Hayesville, NC

"Southern hospitality at its finest"

Named a Finalist Because: Though wildfires threatened their homes for weeks last year, the residents of Hayesville, North Carolina, didn’t worry just about themselves. Their outpouring of support for the firefighters who came to their rescue is a potent reminder of the power of gratitude.

From the Editors: “Thank you.” It gets left unsaid more often than it should. But when Hayesville, North Carolina, found itself on the receiving end of a Herculean effort to save the town from wildfires last fall, the residents’ collective gratitude echoed across the country.

The core of the emergency effort was lead by the Interagency “Hotshot” Crew, a team of federal firefighters who are enlisted to handle wildfires in remote areas with very little outside support. The fires ultimately spread over 10,000 acres in several counties, and it took the Hotshots weeks to control the blazes. Hayesville did everything it could to make the Hotshots feel at home. Carloads of provisions—from home-cooked meals and sports drinks to regular deliveries of lip balm for the firefighters’ parched lips—were dropped off daily at Hinton Rural Life Center, the Hotshots’ home base. Local schoolchildren wrote more than 2,000 thank-you notes. The residents prayed for the firefighters too.

“I cried multiple times that summer and fall over the generosity and bigheartedness of the community,” says Kayla Stephens, who has lived in Hayesville for 29 years and was one of the people who nominated the town. When the fires were put out and the Hotshots prepared to go home, the entire town turned out for a parade to thank them.

The Hotshots were so overwhelmed by the spirit of Hayesville that they made a thank-you note of their own, an emotional video filled with personal testimonies from the heroes who helped save the town.

“You guys do not know how much you mean, all the support you guys give us,” says Ron, a firefighter from Oregon, in the video, which you can see below. “Out of four years that I’ve been fighting fire, this is about the most hospitable state and county that I’ve ever been in.” 

Read the nomination from Kayla Stephens, Kessie Ledford and Hattie Sheehy below to learn more about why Hayesville might just be the Nicest Place in America.

—The Editors

When the Hotshots came to town to save Hayesville from wildfires, the town pulled together and made them feel at home like no other.

The people here will rally as a community to help others like I have never seen in my 29 years.

I recently moved to this sleepy town from a bigger city, Asheville, NC. When I moved to Hayesville I was a bit apprehensive as it has all of two stop lights and the downtown is literally a square around the historic courthouse.

About three months after moving there were three big fires, and by big I mean hundreds of acres on multiple sites. They brought in the Hotshots (federal firefighters, who deal with large, more serious blazes) and unfortunately the surrounding communities also started having fires after our dry summer. The people in this town of 400 rallied together and took care of the Hotshots and the local firefighters. Everyday multiple vans and cars would pull up to the home base to donate water, Powerade, non perishables offer a listening ear or just to pray over the men and women helping keep our forest lands from burning and our homes safe.

I had NEVER in my 29 years seen a community be so selfless and kind. I cried multiple times that summer and fall over the generosity and bigheartedness of the community. There were so many people putting the Hotshots above themselves they had to put out a bulletin to stop donating as they have too much. Meanwhile the bigger town I moved from, Asheville, was begging the citizens to donate and help out the firefighters there.

When the fires had been put out and the Hotshots got to return home, the ENTIRE community and schoolchildren held a thank you and good bye parade for the men and women risking their lives for others. The Hotshots ending up recording a video in which most if not all cried and thanked the community for love and donations of which they have never seen such an outpouring of love in all the years they traveled this country keeping us safe..

As a kid, a boy got attacked by a dog and the injuries caused him to lose most of his vision. For his sixteenth birthday, his mom asked people to send him birthday cards to make it memorable. He received more than 1,000 cards and even got to meet his favorite football player, Tom Brady. ( he got attacked by a dog when he was little and now he is mostly blind) he was turning 16 and his mom wanted it to be memorable so she asked some people to send in some birthday cards. He ended up getting over 1, 000 cards and he even got to meet his favorite football player, Tom Brady. This is one of the many reasons for why Hayesville is the nicest place.

If there is a funeral procession down the road, everyone pulls over and stops out of respect. If someone is sick, we all pray for them and hope that everything turns out well. We all know each other, so if something happens, everyone knows about it.

