Moonlit magic in Balsam
The first time Merrily Teasley saw the Balsam Mountain Inn was somewhat dreamlike. It was during a full moon hike that would reroute her life.
“There was no illumination except for the moon,” Teasley recalled. “It just looked like magic. It was gorgeous.”
That was in December 1989. She returned in the summer to see the inn again.
“I couldn’t find it to save my soul,” Teasley said.
After asking around for the whereabouts of a “funky, old inn,” Teasley found it. The structure — once a relaxing respite for the well-heeled and on the National Historic Register — was “a disaster.” Windows were covered in plywood, vandals had broken in and the sagging décor looked as if “someone in the ‘50s had gone haywire or something.”
“It was just hard to describe how bad it was,” Teasley said.
Visiting that day, she had a feeling about the inn. She knew she wanted to see it returned to its former splendor.
“It was just gross,” Teasley remembered. “But the bones of the building were just beautiful. The building itself, if you could just kind of squint your eyes and not see all the bad stuff, was just beautiful.”
This was not exactly foreign territory to Teasley. At the time, she was operating an old inn in Tennessee that she had purchased and restored in the late 1970s.
In fact, the Balsam Mountain Inn would come to be the ninth property Teasley restored, and the second one on the historic register.
“I’m a real fan of old architecture,” Teasley said.
After selling her Tennessee inn the first day it went on the market, Teasley plowed into her North Carolina venture. But she found her new path to be somewhat of a tough row to hoe.
Although she was bringing a substantial sum to the table from the sale of her Tennessee property, Teasley found it difficult to secure a loan to purchase and restore the Balsam inn. She was turned down by 16 banks.
“That’s woman-specific, too,” Teasley said. “At least three of them required that my husband co-sign the loan, and I didn’t have one.”
The businesswoman found such attitudes offensive.
“They wouldn’t have asked any man to have his wife cosign the loan,” Teasley said.
She recalled one especially irksome encounter with a local loan officer who asked her straight away if her husband would be cosigning.
“He said that the very first question out of his mouth. He said, ‘you needn’t sit down.’ His golf clubs were by the door,” she said. “It made me furious, I have to say. And I let it be known. He didn’t have a job two weeks later, and I hope I was the cause, because he was so insulting.”
Eventually, Teasley secured some loans — from banks, from family, from the Southwest Commission — and got to work on the monumental task of restoring the Balsam Mountain Inn. But securing a loan would not be her only encounter with gender-based hurdles during the project.
Turns out, some people don’t fancy a woman working a heavy-duty restoration job.
“People didn’t take me seriously right off the bat. If they talked to me for more than five minutes they knew I knew what I was talking about,” Teasley said. “People assumed ignorance or stupidity or whatever, I think moreso than if I had been a man. It was just a basic assumption that women could not do that kind of work.”
Soon enough, Teasley assembled a crew of workers who realized her gender was not an issue. She worked alongside them until the inn sparkled with new life.
But still, Teasley found that being a woman would stir up issues even among her enlightened crew. Not big-deal issues, but issues all the same.
“I was a lot younger then, and prettier,” Teasley laughed, explaining that she did have to deflect advances better left off the worksite landscape. “They thought that maybe I was available. That was a little rough, and probably wouldn’t have happened to a man.”
The gender-based hurdles that Teasley faced were not found in some backwards society long ago. They were here, in the modern era, in the early 1990s.
Such hurdles didn’t make much sense to Teasley.
“It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do anything I wanted,” she said, surmising that such attitudes probably held stronger in this region than some other places. “I think being in the South made a difference, and being in a rural area.”
These days, Teasley suspects, a woman might have an easier go at such a journey.
“I’m fairly certain it would be easier,” she said. “I think the climate is better for women to do pretty much anything they want.”
After restoring the Balsam Mountain Inn, Teasley sold the property in 2004. A few years ago, she bought it back. The inn is, by any account, a success. Travelers and guests soak up the old-world ambiance on moonlit nights, and newspapers and magazines relay the tale of a magical place nestled in the hills.
When Teasley first began restoring properties, and when she jumped into the old inn in Tennessee, her parents thought she was “crazy.” Now, the innkeeper smiles as she recalls her father’s comments on his daughter’s work.
“He said, ‘I’ve got four children,” Teasley recalled, “and I never knew it was the girl who was going to get written up in the Wall Street Journal.”