A Sense of Place

David Billstrom
5 min readJun 22, 2021


This Complicated, Resilient Place

[A version of this post was originally provided at Kitsbow.com, with the expert editing assistance of Tim Clark and Bethany Donovan, my colleagues at Kitsbow. I’m the CEO at Kitsbow, and I’ve been ruminating for over a year on how to explain exactly why an apparel company relocated from Petaluma, California to a declining former factory town in the rural South. This is our story.]

Why did Kitsbow choose Old Fort, North Carolina when we relocated from Petaluma, California? Why ride your bike, fish the streams, hike the trails, explore by horse, and camp in the Pisgah National Forest?

The obvious answer is the stunning natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around us.

And then there is the challenge: some of the steepest gradients in the Blue Ridge starts right in Old Fort and rises to the tallest peak east of the Continental Divide: Mt Mitchell. You can ride the historic Curtis Creek road from Old Fort to skirt the creek and climb nearly 3,000 feet of gravel to intersect with the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

The “blue” color of the Blue Ridge is the result of all of the trees, which release isoprene into the atmosphere and when viewed from a distance has the distinctive blue color, with shades of haze distinct for each ridge unfolding in the distance.

These are ancient mountains, well documented and explored, yet still wild. One lost afternoon thrashing through the rhododendron thickets or mountain laurel (with or without your bike) will convince you quite quickly that you could be lost forever. In coves (of forest) and along creeks burbling with clear, clean water from the literally countless springs and subterranean flows.

Beyond the natural geography and flora, this region has a deep history of human occupation, which informed our decision to make this Kitsbow’s home.

A unique part of America was formed here by indigenous peoples. Archeologists have recently begun to document the presence of artifacts used by humans hundreds of thousands of years ago. Subsequently, these lands were inhabited and cared for by Native American civilizations called the ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), the S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), and the Catawba.

The Cherokee, Yuchi and Catawba were followed by newer Americans such as Davy Crockett who eventually created a route from present-day Old Fort to present-day Asheville (to avoid tolls charged by other pioneers). Road cyclists know his route today by the modern names of Bat Cave Rd, Highway 9, and Charlotte Highway. The new arrivals pushed the Native American residents out of the area, and took the land for their own.

Later, the routes through these mountains were key pathways during the American Civil War; one of the few battles in the area was to halt use of the “Royal Gorge” — which today is known as Point Lookout Trail, a paved greenway for walkers and cyclists.

The South was obviously divided by civil war. Yet locations near the Blue Ridge were spared the heaviest of the actual fighting, due to the simple fact that not much land here was valuable at the time — difficult for growing cotton, tobacco and thus slave ownership was scant. The land was simply inhospitable to large plantations, and thus unprofitable and undesirable. Except to prevent movement of troops. The people who remained in the area had to be resourceful, hard working, and dedicated to the land in order to make a living and raise families.

After the war, Old Fort became a stop on the new railroad connecting the East to the West — Asheville and beyond. Conscripted labor in the form of barely-disguised enslavement of Black men built the line from Old Fort to Black Mountain, with an enormous and tragic cost of life. Today the unofficial memorial to their efforts are the seven tunnels that make it possible to climb the 1,500 feet up to the crest of the Blue Ridge from Old Fort.

I ride past these memorials every day as I commute (by bicycle) from my home in Black Mountain, NC to Old Fort, NC. Without fail, it gives me pause when considering the cost of this pathway.

The people who inhabit Appalachia today, including the region of Western North Carolina and specifically our home of Old Fort, were and remain resilient, hard-working, and rooted to place.

Which is perhaps the most important reason for why Kitsbow has chosen this home. This home to many local artisans, descendants of the long history here on Cherokee land. This home of resilient people.

How does this history matter to Kitsbow customers? Why should it matter to you?

Because Kitsbow is here. We’re also from here. Indirectly, the quality of our work is a reflection of the resilience of the people who have lived here for hundreds of years. We don’t want to ignore the history of this area, especially when it is painful and difficult such as the takeover of the Native American land and the repeated enslavement of Black people. We embrace this difficult and beautiful place.

Frankly, if a commercial enterprise was to invest in a specific local community, why would we not choose a place where the citizens had survived, even thrived, against all odds and in difficult conditions?

Other distinctions of this land also matter. As Americans realized the value of public land, in 1911 the federal government began to acquire land for public use — the Curtis Creek area was one of the very first and today is within walking distance of Kitsbow. It is now one of the highlights of the Pisgah National Forest.

And today Kitsbow continues to develop the people of this area: we invest in training local talent in the unique and specific skill of creating fine-quality, premium clothes. It simply makes sense to join a community with artisans who know hard work and take deep pride in the results.

It simply makes sense to invest in our community.

Come visit us, and we’ll give you a sense of where you are.

Join Our Cause

Get connected to our journey: Sign up for email here. Buy a product or two here.

Visit us in North Carolina at the Old Fort Ride House for a factory tour and to see the magic for yourself. Ride our trails, hike the ridges, and fish in the streams of the Other Pisgah; plan your trip here. Meet our community.

Above all: use the power of your purchasing to employ Americans crafting premium quality products that last for years, sustain the earth, and employ awesome people.

And we’re always looking for more talent and artisans. Send your friends, family, and best promising candidates to join our team here.

Help us change an industry, build a community, and save the world.