Spencer Robbins was a force in western North Carolina tourism and development dating back more than half a century. He and his older brothers, Grover Jr. and Harry, helped create regional attractions such as Tweetsie Railroad and Land of Oz. The trio were pioneers in the state’s skiing industry through the Beech Mountain Resort and helped popularize and bring jobs to a once isolated region. Robbins passed away Nov 13 at age 93. Spencer Robbins’ daughter, Connie Robbins Gentry, paints a picture of her father’s contributions to the High Country.
By Connie Robbins Gentry
“What Boone needs is a convention center so people can come here for meetings and conferences and see what a beautiful place it is to live and visit.” That’s what Spencer Robbins said in early November, as he surveyed all the development and construction underway in his beloved home town.
My father dedicated his life to promoting economic development, tourism, job creation, and an enhanced quality of life for the High Country. He passed away on November 13, at age 93, leaving a legacy that spanned generations and set the stage for communities in western North Carolina to continue to prosper.
Along with his brothers, Grover and Harry, he developed some of the area’s most popular travel attractions and highly acclaimed resorts. Preserving the history and character of the region were paramount, so in 1956 the brothers returned a storied steam locomotive to the community, creating Blowing Rock’s Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park — North Carolina’s first. In the ‘70s they restored the nearly 103-year-old Green Park Inn to the splendor of bygone eras.
The Robbins brothers were also known for developing Hound Ears Club — their first golf course and resort community — and it was followed by Beech Mountain Resort, with the now-defunct Land of Oz theme park, which still hosts the largest Wizard of Oz festival in the country. They also created residential communities Linville Land Harbor and the Elk River Club in Banner Elk. These were just some of the opportunities they developed in what has become one of the state’s most vital industries. In 1968, the N.C. Travel Industry Association recognized the three brothers for their contributions.
Of the three, Spencer was the people person, who connected with everyone he met on a personal level. It wasn’t superficial, he genuinely found out what mattered to people and he remembered each one individually. Relationships that started in business transactions inevitably endured as friendships.
“Spencer Robbins was a rare individual, a no-nonsense person whose word was his bond,” says Bill Hensley, a Charlotte-based public relations executive who served as North Carolina’s Director of Travel and Tourism from 1965 to 1971. “If he told you something, you could bank on it. Honesty was his tradition whether it was in business or his personal life. And he had a sense of humor that was legendary—he was great to have around for business or pleasure.”
His humor and penchant for storytelling were cherished qualities, and he interjected them into his business dealings in ways that made people want to become part of the developments in western North Carolina. He had a vision for what the area needed and for concocting creative ways to entice people to come from near and far..
Bringing in the big guns.
In the heyday of TV westerns, Dad brought celebrity cowboys to Tweetsie and to its sister attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (Today’s Dollywood was then a Wild West theme park called Goldrush Junction, acquired by the Robbins brothers.) But he didn’t just bring celebrities to sign autographs, he made it personal for the stars as well —Doc and Festus of Gunsmoke fame ate home-cooked dinners at our house, to “give them a chance to relax and feel normal,” Dad would say.
When folks laughed at the concept of skiing in the South, Dad recruited ski instructors from Austria, taking them to Atlanta and Charlotte for Thanksgiving Day parades and to promote the sport at major shopping malls, just in time to inspire winter ski trips to western North Carolina.
In the early 80s, he and Harry asked Arnold Palmer to look at designing a golf course for their Banner Elk property, but the famous PGA star had several courses underway and couldn’t schedule a visit as soon as they hoped. They’d never met Jack Nicklaus, but the brothers decided to approach him about adding North Carolina to his portfolio.
Nicklaus returned their call with a single question: Could he bring his wife with him to see this part of the country? Nothing could have pleased Dad more; he delighted in sharing the beauty and splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Elk River Club opened in 1984 as the state’s first Nicklaus-designed course.
Love of the land.
The Robbins brothers spent hours atop Beech Mountain, hiking along the ridge, marveling at the massive rocks and gnarled trees, and mesmerized by that feeling of “coming out of the clouds” to such a magical place. With the Land of Oz, Dad wanted to highlight that experience and the natural beauty of the land.
