Set amid farms and rugged terrain, Waynesville’s small-town charm makes it a western N.C. visitor favorite.
The Great Smoky Mountains have vanished, buried beneath billows of clouds that send water cascading off the storefront awnings of Waynesville. To watch the early-spring deluge wash over the mountain town, an old lovesick tune by Ronnie Milsap, who grew up an hour west in Robbinsville, might earworm its way in.
“Smoky Mountain rain keeps on falling …”
But the rain fails to dampen the welcoming air of Waynesville, a town of about 10,300 people that serves as the seat of Haywood County. Its open signs on Main Street glow like sunbursts.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 10-minute drive down the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway, while Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a half-hour’s drive away. America’s most visited national park drew more than 12 million visitors last year, the second-highest total since it opened in 1934.
The park, parkway and Pisgah National Forest are the wellsprings from which a robust tourism industry spouts, even in a pandemic. “We were very fortunate in that this was a place that people felt safe coming to,” says Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. Looking at tax collections from hotels and other lodging, the period from July 2020 through January 2021 was “our seven best months of tourism ever,” she says.
“It was mandatory for us to close down, which we did, and then when we opened back up, people just started showing up,” she says. “They came from different markets than we had ever seen before,” such as Texas, Colorado and California. “I think they were just looking for some place to go [where] they could feel safe and be outdoors.”
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THE FLORIDA-TO-CAROLINA PIPELINE
The Great Smoky Mountains have long attracted former Sunshine State residents. There’s plenty of evidence on Waynesville’s Main Street.
At Green Orchid Soap Co., owner Babs Szczepanski and her husband, Steve, left Florida seven years ago, eventually settling in Waynesville. “The last day I was in Florida, that was it. I never went back,” she says. “If you were to ask me 20 years ago if I would be living on top of a mountain, I would have said you’re crazy.”
A few doors down sits vintage sign store Station on Main. Owners Ken and Kelli Todtenhagen moved with their five children from Orlando in 2017 after vacationing in the mountains for years. “Four years ago, I looked at my wife and said, ‘Why don’t we just stay; why don’t we not go back?’” he says. “It’s just nice to get out of the rat race.”
Across the street is Birchwood Hall, an upscale restaurant with eclectic dishes such as venison stew and pan-seared trout, where an ex-Floridian will greet you at the bar. Ben Randall, 24, moved from Tampa last year. “I was just following my gut, basically,” he says. “I took a road trip all the way across the country, and I landed in Asheville, and in order to get a cheaper apartment, I settled in Waynesville.”
The native mountaineers largely welcome this Florida influx. For decades, Floridians and other folks from flatter lands have vacationed, built second homes, retired and spent money here. “You know, it’s all been a good thing,” says 66-year-old Gail Guy, a lifelong Haywood County resident who works at J. Gabriel Home and Gifts on Main Street. “They’ve invested in our towns from other cities and made it better. They’ve invested in our buildings and upgraded things.”
But the ethos shared by natives is to protect the small-town identity — or, more bluntly, to keep Waynesville from becoming too much like Asheville. Let that city 30 miles east have its pizzazz, but let Waynesville burnish its own brand of cool: less cosmopolitan, more down home.
“We’ve got our own culture and our own kind of aesthetic here in Waynesville,” says Jesse Fowler, the 28-year-old assistant town manager. “Whenever there’s a new ordinance passed, people start saying we don’t want to wind up turning into Asheville. Waynesville is its own town.”
TACKLING THE REGION’S HIGH HOUSING COSTS
Despite the migration of Floridians to the area, the county hasn’t seen a mountainous rise in population, perhaps because of limited land available for new housing. Haywood County has about 63,000 residents, up by about 4,000 over the past decade, including a few hundred in Waynesville. By comparison, neighboring Buncombe County has added more than 25,000 people in that period and totals about 265,000.
The gangbusters real estate market of western North Carolina has also boosted average sales prices in the county. Haywood County’s home values increased 32% over the past three years to about $237,000, according to the Zillow real estate firm. By comparison, Buncombe’s average is nearly $340,000.
