Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Flat Rock shines as mountain hangout

Carl Sandburg moved to Connemara in 1945 with his wife, three daughters and two grandchildren for the open spaces and natural setting. The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site sprawls across more than 200 acres, with hiking trails, a farm and goat dairy. Photo by Jim Bowen

By Bryan Mims 

It was a slow, bumpy, dirty haul from Charleston to the front range of the Blue Ridge Mountains, one that took days to complete. In the 1820s, railroads were still years on the horizon, and travel was barely faster than one could walk. The idea that the trip could be completed in a matter of hours would have been beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

But in those horse-and-buggy days, members of the Lowcountry’s high society mustered all the comfort they could aboard their stagecoaches and carriages for the 250-mile excursion northwest. Summers along the spongy South Carolina coast were oppressive and malaria-prone. Wealthy planters enjoyed the luxury of escaping the subtropical steam for the refreshing altitude of western North Carolina. About 8 miles north of the state line, more or less along present-day U.S. 25, coastal merchants had long met with Cherokee natives to trade goods for furs and hides at the “Great Flat Rock.”

A settlement cropped up around the site and adopted its name for the exposed granite dotting the terrain. With the completion of the Buncombe Turnpike running from Tennessee to the Poinsett Highway in South Carolina, Flat Rock flourished. But it wasn’t until 1829 that big money started flowing in like a well-stocked trout stream. That’s when Charles Baring of the Baring Brothers banking family in England discovered the healthful climate and water of this locale 2,200 feet above the sea.

His wife, Susan, was the heiress of substantial wealth from her fifth husband, a business magnate in Charleston, and she brought her riches to Flat Rock. Charles and Susan Baring acquired about 3,000 acres, much of it sold to other Charleston notables who built summer homes. Flat Rock would become known as the “little Charleston of the mountains.”

To this day, people continue to pour into Flat Rock and the surrounding mountains to while away the summer. The area is sprinkled with summer youth camps — 17 in Henderson County, which encompasses Flat Rock — making a cannonball splash on the local economy. Their ripple effects spread to restaurants, hotels, shops and tax rolls. An N.C. State University study showed that in the summer of 2010, youth camps injected about $365 million into the economy of the four-county region around Flat Rock, generating $33 million in tax revenue.

Some of those kids and counselors become enchanted by the mountains and end up putting stakes in the ground for good. Virginia Spigener, who grew up in a small Florida town, worked at a summer camp in the early 1980s and “decided to stay a winter to see what it was like.”

“I just fell for the mountains and the rural atmosphere,” she says. “It’s just a great place to live.”

Spigener wrote for the newspaper in Tryon until 1990 when she pursued her penchant for retail, opening a store in Flat Rock called The Wrinkled Egg. The shop occupies an old grocery store on the Greenville Highway, selling everything from Southern folk art and clothes to antiques and summer camp care packages.

“The median age range has greatly dropped since I moved here,” she says of Flat Rock, which has a population of about 3,300 and is centered around the historic village district. “This used to be very much a retirement community, and much more of a seasonal community. Now, there are lots more families — people who just want to live here and not retire here. But tourism is huge here.”

Summer camps fuel much of the tourism, of course, but so do other iconic attractions. Flat Rock’s most famous resident was a man revered as the “Poet of the People,” Carl Sandburg. In 1945, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, who earned critical acclaim for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, moved from his native Illinois to the hilltop home known as Connemara.

The house, built by a wealthy Charlestonian in the 19th century, overlooks a pasture that slopes down to a pond rimmed by white pines and hemlocks. He settled on the 245-acre farm for the scenery and solitude to be prolific with his craft. He produced about a third of his works and won a second Pulitzer while living at Connemara.

After Sandburg died in 1967, his wife, Lillian, donated the home and family belongings to the National Park Service so that her husband’s literary legacy would be preserved and accessible to the public. In 1974, the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site opened, and it now attracts about 85,000 visitors a year, many drawn to the farm’s renowned dairy goats.

People also flock to the town to take in concerts, musicals, comedies and dramas at Flat Rock Playhouse, which stages performances over nine months in its 500-seat main theater. It started in 1937 when a group of struggling actors organized into the Vagabond Players. They endeared themselves to the community, and the playhouse became something of a workhorse for the economy. In 1961, the state legislature designated it as the State Theatre of North Carolina, with 100,000 hand-clappers warming its seats every year. Among this year’s lineup: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific; C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; and Country Royalty, a tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

Both Connemara and Flat Rock Playhouse are within easy walking distance of several nearby eateries. Honey and Salt opened in March 2017, serving farm-to-table breakfast and lunch. Right behind it is Hubba Hubba Smokehouse, its oak-and-hickory-tinged plumes permeating the village with an irresistible aroma.

Starr Teel, who himself worked at a summer camp during college in the early 1970s, fired up the barbecue restaurant about 12 years ago. He owns the buildings that house The Wrinkled Egg, the Dogwood gift shop and Honey and Salt. Given his longtime affinity for cooking, he thought he’d open his own wood-smoked barbecue joint, one with outdoor seating and beer.

Having grown up in Alabama and Missouri, these mountains kept tugging at his heart after he graduated from college and left his summer-camp job. “I am a product of the summer-camp industry,” he says. “And this is the epicenter of camping. There’s a very large group of us that have been attracted to the quality of life and values that camping brings, and we want to be close to that.”

The community is loaded with teachers, doctors, lawyers and small-business owners because of the camping industry, he says.

After years of traveling abroad in his career, Teel landed back in these hills and started the Flat Rock Village Bakery in the same building as The Wrinkled Egg. It serves brick-oven breads, pastries and pizzas under the helm of baker and co-owner Dave Workman. “There’s nothing like having a good idea and handing it off to someone who’s better than you to fulfill the idea,” Teel says. “Basically I’m handing off businesses to people who are better at it than I am.”

Business is brimming for most of the year in Flat Rock. The Bonclarken Conference Center, run by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, packs hundreds of people at a time for conferences during both the summer and winter. Come fall, leaf-peepers and apple pickers flood the landscape. Henderson County’s apple production ranks seventh of all counties in the U.S.

Golf and upscale vacation rentals keep flatlanders coming to Flat Rock, too. One option is the Kenmure Country Club, which rents homes and condos in a 1,400-acre gated community with an 18-hole golf course. The clubhouse is an antebellum mansion built with cypress imported from Charleston and bricks made locally.

Golf and a cool climate enticed Vaughn Eskew to retire to Flat Rock from Ashland, Ky., in 2007. At The Wrinkled Egg, he buys a 39th anniversary gift for his wife. “We wanted to get farther south, but not Florida,” he says. “We liked the mountains, the elevation. In the wintertime, we go to South Carolina. You drop 1,000 feet, it’s 10 degrees warmer.”

The employee ringing up his sale, Jackie Henriksen, is originally from Ireland and moved to North Carolina with her husband, a golf pro, in 1993. “I lived in New York, I grew up in the city, I lived in Houston,” she says. “But there’s something about the mountains. My family comes from Ireland to visit, and they love it here.”

Reaching this mountain hamlet is much easier now than when the Charleston gentry had to bounce over wagon ruts and tree roots for days. But modern visitors, themselves weary of hot, humid and crowded places, are seeing why Flat Rock was always worth the uphill trek. ■

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