Mitford Museum celebrates beloved book series and its author

Jan Karon’s life story gets a stop on North Carolina’s Literary Trail.

The first time she returned home to the rolling foothills of western North Carolina in the late ‘80s, author Jan Karon, then 48, was inspired to create stories about a small town and the everyday characters who lived there. In the process, she transformed her life and brought pleasure to millions of readers.

From bucolic Blowing Rock, Karon created the now-mythical village of Mitford, a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, including parishioner Esther Bolick’s recipe for orange marmalade cake. Episcopal priest Father Tim Kavanagh and his travails in the small mountain community became a beloved sanctuary for millions of readers over the past 28 years thanks to Karon’s popular Mitford series, encompassing 14 novels and 11 companion books.

The Mitford novels would go on to sell more than 30 million copies with no less than 115 reprintings, including 48 international editions and translations in Czech, German, Polish, Korean, French, Finnish, Portuguese, Japanese, Hebrew and Dutch.

Now 85, Karon has returned to the region once again, this time to her hometown of Hudson, North Carolina, where she has created a museum in the schoolhouse where she attended first grade. She hopes her Mitford legacy will help drive tourism to an area that was economically impacted by the collapse of the region’s textile industry. Those who know the deeply spiritual and driven Southern author — a steel magnolia before the phrase was coined — have no doubt she will succeed.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Born a Storyteller

Despite modest beginnings, Janice Meredith Wilson did not waste time living an eventful life.

Her childhood was spent in the tiny textile town of Hudson at her grandmother’s feet, listening to her stories.

“She’d be rolling bows in my hair, telling tales of her five courtships,” recalls Karon. “She kept all of the letters.”

Like most children in the farming community, young Janice and her sister grew up churning butter and gathering eggs. But she distinguished herself by being an eager reader, skipping a grade, developing a fascination for dialects and displaying a gift for drawing. Inspired by “Gone with the Wind,” she wrote her first book at age 10 and “got a switching” for including the word “damn.” Around that same time, she won a short story contest.

When she was 12, Karon moved to Charlotte to join her mother, who had remarried after Karon’s father left. Two years later, Karon dropped out of school and eloped across the state line in South Carolina. By the time she was 15, she had a daughter named Candace, but the marriage didn’t last. Karon found herself alone at 18 with a child to support.

Karon found a job as an office assistant at an advertising agency. The executives soon noticed her intelligence and wit, aided by the fact that Karon would leave writing samples on her boss’ desk. Soon the largely self-educated, auburn-haired young woman was writing advertising copy.

She was also a bohemian in the classic sense. Karon read poetry, took her daughter to foreign cinema, listened to jazz and was part of a Charlotte lunch counter protest for desegregation in 1960. Two more short marriages would follow, the last one landing her in Berkeley, California, before she returned South again, winding up in Raleigh, North Carolina, working at an ad agency.

Then a fortuitous thing happened. In the late ‘80s, Karon won an industry award that came with a cash prize. She knew her future wasn’t in advertising, so she quit her job and moved to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, to become a writer.

“I left a career in which I had been very successful,” said Karon. “God spoke to my heart and said, ‘Go and don’t look back.’ Timing really is everything.”

Credit: Todd Bush Photography

Credit: Todd Bush Photography

A nod to Dickens

At that time, Blowing Rock was a village of about 1,000, and it had many of the qualities Karon’s readers would identify as the fictitious town of Mitford: sidewalks lined with shops, merchants who knew every customer’s name, churches packed with parishioners. And it was on one of those sidewalks where Karon envisioned her main character, an Episcopal priest named Father Tim Kavanagh, walking.

Other characters would soon follow: Emma, the opinionated church secretary; Miss Sadie, the elderly philanthropist; Dooley, the wayward boy; and Cynthia, Father Tom’s love interest. And, of course, Barnabus, the huge black dog in need of adoption.

The idea to publish her first book in installments came from Karon’s friend Jerry Burns, then editor of the Blowing Rocket. In 1990, the newspaper began publishing her “Father Tim” tales, filled with humor, kitchen-table warmth and Karon’s illustrations. The newspaper’s circulation jumped 30%.

She found a literary agent but only received rejections from publishers until she decided to shop the book around herself. A small Christian press published “At Home in Mitford in 1994, and Karon employed her marketing experience to promote it, calling and visiting bookstores and sending out her own press releases, all while writing the next book.

In 1996, Viking Penguin bought her first three books and reissued them as paperbacks, and Karon again promoted herself. This time she took off. Championed by independent bookstores and word-of-mouth by readers, the books started appearing on the New York Times bestseller list.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

With the rewards from her success, Mitford bought an 1816 farm house on 100 acres in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 2000. She lived there for 14 years, lovingly renovating the property and writing her books.

