The Ponder Brothers

Mar 1, 2022

madison county north carolina courthouse

For more than three decades in the latter part of the 20th century, the Democratic political machine led by Zeno and E. Y. Ponder wrested control from Republicans and thereafter controlled pretty much everything in Madison County.

Zeno was the Democratic Party chairman, and an appointed member of several county boards, while his brother E. Y. was sheriff. The pair made sure the county got at least its fair share – and often more – of state and federal largesse. The Ponder regime had, and to some degree still has, has its defenders – mostly Democrats – and its opponents, most but not all Republicans. 

One illustrative anecdote about the Ponders at the height of their power did not survive the final edit of Met Her on the Mountain. Let’s take a look below.

The North Carolina Public Interest Research Group

On a sunny day in 1974, four college students strode purposefully up the steps of the Madison County Courthouse. The well-dressed young activists had no reason to suspect that this stop would be any different from similar visits they had made for the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group (NCPIRG). They were studying land use planning in the state’s twelve western mountain counties, and they had met with only minor difficulties at the first eleven courthouses they visited.

The group asked the clerk on the first floor to help them inspect property records. She accommodatingly showed them to the large, dusty books, and they began poring over pages filled with lines of spidery handwriting. But someone had picked up a phone, and within minutes, the researchers had a visitor in a khaki uniform, a deputy sheriff.

Trip Van Noppen

“He asked us who we were, what we were looking for, and why we were looking for it,” said one of the four, Trip Van Noppen (in a recent picture above), whose family came from neighboring Burke County. He and the other young people explained their project to the lawman. They had found everywhere else that “students doing a study” usually put people at ease. The armed officer only bristled and abruptly told the four that they would be unable to look at the records and would have to leave town. “We asked, ‘Who says so?’” recalled Van Noppen. They were told, “The sheriff.”

Bill Cary

“I distinctly remember the word ‘jail’ being used,” said Bill Cary (in a recent picture above), another member of the group, who later became a newspaper reporter. “As in, ‘If y’all don’t want to leave right now, perhaps a night in jail would help you make up your mind.’”

“We felt we weren’t going to get anywhere by arguing about it on the spot, so we left, thinking we would come back with some sort of reinforcements,” said Van Noppen, a retired environmental attorney. “When I told my father about it, he grinned and said, ‘Oh, you ran into Zeno Ponder, did you?’” 

Wrong brother, right family.

The Ponder Brothers’ Control of Madison County

The Ponder brothers have now passed. For the moment, the Madison County Commission is back in Republican hands. There is at least one Ponder still holding elective office, on the town council of Marshall, the county seat: Laura Ponder-Smith. It is a far cry, though, from the power the clan once wielded. 


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