A young girl shoots some hoops at her local church. (Credit: Kessie Ledford)
A group of friends spending quality time together at school. (Credit: Kessie Ledford)

Everyday Kindness, Jacqueline’s Story

I moved from the city six years ago to this tiny little town. I love it. The old time feel is pure nostalgia. Live music and antique car shows are held on the Town Square. You feel safe and kids have freedoms you wouldn’t find in the city. Year round, families gather at the local recreation fields and school gymnasiums to watch kids play ball. Wednesdays and Sundays are reserved for church and family. Several parades throughout the town fill our streets with smiles and laughter. They are just the right size. You don’t have to arrive two hours early to get a place to see, and you don’t have cranky children bored waiting “for this to be over.” People are friendly and know you by name when you walk into restaurants.

In the first few weeks we were here, the whole family went on a drive to drop off a check to pay a bill. Unfortunately, we got lost and ultimately ran out of gas on this rural country road. A man approached the car and asked if he could help. He left and a few minutes later drove up with his old pickup and a piece of hose. He siphoned gas right out of his tank and into ours. He wished us the best and we were on our way. Stories like this are not uncommon in this quaint community.

The Rotary Club installed a free library on the Children’s Playground. (Credit: Jacqueline Gottlieb)

Three years after we moved here, my husband passed away unexpectedly. I joke that the whole community had a key to my house. People came to take care of the dogs, to do laundry, and to take care of the yard. Teachers made food for the family. People from another church, not even my own, learned that a pipe had broken in the garage and came to repair it. The realtor from years earlier called one afternoon and asked for the key. She left a hot meal in the oven just waiting for us to arrive home. Two other friends came and stocked the refrigerator.

Adults invest time in the young people. My son attends a boys breakfast and men’s fire weekly. He’s learned to use yard tools and other equipment that I wouldn’t have the first clue on how to use.

My daughter signed up for track and field and a fellow from church came over to teach her how to throw shot and disc. Then my son signed up for football for the first time, and the same man asked to help him as well.

Retirees working with middle school students on robotics. (Credit: Jacqueline Gottlieb)

It’s about spending time, relationships. People make time for others here. I could list stories like the ones above for days. When I first came, I recall hearing the phrase, “they are good people.” I didn’t quite understand it then but I totally get it now!

Hattie’s Story

That this beautiful little town came to attention at all, much less nationally, was due to the unexpected and heart-warming video made by firefighters from all over the country who came here to fight the vicious and brutally hot wildfires that ravaged our mountains, people and farms. They were overwhelmed with the support from us, saying they had never “seen anything like it, anywhere.”

But it’s not just in times of crisis that we respond to others; I’ve seen people rush to hold the Post Office door open for folks. We greet one another, a nod, a word, or just a smile, every time.

Here is my favorite story that describes what we are about: Looking out the big window of the nail salon one day, I saw a woman come briskly striding up the sidewalk, then suddenly come to a halt. She looked at the parked cars, then to the buildings and, seeing the salon, burst through the door and called out, “Does anyone here have a red RAV4 that’s missing a spare wheel cover?”

“That would be me,” I replied, “but didn’t notice that it was gone.”

“WELL,” she boomed, “it’s sitting down in front of the UCB [one of our two banks, a mile away from where I had taken my car and was presently], near the rose bushes and dented in the middle. It was partially in the driveway, so I moved it.” I thanked her most sincerely and she went out as suddenly as she came in.

Wow, I thought, this is some town. Seriously, there aren’t many places where a stranger would see, take note of and retain a detail such as this — then later, connect it with a car parked a good mile away. But mostly to CARE enough to not just shrug it off, but take the time and opportunity to pass on the info.

It is also a mark of the Hayesville vibe (and, yes, my own quirky nature) to think nothing of calling the bank, telling them what and where it was and that I was on my way to get it.

I just came back from the grade school where I spend each Friday reading books to the second, third and fourth graders. I was home and sick on that last Friday but called the librarian, Ms. Kim, to say that I had another collection of recent children’s books for her and a newspaper photo copy from 1991 of the total solar eclipse in the sky over Kauai where I then lived. I had planned on sharing it with the kids, as our town is ground zero for the same rare event this August — a very big deal.

I also collected gift and thank you notes from all my kids — four pairs of kitty socks, which acknowledges my routine of wearing weird socks on Fridays after I heard tell of and missed, “Weird Sock Friday.” I have kitty socks, yes, but also bacon and egg — well, you get the idea. It is a wonderful place to go, our grade school. Their teachers and staff instill, beyond plain knowledge, kindness, really: how to treat one another and beyond. These attributes could save the world, if only we’d let it.

Being “nice” is our way, the default setting, so to speak. I’ve lived in many states, towns large and small, but I consider Hayesville the finest example Golden Rule.

Hotshots Thank You Video

More Information

Hayesville Thanks the Hotshots