A look back at 2019

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The Graham Star reflects on the top stories from last year

  • North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and an aide get acquainted with (from left) ARC Community Development Planner Ann Bass, Clerk of Court Tammy Holloway, Commissioner Connie Orr and Robbinsville Mayor Steve Hooper during his visit to Graham County on April 12. Photo by Art Miller/amiller@grahamstar.com
    North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and an aide get acquainted with (from left) ARC Community Development Planner Ann Bass, Clerk of Court Tammy Holloway, Commissioner Connie Orr and Robbinsville Mayor Steve Hooper during his visit to Graham County on April 12. Photo by Art Miller/amiller@grahamstar.com
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The final year of the decade made for a news-filled campaign inside the pages of The Graham Star.

While it is impossible to decipher which stories are the tops for 2019, here are 10 noteworthy events involving Graham County that took place during the last 12 months.

Rockslide on 143

Stecoah – Traffic was stymied by a Jan. 4 rockslide on N.C. 143.

The morning incident closed one lane of traffic just a half-mile from the intersection of N.C. 28. N.C. Department of Transportation equipment began removing rock Jan. 7.

Both lanes of traffic were back open within a few weeks, though an estimated $1 million effort to stabilize the crumbling mountainside was born in the aftermath.

Tombstones tipped

Lake Santeetlah – A 58-year-old former school teacher from Oregon was arrested and charged with 67 counts of desecrating graves in Graham County.

The incident took place at Lone Oak Church and the acts – which also included circling the church, fellowship hall and Sunday school building, as well as urinating on a door – were captured on-camera. The alleged suspect, Dawn Renee Phillips – a.k.a. Dawn Renee Sjurset, who had a Kentucky driver's license – was captured in Andrews and is still awaiting trial. 

Governor visits

Robbinsville – A two-hour stop in Graham County by Gov. Roy Cooper yielded a bevy of positivity.

Cooper met with Robbinsville Mayor Steve Hooper and also visited the community center, soaking up all the information he could and addressing the issues each person he met with brought up.

"We are proud to have Graham County in the state," Cooper said. "I'm really impressed with all you're doing. You make us a better state."

Oak Valley closes

Milltown – After just four years of operation, the Oak Valley Hardwood plant ceased operations May 9.

Oak Valley set up shop in the old Stanley Furniture in April 2015. After the initial belief was that the plant would close – but all the employees would be absorbed by American Timber Group, which was also housed inside the Stanley Plant – the operation closed its doors with 23 employees on the payroll.

Oak Valley Hardwood peaked at 35 employees during its four years in Graham County.

Woman saves baby

Tallulah – Quick action by a CPR-certified woman saved a 2-month-old child’s life.

The miraculous event occurred near Ledbetter Road on July 1. Mikayla Turpin was driving her infant cousin Archie to a doctor in Murphy when, "God told me to pull over and check on him."

Once Turpin pulled over, she discovered the baby was turning gray and immediately began CPR efforts, while also calling for emergency personnel. Archie began breathing again about two minutes later, and was later airlifted to Erlanger Children's Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

Man dies in shooting

Milltown – A June 29 shooting resulted in the death of Nathaniel David Birchfield.

Graham County officers responded to a call about a fight at 413 Hoot Owl Hollow Road. Upon arrival, they discovered Birchfield dead in the driveway from a gunshot wound.

Forrest Scott Waldroup, owner of the residence, was arrested and charged with felony murder. He is still awaiting trial.

Dedications held

Snowbird – Two consecutive days of dedications in Snowbird named a pair of initiatives after important members of the community.

The Snowbird Youth Center was renamed the Abraham Wachacha Youth & Teen Center. Wachacha served as the Snowbird and Cherokee County representative for 18 years. In 2004, he introduced the resolution that led to the construction of the youth center.

The Diamond Brown Jr. Snowbird Hip Housing Development was dedicated the following day. Brown served as the Snowbird and Cherokee County representative for two terms, and also led the Hip Housing Development project while in office.

FBI agent drowns

Cherohala – Perhaps the most publicized Graham County incident of 2019 occurred Oct. 7, when a 60-year-old FBI agent drowned in Big Santeetlah Creek.

Kathleen Polce Miller was at a campsite just past Stewart Cabin with her husband. He told authorities that he left to use the restroom for about five minutes, and when he returned he found Miller facedown in the creek.

The Graham County Sheriff's Office deemed the death "suspicious," but charges have yet to be filed.

Fontana cleanup

Fontana – Double the weight and five times the help.

That's what the Fontana Lakes' second annual Lakeshore Cleanup – held from Nov. 1-3 – yielded. 

A total of 77 volunteers worked in chilly weather to collect items such as Styrofoam and plastic bottles, collecting just under 45,000 pounds of trash by the end of the three-day effort.

Knights win state

Durham – For the 14th time in 50 years, the Robbinsville Black Knights reigned supreme as class 1A state football champions.

The Knights went 15-0 this year and won the state crown to the tune of a 45-14 victory against Northampton County on Dec. 14.

Rylee Anderson had five rushing touchdowns in the title game, which came after he broke the all-time school record for rushing yards in a career. Anderson finished his time at Robbinsville with 6,164 yards.

A special magazine commemorating the championship season will be included in the Jan. 30 edition of The Graham Star.