Rock steady

 In 2015-07

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So what do you think of our new gazebo? It was just dedicated last week — just in time for summer. I think it’s a pretty good symbol of who we are as a community.” Perched on a wooden bench in Blowing Rock’s beautiful Memorial Park while Main Street fills with hungry weekenders, Mayor J.B. Lawrence can be forgiven for sounding like a man in love with his day job. He’s been at the post for 18 years, including five terms when he ran unopposed.

The Rock’s new gazebo is indeed a thing of beauty, made of strong mountain timbers and topped with cedar shakes. It’s roughly twice the size of the one it replaced that was built for the town’s U.S. bicentennial celebration in 1976, the structural centerpiece of a town that almost looks too good to be true.

“The best thing is, that gazebo, it didn’t cost the taxpayers a penny. Our Rotary Club raised $50,000 for it, and the community band donated another $10,000,” he says, listing a stream of other local organizations and individuals that generously contributed to the project, which is good news for the incoming tourists. “Believe me, it will get plenty of good use for the next few months,” during a string of annual festivals that will bring tens of thousands to the little town named for its famous, metamorphic gneiss rock jutting out defiantly over the spectacular Johns River Gorge, where the wind rarely gives pause and the weather is ever-changing. Lawrence mentions the annual Charity Horse Show (at 92 years old, the longest continuously running in the nation) that occupies the town this early June weekend and will return for a two-weekend run at the end of July into August; an Art in the Park festival that is held throughout the summer; and the town’s annual Fourth of July parade and fireworks celebration. A few weeks later, the Symphony by the Lake at the Chetola Resort will place a fitting lyrical coda on the summer life of the little town that has been called the “Prettiest Town in North Carolina” and the “Crown of the Blue Ridge.”

Indeed, at an elevation of roughly 4,000 feet and sitting astride the Eastern Continental Divide and the headwaters of two great rivers — the New, which flows north, and the Yadkin on a southerly line to the Atlantic — the source of Blowing Rock’s prosperity has long been its weather and scenery. Among the first Europeans to set eyes on this summit was a Moravian bishop named August Gottlieb Spangenberg in 1752, leading a surveying party hoping to find a New Jerusalem in the wilderness, the vanguard of a larger migration that brought Scripture-loving Scottish, Irish and German immigrants to North Carolina and South Carolina.

Not surprisingly, Spangenberg’s outfit got hopelessly off track, leading their pack mules through tangled thickets to a summit that seemed to touch the rim of Heaven. “Arrived on the top at last,” he wrote in his diary. “We saw hundreds of mountains around us, presenting a spectacle like ocean waves in a storm.” After a pause to catch their breath, the Moravians descended the mountain and returned to the gentler Piedmont, where they settled on the banks of the Yadkin, establishing the community now called Old Salem. Until the Civil War, the forbidding mountains in Watauga County were largely inaccessible to anyone but remnants of the Cherokee tribes and the heartiest mountain men.

Real growth didn’t come until an enterprising land surveyor and general-store merchant from Lenoir named James Harper recognized the need — and potential windfall — for a road up the mountain to the fledgling village of 200. With a crew of slaves and paid laborers who used picks, shovels and drag-pans, Harper opened the Lenoir-Blowing Rock Turnpike just prior to the Civil War, tolling travelers for the journey up the mountainside.

Harper also built perhaps the first summer home near the site of the jutting rock that gave the village its poetic name. The peak is wreathed in lichens and local lore that told of how a young Cherokee brave, forced to choose between battle and his love for a young maiden, leapt from the rock to his death, only to be spared by a mysterious updraft that lofted him back safely to his lover’s arms. Locals will tell you The Blowing Rock is the place where it snows upward.

