Ron and Nancy Bryant: From activism to stewardship

Monday, October 14, 2019
Carolinas Urban-Rural Connection

This story is one of seven vignettes in the series Rural by Choice: Navigating Identity in the Uwharries

Ron and Nancy Bryant met at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Charlotte in the 1980s.  “I was sitting in the second pew and noticed this man in the row behind me,” Nancy said.

A  Winston-Salem native, Ron had moved to Charlotte after college in 1964 to take a job at Hoechst Celanese.  Two decades later, Nancy arrived from Massachusetts, recently divorced and ready for a career change.  After teaching school for many years, she’d taken a course in hospitality at the local technical college.  She intended to open a small Victorian B&B.

Instead, she tackled the sprawling Morehead Inn.  Within a few years, she started to turn a profit, but after marrying Ron in 1987, she decided to sell.  “I didn’t want to be a bigamist,” she said:  she couldn’t be wed to both her husband and her job.

This is one of  seven vignettes about people who choose to make their lives in rural areas outside of Charlotte. Read the other parts of "Rural by Choice" online.

Ron and Nancy soon became vocal environmental advocates in Charlotte and across the state.  Affiliated with the Central Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, Ron often spoke on a range of issues before the board of county commissioners.  When a solution seemed obvious, Ron (who has a degree in physics and almost went to work for NASA) liked to say, “This isn’t rocket science.  I know, because I am a rocket scientist.”

Ron served on the first board of trustees for the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and Nancy helped found Clean Air Carolina. Despite these successes, they sometimes questioned their ability to impact the urban political and economic structure.  Ron grew weary of “sitting across the table from a group of developers arguing about how many houses they could put on a tract of land.”

Both had grown up with a love of the outdoors, expressed through their enduring connections with Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and both had always liked the idea of living on a farm.

As Ron’s retirement approached, they turned to the faith that had brought them together and prayed for a sign to guide them to the right tract of land.  They found it along the banks of the Pee Dee River in Stanly County, as the flight of an eagle formed the shape of a cross.  

Ron and Nancy Bryant's land in the Uwharries. Photo: Crystal Cockman

Now called 3 Eagles Sanctuary, this 170-acre tract of forest and farmland is being managed for wildlife habitat and sustainable agriculture.  Ron and Nancy have gone from being activists to stewards.

During Ron’s tenure, the clean water fund board approved $6 million to protect 1,200 acres on the west side of Mountain Island Lake — but today he finds more satisfaction in having corrected the sedimentation issues on his own land.  He recalls walking down to the river after a particularly heavy rain.  “The Pee Dee was running red,” he said.  “But the water flowing into it from our creek was clear.”

“I wanted to watch Charlotte fade in the rearview mirror,” Ron said.  He also hoped to leave contentiousness behind.  And yet, these longtime activists have occasionally been drawn into local causes over the past 13 years – the control of Alcoa’s land during federal relicensing process, the reelection of Barack Obama.

Still, their lives in the Uwharries are largely marked by cooperation.  They’re able to transcend differences and find commonality with their neighbors and their church community.

In June, Rev. L. Murdock Smith, longtime rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, arrived to help rebuild their congregation at Christ Episcopal Church in Albemarle.  Recognizing that change can be difficult, he likes to say, “Let’s go slow.”  

Even though she respects his approach, it’s sometimes hard for Nancy.  “I like to go fast,” she said, with a laugh.