The multitalented Arlie Presnell
by Sherrie Norris
At 83, the self-taught, multitalented craftsman, artist and entertainer is one of those hidden treasures that you just don't stumble upon every day.
Until about two years ago, you had to go to Beech Creek, "on the backside of the mountain," Presnell said, before you might be lucky enough to find him.
Today, a short drive to a local assisted living center in Boone takes you to one of the most unique characters to have come off that mountain - or any mountain for miles around.
His half of his room resembles a makeshift craft shop, where he can carve flowers or a gee-haw whimmy diddle from a piece of wood in minutes; he can draw a diagram "that just comes to my mind," with little effort, and turn the illustration into a rustic version of a radio or television made from a few discarded potted meat and orange juice cans, copper wire and plumbing pipe.
"People over here don't think my radio works, and they won't let me try it, but if I was over at the house, I'd plug'er up and listen to the Grand Ol' Opry," he said. "I could pick up that Boone station, too."
As for the TV, he said, "I've got it all figured out, except for gettin' the picture to jump out."
Presnell was born and raised near the Avery-Watauga county line, the second of seven children in a hard working farm family. He grew up learning to live off the land and to utilize every available natural resource.
"I've never wasted a thing," he said. "If I couldn't use it, it wasn't any good to start with."
His family grew large crops of tobacco, cabbage, corn, potatoes and fruit, most of which was harvested and taken off the mountain to sell.
"We all had to help," Presnell said. "We put everything in a jar or a can to see us through the winter."
The Presnells also raised farm animals; their mother did the milking, but the kids had to bring in the cows from the fields every day before daylight.
"We kept hundreds of chickens, too, and sold their eggs," he said.
They also gathered a variety of herbs, most of which was taken to town and sold to make medicine.
"We always kept enough to make our own remedies," he said. "We each had a bottle that we kept on the shelf with our name on it."
Presnell remembers gathering moss from rocks and baling it into 40-pound bundles to sell.
"People used it to line graves with," he said. "Then, they'd take it up and resell it to put on top of birdhouses."
He also remembers crushing and sifting rocks to make face powder. "I'd flavor it up a little to make it smell good and put it in little boxes to sell," He loved "going off for days at a time," Presnell said, and staying inside caves and under big rocks, while in search of earth's treasures.
He made good use of wood and rocks from which he fashioned horseshoes, slingshots, sleds, miniature airplanes, wheels, various toys and even a wheelbarrow.
Baskets, he said, he made from jack vine. "It's limber-like and you can work it good," he said.
His crafts were sold far and wide.
Not only did he cut and sell firewood, he also sold fire. "Some women couldn't build a fire, so I'd rub two sticks together, put the fire in a bucket and they'd carry it home to the stove. I charged a dollar for every fire," he said.
Presnell said he has always been "stout" and could carry 160 pounds of cherry bark on his back for miles without stopping.
He never liked school, "but I went to the fourth grade." "I reckon I never missed anything. I've always been able to get by and I learned what I wanted to," he said.
It mattered little that the schoolteacher boarded with his family. "Young'uns was kept out a lot, anyway, to work the farms," he said.
When Presnell and one of his brothers decided to move out on their own, they built a little shack over the hill, "far enough to where dad couldn't see us," he said, but their labor was still expected at home.
Chores were varied and included hoeing corn, chopping wood and picking worms off the tobacco crop - by hand.
Presnell's sister, Pauline Brown, said their dad offered them a penny for each worm they found.
"Arlie filled a half-gallon metal syrup can full one day," she said, "but, dad got mad and said that was too many, that he couldn't pay him, so Arlie just went and dumped the bucket out over the tobacco."
Otherwise, she said, "Arlie's always been a good person and knows the Bible better than most. It's amazing what he has always been able to do. When he does something, it's got to be just right."
Presnell taught himself to play -- and build -- several musical instruments.
"Nobody ever told me how, I just think of something and then I do it," he said.
In addition to diagrams, Presnell also draws colorful floral designs on paper, which he sells for a dollar each.
He has never liked the limelight and has preferred solitude. He's always been happiest, he said, when he was alone in the woods.
There seems to be a few things that he isn't comfortable discussing. "There's some things I reckon I just don't need to talk about," he said.
But, he does like to spin yarns quicker than one can decide if it's truth or fiction. "I don't make nothin' up," he said. "I just tell stories about things that already happened - or what's goin' to happen."
He did say that he gets along well with others and, to his knowledge, doesn't have an enemy.
He lost his vision for several years, he said, adding "But, I got it back."
He started making wooden flowers to sell, originally to supplement his tobacco habit. "My sisters cut my sticks and I just whittle them out," he said. "I'll use one pocket knife to get the bark off and another one to curl them like a daisy."
They're easier to work with while they're still green, he said.
"When they dry out, they're pretty and white. I use a little drill to put a hole in the middle for a stem and then glue it in. Most of them come out lookin' the same," he said.
Presnell has never been sick enough to be hospitalized; he had the flu once, but he refused to take the prescribed medication.
"I don't need a doctor. I feel good all the time," he said. "I've pulled my own teeth with wire pliers; I ain't gonna say it didn't hurt, but it was toler'ble."
Presnell pointed out that he has one blue eye and one brown eye.
"I guess there ain't nobody perfect. There's a little something wrong with all of us," he said.