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Over 4,600 Columns: Remembering Barbara McRae

Lilly Knoepp
Barbara McRae after an interview in 2019 at her home in Franklin.

The town of Franklin lost one of its matriarchs this month.

Vice Mayor of Franklin Barbara McRae passed away on March 2nd after a long battle with cancer. Long before she entered politics, McRae had a career in a different public service: journalism.

She worked as a reporter, columnist and editor for the Franklin Press for 10 years. Rachel Hoskins, now the publisher of the Press, worked with McRae for six years.

“I watched her mentor, younger reporters. I watched her make an impact on their writings on things that they thought were important. So to see her mentor, young women and young men was a very rewarding experience for me,” said Hoskins.

Hoskins says you wouldn’t know McRae had retired by looking at the newspaper. Her headshot has run alongside one of her three columns, “Know Your County,” “Backyard Naturalist,” or “Views from Jones Creek” almost every week since 1976.

“The people who may or may not have ever met, Barbara, have an intimate relationship with her, through her writing. People formed a relationship with Barbara over 4,600 columns. So she was a part of their life, whether she knew them or not. And to me, that is just such a remarkable thing,” said Hoskins.

Despite the fact that McRae wasn’t from Macon County, she taught readers and others about the rich history of this corner of Appalachia, said Hoskins.

“I think she felt that there was an importance to understanding and knowing about your history, because ultimately, that's going to lead you into your future,” said Hoskins.

In the last few years, BPR interviewed McRae often about her 2019 run for mayor, her work with the Nikwasi Mound and her work establishing the Women’s History Trail in Franklin. During every conversation her passion for history and for the people of Western North Carolina came through. Here is McRae explaining why she wanted to start the Women’s History Trail:

“Well I just began to realize how left out we have been, especially in Western North Carolina. No women from Western North Carolina are in ‘Women of North Carolina,’ not from Asheville west - including Asheville. It just horrified me and I started thinking about ways that we could make our name known.”

The Women’s History Trail in Franklin is the first ever in the state. McRae explained the spark of her inspiration was Arrah Belle Wilson Johnson. She bought The Franklin Press in 1931 and became its first woman publisher and editor. McRae lived in Johnson’s house on Harrison Avenue, which is now part of the Women’s History Trail.

For Rachel Hoskins, the legacy of women in journalism in Franklin is a legacy of responsibility to the community.

“I look at it as being in a position where I can help influence; whether it's policy, whether it's the conversation. And how you can influence things to move forward and change for the good. It's also a huge responsibility as a publisher and as an editor. We're in a community that holds us responsible for what is printed on the page,” said Hoskins.

At the opening ceremony of the Women’s History Trail, Ann Miller Woodford sang “I’m Going Home (To Live With My God).” McRae helped Woodford publish her book, “When All God’s Children Get Together.” The two were friends who connected over their love of history.

Here is Woodford’s singing that day:

“Soon I will be done with the trouble of the world. Trouble of the world. Trouble in this world. I’ll soon be done with the troubles of this world. I’m going home to live with God….”

Ann Miller Woodford singing “I’m Going Home (To Live With My God)” at the opening ceremony of the Women’s History Trail in Franklin in 2018.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.