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Maggie at 45: looking forward, looking back

Steadfast she stands in a yellow bonnet, wearing the mountain range behind her like a shawl draped upon her blouse of green, one arm clutching the yellow apron atop her red dress and the other outstretched as though waving or beckoning to someone or something unseen off in the distance.

The iconic “Miss Maggie” logo is more than just the personification of this quaint mountain village tucked into a narrow Haywood County valley where the Smokies meet the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Miss Maggie is a character in her own right — a character amongst characters in place of curious contradiction and constant change, where million-dollar mountaintop homes overlook humble cabins and moonshiners and teetotalers cast trout lines with farmers and Floridians and bikers and bankers and banjo pickers. 

They’re all part of the never-ending dance between custom and change, between tradition and transition — leaving Miss Maggie to look out and to call out to both her future, and her past.

Of all the things worthy of celebration, the 45th anniversary of the ratification of a municipal corporation seems a bit mundane, especially when viewed in light of the area’s long, colorful history. 

For centuries, the Cherokee called Southern Appalachia home, from Alabama and North Georgia through East Tennessee, Central Kentucky, Virginia, upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina. 

European explorers like Hernando DeSoto made forays into Western North Carolina as early as the 1530s and were followed by permanent settlers not long after that. 

The Old Names, as they’re known, were among them and their descendants today still fill the phonebooks — Boyds and Caldwells, Queens and Leatherwoods, along with many others. 

Mostly untouched by the American Revolution and the Civil War, they persisted in isolated coves and hollers, or fertile bottomlands.

During the 1800s, the western edge of Haywood County — just over the mountain from Cherokee — was still an out-of-the-way place, compared to relatively cosmopolitan towns like Canton, Waynesville and far-off Asheville. 

That didn’t stop some, like Jack Setzer, from calling it home in the 1890s; Setzer is one of the first important characters in the lore of this place, all for the want of a post office. 

It’s said that Setzer grew tired of the long journey to the area’s post office miles away and so petitioned the federal government for permission to open one. When he finally got the OK in 1904, he was asked to submit three names. 

Cora and Mettie were rejected as being to similar to other place names, but on May 10, 1904, their sister had her name approved as the name of the settlement. The 14-year-old Maggie Mae Setzer was mortified, and burst into tears. 

Yes, that iconic town logo was once a real person, perhaps the most important character in the history of the place then called, simply, Maggie. 

The real Maggie married not long after and lived her life off in Texas, but visited the settlement that bore her name a number of times before she passed away at the age of 88 in 1979. 

 

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The Town of Maggie Valley was incorporated on April 12, 1974. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Long before that, though, changes had begun taking place in the valley — or, more accurately, in the mountains that embrace it — that the blonde-haired teenage mountain girl would have never believed if she hadn’t lived to see them with her own blue eyes. 

She may be 95 years old now, but Alaska Presley still remembers what it was like coming to Maggie Valley in 1955. 

“Well, it was a little ol’ nothing,” Presley laughed. “It was one straight road, it’s still one straight road. It was not very much inhabited at that time. But the tourists was coming through, and it was still good business in the summertime.”

With the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 and the Blue Ridge Parkway not long after, nearby Maggie began to see more than just fishermen and through-travelers visiting the area; Presley and her family have been involved in Haywood County’s hospitality industry for decades. 

“My family has had several hotels. Fact is, my family helped pioneer Maggie Valley,” she said. “There’s about 14 different businesses my family was instrumental in. I could recite them off to you right now but you don’t want to hear all that.”

One of those businesses would define the area for decades to come.

“R.B. Coburn came into our life. When he first came into this area he put a down payment on a piece of property over in Ratcliff Cove, and somebody told him to come to the Presleys in Maggie, so he came to see us,” Presley said. “We got acquainted with him and then Hubert, my husband, took him over to see uncle Dan Carpenter who owned that property on the mountain, and he and my husband built Ghost Town.”

Ghost Town in the Sky was a wild west-themed amusement park that opened in May 1961 high atop Buck Mountain. 

Given its name by the young son of legendary Asheville Citizen-Times sportswriter Bob Terrell — who kept shouting out “Ghostie! Ghostie!” as they were discussing what to call it, according to Presley — Ghost Town drew hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area each season, and remains revered among generations of families in the American Southeast even though it’s been closed for several years now. 

“It brought the people in,” said Presley. “You couldn’t take care of the people, there was so many of them. I stood there at Ghost Town many a time and made more of them mad than anything else, because I couldn’t get them up on the mountain.”

