The North Carolina

 

 

 

Visitor Center

Appalachia

Thank you for visiting the Appalachian Visitor Center. 

 

I hope you are sitting comfortably in front of your computer because I want to take some time to tell you about my home.  That is exactly what the Blue Ridge Mountains are, home, and not just for natives like myself but for thousands of folks who have either moved here over the past few decades or who visit seasonally.  There is just something about this place… some say it is as close as you can get to heaven on earth – I wouldn’t argue with them.  I’ve stood atop Grandfather Mountain and seen the world lay before me like an old, wrinkled patchwork quilt.  I’ve spent cold nights in Beech Creek (the “back side” of Beech Mountain) listening to Ray and Arville Hicks tell stories and heard the mountain lions scream in the distance.  I’ve heard and seen Doc Watson play guitar numerous times.  I’ve seen the mountain a blaze in brilliant autumn color, stark white winter snow and a green so deep that it gives off a blue haze.  Call it heaven or home, I’ve experienced it… and you can too.

 

In decades past, most folks came from small farming communities, so when they vacationed, they were seeking upscale destinations – North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains offered some of the finest…

 

In the early part of the last century the wealthy elite flocked to Blowing Rock.  Millionaires and movie stars came to this small resort town atop the Continental Divide and either stayed in the grand Victorian inns of the era or in seasonal homes.  Henry Ford and his cohorts enjoyed car camping just outside of town, but others enjoyed more comfortable lodgings.  The elite of the era summered at the Mayview Manor and the Green Park Inn.  The Mayview has “gone with the wind”, but the Green Park remains in operation and is a must see.  Although the elite country club still thrives, most of the grand hotels and fine dining of that era, such as The Farm House (which featured off-Broadway singing wait-staff) have past into the shades of history, but they were replaced with the next era of Blowing Rock tourism – that begun by the legendary Grover Robbins.  Robbins was a visionary who believed that everyone should have the opportunity to experience the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.  He opened “The Blowing Rock” as one of North Carolina’s first true tourist attractions.  The Blowing Rock (the namesake of the town) is a site where legend has it that a broken hearted Cherokee flung himself off of the rock outcropping, only to have benevolent winds carry him aloft to his lover’s arms.  Robbins followed The Blowing Rock with Tweetsie Railroad, the “old west” amusement park beloved by generations.  At Tweetsie, cowboys and Indians shoot it out, dance hall girls sing and the mournful whistle of the steam powered engine rings through the mountains.  Robbins’ last project was his most ambitious, “The Land of OZ” atop Beech Mountain – more on that later.  Today, Blowing Rock continues to be the premier tourist destination in the Southern Appalachians, offering numerous restaurants, shops, galleries, motels and a wonderful downtown park.  Blowing Rock is an experience not to be missed.

 

The next most notable resort town of the America’s golden age is the Village of Linville.  Just down the ridiculously curvy Hwy 221 from Blowing Rock sits Linville, at the base of Grandfather Mountain.  The heart of the town is Eseeola Lodge, constructed in 1892. The Donald Ross designed Linville Golf Club was developed between 1899 and 1924.  The truly elite came quietly to Linville and built grand homes in the “bark siding” style of the Lodge and Village.  The golden age has ended, but Linville remains frozen in time – quiet, majestic, unassuming.  The “working” part of the town is owned mainly by the Hughes family.  Mr. Jim Hughes is the dean of the town, the great land-owner who served in both the NC House and Senate.  Pass through on a summer day, and you will probably see him placidly mowing his own lawn as a sign of mountain self-sufficiency that can be traced back to his storied ancestor, Daniel Boone.

 

Geographically speaking, between Blowing Rock and Linville is Grandfather Mountain… million of visitors tour Grandfather Mountain, attend the annual Highland Games and drive along the Lynn Cove Viaduct – a masterpiece of architecture.  Grandfather Mountain features incredible views, hiking trails, the mile-high swinging bridge and a variety of wildlife habitats.  Please visit www.grandfather.com for more information.

 

Staying in Avery County for now, we will continue up from Tynecastle past the Linville Ridge (gated) community and the ski resort of Sugar Mountain, to Banner Elk.  Banner Elk is home to Lees McRae College.  Banner Elk has always been an interesting place – the name of the town traces to both the Banner Family who were once the predominate land owners, and to the large herds of elk that once roamed the area.  Banner Elk has been a small mountain town, full of true mountain characters and “locals”, a college town and a location that hosted summer homes, fine restaurants and lodging for upscale visitors.  Over recent years, the locals have receded a bit and the college has faded into the background as the real estate and resort atmosphere has boomed – really, really boomed!  The explosion of new home construction, restaurants, shopping and other “vacation” services in amazing. 

