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HOUND EARS Celebrates 50: Third Robbins Brother Recalls Career of Glamour, Hard Work at Club

April 3, 2014. To celebrate Hound Ears Club’s 50th anniversary, Jason Reagan, a veteran reporter currently the director of communications and member relations at Hound Ears Club, is authoring a series of articles on notable members of the Hound Ears Club community, such as Spencer and Chris Robbins, to celebrate the development’s 50th anniversary.

In 1964, the Robbins brothers – Grover, Harry and Spencer – opened Hound Ears Club on the site of the former mill town, Shulls Mill in Southwestern Watauga. Today, the resort has 300 members, offering to them “casual elegance and authentic charm,” Reagan writes in a piece about the 50th anniversary.

To celebrate the milestone, Hound Ears Club has a number of upcoming activities planned. It will partner with the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum to present a communitywide historical exhibit June 20-September 7. The Club will also invite residents to experience a special Gala event as well as a 50th Anniversary Golf Tournament, followed by a tour of Claus Moberg Homes.

Below is the first article in this series:

Third Robbins brother recalls a career of glamour and hard work at Hound Ears

By Jason Reagan

Jack Nicholson (center) stands with Spencer Robbins (left) and another gentleman.
Jack Nicklaus (center) stands with Harry (left) and Spencer Robbins (left).

Mention the history of Hound Ears Club to most local experts and two names immediately pop up: brothers and Club founders Grover and Harry Robbins.

And while the brothers’ names will always be synonymous with the Club’s success and its upcoming 50th anniversary in June, there is another Robbins’ brother whose behind-the-scenes work provided inspiration for what Hound Ears would become — a refuge for those seeking a tranquil, yet playful, lifestyle with award-winning golf, tennis, fitness and dining.

Spencer Robbins is better known throughout the High Country as the guiding force behind nearby Elk River Club, but, in the early 1960s, he helped his brothers define what Hound Ears would eventually become after he found himself in a new job further east.

Inspiration from the Sand Hills

By the end of the 1950s, the Robbins family had already established a high-profile reputation in the region with the establishment of Wild West amusement park Tweetsie Railroad and the scenic attraction, The Blowing Rock – both of which Spencer helped develop.

By 1960, Spencer was ready for a new adventure, as well as something more to do during the non-summer months. In addition to his work with the family tourist attractions, he and his wife Grace (no commas) operated the Chuckwagon Restaurant in Blowing Rock (located where the ABC store now sits), which closed at the end of every summer.

“In 1960, we began living in Southern Pines for the winter,” he said in an interview. “I needed a job, so I went to Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club and talked to (co-owner) Warren Bell. He said, ‘My bartender quit, so I need a bartender.’ I told him my only experience was at the other side of the bar. He hired me anyway — but not as a bartender.”

Spencer served as Bell’s assistant until 1961. Grover visited Spencer several times and began to see the vision for Hound Ears in the Sand Hills courses of Pine Needles.

“My experience at Pine Needles led us to build Hound Ears Club. We thought a lodge and golf course in the mountains would do well in the summer,” Spencer said. “We didn’t plan to build all those condos and houses — they just happened over time.”

“Grover was the idea person; Harry was the front man and Spencer did all the work,” golf writer Bill Hensley said.

In 1964, Grover asked Spencer to use his problem-solving skills to fix some issues with one of their newer attractions – three-year old Rebel Railroad in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.  Spencer and family moved to Gatlinburg and helped transform the attraction into a success — so successful in fact that, in 1976, the Robbins family sold it to Jack and Pete Herschend of Branson, Mo. who then sold it in 1986 to a certain country music star who renamed the park Dollywood.

Although Spencer steered Rebel Railroad on track (pun intended), he and his family soon grew to miss the cool summers of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Speaking of Pigeon Forge, Spencer said, “It’s hotter than blazes over there! I didn’t like it. But we did get the railroad going.” Returning to North Carolina, Spencer convinced several club members from Pine Needles to give the nascent Hound Ears Club a try, while he also helped  (misplaced modifier) operate Tweetsie and other Robbins’ attractions.

After Grover died in 1970, management of Hound Ears fell upon Harry and Spencer. Although the brothers co-managed the Club, Spencer especially drew upon his experience as a restaurateur, recruiting several chefs and food-and-beverage managers from across the Southeast.

From Radio Icons to Galactic Princesses

One of Spencer’s greatest joys in working at Hound Ears Club for so many decades was meeting the many famous people who passed through the Club gates.

Paul Harvey stayed at Hound Ears in 1973, when he served as the emcee at Tweetsie’s Old Timers Day (click here to read “The Rest of the Story”).

When Beech Mountain held a Snow Carnival in 1969, Grand Marshal Mickey Mantle stayed at – you guessed it – the Lodge at Hound Ears.

