Donald “Pap” Bumgardner wasn’t there when a throng gathered Nov. 8 in his barn off Hickory Grove Road, between McAdenville and Stanley to celebrate his birthday.
Bumgardner – known as “Don” or “Pap” to young and old alike – died Oct. 2 from chronic heart disease at the Robin Johnson Hospice House in Dallas. He would have been 80 on Nov. 11.
As Saturday’s celebration approached, however, people who had packed the barn for Don’s funeral and celebration of life, said Bumgardner would forever live in their minds and hearts. And most hoped that gathering there for an annual party to honor his birthday will become a tradition.
Bumgardner planned and single-handedly built the barn after Jean Rankin gave him 2 acres of land on the farm known as Redlair after she and husband Forney Rankin ended their marriage in 1974.
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The acreage was part of a stretch of leeched-out cotton farms that Forney Rankin acquired near Hickory Grove Baptist Church, where his ancestors had lived, to serve as a home place for his growing family.
Haywood Rankin, Forney and Jean Rankin’s third son, said Bumgardner’s connection to his family began when Bumgardner was 19 years old. His father turned to Bumgardner to begin the task of converting the eroded gullies of the former cotton farms into green fields that soon became a green paradise, Rankin said.
Along the way, he and Bumgardner developed a deep bond that some may have thought was strange. Bumgardner, functionally illiterate, could write his name and barely read; Haywood Rankin spent 12 years in higher education at UNC Chapel Hill and at Oxford University learning French and Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute. He retired after 39 years as a diplomat to the Arab world and Africa.
Before working at Redlair, Bumgardner “learned to plow with a mule when he could barely walk, and his mother sent him to hunt all up and down the South Fork River with the instruction that he had better come home with something to eat, else there would be no supper,” Rankin said.
The late Henry Gaston, a teacher at North Belmont Elementary School, tried to teach Bumgardner the three Rs for a few years, but he had no interest in the written word or theoretical learning, Rankin said. But he recalled Gaston’s assessment that, on the farm, Don was “one of the smartest, most brilliant men he ever knew.” Before joining the Rankins at Redlair, Bumgardner had helped farm much of the acreage along Hickory Grove Road.
“Anything Don could touch and sense he would immediately absorb and understand,” Rankin said. “Don was one of the few people I have ever met who was unfailingly original and stimulating. His memory was phenomenal. There was always a twinkle in his eye, and he was the master of devilish humor. We were bound together in the supremely difficult mission to preserve Redlair.”
In the 1960s, Rankin convinced his parents to put most of the farm under conservation easements that would prohibit development for the sort of housing subdivisions that were creeping up Hickory Grove Road. In 2013, the land passed to the state, under management by the Plant Conservation program to forever preserve its unique natural heritage such as the rare big leaf magnolias that grow there.
Dr. Chuck Meakin, director of CaroMont Medical Center’s cancer center, got to know Bumgardner after moving to Gaston County in 1994 and purchasing 68 acres of land that adjoined Bumgardner’s place and Redlair. He, too, granted conservation easements on his land to the Catawba Lands Conservancy that would protect it as a natural green space.
“He was first and foremost a cowboy,” Meakin said. “He was pretty much his own veterinarian. He knew how to take care of horses and cattle. He could handle the breech delivery of a calf. He could do almost anything.”
Meakin said Bumgardner had heart bypass surgery in his 40s and again in his 50s. Despite doctors predicting he wouldn’t be around much longer, “Don kept eating good country foods that he raised himself and kept on going.”
From age 65 on, Meakin and scores of friends who gathered at Bumgardner’s barn, began celebrating Bumgardner’s birthday. “We’d all say we’ve been blessed to have Don with us for another year,” Meakin said. When Bumgardner’s heart problems forced his admission to the Robin Johnson Hospice House, they flocked to his bedside.
“Don was a wonderful man. It was a real privilege to help care for him,” said Dr. Mike Case, Bumgardner’s physician after he entered hospice care in December.
“He had more visitors than anyone else at our hospice house. A steady stream of friends came to sit with him, visit with him and enjoy his company,” Case said. “He was one of those unique people who had the ability to talk with a diverse group about a way of life that people yearn for but don’t have the time to achieve in this modern, fast-paced world.”
Dr. Lorri Ayers, a Charlotte internal medicine physician, got to know Bumgardner some 10 years ago through her secretary, who boarded horses at his barn. The secretary told her about Bumgardner’s worsening heart problems and asked her to see him.
Don was a farmer who cared nothing about amassing money, Ayers said. Instead, he depended on the kind of barter system practiced in the 1800s and early 1900s. He traded produce grown in his lush garden, beef from his herd of cattle or labor for what he needed, she said.
During the years he was her patient, she gave him free medication samples provided by pharmaceutical companies, she said, “and he paid me with tomatoes, eggs and other vegetables. During the summer he would bring bushels of vegetables to our office to share with the staff.”
She often dropped by his barn, where he lived in a small apartment, to check on his health, enjoy the people who gathered there and listen to his stories about a bygone era.
“He was the warmest, loveliest man. He gave sage advice and served as a father figure for untold numbers of young people, including my children. He was amazing, he knew what life was about and tried to pass along good values to everyone he met,” Ayers said
Cassie Bell Dumas fell under Bumgardner’s spell as a toddler when her mother, Pat Sturgill, took her to his barn where she frequently join friends.
“He was like a father to me,” Dumas said. “He taught me to ride, in fact taught me pretty much everything I know about horses and life. I still have the horse he got for me when I was about 10 years old. She had been injured in a trailer accident, was skinny and looked pretty banged up. But in no time, she was healthy, and she surprised all of us by giving birth to a foal. We didn’t even know she had mated before we got her.”
Bumgardner had trouble remembering the names of people who stabled horses at his barn, so he gave everybody nicknames, Dumas said. He tagged her as Buckwheat because of her hair color, then later shortened it to Buckie. At age 36, she still goes by Buckie.
Bumgardner enjoyed the company of the young people who came to his barn and frequently took them to weekend horse shows or barrel races, where he paid their entry fees. But he had a rule, she said, that you worked for the privilege.
“Through the week, we had to clean stalls or do other chores to earn the weekend outings. He never seemed to have much money, but he always came through for us,” she said.
While in junior high school, Buckie introduced her friend Joni McCaskill to Bumgardner and the youth who were attracted to his barn.
“That’s where Buckie and I went after school. After finishing our homework, Don would feed us ravioli or chicken soup and then tell us to get to work,” Joni said with a chuckle.
She described Bumgardner as “a sweet, sweet man. As I grew older, he was my go to person for advice. He had a hand in raising lots of kids like us over the years. And when I married and had children of my own, I didn’t want them to grow up anywhere else than where I did so they, too, could enjoy his little piece of paradise.”