Side projects followed: children’s books, a deal with Hallmark, several compilations of Father Tim’s favorite scriptures. An illustrated cookbook, “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader,” was published in 2004.

Karon published the last Mitford book, “Light from Heaven,” in 2005, drawing Father Tim’s story to a close. But fans and publishers clamored for more, so she went on to write five more novels featuring Mitford characters, including “Home to Holly Springs,” detailing Father Tim’s childhood in Mississippi.

Her books have a universal quality that crosses genres. Readers who never would have given a glance at Christian fiction find themselves entranced by the small-town tales, where the occasional scripture quote and characters who pray are not off-putting.

“I write for the secular audience,” said Karon, “That makes the medicine go down in a happy manner.”

Ivan Held, her publisher at Putnam, agreed. “The very best books either defy categorization or make magnificent blends of many elements,” he said. And Karon’s books continue to resonate with new readers.

“The books remain popular because they tackle very real issues — broken families, addiction and poverty. For that reason, they always feel current,” said Danielle Dieterich, Karon’s editor.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

A Place for Readers

Today Karon lives in a townhouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her daughter Candace Freedland, who became an award-winning photojournalist for AP and the Charlotte Observer, died of pancreatic cancer in July 2021. (“She was the light of my life,” Karon said.)

Done with Father Tim’s story and resistant to suggestions she should pen an autobiography, Karon knew she was far from done connecting with her readers. She found the opportunity to “tell my readers about my life in Hudson” in 2018, when she learned the old Hudson Elementary School, where she attended first through seventh grade, was bring transformed into an event space and community arts center.

The project stirred Karon’s fond memories of her first-grade teacher, Nan Downs. “She loved us little country kids in flour sack dresses and overalls,” said Karon. “It was the first real encouragement that I had.” She happily donated money to the cause.

Later, Karon was informed that the organizers wanted to give her the first-grade classroom since they knew how meaningful it was to her. “I was thrilled,” she recalled.

Credit: Amy Bonesteel

Credit: Amy Bonesteel

Called the Hudson Uptown Building (HUB), the building is now the town’s crown jewel, housing an art gallery, a midcentury-style bar, a boutique, day spa and community theater. And, of course, there is the Mitford Museum and Happy Endings Bookstore, named after the shop in the books.

Visitors are welcomed by blown-up images of an elementary school-age Karon, her early artwork and writing. Containing objects lovingly curated by Karon, the room features a bench from her grandparent’s porch, worn crockery and her grandmother’s well-seasoned biscuit pan. The chalkboard in the front of the classroom adds authenticity and serves as a portal for Karon’s fans to write messages on.

But the small museum is about much more than nostalgia. Capturing not only a way of mountain life that is gone, it also portrays a young girl’s dreams and a creative woman’s life journey through a tumultuous and changing America. From the poster advertising her community theater production to her grandmother’s hand-written story about killing a giant chicken hawk, these are the events that shaped the writer.

The exhibit descriptions are intentionally first person. “I am telling my story to my readers,” said Karon. “Readers walk in and they feel at home. They know they can find refuge. That’s what I want the museum to offer — refuge.”

The second, adjoining classroom exhibit is dedicated to Karon’s “Mitford years.” Her desk, vintage typewriter and framed book covers reside near Father Tim’s vestments and a glass case of Karon’s “favorite things” — an antique aqua oyster plate, a pair of pink bejeweled slingback heels. Readers will also recognize an oversized, vintage nativity scene that inspired the one Father Tim painstakingly restores for his wife in “Shepherd’s Abiding” (Mitford series #8). Also on display is Cynthia’s emerald wedding suit, which Karon had a dressmaker replicate. “It is even her size,” said Karon.

Across the hall, the well-appointed Happy Endings Bookstore sells autographed copies of Karon’s books as well as exclusive items including aprons, soaps, holiday ornaments and T-shirts.

In its first year, the museum hosted a sold-out tea party, a quilt expo, a summer reading program and a literary weekend. Upcoming events include Candlelight Christmas Tours, Cynthia’s Primrose Tea Party and the debut of the Candace Freeland Photography Award of Merit for young people with a $5,000 prize.

Karon admits to missing her Mitford characters, but instead of writing another novel she used her creative energy to make the museum. It has taken its place among other literary sites in the state such as novelist Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville and poet/biographer Carl Sandburg’s estate in Flat Rock. Museum Director Sarah Thomas gives credit to the author: “Don’t plant a seed with Jan Karon unless you want to watch it grow.”


IF YOU GO

The Mitford Museum. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. 145 Cedar Valley Road, Hudson, North Carolina. $10. 828-572-4898, www.themitfordmuseum.org.