I lived in Marion as a kid from 1985 to 1995. My parents, David and Amita Jagirdar, owned Sportsman Inn. They were fairly new immigrants from India then.
I remember the people who would come to swim at “little Catawba.” They would spend all day at that pool with their families, lining up at the diving board or sitting around a cooler. We’d throw handfuls of pennies into the water to dive for and if you could get one out of the deep end, that was quite the achievement. The whole place smelled like banana boat and chlorine. People brought change to buy Cheerwine and chips from the vending machines. I loved refilling the soda machine, it seemed like the most advanced technology to ever exist. I remember when “Walk Like an Egyptian” played from boomboxes nonstop one summer, the next it was “Turn the Radio Up.” Someone once put a live fish in the kiddie pool and I was so scared. I thought it’d swum up from the creek and up through the drain.
My parents planted huge gardens in the land around the pool. There was okra, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and every kind of bean stalk creeping up the fence. They also grew bitter melon, pigeon peas, ivy gourd, and taro with leaves as big as an elephant’s ears. These were vegetables that couldn’t be easily bought and reminded my family of their home. My grandmother would make my lunch with vegetables she’d pick straight from the garden. Watermelon grew on accident thanks to how many seeds were spit out onto the hill above the pool. The vines suffocated the landscaping but my parents let them grow regardless. They were sweeter than anything you could find in a store today and we enjoyed them every summer for years.
I’d search for tiny wild strawberries and yellow flowered wood sorrel to nibble on. There was a crab apple tree at the top of the driveway behind the Sportsman Inn, that was a regular snack for me. Maggie and Harvey Bueller were in a trailer home up there and I’d spend half my days picking wild flowers to bring to them. If I could get a thistle flower without getting stabbed by a thorn, I felt pretty lucky. The Bueller’s had a cocker spaniel named Corky, and that was one of the first words that my brother, Amit Jagirdar, spoke. Every animal excitedly became a corky. Cow? Corky! Horse? CORKY! Grazing animals across Western North Carolina were christened “Corky.” My brother was the sweetest toddler and is the most wonderful brother today.
Pioneer Meat Company
My parents started Pioneer Meat Company out of Sportsman Inn. If you remember someone coming to your door to sell you meat from a freezer in the back of a white pickup in the early 90s, well, that was one of my family’s businesses.
They had more than 60 trucks in three states before they sold it. We had generators off those trucks to get us through the blizzard of ‘93.
As a kid I could tell you what part of a cow every steak came from. I remember some of the guys coming back with a ticket after accidentally getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway in a commercial vehicle.
There were so many people named Bob working at Pioneer that all the Bobs got a nickname. My dad still has relationships with the butchers he knew then. My husband, Greg, can tell you about flying home to New York with a dozen prime steaks on dry ice every few months, until one day we decided our cholesterol was probably suffering.
I met my best friend Kathy Trinks when her dad Stan came to manage Pioneer. He had quite a job on his hands keeping some of the bigger characters in line and making sure everything ran smoothly. I remember Kathy’s step mom Tabetha spending hours brushing the knots (she called them bird’s nests) out of my hair. She taught me to use hair conditioner, how to play gin rummy, took me roller skating, and helped me become a cheerleader at a school I didn’t even attend! I thought Tabby was the most beautiful and fun lady in Marion. The way she pronounced the days of the week was and still is one of my favorite things. They were family to us.
School at Maranatha
I went to elementary school at Maranatha on the hill behind Sportsman Inn. I wanted to go to school so badly I started kindergarten there when I was 3 years old. I remember Rev. Dean Silver, Mr. David Thomlinson, Mrs. Reece, and Mrs. Sandy Robinson, whose daughter Trisha and niece Nikki were friends of mine. We would walk down the hill behind the church to get to the playground, and down further to the field. The big kids would push the merry go round faster and faster while us little kids clung to the bars until someone got flung off. We’d recite Bible verses from memory and I hoped to be called for John 3:16 because I had that one down pat. I was always getting demerits for not memorizing verses. Learning the hymns for Christmas every year was a highlight. I could proudly sing the first two lines of “Noel” but mumbled through the rest of it, until it was time to confidently belch out “Noel” again. Sitting in pews behind the back drop on the stage you could get away with not knowing all the words. I played Mary one year and felt like a star even though I didn’t have any lines.
