By Melanie Bullard (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, July 2014)
Photography by Ken Ketchie
And in October, when we close up, it’s sad. It’s all tears, as if we’ll never see each other again. And when we do get together in the spring, it’s all hugs and screaming and ‘did you have a good winter?’”
Judy Eckard of the Azalea Garden Inn is telling of life as a keeper of one of the inns of Blowing Rock – those small hotels that cluster around the heart of North Carolina’s premier mountain holiday destination. Some of them open year-round; others only for the summer.
Judy is one of three siblings, along with Sue Gill and Henry Knoll, who manage the inn noted for the log cabin, waterwheel and rainbow-flowered grounds on the road into town. The property has been in the family since 1978.
These little inns today are not only the first lodging choice for visitors to Blowing Rock. They are a mainstay of the picturesque character of this mountain town, and each is known for something special – a profusion of flowers, specific location, a particular architectural motif, or special history. In all, friendly family innkeepers and atmosphere put them above the crowd when bland and functional is elsewhere the norm.
In these inns, each with its different personality, nothing is standard except the intangibles that make an experience unforgettable – the warmth of the people, the feeling of arriving home, and the personal touch from start to finish, whether it’s in the unique décor, the facilities in each room and the intimate sense of the scale of buildings whose roots lie in the past.
These family inns are the backbone of the business, said Tracy Brown, Executive Director of Blowing Rock Tourism and Development: they produce about ninety per cent of the occupancy tax revenue of all the hotels in the town. Yet it’s not the fiscal results of their industry, but more the human side, that these small business owners emphasize when talking of their avocation. Judy’s description of her experience as an innkeeper finds echoes in all.
“It’s socializing here – that’s what this place is for. We get up here and have a good time,” said Phillip Pickett, who owns the Boxwood Lodge with wife Emma. He is actually referring to the deck above the handicapped-equipped apartment that they built to let to guests – but also with an eye to any problems they might encounter when eventually they retire. Yet, what he says applies to all these little hotels.
Phillip has supplied The Boxwood’s deck with comfortable seating and tables for guests to meet and mingle around. Plants bloom in exuberant reds, yellows, pinks and purples, while his Weeping Mulberry graces the setting every year with a stunning cascade of foliage, providing a focal point for many a photographer.
The Boxwood’s gardens are the first in a long blast of color that greets visitors entering the town along 221/321 and continues in gardens on Sunset Drive and Morris Street. The unending color comes from the hard work that each innkeeper puts in not just during early spring before guests flood in, but also throughout the season to keep them at their peak even when visitors mill around everywhere.
“Some customers return just to see what Charles has done to the gardens this year,” said Katherine Smid, of the Alpine Village Inn which has been in the family since about 1990.
Back at the Boxwood, Phillips’s long chimes sprinkle the windy air with high-pitched tinkling and deep, echoing booms – yet another means of ensuring that the deck will fulfill its purpose, for the sounds induce relaxation, which facilitates friendships among those who meet there for the first time. These little inns, therefore, it seems are not just run by families: they create a family of friendships too.
“We have some guests who actually call each other and say we should meet up here for a vacation,” said Phillip.
A feature that is a deck in the Boxwood Lodge comes as a terrace at the Azalea Gardens, a creek-side at the Mountain Aire, a Gazebo at the Hemlock or the Alpine Village or a pond at the Village Inn. They all provide a central location on the premises where guests can get together and enjoy themselves as in a family reunion. This feature, no matter the form it takes, is a by-product of the original, design of the inns themselves, whose rooms look to the outdoors.
Socializing here is a tradition that has passed down for generations. Peggy Scoggins of Blowing Rock, who opened the Hillwinds on Sunset Drive in 1970 with her late husband, Hovey, laughed at the memory of a guest “who would come every year. He was very talkative and he’d hold court in the gazebo with all the others telling stories. He was sort of our entertainer.”
Today, Deborah McDowell, who owns and operates the Mountain Aire with her husband Jim, tells succinctly how these family inns bring people together.
“Some people like the big box hotels, they prefer the anonymity,” she said. “Here, it’s kind of like ‘Cheers.’ Everyone wants to go where they know your name.”
