The year she turned 18, Jane Butzner traveled from her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to the Appalachian hamlet of Higgins, North Carolina, where she encountered a mystery that haunted her for the rest of her life. It was 1934, the midpoint of the Great Depression, a difficult time to hold a job, even an unpaid one. Butzner—later Jacobs—had been laid off from The Scranton Republican after almost a year working without pay as a cub reporter. At her parents’ suggestion, she went to live in the mountains with her aunt Martha Robison, a Presbyterian missionary. Robison had come to Higgins 12 years earlier on a mission and was so staggered by its poverty that she refused to leave. There were no paved roads, school was rarely in session, the illiterate preacher believed the world was flat, and commerce was conducted by barter. Robison built a church and a community center, adopted children, and established classes in pottery, weaving, and woodwork. Nevertheless, the townspeople continued to live a primitive existence in which, as Robison’s niece later said, “the snapping of a pitchfork or the rusting of a plow posed a serious financial crisis.”
Jane Jacobs wrote about Higgins in Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) and Dark Age Ahead (2004), but its negative example looms over her entire body of work. Higgins had not always been backwards. In the early 1700s, as Jacobs noted in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, its founders, three English brothers named Higgins and their families, possessed a wide range of knowledge and skills:
spinning and weaving, loom construction, cabinetmaking, corn milling, house and water-mill construction, dairying, poultry and hog raising, gardening, whiskey distilling, hound breeding, molasses making from sorghum cane, basket weaving, biscuit baking, music making with violins …
By the 1920s, the brothers’ descendants had lost nearly all of these, apart from making molasses, which was sold in the county seat, Burnsville, 12 miles away. Most residents had never traveled that far, however, because the only way to get there was by mule on a rough mountain track. Candles were a vanishing luxury. After the few remaining cows died, there would be no more milk or butter. One woman still remembered how to weave baskets, but she was close to death. When Robison suggested building the church with large stones from the creek, the community elders rebuked her. Over generations the townspeople had not only forgotten how to build with stone. They had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible.