By Jessica Isaacs
Photos by Ken Ketchie
Although the High Country’s rich and storied past boasts a wealth of intriguing tales and characters, many of its residents in the modern world know little to nothing about those who came before them.
Much of our area’s history remains hidden within these mountains, tucked away in the corners of small communities here and there, and many local landmarks remain a mystery to us after all these years. We know where they are and we pass them from time to time, but we’ve never really known the stories behind them.
Chip Caviness is the proud owner of one such place — the elusive round house on Shull’s Mill Road — and they’re making great strides to unearth and preserve its story for generations to come.
Whether you live near the Hound Ears Club, drive along Shulls Mill Road on your daily commute or have simply passed through on occasion, you’ve probably often wondered about the circular structure that seems a little out of place in the mountain countryside. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s doing here and what it looks like inside, you’re not the only one.
The property, just over four acres, features three very different structures, each one telling a different piece of the property’s story — the original Shulls family home place, circa 1850; the old Shulls family general store, which was moved there sometime between 1940-1965; and the midcentury-modern round home, constructed in 1972.
The property, which sits on Shulls Mill near Old Turnpike Road and backs up to Sugar Maple Lane, belonged to one of the area’s most well known families in the late 1800s and into the mid-to-late 1900s.
“There was a town called Shulls Mills that was here prior to 1940,” said Caviness, who bought the property almost 20 years ago. “It was larger than Boone at the time.”
The town may have developed as early as the 1830s around a gristmill built on his farm by Phillip Shull, a descendant of German immigrants. It became a regular stop along the route of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railroad, which was built in a slow process between 1880-1920 and eventually stretched from Johnson City, Tennessee to Boone.
The ET&WNC “Tweetsie” Railroad operated for another two decades, during which time the Shull family home place had been passed down to Roby Shull, possibly Phillip’s grandson, and his wife, Mamie Graybeal. Additionally, they owned and operated the general store that sat just down the road and around the bend, right where the gated community of River Pointe sits today.
“This branch of the Shulls family had the grist mill here. The Robbins family had the timber mill, and there was the big cow farm that we all know as Hound Ears,” Caviness said. “It was the Robbins, the Shulls and the Danners, and they’re all buried right up here in the trees.”
“Our planted allée — an evergreen hallway, if you will — goes right out to the Watauga River. That’s right where the Tweetsie Railroad ran. It would bring the old grove timber from Linville. They would trade it over here, the Robbins had the timber mill and then it would be reloaded, come across the river right here, cross over what’s now the Hound Ears golf course. That was the route, as I understand it.”
The town of Shulls Mills thrived as a trade destination along Tweetsie’s route until the great flood of 1940, which devastated the railway. This excerpt from the article “Our Tweetsie Whom We Loved So Dear,” published in the April 2016 edition of High Country Magazine, explains how the flood wreaked havoc on the railroad:
In August of 1940, a storm recognized as Hurricane #3 began stir in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico. Classified as a tropical storm by the time it hit the East Coast, it brought heavy downpour and severe flooding to western North Carolina.
Devastated by excessive and reckless logging, the forestry and lands of the Blue Ridge hill country were left defenseless against the mighty floods, and the much of the railway, which took almost four decades to complete, was destroyed in a matter of days.
By that time, the construction of more reliable roadways had for several years foreshadowed the railroad’s demise. Cars and buses were seen more frequently in town, and the ETWNC owners saw the future of transportation changing before their eyes.
“Road building materials were brought in, and you can see it in the cars in some of the photographs,” said [local historian] David Spiceland. “That’s the irony — Tweetsie was hauling in the seeds of its own destruction.”
So, when storm damage struck the railway, which had once represented the promises of a new era, they didn’t fight to bring it back to life. In fact, they were more than ready to let it go.
“There was terrific damage. You can clearly see in some of the old photos how much was destroyed and uprooted,” said Spiceland. “The abandonment was just when something magical left Boone. It was a sad ending, and, you hate to say it, but I really do believe they could’ve kept the railroad. It was losing money, but if they could’ve just held on for 40 more years … “
In 1941, the Linville River Railway and all of the tracks between Boone and Cranberry were abandoned. The ETWNC continued to run for several years, but the remainder of the railroad was abandoned in 1950, along with most of its depots.
“There was a dam, I think, up river that broke and it just flooded this whole mountain valley and it washed the town of Shulls Mills away,” Caviness said. “It’s gone. This is what’s left of it.”
The General Store
Roby and Mamie Shull continued to live at the 1850s home place after the railway was abandoned. When their only son, Dean, reached adulthood, he left the area for quite some time, returning only when his father passed away.
“Dean moved away from here and he was living in Maryland. He was in the navy and he was an engineer. Being a southern boy like I am, I know that when Daddy dies you have to go home and take care of Momma,” said Caviness. “So, when Mr. Roby died, Dean moved back here to take care of Mrs. Mamie. Dean and his wife, Mary Ann, had no children, and they moved back here together. Mamie was still living in the old house, which had no indoor electricity and barely had plumbing — very scant living conditions.”
Around the same time that Dean returned to the home place, big changes were in the works within the surrounding community.
“Dean moved back here, and, along that same timeline, there was a group of men who were getting together to form what we know as Hound Ears,” said Caviness. “Of course, it was a cow farm at that point. It was not developed, but they were in the process of developing it.”
At that time, the state highway department also began a project to pave Shulls Mill Road, of which the Shulls family general store sat in the right-of-way.
With progress underway all around, Dean sold the roadside property to the developers of Hound Ears Club, which opened shortly thereafter in 1964, and moved the general store building over to the family property, right beside the old home place.
“When he sold the land up there, the store building got moved down here,” Caviness said. “How they did it, I don’t know. I’m told it was board for board, but who knows?”
In the early 1970s, Dean Shull used funds from the sale of the roadside property to hire famous architect Gilbert Spindel to build a new house by the old family home place.
At the time, Spindel was building versions across the country of his interesting round home design called “Geodesica.” The circular plan incorporated bedrooms, bathrooms, living spaces and a kitchen planned around a central living space, which most often featured a higher ceiling than the outlying rooms.
The plans also featured fully enclosed concrete basements, which could have been the result of the architect’s work in the 1950s with the Federal Civil Defense Administration to test the effects of atomic bomb destruction on civilian homes through a project called Operation Upshot-Knothole.
“That’s the story on this house,” Caviness said. “That’s why this house is round.”
Dean’s Spindel Geodesica was built in 1972 and features a foyer, three bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a great room with custom fireplace, a kitchen and a music room, all of which are planned around a central dining room space complete with all-around transom windows. It, too, includes a full-size concrete basement that doubles the home’s livable square footage.
“This is how all of this kind of happened around here,” said Caviness. “You’re saying, ‘Why is there a round house here and why is there an antique building? None of this goes together.’ It doesn’t, but this is how it happened.”
The more they learn about the history of the round house, the more they love it and the more its architect intrigues them. In fact, they’ve connected with a number of Geodesica homeowners across the country.
“Our is the biggest one of these round houses around here. There’s one on Beech Mountain that is smaller and variations of these are built all over the country,” Caviness said. “This is a the more refined version of the plan, but some are built with cinderblock. There’s one in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma — they’re kind of scattered, but we’ve all connected. One homeowner is putting together a coffee table book on this architect and this plan. All of these models will be featured and ours will be on the cover.”
While he’s not sure what drew Dean Shull to Spindel’s Geodesica, or what motivated him to build one in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the home’s current owner loves the design and appreciates the history behind it.
A Labor of Love
For almost two decades, the property has been a little slice of mountain paradise for Caviness – a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and place to enjoy his horses.
His first order of business upon acquiring the place was to restore the old general store building and preserve its history while making it functional for his own purposes. He was able to maintain the wide plank wood floors, the shiplap siding and several architectural details, including the old coal door on what is now a tack room.
Complete with a full kitchen and a full bath, the downstairs space of the general store has since served as a studio space for Caviness, an interior designer by trade. The restored attic space acts as a bedroom, allowing them to use the store building as a guesthouse, too.
“Upstairs was an attic, so we took the ceiling out and raised the wind beams,” said Caviness. “Now it is a loft that sleeps four.”
They have also restored the round house and invested in the six-bay horse barn behind the general store. Investing his time and hard-earned dollars into the property has been a labor of love for Caviness over the past 20 years; however, as time has pressed on, he’s become less certain of what to do with it in the long run.
“It’s a really unique piece of property and this is why I did not want to sell it,” Caviness explained. “We put it on the market and we had a lot of interest, but people just don’t get it. They get out here, they don’t know what to do and they get overwhelmed. I don’t know why, but they do. In the interim of all this, I didn’t really want to sell it, I just didn’t know how to keep it.”
That was, until his friend and local wedding planner Elizabeth Hempfling recommended using it as a wedding venue, which could allow him to preserve the integrity of the property and also provide the revenue that would allow him to keep it.
Whispering Waters Farm
Although he’s new to the wedding world, Caviness knows the destination wedding industry is booming, especially here in the High Country. With support and encouragement from Hempfling and other local vendors, he began this summer a lengthy renovation process that will allow the property to function as an ideal venue for couples in search of unique mountain spaces with character abounding.
Eventually, he plans to rent the property, known as Whispering Waters Farm, by offering packages to clients based on which of the buildings they’d like to incorporate as event space.
The general store building, which is seen immediately from the driveway and sits between the old home place and the round house, will offer open space on the lower level and semi furnished space upstairs for bridal party use in the hours leading up to an event.
Over in the Geodesica, clients can choose to rent the main living spaces (foyer, dining room, living room, music room and kitchen) for cocktail parties, receptions or rehearsal dinners. Its circular design allows the perfect traffic flow for such social occasions, and Caviness plans to add French doors leading to a new terrace off of the music room before the property is available for rent. The home’s 2,650 square foot dry basement will offer an abundance of storage and staging space for consultants, vendors and party planners.
The six-bay horse barn will be cleared out and updated as an additional event hall option.
“We’re taking all the stalls out of the barn and leveling the floor — brick pavers wall to wall, board ceiling, recessed lights and wine barrel chandeliers down the middle,” said Caviness. “I’ve got great pair of vintage sconces from the ’20s that are being wired right now to go out here and we’re going to stucco the walls inside.”
The exterior of the old Shull home place, an 1850s cabin with a front porch that faces Shulls Mill Road and Old Turnpike, will be preserved as-is, and the interior will be used as barn space for the pair of horses that will soon call the place home for good.
Caviness also has plans to add a few new outdoor options, all of which will be constructed with timber and adorned with the same chocolate vine that’s found all around the other buildings.
An open-air three-bay covered parking area will provide a space with concrete floor just outside the round house. A covered pavilion overlooking the Watauga River will eventually be found at the end of the planted allée, which leads to the water from the round house, is lined with Mrs. Mamie Shull’s blueberry bushes and boasts a million dollar view of the nearby Grandfather Mountain.
These plans for transforming the farm into a full-service wedding venue will be carried out over the next year, and Caviness has tentatively planned to market it for the 2017 wedding season, which peaks between the months of April and October in the High Country.
Caviness looks forward to sharing the place he holds so dear with couples looking to spend the best day of their lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains.