In 2003, Frank and Carrie Vogler said goodbye to their Victorian home inside Asheville city limits and moved into a cabin on 300 acres of abandoned farmland in the eastern tip of Tennessee.
The most direct route to the property was a poorly maintained 2.5- mile fire road through the national forest, with swampy holes big enough to swallow a car. Rather than risk the loss of a vehicle, the couple opted for a 6-mile workaround—but even that ended in a mud bog they had to fill with carpet scraps to have any hope of traversing. It would be more than 10 years and a court decision before they would be able to establish a right-of-way to their property. And five of those years would be spent living without power because of, well, priorities. “We ranked things like getting horses above power,” Frank says with a laugh. “It was a gamble, and everyone thought I was an idiot.”
Ultimately, it was all about the land, with its rolling hills, hardwood forests, and natural springs. “It’s in an upland basin, surrounded by national forest,” Frank says. “It’s haunting. There’s nothing like it I’ve ever seen that I could afford.”
But the land wasn’t going to be tamed without a struggle, and when it wasn’t fighting them, the people of Cocke County were. “It’s the poorest county in Tennessee,” Frank explains. “Cock fighting was going on here until recently.” Poaching and smuggling were rampant, and chop shops were everywhere—along with a general distrust for outsiders. (At one point, Frank’s 1986 F-150 was stolen and set on fire.)
At first, the Voglers sacrificed basic amenities like power and plumbing for reasons of practicality and thrift. And even still, they’re firmly off-grid folk. The sun powers most of their operations; a generator is available when the battery bank runs low. A composting toilet fertilizes the garden. Recently, they were able to set up a pump and filtration system to bring water from the creek up to the house. In addition to the horses, their menagerie now includes chickens, cows, rabbits, and geese.
Back in Asheville, Frank had been a sommelier with a political science degree and graduate study in classical guitar. At the heart of his move with Carrie was an unbridled curiosity about the earth. They wanted to hunt, to garden, to learn horsemanship and animal husbandry. They wanted backwoods living.
They took it a step further, however, by starting V&V Land Management and Resource Recovery, an earth-focused company that does everything from clearing pastures to building roads. The concept is simple: They develop land, yes, but the approach is distinctly circular, with great respect for the land. Every choice is made with rejuvenation in mind; even when clearing trees, they use specialized machines so that they protect the earth with a layer of mulch that will decompose into rich, black topsoil. They call their approach “Integrated Land Management,” a philosophy that grew out of the dismay they felt when they visited job sites and saw ravaged land. “We thought our nest was endless,” is Frank’s quiet answer to the question of why we ruined our planet.
Others in the blue-collar construction and land-management profession don’t always bring with them the core convictions the Voglers carry. Maybe that’s because of the philosophical underpinnings informing their approach: They connect deeply with theorists and farmer poets like Wendell Berry. And there’s certainly a sense of social conscience at play in the form of Frank and Carrie’s two boys: Silas, 8, and Cade, 5, whom they homeschool.
“There’s a Nietzsche passage I read that resonated with me—something to the effect of ‘Where your soul lives is where you need to be,’ ” Frank muses. “For him it was Turin, Italy. For me, it’s Del Rio, Tennessee.”
What’s funny is that, despite his unwavering focus on rejuvenating the land, Frank doesn’t match the Asheville zeitgeist. “I’m not a purist,” he says. “Some folks want to save everything; some want to get rid of it all.” When he rolls into town, he’s still the guy in a heavy diesel pickup, getting honked at by a Toyota Prius driver.
That’s because Frank understands the balance of human life on a wild earth. (“I love my smartphone,” he quips. “ I was on my horse a minute ago texting a guy a hydraulic part number.”) And in the more than 10 years he and Carrie have been watering this patch of land with their sweat, they’ve seen the heavily poached deer population return, along with quail, woodcocks, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and mink.
“This is probably the place where I’ll die—I’ve got pets and a daughter buried here,” Frank says. “I’m just trying to figure out what this land wants to be.” — Seth Putnam
Made proudly in the USA, Stetson hats are for men and women who make bold choices: to reclaim land, to resurrect decaying buildings, to restore broken-down vehicles, and to go play when the work is done. In Asheville, North Carolina, we found that American spirit vibrantly alive in the hearts of the new pioneers.