
We said we’d tell readers who followed through on the pledge, and we commend each of the politicians who did sign the pledge and made a promise that the people must always come first.
County Trustee Paul Berry, we’d like to point out, returned his signed pledge first thing Tuesday morning. Good for him!
Here are the other candidates who, throughout the week, brought in hand-written and signed pledges: Sheriff Kent Harris; circuit court clerk candidates Mari Fanning, Eddie Foster and Darren Shelton; county mayor candidates Ron Arnold, Greg Lynch and Larry Rose; county clerk candidates Mitzi Bowen and Patty Treadway; Road Superintendent Terry Haynes; and county commission candidates Rossanna Aldrich, Kenneth E. Garland, Loren Thomas and Sue Jean Wilson. We will still be happy to accept signed pledges this week, too, and report back on that count in next week’s paper.

It’s our birthday!

It didn’t look good for The Erwin Record in the early days.
The first issue of this newspaper was published Jan. 27, 1928 – just months from the beginning of the Great Depression.
Somehow, Alma Broce’s newspaper made it through those years of national hardship and even trounced any competition that came along, too. The Erwin Observer thought it could take on Alma’s newspaper. It hung around for a little while, but that newspaper eventually saw the light and folded.
Cheap imitations never last.
So we’re thrilled to say we’ve been Unicoi County’s newspaper of choice for 82 years. It’s something we take very seriously.
We believe in providing the information you need to make your life better. We believe in writing stories that will make you smile. We believe in publishing news you can use.
In short, we believe in our community and being the very best newspaper we can be – every single week.
Thanks for the memories, and we hope to keep making many, many more.
Be sure to play our annual anniversary contest. Call us Wednesday, Jan. 27, beginning at 4 p.m. and wish us “Happy Birthday!” for a chance to win $82. If you’re the 82nd caller, you win – it’s that simple. We have another contest this year, too. If we add 82 new “fans” on our Facebook page by Sunday, Jan. 31, we’ll enter all our fans for a chance for one of them to win $82. Good luck!

From event planning to community outreach, the town of Unicoi is showing up the Chamber

It’s no secret that the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce and the town of Unicoi have always had a rocky relationship.
What is surprising, perhaps, is how the town has excelled at hosting successful community events while the Chamber has become somewhat narrowly focused.
The town of Unicoi has even seized upon an opportunity to prove that it – and not the Chamber – knows how to be a draw for community support and tourism dollars.
Even with Christmas 2009 not even a month since passed, the town recently announced it will host its first-ever Christmas parade on Dec. 11, 2010. The town also quickly – and pointedly – announced that its Christmas parade would definitely include the Shriners, funny cars and all.
That announcement was a not-so-subtle slap at the Chamber and its holiday parade fiasco in which officials, in November, told members of the Jericho Shrine they couldn’t ride their traditional “funny cars” in the Erwin parade. The Shriners left in a huff, and many in the community expressed everything from dismay to contempt for the Chamber, which receives tens of thousands of dollars in annual tax dollars from the town of Erwin and Unicoi County.
The town of Unicoi, however, has, for years, rebuffed the Chamber’s requests for funding – saying the Chamber no longer has its pulse on the community’s well being.
The Chamber may have, perhaps unintentionally by offending the Shriners, proven Unicoi’s point.
It’s not all that surprising, considering that the town of Unicoi’s community outreach has far exceeded the Chamber’s in recent years. Consider these facts:
• The town has restored the historic Bowman-Bogart Cabin and has begun a successful annual “Heritage Celebration” on the grounds.
• Unicoi revamped the Strawberry Festival, named it in honor of the late farmer, educator and philanthropist Wayne Scott and created a much-praised springtime event.
• And the town is a patriotic beacon with Freedom Fest, the county’s biggest Fourth of July celebration.
Compare that with the Chamber’s dismal community performance. While the Chamber’s two-day Apple Festival remains, without any doubt, an annual highlight and the Erwin Christmas Parade still shines despite the tarnish from the Shriner fiasco, the rest of the year is, sadly, lacking in Chamber-sponsored communitywide events.
The Chamber has, in fact, canceled nearly every other major event it once held – Arts in the Park, Wilderness Expo, the Citizen of the Year Banquet, the Erwin Easter Egg Hunt at Fishery Park, Civil War Days, Keep Unicoi County Beautiful and even the Summer in the Park concert series.
There’s an age-old lesson here, too, and that is, always do the best job you can, because there’s always someone willing to take your spot.
The town of Unicoi, it seems, is anxious to prove that theory.