Many over 50 reading this will remember Bennett’s, though not necessarily for the same reason. It was for most of the 20th century the hub around which almost everything political, social, or otherwise swirled round in Swain County. At the center of it all for decades was Doc Kelly Bennett himself. He passed away the year after my family arrived in Swain County, so I didn’t know him very well. But Mary Alice, his daughter, became a friend. Here’s something I wrote nearly 25 years ago that might bring back some memories.
Sorry folks, no more ice cream cones, milkshakes, or sundaes at the marble-topped counters and tables. No more old-fashioned hospitality at the drug counter. No more advice on what to do for a foundered horse or poison ivy. Bennett’s Drug Store — a landmark in Western North Carolina for nearly a century — recently closed its doors for the last time when pharmacist Mary Alice (Bennett) Greyer decided to retire.
The closing marks the end of a single family’s century-long medical service in a rural mountain county and brings back memories of a remarkable man in that family whose influence extended far beyond his profession as a pharmacist.
Situated just north of the town square in Bryson City on Everett Street, Bennett’s Drug Store was founded in 1905 by Greyer’s father, Kelly Bennett (1890-1974), perhaps the most influential and civic-minded citizen in Swain County history.
His father, Dr. A.M. Bennett, was registered as a pharmacist by the state of North Carolina in 1888. Kelly Bennett was registered in 1912. His daughter, Mary Alice, was registered in 1936, being the first female graduate of the School of Pharmacy at UNC-CH and the first female pharmacist in North Carolina. Accordingly, three generations of the Bennett family served Swain County as pharmacists for more than 100 years, with 86 of those years being from the same location.
For his part in promoting the movement which culminated in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kelly became known as “The Apostle of the Smokies.” That, however, was a somewhat limited designation, as he was in fact one of the foremost advocates for the entire region, being instrumental in bringing good roads to the mountains.
He was for five years on the North Carolina Board of Pharmacy and in 1954 was named pharmacist of the year; for 14 years Bryson City’s mayor; for 20 years a member of the Swain County Board of Education; for five terms a state senator; for two terms a state representative; for seven years on the N.C. Hospital Board of Control; a founder of the Cherokee Historical Association; and so on.
A dedicated gardener, fisherman, hiker, and camper, “Doc” Kelly was also an accomplished photographer. He left behind a photo file of more than 8,000 black and white negatives and 5,000 or so color slides. Many of his photographs were published in the Asheville Citizen-Times as well as in magazines.
Bennett was one of the major forces behind the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Shortly after his death in a peak just north of Bryson City in the park was named Mount Bennett. His friend, Lamar Gudger, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke at the dedication ceremonies, saying:
“We have come together to dedicate a peak for Kelly Bennett, not the highest peak, but certainly one which had much meaning in the life of both Kelly and his beloved Tela. This was the mountain on which they would look each afternoon as the sun set in the Smokies. You had
to know Kelly to understand that the mountains were the love of his life, that despite his services to his profession, to the government by his election to the state general assembly, he was first and foremost a mountaineer.
“Gazing at his peak from here, I recall the words of my own home county’s motto: ‘Give us men to match our mountains.’ You in Swain County had such a man in Kelly Bennett. I personally want to thank you for sharing him with the rest of the state, indeed the rest of the nation and world.”
If something took place in Swain County during “Doc” Kelly’s lifetime, there was more than an even chance he either started it or had a hand in supporting or opposing it. A billboard sign in Bryson City that read “Ask Bennett, He Knows” was more often right than wrong.
The closing of Bennett’s Drug Store marks the end of an era.