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Watauga County Historical Society Announces Rachel Rivers-Coffey as Next Inductee to the WCHS Hall of Fame

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Last Updated on July 25, 2022 10:21 am

As part of ongoing activities associated with the Boone 150 celebrations in 2022, marking the 150th anniversary of Boone’s official incorporation as a town on January 23, 1872, the Watauga County Historical Society (WCHS) has established the Watauga County Historical Society Hall of Fame. Throughout 2022, WCHS will name twelve individuals or groups—one each month—as members of the inaugural class of the WCHS Hall of Fame. For the month of July 2022, the WCHS is delighted to announce that Rachel Ann Rivers-Coffey (1943-1999) has been named as the next inductee of this inaugural class of the WCHS Hall of Fame.

Rachel Ann Rivers was born to Bonnie Jean Lewis Rivers (1910-1991) and Robert Campbell Rivers, Jr. (1899-1975) on May 4, 1943, in the Hagaman Clinic at Boone. Her parents offered little in the way of fanfare about her birth, posting a brief item in the “Local Affairs” column of the Watauga Democrat to announce her birth and her initial given name of Bobbie Jean Rivers. For reasons that are not clear, her name was later adjusted in the North Carolina Birth Index to Rachel Ann Rivers, a change confirmed by newspaper accounts as early as 1945. While the ancestral Rivers home was still standing at the southeast corner of King and Water Streets at that time, Rivers actually spent most of her childhood in the R. L. Clay House on the south side of the present intersection of Burrell and Rivers Streets, where the Rivers family lived beginning in early 1945.

During her childhood, Rivers was frequently seen riding her pony Patsy along King Street, typically feeding the parking meter for her horse when she stopped to enter a business. At age 11, she began writing for the Watauga Democrat under the guidance of her father, Robert C. Rivers, Jr. (1899-1975). The paper was originally founded in 1888 by Joseph Spainhour, then acquired by Dauphin Blan Dougherty and Robert C. Rivers, Sr. (1861-1933)—Rivers-Coffey’s grandfather—in 1889; by the end of that year, Rivers acquired Dougherty’s interest in the business. Rivers-Coffey’s father inherited the paper following the death of Rivers, Sr, in 1933. In addition to her hands-on education in the family’s trade, Rachel completed her high school education at Appalachian High School—now Chapell Wilson Hall at ASU—then earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri. During her time there in the early 1960s, she served as a guest editor for the Tri-County News (King City, Missouri).

Left to right are Bonnie Jean Lewis Rivers, Robert C. Rivers, Jr., Rachel Ann Rivers, and her sister Lucinda Jane Rivers, circa 1951, in the R. L. Clay House on Rivers Street. Image courtesy of the Jones House Collection, Digital Watauga Project.

Rachel returned to work for the Democrat full-time as a photographer in 1965, occasionally writing articles and columns as well. Upon her return to Boone, Rachel married Paul Armfield Coffey (1934-2007), the son of Paul Arch Coffey and Margaret Linney Coffey and brother of Frank Linney Coffey, on May 1, 1965. Rachel is reported to have worked an average of 70 hours a week during this period, during which the operations of the Rivers Printing Company also included the Blowing Rocket and the Avery Journal. In 1975, Rachel became the third-generation owner of her family’s Watauga County newspaper empire following the death of her father. She also published two books in the 1970s: A Horse Like Mr. Ragman (1977) and The City Man (1978).

The headquarters for the Watauga Democrat and the Rivers Printing Company was located from the beginning of the Rivers family’s tenure in a series of three distinct buildings located on or near the site of the building presently housing the Ransom Pub on West King Street, which was built for the Rivers Printing Company in 1937. In 1987, Rivers-Coffey and her husband moved printing operations for the Watauga Democrat to the Watauga County Industrial Park, and they sold the paper in 1994, when the paper’s offices also moved from King Street to the industrial park. Meanwhile, Rivers-Coffey served as president of the North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) in 1994 and 1995. From the mid-1960s through Rivers-Coffey’s death, the NCPA honored the Watauga Democrat with more than 190 awards for excellence in community journalism.

Rivers-Coffey was a founding member of the Watauga Humane Society (WHS) in 1969, and she and her husband continued to be staunch supporters of the WHS up until her death. Rivers-Coffey also served as a member of the Watauga Medical Center’s board of trustees, as well as on the hospital’s foundation board. Aside from her passion for protecting abused and neglected animals, Rachel was also a fierce advocate for the preservation of local history, culture, and literature. In addition to her service on the boards of Historic Boone and the Watauga County Foundation, she helped launch Boone’s first Firefly Festival based upon the Southern Farmer’s Almanac’s designation of Boone as the “Firefly Capital of America” in 1993, and she was active on the board of the Doc Watson Festival as well. Along with her sister Jane, Rivers-Coffey also sponsored a professorship in creative writing at ASU. For all of her public visibility, however, Rachel was widely regarded as a fiercely private person who offered little comment on her life outside of publishing and community action.

Late in her life, Rivers-Coffey played a pivotal role in creating the Doc and Merle Watson Mountain Folk Art Museum at the former Cove Creek High School, which opened shortly before her death. The Rivers House remained in the family until 1998, when Rachel and her husband donated the house and related, adjacent family lands to the Town of Boone with a deed restriction limiting use of the property to “recreational purposes, green space, [utility easements], flood mitigation, a wildlife sanctuary, and historical purposes.” The property is now the site of Rivers Park, where the Daniel Boone Monument—reconstructed there with its original carved tablets as a result of Rachel and her husband’s advocacy—has stood since 2005. Perhaps her boldest move, however, came in 1999, just weeks before her death, when she led the other trustees of the historically White section of the Boone Cemetery to claim ownership over the long-neglected, historically Black section of the cemetery, then convey that section to a new cemetery organization responsible for the cemetery as a whole. Her actions laid the critically important foundation for the acquisition and eventual preservation of the entire cemetery by the Town of Boone beginning in 2014.

An avid and accomplished equestrian, Rivers-Coffey died shortly after a tragic horseback riding accident along Sherwood Road near US 421 in Cove Creek on August 24, 1999. She is buried in the Boone Cemetery alongside other members of her family. Rachel and Armfield had only one child, Robert Campbell Coffey, who died at birth in September 1967. The WCHS is delighted to honor Rachel Ann Rivers-Coffey for her important contributions to Boone and Watauga County’s history, literature, and heritage, as well as their preservation.

The WCHS Hall of Fame honors individuals, either living or dead, who have made significant and lasting contributions to Watauga County's history and/or literature, including those whose efforts have been essential to the preservation of Watauga County's history and/or literature. Honorees need not have been residents of Watauga County. The WCHS is particularly interested in honoring individuals who meet the above criteria but who may have been overlooked in traditional accounts of Watauga County's history and literature, including women and people of color. Selections for this inaugural class were made from nominations submitted by members of the Digital Watauga Project Committee (DWPC) of the WCHS. Beginning in 2023, the WCHS will also consider nominations from members of the public, which in turn will be evaluated by the DWPC.

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