So they brought in Jack Pentes, a Charlotte-based artist who worked with them on a variety of projects at Tweetsie and later designed the Elk River logo. Pentes and Dad were business partners and great friends. It was at our dinner table one night that Pentes was sketching those gnarly trees, as enamored with the setting as Dad and Harry, and, in a flash, Pentes could see those trees throwing apples at a scarecrow, tin woodsman, and cowardly lion. The Land of Oz opened in 1970, and legend has it that only one of those magical trees was cut down to make room for the yellow brick road.
Rick Foster, president of Elk River Realty, remembers well the reverence for the land witnessed time and again across the more than 40 years he worked alongside my father. “Whenever something would be planned, it had to blend in with the mountains,” Foster says. “Utilities had to go underground because it would look better. At Elk River, the waterfalls had to be a park. I’d say, ‘We could sell a hundred condos there.’ And he’d tell me, ‘Those waterfalls have to be for everybody.’”
The 1,200-acre tract that is home to Elk River Club was developed with extremely low density to minimize the number of trees cut and preserve the natural setting. “There are only about 300 total residential units in the club, about 100 condos and 200 homes,” Foster notes. “How the end product would look was always a consideration for Spencer; the estate tracts along the ridge of Elk River were larger so that as people look across at that ridge they don’t see house after house. And he insisted on everything being built with native materials from the mountains. That’s how you protected your mountains.”
Foster recalls a prospective buyer who was irked that Spencer would have to approve the number of trees cut to make room for the house he wanted. “They don’t have anything better to do than approve the number of trees being cut,” the incredulous buyer asked. “Actually, they don’t,” responded Foster, who joined the Robbins brothers’ business while in college and has spent his career alongside them.
“I remember being astounded back in the ‘80s to learn that their business was the third-largest employer in the area,” says Foster. “Only ASU and the TRW electronics manufacturer were larger.”
“Not long ago, a man came up to thank Spencer when we were having lunch at a little diner. Back when they were developing Beech Mountain, Spencer and Harry worked with Lees McRae College to develop a trade school that provided free classes and tools to address the shortage of construction labor. That man told your Dad: ‘You taught me the construction business and I’ve been employed ever since, and I still have that hammer I got in school.’”
Another close friend was Harris Prevost, vice president of the nonprofit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. In November, Harris shared, “Spencer was my hero and mentor when I was just starting out at Grandfather Mountain in the mid-‘70s, and he remains my hero to this day. When I started working for Mr. [Hugh] Morton [former owner of Grandfather Mountain], he told me to watch Spencer and learn from him.”
Prevost and Dad worked together in the formation of the North Carolina High Country Host, an organization that was a cohesive marketing network for all the tourism businesses in the region, where Dad served as president from 1980 to 1982. “Due to his hard work, his extraordinary vision, and, more importantly, who he was, businesses trusted and respected him, and they joined the organization,” Prevost says.
What my father accomplished was amazing, but his true legacy is who he was, the values and integrity that he instilled in so many, and the way he treated each person. “He was a true friend because he cared about what he could do for you, not what you could do for him,” Hensley says.
And what he could do for his community was always top of mind. After their oldest brother lost his battle with cancer in 1970 at age 50, Dad and Harry launched the Grover C. Robbins Jr. Golf Tournament to raise money for the hospital in Boone. (Harry Robbins died in 2007, at 82.)
Dad served on the hospital board for years, and in 2011, the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Foundation presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Awards were appreciated, but what made him glow was the people who would come back into his life. During hospital stays, nurses and staff would come to visit and remind him: “Remember: I worked for you at Tweetsie? I was a Dorothy at Oz? You helped me get through school because I was able to work at Hound Ears, or Beech Mountain,” and the list goes on.
“He built relationships that lasted years, and people just felt good working with him,” Foster says. “He made you feel like family.”
REPRINTED from the Business North Carolina Magazine, February 2021 issue
See the original article HERE