Retired Elon professor authors book on Haw River

The Haw River has been key to the region’s growth and development over the centuries, and as associate professor emerita Anne Cassebaum writes in her new book, Down Along the Haw: The History of a North Carolina River, its importance can’t be ignored as efforts continue to preserve one of the region’s vital waterways.

Associate professor emerita Anne Cassebaum

Published this spring by McFarland & Company, the book is a popular history of the Haw’s evolution from a water and food source for the area’s earliest inhabitants, to its role as a power source and sewage line for industry and municipalities in the 19th and 20th centuries, followed by its recovery as federal environmental laws allowed local citizens to defend their natural resource.

“Our health is the river’s health,” Cassebaum said in a recent interview. “You can’t have an unhealthy river and live in a healthy environment. I learned how possible it is to turn around an environmental situation, which makes it more agonizing when we choose not to do so.”

The book contains dozens of interviews with mill owners and workers, archaeologists, environmentalists, farmers, water treatment managers and others. Cassebaum also describes her experiences traveling down the 110-mile river that ends when it joins the Deep and becomes the Cape Fear.

She is quick to show how a reinvigorated Haw River has rejuvenated small Alamance County communities, including Glencoe and Saxapahaw, both of which have become recreational and cultural destinations for local residents and tourists alike.

Her conclusions, however, are nothing short of direct.

Beginning with the Clean Water Act of 1972 signed into law by President Richard Nixon, federal and state protections have effectively reduced pollution dumped directly into the river from industrial and waste water treatment plants. That law, however, doesn’t take into account runoff pollution like dirt, fertilizers, toxins, and chemicals from the highways, shopping centers, residential neighborhoods and factories that finds its way to the Haw and its streams.

Such runoff is a threat to restoring the river. “Our population is going to continue to grow,” Cassebaum cautioned, “and we need to wake up to how valuable a resource water and the Haw are.”

That doesn’t mean she isn’t optimistic.

“Why not be hopeful?” Cassebaum said. “It’s turning around, and that will continue. People find so much pleasure in the river. When you get people on the water, you build a base that will defend it.

Cassebaum retired from Elon’s Department of English in 2010 after teaching freshman writing, American literature, and courses in nonviolence and environmental studies. The New York native worked during her 25-year career with the university’s Students for Peace and Justice campus group as well as its Liberal Arts Forum, and led students on study travel to the Everglades, Alaska and the Haw River.

She now serves on the board of the nonprofit Haw River Assembly, whose mission is “to restore and protect the Haw River and Jordan Lake, and to build a watershed community that shares this vision.”