 

From Banner Elk, you can go in four directions – one is back to Tynecastle, so I’ll skip that.  The most common route would take you up…way up…straight up (more or less),  5,506 ft above sea level, to Beech Mountain. 

 

Beech Mountain was once a remote outpost of Appalachia, then the skiers and Grover Robbins discovered it.  According to the town’s website, www.beechmtnnc.com,  Beech Mountain is “Eastern America's tallest town and home to the South's favorite winter ski resort Ski Beech. The Town of Beech Mountain was incorporated in May of 1981. It began as a private resort development in the mid 1960's by Grover and Harry Robbins, of Blowing Rock, NC. The original plan was for Beech Mountain to be an ideal second home for owners to escape the pressures of everyday life and enjoy various summer and winter sports. Twenty-five years later, mission accomplished. Beech is North Carolina's gem with a year-round atmosphere appealing to all ages and walks of life.”  That description is great, but it doesn’t tell you about Grover Robbins’ last great project.  Robbins built the “Land of Oz” on Beech Mountain – seriously, the Land of Oz from “The Wizard of Oz”!  It was an amusement park, but so much more; Oz was truly recreated high atop the Southern Appalachians.  You walked into a Kansas farmhouse, experience a simulated tornado and emerged in Oz, on top of a witch, surrounded by singing munchkins.  You joined Dorothy, Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion and followed the Yellow Brick Road though talking trees, fields of poppies and singing mushrooms to the Emerald City.  You were attacked by the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys, but the Wizard saved the day.  There were rides and carnival foods and a few privileged folks like myself, who got to experience it as a kids will never, ever forget it.  Grover Robbins was buried at the Land of Oz.  Like Robbins himself, The Land of Oz was just a bit before its time.   Beech Mountain is now a thriving resort town – modern seasonal homes mix with the alpine style village built in the 1960s and 70s.  It is a great place to visit and a better place to live…. Somewhere Over the Rainbow

 

An other route from Banner Elk takes you to Elk Valley and Elk Park.  Elk Valley is really, very nice – very exclusive – very expensive – very pretty, with its own landing strip and all the amenities.   Elk Park is a small Appalachian community on the Tennessee border.  The road from Elk Park leads back in to Newland, Linville, Pineola, etc.  (I’ll discuss Newland and Pineola under “Mayberries”, as the small mountain towns are particularly close to my heart).

 

Also from Banner Elk you can take the “long way” to Valle Crucis, through Matney.  Even if the road were only as long as a football field, it would still be the long way because of the winding curves.  This stretch of Hwy 194 should be featured in every architecture and engineering class as the way one should never design a road unless one has a very twisted sense of humor – it is a twisted road!  Local legend has it that it was designed by author Shepperd M. Dugger, a “humorist” buried at Banner Elk Cemetery.  He was known to be quite a character, calling himself the “Colossus of Roads”.  You can read more about him here: http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?ct=ddl&sp=search&k=Markers&sv=N-36%20-%20SHEPHERD%20M.%20DUGGER 

 

Valle Crucis is back in Watauga County, and a more picturesque valley could not be imagined.  “Valle Crucis is North Carolina’s first rural historic district and the entire community is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nationally recognized historic buildings are abound in Valle Crucis, with many like The Baird House (1790), The Mast Farm Inn (1812), the Old Episcopal Mission (1842) and the Mast General Store (1883), restored to their initial splendor and still serving the area today” according to their website http://www.vallecrucis.com

 

From Valley Crucis, if we are not to backtrack, you would progress toward Boone. 

 

Boone is…. well, what isn’t it?  It is home to Appalachian State University, recently famous for a string of champion football teams.  Boone is a pretty mountain city, it is a college town, it is a working town and a hippie mecca.  Locals, yuppies, retirees, college students, hippies, freaks, New Agers and Southern Baptists (Rev. Franklin Graham bases his ministry here) mix in general harmony.  What brings these disparate folks together is a two three love of the area, of ASU and of bluegrass music.  Doc Watson lives just outside of Boone.  All genres of music find an audience in Boone, but a banjo, mandolin, fiddle and flatpicked guitar are the constant.  Boone has dozens of restaurants and motels, great shopping, an energetic downtown and much more.  Boone is a pretty place, a peaceful place (except for the traffic) and an odd place, sometimes a delightfully odd place…...

