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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Remembering Zeno Ponder

A reader mentioned tonight a feeling of astonishment and delight that I recently referred to the longtime boss of North Carolina's Madison County, Zeno Ponder.

Zeno H. Ponder

Zeno was a rascal, and his brother, E.Y. Ponder, was the High Sheriff for decades and general enforcer of Zeno's will. In 1994 the LA Times profiled the Ponder family dynasty, which, like all dynasties, ran its course.
In 1974 Zeno Ponder gave an oral history interview. Here's a link so he can get his side of the story in.

Zeno Ponder died in 1994. It's interesting that his parents named him Zeno, given that the original Zeno of Elea didn't believe in plurality or change. Once he and his brother seized Madison County in 1950, neither did they, except that election days, graveyards became voting precincts. I saw a bit of that in Hoke County, North Carolina in the early 1960s, when the chair of the elections board, knowing there were only four registered Republicans in the county- and finding six Republican votes for president in 1964, declared, "God dammit, two of 'em voted twice", and threw out the extra two ballots.

How do I remember him?

Well, for one thing, there was the name. It's like an earworm. You hear it, you can't lose it.

Eastern North Carolina was about as corrupt as western North Carolina in the 1960s. If you knew the right people anything could be fixed. You could get the road to your house paved. You could get the contract to pave it. The secretary of state, who was elected in 1932, assigned Republican legislators seats behind columns  and in acoustical dead spots.

Then as I got to be a teen I discovered the arrogance of then-on-party rule in North Carolina. The Democrats were in charge to such an extent political opposition was irrelevant. In 1972 a school chum and I went to volunteer at the county party headquarters. Joe went to the Democratic Party shop, full of fat old men who smoked too much. They told him to take a hike. They didn't need anybody. The future would be the same as the present and the past. They would rule. Counting the ballots was just a boring formality.

I went to the Republican headquarters. They put me to work that afternoon. But I get ahead of myself.

As soon as I could read, I took up reading The Charlotte Observer, which was then a respectable, progressive, Knight Publishing paper. Zeno Ponder appeared regularly in the paper over one local scandal after another. Madison County was is so far from anywhere you could pretty much do what you wanted up there- it was too much trouble for the state to go try and do anything about it.

The Southern Pines Pilot- probably the only newspaper owned by a poet laureate, Sam Ragan (ask me about him another day)- ran a column remembering the late political writer Brent Hackney, in which he, too remembered what was perhaps Zeno Ponder's most famous remark in all it's Shakespearean glory:

Zeno Ponder 
Ponder was N.C.’s answer to New York City’s Boss Tweed. 
He was political dictator of mountainous Madison, so he didn’t need to run for office. He controlled local elections, anyway. (His brother, E.Y. Ponder, was sheriff for decades.) Folklore has it that cemeteries in Madison functioned as voter precincts on Election Days, and it’s probably true that the dead there voted early and often.I was once in Marshall, the county seat, to cover some State Board of Elections hearings into alleged voter shenanigans in Madison. I caught Zeno coming out of the courthouse and asked him about the charges. 
“It ain’t nothin’ but pootin’ under the covers,” Zeno said. 
I didn’t ask him to elaborate.


  1. The Ponder story (both Zeno and EY)is considerably more complex than pointing to them as icons of political machinery. Zeno and EY did not run roughshod over Madison County and they did not pocket every penny they could find. They treated everyone pretty much alike and that was uncommon for their era as most people in the counties were considered too ignorant, too poor, or too something or other to count for anything at all - not so in Zeno's mind. Zeno could and did wheel and deal but benefits were won that were available to all in Madison County. I guess you just had to have been around WNC during those decades to know how bitterly poor most country people were. Zeno would help a poor man as quickly as a better off man and he did not view the small, subsistence farmer with contempt.

    He was not a saint but neither was he a greedy, self-centered man.

    Jay in N.C.

  2. I worked,ate and spent many an evening conversing with E.Y. Ponder and his wife. They were very loving and giving to all around them. His wife would cook a feast and include all field workers in to eat along with their son when he would show up from his downtown job. She was a retired school teacher and loved to read the Readers Digest in large print since her eye sight was failing. We would be very involved in the elections by of course voting and giving rides to the poles to those in the mountains who did not have excess to a car. I miss them dearly and as far as Zeno goes many things were witnessed down on his farm. As far as the Mexicans he sent for and housed on his farm in his run down mobile homes;to owning the only nearest store were the hired helped shopped with the prices so high there went their pay. He would pay his top Mexican to send to Mexico for more workers and each one that showed up and worked he would get a cut of their pay. I worked in his and his wifes home once cleaning and never desired to do that again.

  3. I think a better description of Zeno was he was a competent Boss Hogg.

    I'd have liked to have seen the concert Zeno held on his farm in the late 70's, I think it was .38 special.

    Heard from local sources that Madison Co. was a major supplier of home grown weed in the 70's. So long as tribute was paid to the kingpin the law looked the other way.

    Met him on business in the mid 80's. He was 1000% wheeler-dealer.

  4. No, actually the concert had local band Ricochet, I think the George Hatcher band, and the Outlaws were the headliner. It was awesome but right in the middle of the Outlaws set it came a friggin downpour and the band ended up having to stop because so much water was coming in the barn they were playing out of basically. We built a motocross track right in that same valley in the early nineties and I stood under that shed many, many times thinking about that concert.

  5. There are still too many Ponders in Madison County. I guess they in-breed like black rats.