Laura Dean Bennett
Spring, summer and fall, there’s a good chance you’ll find Dawn Baldwin picking, drying and chopping a variety of herbs for her herbal teas.
She’s built a small business of growing and harvesting herbs and plants to process and package as tea.
Many people are now familiar with the name Brightside Acres – the name of her farm and herbal tea business.
Dawn, originally from Memphis, Tennessee, came to visit friends in West Virginia in the 1980s and then moved to Lewisburg with her husband and young son.
Like many before her, Dawn came here by being friends with people who had met and made friends with someone from Pocahontas County.
Dawn and her husband, Milton, moved to Lewisburg and often visited Richard and Marsha Laska on Old Pike Road in northern Pocahontas County.
When property came up for sale near the Laskas, the couple realized their lifelong dream of owning a farm in the country.
The couple bought property and built a log home – off the grid – on Old Pike Road.
A home with solar panels, a farm with plenty of room to raise crops, and woods and mountains to explore – it was a dream.
Then suddenly, Dawn found herself widowed.
She immediately put her home in Lewisburg up for sale, and looked toward her mountain home.
“My son, Jake, who’s now 24, had grown up spending summers and Christmases here,” Dawn said, “and he learned how to hunt here.
“We had all just loved it.
“I never even considered not moving to Pocahontas County.”
She moved to “Brightside Acres” permanently in 2012.
They had named the farm after the Monty Python song from the Life of Brian, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Because, as Dawn explained, “Even if it’s hard to do, you have to keep smiling.
“We planted grapevines, blueberries and apple trees, and I planted a garden.
“I quickly learned how to protect things from the deer and other animals.
“We had to put up solar electric enclosed fencing around everything, probably like a lot of people do.
“I wasn’t really involved in the community until about 2010 or 2011. But I was meeting so many interesting people in the north end of the county – like Jesse Powell at Travelers Repose.
“I became fascinated with the rich history of this area and how women survived in the 1700s and 1800s around where I lived on Old Pike Road,” Baldwin explained.
“Back in the day it wasn’t unusual for there to be twelve-foot snow drifts in the winter up here.
“I learned that there were more deaths during the Civil War in this area from exposure than from bullets.
“What a story! During the Civil War just about all the men from age 16 to age 60 left home to fight,” she said.
“That left the women to hold their families together, keep the farm running, feed their children and survive.
“It wasn’t unusual during the lean years, like the Depression, for families to send their children away to be raised by relatives or friends who had the wherewithal to care for an extra child, or to send their children away to work at young ages.
“The women who survived here and raised strong, healthy families were brave, resourceful women.
“Pocahontas County was filled with those women,” she added.
Brightside Acres is located on a 12-mile stretch of Old Pike Road that runs from the Virginia state line to the bridge at Bartow – meaning she lives closer to Monterey than Marlinton.
“In its heyday – about 1900 – there were 110 families living around here. Now there are just two – us and the Laskas,” Dawn said.
“I used to go for long walks in the woods with Dottie Simpkins – she was a real “woods-woman.”
“She taught me so much about the food and the medicine to be found underfoot and all over the woods.
“I was fascinated and began growing and harvesting plants and herbs and making them into teas.”
“I love that nature provides all these nourishing plants and herbs – they just grow wild. They are there for us to use.
“Even with all the modern conveniences that we have – like trucks and [propane] refrigeration, it’s still not easy to live up here on the mountain,” she said.
“All those families who lived up and down this road and, now, there’s little evidence that they were ever here.
“It makes you think.
“History can be so fragile. We have to remember it, write it down and tell it to each other,” she said.
“I feel like in the last ten years, I’ve begun to understand those women who lived here all those years ago, and I’ve grown closer to them.
“How did they do what they did? And wearing those dresses!
“But they were surprisingly healthy.
“I got interested in herbs and wild plants imagining and learning about the lives of pioneer women.
“The pioneers in these mountains brought seeds of medicinal plants with them because they knew they would need their herbs for medicine,” Dawn explained.
“Like coltsfoot – its not native to North America.
“In England and Europe, a picture of the coltsfoot blossom was the sign of an apothecary. It was an essential medicine for treating whooping cough.
“The incredible bounty that we have in our woods and our fields never ceases to amaze me.
“It’s so much fun hunting for herbs and wild plants to harvest.
“All of our wild blackberries and red raspberries are useful.
“The berries are good to eat, and the leaves make excellent teas.
“There are all kinds of ways to use herbs and wild foods,” she said, but stresses that she’s not an herbalist.
She calls herself a naturalist and folklorist.
“I like to learn how plants and herbs have been used over time,” she said. “And I favor the herbs that are very safe – that have been proven safe and effective for people through the ages.
“My focus is on making teas. It’s a quick way to get the nutritional value out of the leaves.
“With berries, for instance, there’s actually more value in the leaves than the fruit.
“One of my favorite herbs is nettle. It was one of the first plants I learned about. I keep a pitcher of nettle iced tea in the fridge all summer.
“It’s delicious, refreshing, it has no calories, and it’s good for you.