“He and I played golf in January at Hound Ears,” Spencer recalls. “He was a really good golfer.”

When Spencer began plans to develop Elk River in 1982, he looked to Arnold Palmer as a possible course designer.  “I had been trading cars with Arnold Palmer for years at his Cadillac dealership in Charlotte, and he kept saying he wanted to fly up and look at the property,” he said.

However, prior engagements delayed Palmer’s visit,  so Spencer and Harry decided “what the heck, we’d call Jack Nicklaus.”

 “Jack said he’d heard about Hound Ears Club. If we didn’t mind, he said he’d like to bring his wife, Barbara, with him to come visit us that weekend,” he added. After his visit, Nicklaus decided to design Elk River.

Spencer’s “elbow-rubbing” with Hollywood stars increased in 1970 when the brothers opened Land of Oz in Beech Mountain. The amusement park featured costumed actors, rides built to resemble key film plot points and a museum filled with Oz memorabilia.

Before the park opened, Spencer traveled to California to bid on museum artifacts from the 1939 film. He found his top auction competitor to be acting icon Debbie Reynolds. Rather than face a protracted, expensive bidding war for the items, Spencer convinced Reynolds to not bid on them in exchange for their use during the winter months at her museum in California (when the Land of Oz would not need them).

As part of the deal, Reynolds agreed to cut the ribbon at the Land of Oz on its opening day (which saw 20,000 visitors). She and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, stayed at Hound Ears. Yes, Hound Ears even has a connection to that “galaxy far, far away.” While many New England inns can say, “George Washington slept here,” Hound Ears can proudly proclaim “Princess Leia slept here.”

Veteran CBS journalist Bob Schieffer and his wife used to stay at the Lodge at Hound Ears in the 1980s while their two daughters attended nearby Camp Yonahlossee, which was then an all-girls camp.

Finally, Darby Hinton, who played Israel Boone with Fess Parker in the hit TV series Daniel Boone, often stayed at Hound Ears, Spencer said, and took golf lessons from noted professional Bob Kepler.

A Friend to the Community

These days, the name Robbins is synonymous with the High Country’s success as a tourist mecca and golfers’  mountain paradise.

Along with his brothers, Spencer helped launch Beech Mountain and Land Harbor as well as the many other attractions that have placed the Boone area on the map. The family has received numerous national, state and regional awards for their economic contributions as well as for their philanthropy.

In 2003, North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry (NCCBI) praised Spencer and his brothers (Grover succumbed to cancer in 1970and Harry passed away in 2007) for their contribution to North Carolina’s economy.

“I hope the members of NCCBI grasp the message that was conveyed so eloquently by Spencer Robbins, whose family has been involved with Tweetsie, Hound Ears Club and Elk River Country Club,” NCBI President Phil Kirk said.

“Spencer says he is a land developer, but we happen to believe that he is a land preservationist who happens to also provide homes, healthy lifestyles and entertainment venues for thousands. The Robbins family lives here, too. They want to do it the right way, the neighborly way. That’s a life lesson for all of us in North Carolina.”

In 2011, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Foundation presented Spencer with a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his “Exceptional Insight and Leadership.” The award honors his contributions to the medical community in recognition of the annual golf tournament he and brother Harry started in the 1970s to honor Grover’s memory. The funds raised helped buy cancer detection equipment, as well as helping to build and equip the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center.

“[Spencer and Harry] were the first to step up and make a substantial commitment to healthcare in this community,” Richard Sparks, President and CEO of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, said.

At 86, Spencer still works just about every day at his Elk River office in Banner Elk. He and Grace have four children and six grandchildren. His son, Rick, has served as president of the American Society of Golf Course architects and has worked as a golf-course architect for 39 years.

In 2014, Hound Ears is celebrating many pioneers like Spencer Robbins, along with its Golden Anniversary, with a variety of events that express the Club’s unique position as one of the region’s most celebrated “escapes” from the hectic pace of modern life. Envisioned in 1964 as a refuge for those seeking an experience of casual mountain luxury, Hound Ears Club will look back at its heritage even as it looks forward to a healthy future as the  premier mountain experience in the High Country.

Today, the member-owned Club remains a family-oriented mountain community. Hound Ears is known for its casual elegance and authentic charm and offers dining, golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, and a fitness center, as well as a full calendar of annual social events. With approximately 300 members, Hound Ears Club cultivates a small-town feeling, an echo of a simpler time, while still embracing the latest in amenities and technology.

To celebrate the milestone, Hound Ears Club will partner with the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum to present a communitywide historical exhibit June 20-September 7. The Club will also invite residents to experience a special Gala event as well as a 50th Anniversary Golf Tournament, followed by a Tour of Claus Moberg Homes.

For more information, visit the Hound Ears Club website at houndears.com