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This must be the place

art theplace“Let’s go back to the 1930s,” said Judy Coker.

Standing underneath a large manmade birch tent in the backwoods of the Cataloochee Ranch last Friday evening, Coker welcomed around 40 people — friends, family and visitors alike — to partake in their inaugural Way Back When dinner.

In celebration of the ranch’s 80th season, Coker and her family recreated an old-time trout fishing camp, similar to the one her father had in the 1930s when he guided trips at Three Forks in the Great Smoky Mountains.

“The trout camp was in the heart of the Smokies, in the deepest, most remote part of these mountains,” she said. 

The Three Forks trout camp itself was land given to “Mr. Tom” Alexander, Coker’s father, by a lumber company as payment during the stock market crash of 1929. He would pick up clients in Asheville, drive them as far as he could into the Smokies, then, either by hiking or horseback, would bring them to the camp, where’d they fish and eat in gusto. It was that spark of interest in Appalachian hospitality that eventually led Mr. Tom and his wife “Miss Judy” to start the ranch.

Looking out at the enormous meadow surrounding the tent, Coker, the matriarch of the ranch alongside her sister Alice Aumeen, spoke of how her parents got into the hospitality business 80 years ago, and how far the family business has come.

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“My parents would be proud of us, they’d be happy my sister and I are still here,” Coker said. “It’s always been a family-run business. Even tonight, my grandchildren are here helping out. I’m real proud, and feel very lucky.”

Pulling into the ranch, guests were welcomed by the staff and soon whisked away on a wagon ride into the backwoods, only to pop out into a pristine meadow, one of a by-gone era, filled with lush vegetation and forest, where joyful voices echo off of the ancient landscape of their forefathers. 

“This truly takes you back in time. Welcome to the past, welcome to 1932,” said Mary Coker, ranch general manager and granddaughter of Miss Judy. “We want our guests to experience something completely new and different, and be able to celebrate 80 years with us.”

Standing around a hearty campfire, guests sip on beverages, taking in the view. And just as the evening sun is about to fall behind the Smokies, a thundercloud swiftly rolls in with dime-sized raindrops. The sturdy birch tent holds strong, as the group huddled closer and saluted the experience.

“Ain’t this the real McCoy, eh?” chuckled Penny Redfern, ranch marketing director.

The storm passes as quickly as it arrived. Sunshine once again peaks through the clouds. Soon, fresh North Carolina trout is thrown onto the woodstove, slowly cooking, with corn muffins rising in the old oven below. The smell of campfire and trout wafts through the scene. Grabbing tin plates, hungry guests are served their traditional dinner and find a seat at the long table. Laughter and hearty conversation swirl around the air, only to be accompanied by the Appalachian string music of fiddler/banjoist William Ritter.

“It’s always exciting to come up here to the ranch and connect to this history of these mountains,” Ritter said. “I love to see people really try and get after living history. It’s a great way to learn and experience history, rather than be in a classroom or going on a website.”

With bellies full, there’s just enough room left for a homemade dessert, which that night was blueberry and strawberry rhubarb cobbler. A sing-along emerges, with Ritter holding court at one end of the table. Eighty years of quality Appalachian hospitality at Cataloochee Ranch, with glasses held high to another 80.

“Eighty years means that I’m very proud of the ranch. Not too many businesses can say they’ve been around 80 years or are still family-run,” said Mary Coker. “Whether you’re a full-time guest or first-timer here, we’re all a family, and we look forward to what the future holds.”

Editor’s Note: The next Way Back When dinner will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, June 12, at Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley. The cost is $31.95 per person, which includes food and beverage. The dinner is complimentary to guests at the ranch. 828.926.1401 or 800.868.1401 or 


Hot picks

1: The Haywood County Arts Council’s “Mountain Made” exhibit will run June 4-28 at Gallery 86 in downtown Waynesville. An artist reception will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, June 6.

2: The Jeff Sipe Trio will perform at 9 p.m. June 6 at No Name Sports Pub in Sylva.

3: The Trail Magic No. 8 release party will be June 6-7 at Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City.

4: Author Gary Carden will present his newest book Appalachian Bestiary at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 12, at the Macon County Public Library in Franklin.

5: Owner of the Sun will perform at 8 p.m. June 14 at Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City.

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