The famous rock, long regarded as one of North Carolina’s most distinctive natural landmarks, became a symbol of the town’s timeless appeal. The property is owned by the Bernhardt family of Bernhardt Furniture Co. in Lenoir, but the Robbins family, who also own nearby Tweetsie Railroad Inc., started the attraction in 1933 and still own the rights to it. By the start of the 20th century, a flood of well-to-do flatlanders seeking relief from the summer heat and others eager to experience an alpine high showed up in ever-growing numbers. Industry barons with names like Cone, Cannon, Broyhill and others quickly followed, making The Rock their summer residences, erecting hand-made mansions and cottages on the hill behind the venerable Green Park Inn and the sumptuous Mayview Manor. The latter inn in the 1920s kept a Wall Street ticker tape in its lobby overlooking the gorge and hosted daily teas for horse show socialites, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope and other Hollywood elites.

Even during the bleakest days of the Great Depression, wealthy summering families from Charlotte, Greensboro, Gastonia and other Piedmont communities kept the streets tidy and the budget in the black. Following World War II, the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway and President Dwight Eisenhower’s new interstate system brought a new wave of relief-seeking summer residents from Florida who supported upscale gift shops and antique parlors, not to mention a movie theater that often displayed first-run epics before they reached most big-city movie houses.

These days, the effects of this curious blend of old-money values and Appalachian scenery is visible throughout a town that gave rise to authors Tom Robbins and Jan Karon but still only occupies 3 square miles of the county and boasts a mere 1,241 year-round residents.

As it proved during the Great Depression, hard times aren’t really all that hard in this coveted capital of North Carolina’s northwest mountain region. True, the Great Recession put a brief crimp in the town’s economic armor, with only three new single-family dwellings started in 2009. But the downturn also temporarily cooled off housing prices that most agree were increasingly over-the-top, even in a town that currently boasts a tax base of $1.1 billion. Blowing Rock’s property owners pay one of lowest property tax rates in the western region — 33 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value.

The economy and construction have rebounded nicely. “About the only thing that gets people really worked up nowadays,” says Mayor Lawrence, “is the seemingly endless construction on [U.S. Highway] 321 and keeping dogs out of the town park and gazebo.”

To his point, a long-planned and fiercely debated widening of Valley Boulevard (which some locals call the 321 bypass east of the village — the modern iteration of James Harper’s original turnpike) prompted threats of lawsuits for years by locals determined to keep the rural character of the town intact, seeming to forget what brought all this prosperity to pass in the first place. The project is finally nearing completion, expected to finish by summer 2016.

“We are a very small town and determined to remain that way. But tourists are our lifeblood,” says Tracy Brown, Tourism Development Authority executive director. He points out that town residents recently approved a $13 million bond issue for future civic improvements that, along with new parking garages tucked off Main Street, should make coming to town for any reason — to eat, sleep or shop — an even easier proposition. On any given summer day, the town’s residential population soars upward of 8,000. The fall leaf-peeping season that follows, he adds, draws even more visitors until the first snowflakes fly. “We want people coming here for any reason to share what we love about Blowing Rock. But the sight that makes me happiest,” Brown confides with a grin, eyeballing a long line of families stretching out the front door of Kilwins fudge and ice cream shop across Main Street, “is a woman loading shopping bags into an SUV with South Carolina tags.”

A block north on Sunset Drive — one of the projected “gateway” entrances from the improved highway — another big crowd, uniform in their lake-tans and Polo threads, has gathered at The Inn at Ragged Gardens for a Friday evening lawn concert. The music series is the brainchild of the inn’s co-owner Rob Dyer, an Appalachian State University grad who managed a pair of restaurants in town before taking over the inn with his partner, Lisa Stripling, in 2006.  Theirs is a strikingly common story: visitors who fell in love with the magic of Blowing Rock and found a way to make a living sharing it with others, a tale almost as old as the hills in these parts. “The things that make this town so unique and special — geography and history and even the unpredictable weather,” Dyer says, “is the way it speaks of the small town in all of us, a beautiful and natural place where life seems simpler and easier. Everyone feels that when they come here. They feel welcome, too — whether you’re here for an hour or a lifetime.”

 

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