But the personality of these little inns comes from something deeper.
“Our guests tell us that when they start up the mountain, they feel the pressure come off their shoulders. They have everything they want here. They love that they can walk to all the entertainments and we want them to come and feel homey. We try to give them special attention. They are our personal guests and we are inviting them into our home,” said Deborah.
This easy familiarity with others and the fun that comes with socializing leads to guests returning again and again.
“A couple will come one year and then they’ll bring their children, and then the children grow up and then the children bring their children and we get different generations here together,” she said. “There’s one grandfather who brings the grandchild who turns thirteen and I’m always looking forward to seeing which one’s coming this time”
The sense of coming home that repeat guests feel in the family inns of Blowing Rock sometimes evolves into a sense of proprietorship.
“Yes, some of them come again and again and the room they stay in, it becomes their room. If they phone up to book and can’t get their room, they’ll change their schedule for when they can,” said Brian Summers who owns the Hemlock Inn on Morris Street with his wife Donna. The Hemlock is one of two inns there: the other, across the street, is the Homestead.
Although off Main, the Hemlock and Homestead can boast that they are closest to every activity that makes summer special in Blowing Rock, for they are only half a block or so from the Sixpence Pub (fish & chips, good British beers; or real Scotch – the drink that is); or a block or so from Ensemble Stage’s summer theater at the school auditorium, with the Blowing Rock Ale House & Inn alongside and the Inn at Ragged Gardens opposite. In the same direction, there’s Kilwin’s – the primary outlet for a late-night fudge or ice cream cone, while along Main it’s a short step to the post office, a bank; to the library or museum; to the park and pool; or to a convenience store with a great wine selection, or to where the farmer’s market and Art in the Park take place. In other directions there’s also the local pharmacy, the Blowing Rock Art History Museum, countless boutiques and galleries and a wide choice in restaurants in which to relax while enjoying a home away from home.
Such family-owned businesses in the thick of everyday life recall times past when parking the car and walking everywhere was the norm – including, for the kids living with their parent-owners, to the school. Nostalgia for such a bygone life has sunk deep into the modern psyche. But it still exists in Blowing Rock, attracting visitors in droves and encouraging them to stay and live that life for a few days, a week, or sometimes longer. The difference between the Hemlock and Homestead and the other small inns of Blowing Rock is only one of degree: the walk from any to every downtown attraction is much less than a mile.
The role of these small inns as the main, and also quaint and charming, lodgings that add to the image and ambience of a small town is actually surprising. Almost all emerged from the long era of economic boom after World War Two and imported a very recognizable national commercial architectural style to this area of the Appalachians – an “L” or “U” shape, or at the very least a straight strip. They evolved from the early automobile age when motorists on long cross-country trips needed convenient places to stop overnight. The final design relied on the functional: very simple, eminently affordable-to-build-and-operate low rise adjoining rooms with parking directly outside with only a short distance to haul baggage.
Created with travelers on long trips in mind, in Blowing Rock’s case, the intention behind the motels which popped up mostly on the then outskirts of the town was to cater to people who wanted to park for longer – in those days, often up to a month. They were a modern development in the tradition of Blowing Rock which went back to the start of its history, when boarding houses provided long-term accommodation for visitors escaping from the Piedmont’s searing summer heat.
These small inns of such functional form demonstrate what can happen when imagination lets loose on a basic shape, for Blowing Rock’s family inns are like plain women born decades ago who have aged gracefully and surprisingly, acquiring class and admirers by the dozen along the way because they grew in individuality and beauty and because of the comfort they evoke in anyone who finds themselves in their presence. Like such human stalwarts of the community, each of the inns is today very different from when it first started out in life.
Joe Lineberger of Blowing Rock was just a lad of sixteen when his Mom and Dad paid $18,000 in 1958 for some land to build a motel in a locality where his Dad loved to fish for trout. It was on Sunset Drive, where the Linebergers built the original Village Inn, now known as the Alpine Village Inn. It was the first motel on Sunset Drive, said Joe. Above it was the Sunshine Inn, for many years renowned as Crippens and now the New Public House and Hotel. Joe remembers clearly the work his parents had to do to build their own place.
