A History of Sylva, North Carolina

Sylva, North Carolina

As a railroad town and county seat, Sylva prospered into a thriving mountain community. There are several blocks of mostly brick buildings in its downtown shopping and dining district, that give Sylva the distinction of a, "designated Main Street town." The ominous white court house, perched high on a hill is visible for miles against multiple mountain backdrops. A "short piece" up the road to the west is the perfect accent to the bustling town of Sylva, its the quaint village town of Dillsboro. Sylva is the county seat of Jackson County.

The Sylva Post Office was established in 1880, with the name Sylva chosen by the daughter of the town's founder, E. R. Hampton. An itinerant Dane named William D. Sylva worked at a sawmill owned by Hampton's relatives. He sawed lumber for some of the earliest homes built in Sylva, including the Hampton house. After working for a short time in what was now his namesake, William D. Sylva ventured westward as quickly as he had arrived, eventually reaching parts unknown.

The building of a railroad at request of local citizens pushed Sylva into a rivalry with nearby Dillsboro and Webster. Our small town became the county's focal point when the Western North Carolina Railroad rolled in during the summer of 1884, and Sylva was incorporated on March 9, 1889. Soon after, Sylva became Jackson County's site for the annual fair. Sylva began to push for moving the county seat from Webster. In 1901, the Legislature approved an election. The County Board of Commisioners declined to hold the election, but the issue refused to go away. Again the General Assembly intervened and called for an election in 1913, when Sylva wrestled the county seat away from Webster in a heated election and began constructing the court house building in 1914 on Main Street, using a similar structure in Madison County as a model.

Sylva has continued to grow as the county center for service and business. The town is governed by a mayor and five-member board of commisioners. Appointed officials are the town clerk/finance officer, chief of police, town attorney, and tax collector/assistant finance officer.

This is reprint of a story by John Parris in his Roaming the Mountains series. [with minor edits]

How A Town Got Its Name

Webster: Twilight was slipping down on the little mountain village and fate was trudging along the road that wound up out of the valley to the east. Oil lamps were beginning to wink from windows among the thinly scattered houses along the wagon-rutted, red clay street. A whimpering wind whistled down form the hills and scampered through the 27-year-old village that had been named for Old Daniel as a graceful concession to the Whig element of the county.

Judge Riley Cannon turned the key in the door of the red-brick court house, seat of government for the county of Jackson, and headed for his home just west of the village cemetery. The wind flayed the wood smoke spouting from the chimneys and rattled the windows and shook the doors and lugged at the hand-rived boards roofing the houses.

To the wandering, weary stranger trudging red-faced along the road leading to the village, the wind conjured up memories of a storm blowing out of Aalborg in Denmark. Aye, he thought, what a night! The devil astride the jib boom, his tail lashing in the wind. Time to take in the top gallants, wind up the mizzenmast, and reef the sheets.

The wind bit through his thin jacket. It knifed through his jeans. It pinched his nose and his ears. His beard bristled like a north cat’s back. He paused. There was an ache in his bones. An emptiness gnawed at his stomach. He cupped his hands. He pressed them to his lips and blew on them. And his mind was a confusion.

Behind him was a lifetime, or so it seemed, of wandering. Down this road and up that one. Wandering and forever searching. Running maybe. But always on the go, always moving on. Through the falling dusk he saw a tiny star of light up ahead.

Fate nudged him and he walked toward it. As he came nearer, he saw that it was a lamp winking like a harbor light from the window of a white house. He climbed the steps and knocked at the door.

The door opened. A little man with a red mustache stood in the opening. He said "Good evening.” “I’m looking for lodging for the night” the stranger said. “This isn’t my house. But just be patient and I can make your request known to Judge Cannon.”

The stranger waited. A minute or so later the little man with the red mustache returned. “Judge Cannon,” he said, “bids you welcome. Come in out of the cold. There is a bed for you. Supper will soon be ready.”

“And what is your name?” asked the little man. “William D. Sylva,” said the wayfarer. The little man held out his hand. “Mine is Hampton. Gen. E. R. Hampton. I’m a guest too,” he said.

By the calendar, it was January 6, 1879. And William D. Sylva was about to keep a rendezvous with destiny.

That night the wandering wayfarer filled the gnawing emptiness of his stomach at the Cannon’s supper table and chased away the ache in his tired bones between the white sheets of a feather bed.

The wind died during the night. Dawn came in gray, spitting a skiff of snow. After breakfast, Hampton announced he had to be off to Asheville. Judge Cannon said he was going over to his mills on Scott’s Creek, four or five miles from Webster.