In 2019, local officials created an incentive policy to encourage the construction of homes for people struggling to afford rents and mortgages, offering property tax breaks for developers. In March, the town’s planning board approved an 84-unit apartment complex that will include one-bedroom rental rates ranging from $388 to $721 a month.
The cost of doing business also often proves more appetizing in Waynesville. Nicolas Peek, the 33-year-old chef and owner of Birchwood Hall, grew up outside Asheville. Former business partners suggested that instead of opening his own restaurant in the city, he should look farther west. “From a business model standpoint, you can get a better building for a lot less money,” he says.
He opened Birchwood Hall four years ago, and the menu features sweet-tea-brined fried chicken, apple-cider-brined pork chops, and meatloaf slathered with smoked bourbon barbecue sauce. Nearly all of his ingredients
come from farms in the region. “What we’re doing is a little new in Waynesville, doing farm-to-table,” he says. “So it’s kind of fun to come and do something early and get in with the farmers.”
Peek has a zeal for traditional Southern Appalachian fare. “It’s something old with new techniques — old Appalachian ideas with a little bit of education.”
A NORTH CAROLINA PIONEER TOWN
Appalachia was wild and remote when Col. Robert Love, a Revolutionary War soldier, founded the village of Mount Prospect in 1809; it later became the seat of the newly formed Haywood County. Love served under Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne and, in 1810, renamed the town in his honor.
The settlement had only a couple of hundred residents until the railroad arrived in 1884, spurring a population boom. The railroad and depot were built in a part of town known as Frog Level, a name inspired by the low-lying terrain along Richland Creek.
These days, Frog Level is a treasured nook of Waynesville. On a brick wall at the corner of Depot and Commerce streets, a mural features a cartoonish frog and the words “Welcome To Historic Frog Level.” Waynesville’s first craft brewery, Frog Level Brewing, opened in 2011, inviting customers to sit out back to watch Richland Creek ripple over the rocks. From spring through fall, bands perform live music on the deck.
Local group CCB Beverages purchased the brewery in March 2020, just as the state forced businesses to shut down because of COVID-19. Once restrictions eased, the people poured back in, and local bands followed.
“It’s been fantastic,” says Morgan Owle-Crisp, 40, a member of the Cherokee Nation and one of the new owners. She founded 7 Clans Brewing in 2018, serving her hops alongside Frog Level’s signature suds. “We’ve got a nice little stage back there,” she says. “It’s so crazy. My inbox is filled all the time with people wanting to come play. They just love the chill vibe that we have.”
Frog Level is one of four breweries in Waynesville. Boojum Brewing opened on Main Street in 2015. On a rainy weeknight, the taproom and downstairs lounge are bustling. “Waynesville is a great town,” says Braden Dickerson, the 26-year-old manager who moved from Asheville last year. “It’s that kind of town where everybody knows each other.”
TIES TO FARMING AND MANUFACTURING
Complementing the small-town environs of Waynesville, agriculture has a large presence in an area with apple, dairy, wheat, livestock and Christmas tree farms.
More than 700 farms in the county reap $22 million in revenue every year, according to the Haywood County Economic Development Council.
The county has a significant manufacturing presence that includes the headquarters of Giles Chemical, the largest supplier of Epsom salt in North America, with a plant in the Frog Level area. Sonoco Plastics, a packaging manufacturer based in Hartsville, S.C., has a plant that employs about 100. Ten miles east in Canton, the Evergreen Packaging paper mill employs about 1,000 workers who make coffee cups for Starbucks and others. It’s the county’s largest industrial employer.
But the economic life force of Waynesville is found in its mountain vistas and Main Street vigor. The Great Smokies, the mountain drives, the bright reds of fall, the deep greens of summer – they keep the journeyers winding up in Waynesville. They come for the local mountain trout at Sweet Onion Restaurant, the catfish tacos at Firefly, the pheasant breast at Frogs Leap Public House, a latte at Panacea Coffee, and the toffee and T-shirts at Mast General Store.
Even when the Smoky Mountain rain keeps falling, Waynesville keeps its warm glow. The clouds always lift, and the Smokies reappear in all their grandeur, always extending a cool embrace, no matter where you’re from. ■