I remember coming home from school one day and telling my mom, “they told us to dress up as a cowboy or Indian for Thanksgiving.” She said “an Indian? Are you sure?” Yes I was sure! So I went to school in my brightest red Indian outfit with gold sequins. Nobody let me know that I’d mixed it up, everyone was so nice and told me how pretty my dress was and asked if I would twirl for them.
My Hindu parents didn’t mind that I went to a Christian School. They said good people are good people. One of my scariest memories as a child was when satanic symbols were spray painted on the parking lot of the church. It was the first time I realized evil people could be out there. They painted over the graffiti but you could still see the symbols for years, which always made me sad. I’d ride my bike too fast down the driveway of the church and skinned a knee on more than one occasion. I’d drag my brother up there with his tricycle and let go. He’d hold his legs out to the side, unable to keep up with how fast the pedals were spinning. We got away with it because they’d diverted Highway 221 up on the hill and the old road became our dead end personal highway.
When we had guests we’d take them to Linville Caverns, Grandfather Mountain, Biltmore Estate, or Tweetsie Railroad. I loved that chair lift. If I was really lucky I made it to Dollywood. Dolly Parton was and will always be a queen. I’d walk to the gas station at Hankins Road for candy all the time. We went to Catos, Roses, and Belk to shop. Lady Marian Plaza seemed like the height of sophistication. The first movie I ever saw was “Free Willy” at the theater in Marion, but something went wrong and they had to stop the movie. I think my dentist was Dr. Grindstaff. I’m trying to remember because I’m a dentist now and I think back on that first filling I had while working on my own patients with as much empathy as possible.
I always knew that Sportsman Inn was not the fanciest place but while my folks were there they worked hard to keep it tidy. I’ve asked around to find out how old it might be, and the oldest stories I hear are from the 1950s. I could tell that the ties ran deep in Marion and as a child of new immigrants I felt like an outsider. But the friends I did have were the warmest, and those families became my own. My dad tells me how much help Woody and Freddie Killough were in those days. They were friends to them when my parents didn’t know anyone in town. I sent my parents an article about the Bigfoot Festival last year, and they were excited to see Steve Little quoted. My dad told me Mr. Little had helped him as an attorney and about how involved he was in the community. It was heartwarming to see so many in Marion thriving.
Moving away from home
We moved to the Atlanta suburbs when I was 12 and I’ve been in New York City for the past nine years. My path has taken me far away but I always think back on my childhood. I tell the New Yorkers who ask: I never wore shoes growing up, I knew every kind of plant and whether or not you could eat it, I knew how to grow things in red dirt and how to spot poison ivy. I often brought home box turtles, wild flowers, feathers, and quartz. I searched endlessly for the perfect round dandelions to make a wish and blow away. We’d pan for gold for fun and pull clay up off the banks of the Catawba. They don’t know what kudzu is in New York. I loved getting lost in the vines, hoping a snake wasn’t hiding. I’d make piles and piles of purple flowers, I loved that smell. It was a great way to grow up. My parents got on their feet in Marion. Much of my mom’s family stopped through there as they came from India and went on to their own fulfilling lives. My parents are tickled by the path that took them from a dirt floor home in one country to a comfortable life in another, by the sheer range of experiences they’ve had, and the wonderful people they’ve met along the way. They are very proud Americans.
My husband has only ever lived in New York State and I’ve told him for years that I’m going to bring him down to see where I grew up. We have two little kids now and I find myself looking for experiences like my own to give to them. We make the drive up to the Hudson River Valley to get lost in the forest and pick wildflowers, where the Catskills look like Great Smoky Mountains and everything is a little slower. It’ll have to do until we make our way down to Marion one day.
How this essay came about:
McDowell News editor Scott Hollifield read a post on a Facebook page in which Arti Jagirdar Cipolaro shared some of her experiences growing up as the daughter of immigrant business owners in Marion. “It was wonderfully written and a great snapshot of what it was like to grow up in Marion in the ‘80s and 90s,” Hollifield said. He reached out to Cipolaro and asked if she would like to share her experiences with readers of The McDowell News. She agreed and even shared some photos. “I know our readers will enjoy this as much as I did,” Hollifield said.