Gene Dalton/The Roanoke Times
|"Big" Tom Buchanan wears a big grin in front of his Rich Valley home. Sworn to secrecy, he has kept quiet about how he will fare in the final episodes of "Survivor."|
Friday, December 28, 2001
'Survivor's' Tom Buchanan has turned Smyth County into a tourist spot
Small town makes the big time
Tourists from as far as Florida have traveled to Kountry Korner with the hopes of meeting Smyth County's "Survivor" star.
By JENN BURLESON
THE ROANOKE TIMES
RICH VALLEY - Tourists invaded a community that's too small to house its own post office.
Students were inspired to read.
And a farmer with a slow southern drawl has become a folk hero.
Life in Smyth County has been thoroughly interrupted since October when cattle and goat farmer "Big" Tom Buchanan made his television debut on CBS's "Survivor Africa."
Each Thursday night for two months, the show has depicted strangers competing in sometimes outrageous adventures in the hopes of eventually winning $1 million. Every week, one of 16 original contestants is voted off the show. Last night, one more member was tossed, leaving Buchanan and four others vying for the jackpot. CBS has set the season finale for Jan. 10.
The 46-year-old farmer finished taping the show months ago, but even his son swears that he doesn't know whether his father will win the show's top prize. Buchanan is forbidden by the network from talking about the show until he is eliminated, but that hasn't stopped him from gaining a following.
He came home in early September and tried to get back to everyday life, making morning visits to KJ's Kountry Korner for one of Phyllis Taylor's fried bologna sandwiches and a bottle of Mountain Dew. Then, with a cellphone constantly ringing by his side, he works the farm.
Yet his life is anything but normal.
Tourists from as far as Florida have traveled to Kountry Korner with the hopes of meeting Buchanan and getting one of his autographed T-shirts. Every day, store owner Duane Prater answers dozens of phone calls from Buchanan's fans.
"No, he's not in here," he says. "He's supposed to be in here some time this evening."
Then he jots down their names and phone numbers and promises to call them when Buchanan makes his next store visit.
"He's a hoot," Chilhowie resident Cathy Waters said Thursday as she sorted through T-shirts showing Buchanan on the cover of TV Guide. "Everybody likes him."
Although Prater sells hundreds of the $10 shirts each week - and has sold out of tote bags and hats - he doesn't make money from any of it. The proceeds pay for high school athletes to eat when they travel to ball games. A little of the money has also helped a couple of families with handicapped children.
About two weeks ago, the store sold about 600 T-shirts when another Survivor contestant, Ethan Zohn, came to visit him. They signed shirts together and spoke to residents as fans patiently waited in a line that wound around the outside of the store.
Nearly every week, Prater changes the Kountry Korner marquee sign to reflect Buchanan's behavior on the show. Last week the sign read, "Big Tom really hams it up on Survivor."
During the day, store employees huddle in a chilly office filled with Buchanan T-shirts smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, trying to guess how far Buchanan will make it on the show.
Buchanan also was the grand marshal of the Bristol parade - an honor that won him a scolding e-mail from CBS, which told him he needed to tone down his celebrity status.
That hasn't stopped Buchanan from visiting the local schools for his "Read to Survive" program. When students read enough books to reach a goal set by their teacher, Buchanan visits their classes to shake hands and sign autographs. He said he wanted to do something to encourage them to learn the things in school that he never learned.
"I have a problem spelling," Buchanan said. "I can't spell anything but dirty words."
Letters, poems and drawings from teachers and students from as far as Madisonville, Ky., have spilled into Buchanan's home. One letter from a Lebanon Middle School teacher said that a faculty member tapes the show each week so that the students who don't have televisions can still watch Buchanan.
Buchanan has done everything on the show from running around on a beach wearing nothing but a feather sticking out of his rear to generously dumping buckets of water onto female cast members to help them shower.
He's even named some of his cattle after his co-stars. Yellow tags bearing their names stick out of their ears.
"See there's old Lex and Frank," Buchanan said as he rode in a car down his driveway. "That one with the big horns is Ethan."
This adventure started months ago as Buchanan cruised through his fields on his black golf-cart with a herd of babbling goats trotting behind his bumper.
As the power light on a borrowed camcorder glowed, he spoke to his goats.
"Come on, y'all. Let's go to Survivor."
His wife mailed in the videotape the last day before the Survivor entry deadline. He received a letter weeks later telling him that he had not been admitted to the show. Later that summer he suddenly received a phone call telling him to pack his bags. Days later he was on his way to Africa.
Survivor promotions refer to Buchanan as a goat farmer, but in all truthfulness, the farmer has about 250 goats along with about 900 cattle, according to his 20-year-old son. Buckey "Bo" Buchanan said everything else about the show's portrayal of his father is perfectly accurate. He watches the show at college every week surrounded by friends.
"They ask if that's how he really is," the grinning Cumberland College student said with his father's familiar southern drawl. "I say yes, and they say, 'Good God, what an idiot.' And I say, 'Yep.
Jenn Burleson can be reached
at 381-1669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.