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Even though Jonesborough newcomers Don and Deb Burger say they love the traditional way of doing things, their method of selecting a new place to live has been anything but conventional.
When they decided it was time to move from Brevard, N.C., three years ago, Don, an educator, musician and artist, and Deb, a writer and artist, decided they wanted and needed some place really different.
“Our first short list included Burnsville, Spruce Pine, and Murphy (all in North Carolina), since we have kids in Asheville and Hendersonville,” Deb said.
But after considering of the cost of living in North Carolina, the couple soon took those towns off their original “short list.”
They continued discussing the type of town they would look for and came up with a unique approach – they would visit East Tennessee to interview towns.
Since interviewing a town can be a bit more complicated than simply interviewing an individual, the Burgers said they got organized and created two lists – one for the “left-brain” and another for the “right-brain.”
Their “left brain” list included finding a place that offered a good financial climate with reasonable taxes, housing and utility costs, as well as WiFi and other such considerations.
Their “right brain” needs were entirely different.
“We wanted to find a community with live local music, individual small businesses, the presence of artists – a town with a neighborhood feel,” Deb said. “We wanted a place where people take time to treat people like people.”
The pair started by defining the geographic region where they would like to live. Their “box,” they determined, would be bounded by Interstate 40 on the south, the Virginia border to the north, Interstate 81 on the west and the North Carolina border on the east.
Their search started on weekends during the summer of 2009. The pair would select towns from the designated area, book a stay at a local bed and breakfast and begin the “interview” process.
Communities in Northeast Tennessee on the Burgers’ list included Mountain City, Tusculum, Gray, Johnson City, Greeneville, Telford, Erwin, Elizabethton and Jonesborough.
After making several visits to the region, the couple started crossing towns off the list for one reason or another. Then they arrived in Jonesborough.
The Burgers will never forget that first visit to Jonesborough. It was the last day of the 2009 Jonesborough Days Festival.
“The vendors were packing up to leave,” Don recalls. “But even though it was raining and the festival was almost over, everyone was so nice.”
People were so friendly, in fact, Don said they decided to stick around and see if they could find the answers to some of the questions on their “right brain” list. Those questions included:
If you woke up there, what would your face look like?
Does the town have local music and art?
Are there local businesses rather than chains?
Do people call each other by name?
Do people treat each other like people, not commodities?
Is there a commitment to “slow?”
Are there old buildings? If so, are they treated like treasures?
To get answers to some of those questions, the two started by observing the interaction between merchants and customers as well as making note of how they themselves were treated.
“We were fascinated,” Deb said. “So we continued to watch, we stalked, we sat on benches and continued to observe how the people who live here react to one another. Believe me, it didn’t take long for Jonesborough to jump to the really short list.”
Two weeks after that visit, Don faced major heart surgery and the couple’s search for a new home was put on hold until 2011. It was then that Don decided they needed to return to Jonesborough and pick up where they left off.
“We came back for the second interview,” he laughed.
The couple stayed at the Hawley House Bed & Breakfast and went to David Holt’s storytelling concert.
While at the concert, Don remembers, people kept coming up to a gentleman seated next to them, offering their acceptance or regret for an upcoming bocce ball tournament.
As a joke, Don leaned over to the man and added his tongue-in-cheek “regrets,” saying he was from out of town and wouldn’t be to attend.
A short conversation later, the Burgers learned they were seated next to Jonesborough Alderman Terry Countermine, who organizes the tournament for the Friends of the Library.
After a few more exchanges, they also learned Countermine’s brother had actually worked in a community theater with Don in New York.
For the Burgers, that was their “ah-ha” moment.
“If you’re looking for God to tap you on the shoulder and tell you, ‘This is where you need to be,’ that is just about what happened,” Don said. “It was truly one of those small world moments.”
The rest of the weekend was a flurry. They visited the farmers’ market, participated in a contra dance and attended Music on the Square, where “we were flabbergasted to see that 10 percent of the town show(ed) up.”
“We listened to the music and watched the little kids drawing on the pavement with sidewalk chalk,” Deb said. “We pretty much thought we were in a fairy tale at this point.”
By September 2011, the Burgers decided Jonesborough would become their new home. They bought a house, moved to town earlier this year and say they couldn’t be happier.
“This town is just the right place for us,” Don said. “This town is committed to being a community – it’s not just a place where people live.”