Perspectives Online

Madison County 4-H'ers put historic road on a GIS map

Using satellites and software, 4-H'ers mapped the Old Buncombe Turnpike and discovered the history of the old livestock-to-market route.
Photo Courtesy Eve Kindley

What started as a history project for a group of Madison County 4-H'ers turned into a valuable lesson on the meaning of "community."

The county's 4-H GeoTech Club, with members ranging in age from 8 to 18, created the first Geographic Information System (GIS) map of the old Buncombe Turnpike, or "Drover's Road," once used by farmers to shuttle livestock to market through western North Carolina.

With funding from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and the United Way, the club obtained hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers and GIS software last summer that enable them to collect data, upload it to a computer and build maps. Their Buncombe Turnpike project stemmed from a requirement of the ESRI grant that the youth complete a "Community Atlas Project."

"We were asked, 'What is a community?' We learned that a community can mean many different things to different people," said club member Nezzie Covington, 11, during a presentation of the project. "We decided that for our project, Madison County is our community."

Once the youth narrowed their topic to the Buncombe Turnpike, they pounded the pavement researching the historic road, talking with local experts, using libraries and visiting the Register of Deeds. They mined data from the state Department of Transportation and worked closely with the Madison County GIS Department. They also read articles and books - anything they could get their hands on - to better understand the road's history and significance.

The youths discovered that the old Buncombe Turnpike, a dirt road used by farmers in the early 1800s to herd "droves" of livestock from western North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to market in South Carolina, spanned about 75 miles.

The 4-H'ers also tracked 55 stock stands along the road where animals could be fed and the drovers could eat and sleep. Thousands of animals packed the road during droving season in late fall. The turnpike remained active until 1882, when the advent of the railroad changed commerce forever.

Traveling along the western North Carolina portion of the route - often by car with their parents' help - the youths collected data with GPS receivers. They then used GIS software to compile their findings and create detailed maps of the Buncombe Turnpike and the drover stands along the way. Their maps are available on the Web at

"We learned a lot about the Buncombe Turnpike," said club member Drew Yost, 8. "I liked making maps. I didn't know how to do this until I joined the 4-H club."

Covington added, "It's really cool to know there was actually a real, old road that used to be there, just a couple of miles from my house."

While their project ended in the heart of downtown Asheville, the youngsters found that the Buncombe Turnpike stretched farther south, ending in Greenville, S.C.

Help with the project came in all sorts of surprising ways, said Eve Kindley, Extension 4-H agent in Madison County. Kindley coordinated all aspects of the project, from securing grant funding to helping the youth construct a PowerPoint presentation.

"Professionals and volunteers came out of the woodwork to help us with this project," she said. "These kids had a first-hand experience on what it means to be part of a community."

Even local musicians got on board, she said. During their research, the 4-H'ers discovered a Buncombe County bluegrass band called "Buncombe Turnpike" and asked the band's permission to use one of the band's songs in their presentation. Thrilled to be involved, the band sent over a slew of CDs.

So what's next for the Madison County 4-H GeoTech Club? After presenting their project to GIS professionals at the North Carolina GIS Conference this spring, they submitted the presentation to a national conference in San Diego and were accepted.

While the June trip to California was out of reach, Kindley said that the youths are focused on raising funds so they can attend in 2008.

"To our knowledge, no one has created a GIS map of the Buncombe Turnpike until now," she said. "These kids are amazing. This project helped build confidence and taught them how to organize and present information. GIS is just one piece of all that they got out of it."

- Suzanne Stanard