“You’re welcome to come along,” the judge to Sylva. “Maybe when you see the mills, you’ll decide to stay and work for me.” Sylva said he didn’t know where he wanted to settle down. “Well,” the judge said, “you just stay and live with me a while until you make up your mind.”

As William D. Sylva, a wandering Dane, rode along with Judge Riley D. Cannon to his Scott’s Creek mills that snowy January morning 122 years ago, fate was about to name a new town for him.

If the judge was curious about Sylva’s background, he didn’t say so. He let the stranger tell him what he wanted to tell him and was satisfied. And Sylva was shut-mouthed as a clam about where he came from and what he had done.

Nevertheless, Judge Cannon took a liking to him and before the day was over asked Sylva to stop and live with him for a while. Sylva moved in with Judge Cannon.

Two or three weeks later, Captain Bill Enloe, who owned a store and tannery and a lumber mill down on the river near Webster, got after Sylva to come work for him. Sylva told Judge Cannon and Judge Cannon said he wasn’t about to let Sylva got to work for Enloe.

Meanwhile, Judge Cannon’s son-in-law, Gen. E. R. Hampton, decided to move from Webster over to Scott’s Creek where he also had a sawmill. Hampton had one daughter, a little girl named Mae.

Hampton told Sylva he was going to build a town. Gen. Hampton set his own mill to running full blast and got the judge to run his day and night too. By this time, Sylva was working full-time at the sawmill.

“First”, Sylva recalled several years later, “we set the saws to running day and night turning out lumber. The first lumber went into a little storehouse that General Hampton built. Then we sawed lumber for the General’s house.

“We built this house west of the mills, between the hill and the creek. There wasn’t anything on the north side of the creek except a little blacksmith shop. When we got established there, Hampton petitioned the post office for a post office.

“Hampton asked Mae, his little daughter, what we would name the post office. She said ’Sylva’.”

Like all of the other folks who had come to be acquainted with him, Mae thought Sylva was just about the nicest person she had ever known. “No,” said Sylva when he heard what Mae said. “Name it something else. Call it Baldwin or Parker. Name it for one of your kin or for one of the fellows you brought in. Name it anything but Sylva.”

But Mrs. Hampton and Mae protested. They told the general it had been named and that its name was Sylva. The general said he reckoned if that was what his womenfolk’s wanted, then it was Sylva. And that’s what he named it.

The Sylva post office was established August 6, 1880, with Mrs. Lula A. Cannon postmaster. And in March nine years later the town of Sylva was incorporated, with Dr. J. H. Wolf mayor, along with commissioners R. A. Painter - he had been secretary to Gen. Robert E. Lee for a while during the American Civil War - M. D. Cowan, M. Buchanon, A. B. Dills, and B. C. Grindstaff.

Strangely enough, the second letter that came to the new post office was to William D. Sylva. It had been mailed from Fort Gibson, Cherokee Nation, and forwarded from Webster.

“I left it on the table at the Hampton house,” Sylva recalled one time, “because I didn’t think any of them could read it. Most of it was in Danish. I don’t think I received more than three letters all the time I was there.

“I never did tell anybody where I was from. Henry Brendle was the sheriff. He came down one Sunday and attempted to interview me, but I had learned to say my little piece long before I met him."

A few years later, Sylva pulled up stakes again and hit the road. He didn’t leave a forwarding address. Al he left was a town that bore his name. A town that was building up to supplant Webster in 1914 as the county seat.

Some 45 years later, Sylva addressed a letter to the postmaster of Sylva. It was postmarked from Cleburne, Texas. And therein he proceeded to tell how the town of Sylva got its name. But he was plumb shut-mouthed about where he had come from when he arrived in Webster back in 1879.

In 1951, the year of Jackson County’s centennial, a daughter in Cleburne, Texas, wrote to S. H. Monteith in Sylva that William Demetrius Sylva was her father that he had passed away in 1927.

Then back in the 1970s, a retired U.S. Army Air Force staff sergeant and now a locksmith in his hometown of Sylva, who was taking some special training at Norton Air Base in San Bernandino, CA, discovered that one of his instructors was the grandson of William D. Sylva.

Webster is still a village, albeit a picturesque one. It lost the county seat in 1914. All because the coming of the railroad to Sylva.

And because the wandering Dane walked in here back in 1879 to keep a rendezvous with destiny.

Sylva was granted a U.S. Post Office on August 6, 1880, and its first Postmaster was Lulu A. Cannon. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved