Following geographer Tom Ross into the field is always an adventure, and there is usually good food along the way.
A recent road trip included a stop at world famous Melvin’s in Elizabethtown for a hamburger (don’t ask for a cheeseburger) and then a visit to a hog farm in eastern Robeson County.
Dr. Ross did not know the owners of the huge hog farm before showing up at their doorstep, but like he says, “The people in North Carolina are absolutely tops, especially the country folks.”
True to his prediction, the owners welcomed strangers wearing suits and gave a guided tour of their operation.
“What I learned in my travels is that North Carolinians are a vibrant, energetic, realistic, well-adjusted and friendly group of people,” Dr. Ross said. “The good part about my research for “The North Carolina Atlas” is that while I traveled, I was able to do research for my chapter on restaurants for the travel guide.” (“North Carolina” A Fodor’s Compass American Guides”
Some academics might object to this kind of research, but Dr. Ross, who has invested time on both sides of the library doors, just laughs.
“Some say that wandering around and talking to farmers isn’t scholarly work, and I agree that it is fun,” he said. “It’s a challenge too because you never know what you’ll run into around the next corner. The cultural landscape of North Carolina is full of surprises, many of which lead to other potential research projects.”
Dr. Ross and adjunct professor, the late Dr. Robert Reiman, contributed sections on agriculture, forestry and mining to the recently published “North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century.” Contributing to this voluminous reference book – it is 461 pages with 300 color maps and charts and 50 photographs – is a geographer’s dream.
“It’s a little like community service since there is no pay for the work,” Dr. Ross said. “It is a real honor to be a contributor because only a select group were chosen to participate.”
“Bob (Reiman) considered it the capstone of his career, and he was the most respected planner in North Carolina,” Dr. Ross said. “Sadly, he died a week before the book was sent to contributors.”
Besides their chapter, the pair also contributed several photographs to the volume, ensuring that this region is well represented. One of the four cover photos is a Robeson County tobacco farm scene.
The book, edited by Dr. Douglas Orr Jr., president of Warren Wilson College, and Al Stuart, a UNC Charlotte geographer, has been hailed by critics as an important work.
In his foreward, North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt called “The North Carolina Atlas” a useful resource for government decision-makers, teachers, students, “or those who simply love ‘The Old North State.’”
“The North Carolina Atlas will benefit us all by reminding us of our history and inspiring us to look forward as we head into the next century,” Gov. Hunt concludes.
The atlas captures a changing North Carolina landscape. The old culture of tobacco, textiles and quiet rural communities is disappearing at the end of the 20th century, as Dr. Ross notes in his section on agriculture.
“Farming historically not only has been a pillar of the economy but also has helped to shape North Carolina’s unique character as a predominantly rural, small-town state,” he writes. “Tobacco farming, with its unusually high-dollar yields per acre, has been especially prominent in supporting a relatively dispersed population pattern.”
“More recently, both population and economic activities in the state have taken on a distinctly urban pattern,” he writes. “This has paralleled a decline of agriculture’s role in the economy.”
An expertly documented case for a changing economy and way of life follows.
The “North Carolina Atlas” has had excellent reviews and will be on the reference shelf of every library in the state. It will be used as a college textbook, and it fits a coffee table too, Dr. Ross said.
“Those guys (Stuart and Orr) put a tremendous amount of work in this Atlas,” he said. “It is a real world book written for North Carolinians.”
Dr. Al Stuart said it was a lengthy labor of love, but worth it.