“If people will taste it, they usually like it.”
Dawn explained that getting phytonutrients (plant vitamins) in their natural form is so much better for us than getting those nutrients any other way. And they’re more easily absorbed by our bodies.
“There’s so much science on this now,” she said. “Back in the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of interest in fresh foods and healthy eating.
“Then in the 80s and 90s we went the wrong way – toward industrialization of food and farming.
“Now there’s renewed interest in healthy eating and herbs again. People are back to connecting their diet with their health. This time with a lot more science to back it up.
“When I started selling herbal teas, I had to do a lot of explaining and convincing about the health benefits.
“There are no magic cures in herbal teas,” she said.
“I tell people, ‘Your health is like a garden. You need to plant in good soil – like we need to feed ourselves nutritiously – or the bugs will eat up your plants – like disease can take hold in our bodies.’
“Herbs support your immune system – they help your body help itself.
“If you want to have only two herbs in your kitchen – keep nettle and heal-all.
“Wild harvested nettle tea has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s good for gout and rheumatoid arthritis.
“Drinking heal-all tea provides good immune system support. This summer has been a banner growing season for heal-all.
“It makes a wonderful tea and also, a wet tea bag of heal-all tea can be used topically to help heal infections of all kinds,” Dawn added.
Scarlet bee balm is another of her favorites.
Wild harvested bee balm tea, or Oswego tea, as the settlers called it, has been around a long time. The Oswego tribe taught English settlers about it.
“It has a nice strong, somewhat spicy flavor and smells a little earthy, like thyme. It contains thymol, which is used today in mouthwashes and disinfectants,” Dawn explained.
“English settlers used bee balm as an antiseptic. They made poultices for skin infections and wounds. You can also use their square and hollow stems as straws.
“I also grow domesticated peppermint and spearmint, but I love to gather wild mint.
“Nettle, scarlet bee balm and mint are easy to gather together as they can usually all be found beside a stream,” she added.
Her mullein leaf tea “Breathe Deeply” is effective for respiratory issues and sinus problems.
Mullein has long been known to thin mucous.
“It’s like nature’s Mucinex!” she said with a smile.
“It used to be called “Miner’s Candle” because the dried stalks make good torches. You just dip the dried stalk in tallow or wax and let it dry.”
Her yarrow tea called, “Nourish My Body” has a strong flavor – like anise.
Yarrow is another antibacterial plant very high in anti-oxidants.
Dawn blends yarrow leaves with berry leaves and lemon balm – which also have antioxidant properties – to soften the flavor.
Her red clover tea includes red cover blossoms, raspberry leaf and sage and is called “Renew.” Red clover contains phyto-estrogens, so it’s especially good for women.
In springtime, Dawn gathers herbs for her springtime teas – Coltsfoot, then dandelion, then burdock.
“In the spring, there’s a synchronicity between the time that an herb grows and when we most need to partake of it,” she explained.
“Coltsfoot, dandelion and burdock are all de-toxifiers which help us after a long winter of maybe not eating enough fresh foods.
“These herbs must have really come in handy to the early settlers and people who were living out here in the mountains before supermarkets and refrigeration.
“In the greenhouse, I start lettuce as early as I can so I can have something green to eat in the spring. And, of course, I drink a lot of springtime teas.”
You will find pretty bars of goat milk soap sharing space with Dawn’s herbal teas at the 4th Avenue Gallery, farmer’s markets, bazaars and festivals.
What, you may ask, isthe story behind “Miss Clyde’s Goat Milk Soap?”
Well, it turns out to have been another perfect illustration of the old saying, “be careful what you wish for.”
Dawn’s childhood desire to have a goat became reality – if not at the most opportune time.
Matt Tate, of Mill Point, had been one of Baldwin’s “Produce on the Move” customers.
Baldwin had, on several occasions, told Tate how she admired his two nanny goats.
And she told him that ever since she was a little girl, she’d thought of having a goat.
“I was out in the garden one day and a friend of Matt’s comes driving in with these two goats in the back of his truck – Miss Clyde and her daughter, Dora – and he was in a hurry.
“He just stayed long enough to unload the two goats and hand me their ropes,” Dawn recalled.
“As he left, he said, ‘You’re gonna wanna milk ‘em.’”
Her first official act as the proud owner of goats was to go straight into the house to look up YouTube videos on “How to Milk Goats.”
“We’re great friends now. They’re really nice – especially Clyde. She’s just the sweetest thing.
“It’s her name on the goat milk soap labels,” Dawn explained.
But why does she make the goat milk soap?
“Well, I couldn’t drink all that goat milk. I had to do something with it!” she laughed.
You can find Dawn Baldwin’s products online at Brightsideacres.com and throughout Pocahontas County at 4th Avenue Gallery, the Shops at Leatherbark Ford, Sharp’s Country Store, The Levels Depot and the Whistle-stop.
They are also available at The Hub in Lewisburg, Appalachian Tea in Charleston, and, beginning in October, look for them at the Public Market in Wheeling.