“The land had five houses on it. They had to take down two, move one and keep two that are still there on the upper end, but not part of [the inn today],” said Joe. “It had fifteen rooms and back in the late fifties they started out at about $8 per night. During Horse Show Week, it went up to $28.”
Like Blowing Rock’s small inns of today, the former Village Inn was a family enterprise.
“My Mom ran the motel and we lived there as a family,” said Joe, who was drafted in to help with the chores, including work the TVs.
“It was a real hassle to get the TV’s to come in,” he remembers. “It was Channel Three from Charlotte, the vertical would roll and roll and we’d have to try aluminum foil on the antenna to get it to stop and to clear the snow from the screen.”
And, most likely – for those old enough to remember that frustrating ritual – also having to perch on one foot in the middle of the room, with the opposite arm holding the antenna up and with the rest of the body coiled like a cortortionist because that was the only way picture and sound would merge satisfactorily.
The days of fuzzy and unstable TV pictures are long past in the family inns of Blowing Rock: today, flat screen TV’s and high-speed internet are standard, often along with coffee-makers and fridges and even some kitchenettes. Whirlpool tubs are regularly found in deluxe rooms, while all have gone far beyond the purely functional and mid-century faded, today displaying stylish décor that complements the coziness of the buildings and contributes to the Alpine personality of the town. In most cases, the décor is in the hands of the woman of the enterprise, while maintenance is in the hands, or under the direction of the men. The gardens can be the passion of either or both: no matter the work, all provide examples of successful family teamwork.
Despite the mostly post-World War Two character of Blowing Rock’s family inns, the accolade of having the oldest rooms goes to the Hemlock, for its two-storey part was originally the Morris House – a mission during the Civil War and later a boarding house. Other parts of the Hemlock date from 1905, the 1930s, the 1950s and 1998.
Brian and Donna Summers have owned the Hemlock since 1994 and Brian, talks of the powerful spring under the property that used to fill the 50,000-gallon swimming pool in two days – until he filled it in. The Hemlock’s gazebo, he says, is where the kiddies’ pool used to be. Now the only one of these inns with a pool is the Meadowbrook, the only full-service hotel in the group and which Richard Goosman and Vicki McLean have owned since 1991. Built in an unobtrusive scale, the Meadowbrook sits back from the road in its own colorful grounds and fills a gap that Blowing Rock’s other family inns cannot – providing the facilities for weddings, conferences, parties, anniversaries and dancing.
Although this “first modern hotel in the High Country,” as Vicki describes it, is of a newer generation than the older inns, the two work together, sending overflow guests in both directions, while the small inns provide a quiet alternative for guests who want peace even during a noisy event like a graduation party.
With the same kind of personalized ambiance, the Meadowbrook also gets the same multi-generational patronage as the older inns. “We start seeing children [of guests] and seeing the children of children. It makes you feel you are a part of their family life.”
The family inns of Blowing Rock may mostly be much younger than the town, but today they are an integral part of its fabric. That is no accident. The town’s planning department works to maintain in its architecture the Alpine village image that has become the High Country gateway’s trademark. This result, however, is as much to do with a wish on the part of the inn owners to keep the inns within character.
Caroline Valet, who has owned the Homestead Inn on Morris Street with her husband Robert since 1995, has had in the forefront of her mind throughout her property’s complete refurbishment the importance of conserving its original character, even as she enhances it. And so, while the gardens are now award-winners, with a fountain and swing installed; and hardwood floors and Italian tile have come in, Caroline and Robert “have always worked to keep the originality of the place.” The stone and the same trees are still there, recognizable from the past – and the inn is still family-run.
Caroline is anything but alone in her sentiment. People come to the mountains for the beauty and to relax, and to Blowing Rock for its unique flavor, said Vicki of the Meadowbrook. “They don’t want to feel they are in a typical paradise. But a modern décor is really important, so we try to maintain the Blowing Rock ambiance – the fireplaces, the stone, the wood that belongs to the mountains. As a business community, we all agree that Blowing Rock is just the most charming place and we want to keep it that way. We all adore Blowing Rock and want others to feel the same – as a unique, safe and traditional place in North Carolina.”