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Generations hear the Horn

Article Published: Jun. 17, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Generations hear the Horn

Horn in the West: It's more than just a High Country tradition.

For some of the 125 people involved each year, it's a family tradition, a bridge between the generations and a fond memory to fall back on.

Take Watauga County commissioner Billy Ralph Winkler. Over the decades, he's done everything from producing the show to cleaning toilets, and he's not alone. It's a Winkler family requirement.

Four of the five William Ralph Winklers have been on stage (and the youngest William Ralph is expected to show his stuff this summer), and they've been joined by the entire Winkler family.
Commissioner Winkler even met the woman who would become his wife at Horn in 1975.

"When the summer ended, I told her I didn't think I wanted her back in the show, but that I'd marry her," he joked.

And marry her he did, at the adjacent Powderhorn Theatre, and, thanks to his kids and grandchildren, he couldn't look back even if he wanted to. After all, it's their tradition, too.

"I remember, I used to have to say, 'Watch out, preacher,'... I thought I was a hot shot," his daughter, Jessi, said.

She and her sister, Ashley, grew up at Horn and return every year. They just can't help it.
"It's in our blood," Ashley said.

After all, their great-grandfather even arranged for the land Horn plays on each summer.

Over the decades, the sisters have done everything from sell tickets to don costumes.
"They put costumes on us when we were really young," Ashley said.

And, continuing the tradition, she made her young daughter's first costume. Little Bre, who celebrates her third summer with the show this year, is proud to continue the family tradition.
"I like being in the show," she said. "Jessi's there."

And Jessi's not alone. Other recognizable community members return year after year, perhaps none more notably than Jenny Cole, or, as you may have known her for nine summers, Widow Howard.

This summer marks her 25th year on stage with Horn.

"For me, it's generational because my dad was involved, and then I came in and then my two children worked here," she said.

And she expects her 2-week-old grandchildren will one day flutter across the same stage. After all, it's part of being a Cole.

"There were seven kids in my family," she said. "Out of all of us, I think at least five have worked here."

Even though Cole kept moving away, the Horn sucked her back in, as it did each summer of her childhood.

"I worked up top ... doing, you know, seating and selling programs and stuff ... I didn't get on stage until 1977 (nine years into her Horn career)," she said. "I was a dancer. Can you believe it? I was a dancer."

Over the years, she's done everything, from dancing to chorus to music director to Widow Howard, and raised her children both backstage and on stage.

"They grew up in the show," she said. "In fact, Jessica, my daughter, was 3-years-old, and she had a part. In Act 2, she played Jack Stuart's baby brother," she said.

While her kids, Jessica and David Reed are now 26 and 25, respectively, Cole knows they carry the Horn with them in their new lives in Florida.

"It taught them and prepared them for life," she said.

Her daughter, who now teachers music, got into singing through Horn, just as her son, a mechanic, got into machinery through the pyrotechnics that help make the show memorable.

"They would be taken from me during the show and put in other families," Cole said. "I was never their mother in the show ... but they loved being able to go back to mama at the end of the night. It was just a really good thing to be able to work together and play together every summer."

In recent years, she relates to Widow Howard more and more, and is full of love and respect for the character she has played for nine summers.

"Widow Howard represents a lot of women ... a woman without a man," she said. "She has no protector, no one to watch over her or take care of her, and she's stuck in the wilderness alone."

Thanks to Horn, Cole will never be completely alone. Along with the new talent on the stage, she carries the memories of those she worked with long ago, like the iconic Glenn Causey, who spent 41 years on the stage. She has watched generations grow up on stage, and plans to keep coming back to hear and participate in Horn in the West.

Written by Kermit Hunter, Horn in the West is a Revolutionary War drama that focuses on the settlers who first inhabited the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Specifically, it's the tale of the Stuart family, whose patriarch, Dr. Geoffrey Stuart, has left Great Britain to join the Carolina Colony to study smallpox, bringing his family with him.

It's not long until Stuart finds himself embroiled in the politics and bloodshed of revolution, for his son, Jack, fights alongside a band of colonial revolutionaries. He's then faced with a moral and life-changing dilemma - stick to his loyalist beliefs or fight alongside his newfound compatriots.

Horn in the West, the High Country outdoor drama tradition, is back June 18, and actors, technicians and volunteers alike are working on overdrive to bring the pioneer story to life for the 48th consecutive year.

Watauga residents get an added bonus this premiere weekend at Horn. With proof of Watauga residency, community members and their guests can purchase tickets for shows on June 18, 19 and 20 for $5. Each county in North Carolina gets a discounted weekend. Call the box office (828) 264-2120 to purchase tickets or find out about discounts for other county residencies. For more information, visit

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