Rooted in history, growing into the future: Dillsboro celebrates its past while working toward a better future
Dillsboro sits at the crossroads of U.S. 441 and N.C. 23. Nestled between the past and future, it is a town that continues to evolve.
“I think it’s just a classic, old American town. Laid-back,” said Jim Hartbarger, sitting in the parlor of the Jarrett House.
This year marks the town’s 125th anniversary. Residents are celebrating Dillsboro’s past, but are also looking towards its future — whatever that might be.
“I see it blooming and growing,” said Jean Hartbarger, Jim’s wife, enjoying a pleasant afternoon at the Jarrett House’s crossroads haunt.
“We’ve got a lot of cars coming through this intersection everyday,” Jim said, referencing the steady traffic turning off 441 onto Dillsboro’s main strip.
The Hartbargers have been in Dillsboro a long time. For the past 40 years they have welcomed boarders and diners into the Jarrett House for some Southern hospitality.
During that time, the couple has watched the town change. They’ve seen the good times. And they’ve watched the bottom fall out.
But now, now seems to be a getting-better time. A time of hope and of optimism. A time defined by the common mission of pursuing better days.
“You can’t capture the intangible thing that‘s going on right now,” said Jim. “The people, we’re a team.”
“There’s this spirit of everyone working together,” Jean said.
“It’s refreshing,” agreed Jim.
People are pulling for the town. The potential is palpable.
“We’re going to get it done,” Jim smiled. “We’re bringing this town back. We’ve got enough people with the resolve to do it.”
The choo-choo blues
For two decades the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad operated out of Dillsboro. It became the town’s bread and butter, dropping a dependable customer base at its doorstep.
The train largely defined the landscape of the Dillsboro.
“The biggest change came when the train came here,” explained Jim, “and the other biggest thing, that we’re still recovering from, is when the train left.”
The train was a big deal, what Dillsboro Town Board member David Gates calls the town’s “ace in the hole.”
“When the train left Dillsboro it just killed it,” he said.
The train pulled out of town — moving operations to Bryson City — around the same time the recession hit. It was a double-whammy that leaves Dillsboro reeling still.
Gates used to own Bradley’s General Store on Front Street opposite the train depot — well-positioned for the visitors flowing to and from the station — and recalls floods of foot traffic and $4,000-days.
“In ‘05 I remember there were 32,000 people came to Dillsboro to ride Thomas the Train,” Gates said. “The year Thomas left I bet we didn’t average $800 a day.”
“It was easy to get down,” recalled Jean Hartbarger.
The departure of the train rattled the town, leaving it shaken and dazed. Recovery still remains on the horizon, hoped for but not yet realized.
“It used to be a lot busier. It was busier when the train was here,” said Lisa Potts, owner of Nancy Tutt’s Christmas Shop and head of the Dillsboro Merchant Association.
Losing the train was a big hit. It took a while for people to catch their breath. But eventually everyone began to search for the way forward.
Dillsboro merchants began meeting, bouncing ideas and strategies off one another. They would gather at the Jarrett House. Crowds at these meetings ranged from 15 to 50 people.
“Some of them were heated,” recalled Jim Hartbarger.
But the meetings were also productive. They generated a renewed energy and that all-important spirit of hope.
Losing the train hurt. So did the recession. It still does, in fact. But the Dillsboro community has parlayed that pain into a bond that might well be strong enough to carry them forward.
“Five or six years ago, when the recession hit everybody, a lot of people were hanging on. Now there’s a refreshing attitude of bringing this town back,” said Jim Hartbarger. “If the train did anything it brought this town together. We had to look each other in the eye and say, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ It brought us together in a way that we saw the value of the town and the worth of the town.”
Tomorrow’s optimism today
While the August heat warms the streets, it’s comfortably cool inside the Christmas Shop on downtown Dillsboro’s Haywood Road. Carols spill from the store’s speakers, lingering for a moment before floating out the front door to sun themselves on the porch.