 

From Boone, you can get back on the Parkway and head toward Ashe County.  Ashe County is a wonderful mixture of rural Appalachia and the more vacation/tourism/resort atmospheres of Watauga and Avery Counties.  Most of the population centers in Jefferson and West Jefferson.  Jefferson is a working town – if Appalachia can be blue collar, Jefferson is.  It is a place, where good, honest, hardworking people do a good, honest hard day’s work.  Recently, Ashe County did a televised salute to its veterans in a PBS special - to me, that says it all.  This is the first of the “Mayberries” we’ll discuss. 

 

“Mayberries” as I define them are home towns – truly great places to live.  It seems these days that everyone is looking for Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry”, whether they know it or not.  Sometimes they move thousands of miles just to find that small town where you can get to know your neighbors.  We have the real “Mayberry” in North Carolina’s Southern Appalachians ; it is called Mt. Airy and it lives up to everything you might think it would if you grew up watching the Andy Griffith Show.  Actually, we have a lot of little “Mayberries” in the Southern Appalachians, and I’ll tell you more about Mt. Airy in a little while, but first, back to Ashe County. 

 

West Jefferson is a working mountain town, but also tips its hat to tourism.  It features restaurants and shops in a picturesque downtown.  The farmer’s market is renowned as a source for fresh, local, often organic produce, meats, honey, home-canned and baked goods.  Real Estate is big business here as Ashe County offers a great mix of “resort” atmosphere and open riverside and Parkway bordering land for breath-taking home sites. 

 

Ashe County has great, kayaking, hiking, fishing and canoeing.  It also has the world-famous Ashe County Cheese factory - the “squeaky” cheese, so called because of the noise it makes against your teeth when you eat it.  There is also Todd, known for its country store and regular “story-tellings” (often by North Carolina Heritage Award winner Arville Hicks).  Recently, wineries have begun in Ashe County – the climate may be ideal for Pinot Noir…. time will tell.  Glendale Springs, and Shatley Springs are also very nice vacation or home spots. 

 

Alleghany County is next, with an important history and a storied past. See:   http://www.moonzstuff.com/articles/aboutalleghany.html  Sparta is the County seat, nestled right on the new River.  Alleghany is a growing and modernizing county, but it remains rural at heart.  It is the “Christmas Tree Capitol of the World”!  It is pastoral, peaceful and quiet.  Country singer and master of a thousand voices, Dell Reeves was born in Sparta – sadly, Dell passed away in 2007… one of the goals of this website is to make sure the likes of Dell Reeves aren’t forgotten.

 

Surry County is home of the real Mayberry – Mt. Airy – and is also the home town of Andy Griffith.  Yep, it is all there: Floyd’s Barber Shop, Weaver’s Department Store, the Snappy Lunch and “the Mayberry Deputy” roaming the streets in an old black and white police car on special occasions.  Those occasions include the Mayberry Days festival http://www.visitmayberry.com/mayberrydays.aspx  You can experience Mayberry in Mt. Airy – you can also experience a wealth of old-time and bluegrass music at the downtown theater and the Andy Griffith Playhouse.  Pilot Mountain is just up the road – don’t go getting lost in any caves up there, Barney isn’t around to lead the whole town in a comical rescue anymore… but it is still a nice place for a picnic.

 

Among Surry County’s famous sons is Thomas Jefferson Jarrell, born in the town of Toast.  Jarrell was a legendary fiddle player; find out more about him here: http://www.oldtimemusic.com/FHOFJarrell.html  Donna Fargo also hails from Surry County.  On a related note, two famous folks who were born abroad and died in Surry County were the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were featured in the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Both had sons who served on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War.

 

Also in Surry County are the communities of Elkin and Dobson.  These communities represent the heart of North Carolina’s new wine region.  Award winning wines are being made here and the world is flocking to tour the vineyards.  Perhaps this is the High Countries’ new frontier in agri-tourism, boutique farming and epicurean delight?

 

Thus far, I’ve given Watauga and Avery Counties short shrift in terms of spotlighting its “Mayberries”.  Well, I’ll right that omission now.

 

Let’s start with Avery County, in Newland.  Newland is the Avery County seat.  It is historically significant to the Civil War period, and is a great jumping off point to Yellow Mountain Gap and the trail of the “Over Mountain Men”, that band of early American rebels credited by President George Washington as being among the deciding factors in the Revolutionary War. See: http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=3269   The predominate industry in Newland is Christmas trees, and one of the nicest features of the town is a private park centering around a waterfall – the park and trail are maintained by Christmas Tree Growers.  Tourism is slowly but steadily growing into Newland, but a better home town could not be imagined. 

