Tony Hayes, founder and president of Ridge Runner Trading Company (RRTC) in Boone, North Carolina, died unexpectedly on July 2, 2020, at age 65. Hayes was an expert in Appalachian herbs of commerce and was involved with the trade of native American wildcrafted botanical materials for nearly 50 years.
Born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, on February 2, 1955, Hayes was raised with a deep interest in and respect for the flora of his native Appalachia. He began working in 1973, still a teenager, as an herb buyer for Arthur Lowe Fur and Herb Company in North Wilkesboro. In 1981, he began working in a similar capacity for Wilcox Drug Company and then, in 2000, he formed RRTC with his wife, Sandra Miller Hayes. The “ridge runner” in the company’s name is a nickname for people who live at the higher altitudes of the southeastern United States, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. Throughout his life and career, Hayes sought to aid and elevate his birthplace.
American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Araliaceae) is one of the most valuable wildcrafted plants in the region, and Hayes was an expert in the subtle regional differences in the roots and leaves as items of commerce. He was also highly knowledgeable about the culture surrounding its harvest and the historical significance of medicinal plants in the United States. Just before his death, Hayes was proud to be interviewed as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival. He discussed ginseng harvesting and his perspective on the role and responsibility he had as a ginseng dealer to educate harvesters and the public, particularly regarding sustainability. Segments of the interview were featured in a webinar that aired on July 16, 2020, just two weeks after he died.1
“The ethnobotany around [ginseng] would be far more valuable to us all than how much it’s worth,” Hayes said in the video.
According to Edward Fletcher, president of raw material supplier Native Botanicals, Inc. and an expert on native American medicinal plants, Hayes never sought to hoard or gatekeep his encyclopedic knowledge and experience. “Tony Hayes was a walking pharmacopeia of botanical knowledge on the medicinal plants that we use in our industry,” Fletcher wrote (email, September 24, 2020). “He was always willing to talk about and share that knowledge, and it was easy for him to do so with both wildcrafters and vice presidents of large companies due to his welcoming and comforting demeanor. Tony’s expertise on American ginseng was unsurpassed. He mentored me throughout our years together, and my life as well as countless others have been changed forever because of him.”
Throughout his career, Hayes assumed leadership roles in the herbal products industry, such as serving as co-chair of the American Herbal Products Association’s (AHPA’s) Non-Timber Forest Products subcommittee. Under the auspices of RRTC, he also financially supported many research projects through the AHPA Foundation for Education and Research on Botanicals (AHPA-ERB Foundation).
AHPA President Michael McGuffin valued Hayes’ contributions to AHPA initiatives. “[Tony had] for many years been the first on my list of contacts whenever I needed a better understanding of the collection practices and harvest data on wild Appalachian plants,” he wrote (email, October 1, 2020). “At the same time, I know Tony was still committed to learning more about his craft, and the last time I met with him late in 2019, he and his son Josh were preparing to transplant woods-grown goldenseal [Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae] to support industry interest in cultivated sources of this important herb. He was first and foremost my friend, and I will miss him.”
Hayes is remembered as a friendly, caring man who always sought to help others. He loved being outdoors, which, combined with his love of geography, made him a local expert on his region of North Carolina. He also enjoyed cooking, especially grilling, and playing music, particularly the drums.
Chuck Wanzer, founder of North Carolina-based Botanics, Inc., worked with Hayes for 18 years at Wilcox Drug Company and fondly remembers his friend’s knowledge of the great outdoors. “He instructed me about ginseng and other botanicals as well as fur, which we both enjoyed,” Wanzer wrote (email, September 26, 2020). “He was a true friend. We were friendly competitors after the Wilcox Drug Company shut down and we went our separate ways…. He will be missed for sure, as there was only one Tony Hayes.”
RRTC will continue under the leadership of Hayes’ wife, son Joshua, and daughter Cassandra. Hayes discusses what would happen to his company after his death in the Smithsonian video.
“It’ll be up to [Cassandra] whether she and her brothers — whether this continues or not,” he said. “It’s set up for it to go on. If something happens to me, we’re not going to be fire-selling anything and shutting down.”
Tony Hayes is survived by Sandy, his wife of 39 years; children Christopher Hayes, Joshua Hayes, and Cassandra Hayes (Matthew) Vincent; five grandchildren; brother Richard Hayes; brother-in-law Eric Brown; stepmother Ila Dean Hayes; and stepsiblings Sandy Sheppard, Daniel (Kristy) Vickers, Missy (Sam) Mayberry, and Robert Vickers. He was preceded in death by his parents, John Hayes and Ena Murrell Hayes, sisters Tina Hayes and Heather Brown, and stepbrother Christopher Church.
- Story Circle: Dealer’s Choice — The Role of Dealers in Ginseng Conservation. Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage website. July 16, 2020. Available at: https://festival.si.edu/event/story-circle-dealer-s-choice-the-role-of-dealers-in-ginseng-conservation. Accessed September 24, 2020.