Covering the shop’s walls are ornaments of every stripe. There are ornaments that look like angels, Elvis and Homer Simpson. Ones that resemble peacocks or a cobra. Tiny, Christmas tree-bound guitars: Fenders, Rickenbackers and one that looks like Paul McCartney’s Hofner bass. There’s ornaments celebrating the Walkman, roller skates, mermaids and pretty much everything else.
Near the door, a stuffed snowman greets customers. Not as many perhaps as when the train was in town, but on the Friday before Labor Day a steady stream of customers is cruising through the store.
Potts is encouraged. She’s optimistic not just about her business, but also about Dillsboro’s future.
“We have high hopes,” Potts said, taking a break from helping a customer.
That’s a common sentiment among people in Dillsboro. They’re collectively plugged into the town’s energy. They’re excited about the future.
“Everybody got enthused again,” said Jim Hartbarger.
And why not? Dillsboro’s got a lot going for it. There’s the thriving arts community, the stunning natural environment and laidback mountain charm. There’s the nearby green energy park, the Southern Appalachian Women’s Museum at the Monteith Homestead and a good chance a brewery is heading to town. Plus the train has started making some runs to the town from Bryson City.
Dillsboro has also developed a relationship with Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. Faculty and students are working with the town to assist in efforts to promote Dillsboro and put it on a path to solid footing.
“That’s wonderful,” said Jean Hartbarger, who also formerly served as Dillsboro’s mayor. “I think that’s one of the catalysts that kind of brought the town together.”
The university has assisted in event planning and promotion. It has produced brochures, maps and an app.
In addition to helping the town, the partnership is also beneficial to students.
“This is a reciprocal relationship,” said Dr. Betty Farmer, a communications professor at WCU, who has taken a lead role in the university’s work with Dillsboro.
Dillsboro is also home to outdoor riches. The town sits along the Tuckasegee River, where a few years ago Duke Energy demolished a hydro-electric dam as part of its relicensing agreement. As a result, new access points up and down the river have seen an increase in use.
“The removal of the Dillsboro dam has really just opened the way for a whole chain of events and turned the Tuckasegee into a destination river,” said Mark Singleton, executive director of American Whitewater. “Now what does that do for the town of Dillsboro? Not much. The town of Dillsboro hasn’t figured out how to make that work for them.”
There has been talk of possibly turning the opened area of river into a whitewater park, consisting of features catering to kayakers. A member of the U.S. National Whitewater Team recently pushed the concept with the town board.
“I think it’s the kind of thing the county could really benefit from,” Singleton said, explaining that such a park could prove a draw for the area.
Perhaps the biggest buzz in Dillsboro right now is the prospects of Heinzelmannchen Brewery coming to town. When speaking about the brewery, folks use phrases like “magic bullet” and “gamechanger.”
“I would love to see them come. I think the impact would be growth,” said Gates. “If that came it’d change the whole town, it’d be really great.”
Currently, Heinzelmannchen is located in Sylva. But owners Dieter Kuhn and Sheryl Rudd are looking to expand and have zeroed in on Dillsboro. Fittingly, the new brewery will be located at the train depot.
“Dillsboro just seems a great fit,” said Rudd. “And Dillsboro needs an anchor.”
“We can be that, we can do that,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn and Rudd also feel their brewery will fill a niche in Dillsboro. They envision their establishment providing a place to hang out, to sip a beer and relax.
“They have great restaurants, but they don’t have a place to hang out,” said Rudd.
Potts agrees. There have been many occasions where she would have liked to point people to the bar.
“For years I’ve had people say ‘where do I go get a beer,’ especially the husbands,” Potts said. “That’d be awesome.”
The chance of getting a brewery in Dillsboro is exciting. As are the fruits being harvested from the town’s relationship with WCU, and the general air and energy of hope that floats through its streets as it strives towards a rebound.
It feels like an exciting time in Dillsboro’s history. A good time to look to the town’s future.
“I’m optimistic,” Potts said. “I think there’s a lot of things in place.”