 

From Newland you can head back toward Linville, by the tiny community of Montezuma, past Linville Land Harbor and to the tiny community of Pineola.  There isn’t much in Pineola, but what there is perfect, ‘nuff said.

 

From Pineola you can go to Jonas Ridge, a small community near the smaller community of Ginger Cake, gateway to the Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge Wilderness one of the two NC Outward Bound School and spectacular Table Rock. 

 

Also, from Pineola, heading toward Jonas Ridge, you can either get on the Blue Ridge Parkway or take a back road to get to the Village of Linville Falls.  Linville Falls sits right on the Parkway and was a popular tourist resort in the early 1900s.  It has lodgings, restaurants and, according to its website, “The friendliest people on earth” http://linvillefallsvillage.com  The village is, of course, named for the actual waterfall, Linville Falls, see: http://www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc/recreation/wncwaterfalls/linvillefalls.htm  Be sure to take a picture of the falls at Wiseman’s View.  The Wiseman’s are an old family in the area, brought to fame by Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman known as “The Sweethearts of Country Music” in the 1930s and 40s. 

 

Or, you can go to Crossnore, home of the Crossnore School.  “In 1913 doctors Eustace and Mary Martin Sloop started a school in the poverty entrenched mountains of western North Carolina, because they believed... ‘Education is the best way for a child to rise above his circumstances.’ The Sloops trudged on foot and rode horseback on steep dirt trails in isolated mountain valleys to bring medicine to the people and convince farmers to let their children come to school. Because of poverty and distance, the Sloop school in Crossnore eventually took in boarders then built dormitories to accommodate them. It gained a national reputation for effectiveness in changing lives and in breaking the cycle of poverty, moonshine and child marriages of mountain families. Mary Martin Sloop spoke at Daughters of the American Revolution rallies and conferences across the nation, inspiring them with tales of her life changing mountain school. She eventually put these tales to paper in her autobiography Miracle in the Hills.” http://www.crossnoreschool.org/index.html  Over the years, Crossnore has become a nice little town, drawing tourists and an increasing number of upscale homes.  Miracle in the Hills has been made into a drama and is presented at the Crossnore School.

 

Seven Devils is another community in Avery County; it was developed in the 1970s as a ski resort and vacation home community much like Beech Mountain.  More rural communities in Avery County include Minneapolis, Altamont, Heaton, Ingalls, Plumtree, Three Mile, Vale and Cranberry. 

 

From Seven Devils you can go down into Foscoe, which is mainly a bedroom community for Boone.  Foscoe features a great antique mall, fresh produce, galleries, shops and a terrific view of Grandfather Mountain. In my opinion, the main attraction in Foscoe is fishing – the river is accessible and full of trout!

 

From Foscoe you can go through the Hound Ears Club (also developed by the Robbins family), heading back toward Blowing Rock.  Hound Ears is a resort community.  It features golf, river views and nice houses.  For more than 40 years, Hound Ears has been among the most exclusive communities in the eastern United States.

 

Earlier I mentioned Matney as being on the bizarre road from Banner Elk to Valle Crucis.  In all honesty, Shulls Mill road from Foscoe to Blowing Rock is nearly as curvy, but Matney and the other communities accessed by Hwy 194 from Valley Crucis are the opposite side of the coin from Hound Ears.  These are still rural communities - wonderfully rural I would say – populated mainly by locals.  There are horses, cows and cabbage fields.  There is a way of life that is real, hard, peaceful and more rewarding than most – “there ain’t nothin’ wrong with it” as they say.

 

Heading from the afore mentioned toward Boone, you go through Sugar Grove and Villas.  These are also wonderful, rural communities, but there is a bit more of a Boone influence on them than the deeper mountain communities further off the beaten path – there are a few more “farmers” out there with college degrees.  Sugar Grove has a great bluegrass festival each year, featuring Doc Watson.  Vilas is convenient to both Boone and Mountain City, TN, and is primed for development.

 

To tell you the truth, this article really doesn’t even begin to describe all of the small towns and communities in the North Carolina’s Southern Appalachians – I haven’t even mentioned Pickbritches!  Nor, have I covered the Ben Long Frescoes, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail, the Cone Estate, the Colts, the Dangerfields, Price Park, several dozen significant area musicians and so much more.  But, there is unlimited space online, and “if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise” I’ll cover everything in more depth in future issues of the North Carolina Visitor Center Newsletter.