Business was booming in the mid-1960s and beginning to outstrip both lodging capacity and local infrastructure; talk about formally incorporating some manner of municipal government began in 1963.

“I was for it,” said Presley. “I was for anything to help Maggie Valley. Maggie Valley was just a little hole in the wall, then. It had good people in it. Aggressive people, Good old-timers. They wanted to see something happen here.”

Those talks went nowhere, probably because two more legendary Maggie Valley characters — a couple — had yet to make their appearance. 

An Irish guy from Philly, Joey O’Keefe had always worked in hospitality; while visiting Maggie friends in the mid-1960s with his Tybee-born, Miami Beach-bred bride Brenda, he decided it would be a good place to set up shop.

What followed was 50 years of hash browns and handshakes and pancakes and pleasantries at Joey’s Pancake House, just blocks down from Ghost Town. 

Joey passed away in 2001 and Brenda sold the place in 2018, but its new owners haven’t changed a thing, down to the sign out front and the paper menus and with Joey’s cartoon face on them. 

Together, Brenda and Joey left an indelible imprint on the valley, but it wasn’t just about the Belgian waffles — by the early 1970s, they were engaged in helping to create a community, over coffee. 

“They started talking about it because we didn’t have any funds to do anything — build sidewalks, have regular police protection, fire hydrants,” Brenda said. “To get the things that becoming a town made available, we just couldn’t do it.”

Brenda dug up old land deeds, while Joey headed off to the UNC Institute (now School) of Government in Chapel Hill, where he researched the possibility of municipal incorporation. 

“He realized that if we were incorporated we would be on the list of people to get road funds, sidewalks, all those little things,” Brenda said. “So we drew a line down Maggie Valley, this little short area here from Ghost Town to Maggie Mountaineer Crafts. That was the corporate limits. We told people in business, ‘This is going to benefit you.’”

The proposed town of Maggie Valley was about 13,000 feet long and less than a quarter mile wide and clung tight to the sides of U.S. 19, but for some, especially among the Old Names, incorporation was a sinister encroachment on their ancient way of life, in more ways than one. 

“A lot of people were against it, the churches, because of the alcohol,” said Brenda. “We tried to reassure people that that wasn’t our goal. We weren’t promoting the alcohol part, we were promoting the town part.”

At the time, in no county, city or town west of Asheville could one find alcohol sold. Legally. 

In early 1974, Joey presented Rep. Ernest Messer, D-Canton, with a petition asking for incorporation. On March 20, Messer, along with House Speaker Liston Ramsey, of Madison County, introduced the bill. Over the course of the next three weeks, coverage in the Waynesville Mountaineer showcased the controversy almost daily, on the front page. 

The General Assembly’s deadline for the filing of local bills had already passed, but Messer convinced the House to suspend the rules to allow for filing. The town was to be chartered without a popular referendum, because a large percentage of homeowners lived out of state and couldn’t vote.

With the legislative session slated to end April 12, time would be of the essence, especially since the bill would have to make it through various House and Senate committees and be read twice in each chamber before a vote could be taken. 

On March 22, a public hearing was announced for March 30 but on March 28, Joey held a private meeting, including a long phone call with Messer, telling him that residents wanted incorporation in order to support planned and orderly growth, property value protection and a general increase in services. 

 

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For the last 63 years, Alaska Presley has been an integral part of Maggie Valley’s identity. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

The next day, the Mountaineer headline announced that the legislative bill wouldn’t be going anywhere in the General Assembly until after the April 1 public hearing. 

In the story, Messer said he’d learned that most opposition came from outside the town, and, aside from alcohol, for two primary reasons — involuntary annexation that would force the unwilling into the town, and extraterritorial zoning powers that would compel those close to town to “dispose of all their cows, chickens and hogs and require them to remove all house trailers from the area.” 

Messer responded to the alcohol concern by correctly stating that towns needed at least 500 permanent residents to vote to allow for alcohol, and the proposed town of Maggie Valley wasn’t anywhere near that. 

He also redrew the bill, adding amendments against involuntary annexation and extraterritorial zoning authority. 

More than 400 people attended the March 30 meeting, held at the old Maggie school and led by Messer and Senator (later, Congressman) Charles Taylor. Of the 33 speakers over three hours, just nine voiced support for the town. 

Those opposed said they wanted Maggie to stay the way that it was — free, alcohol-free, and debt-free. They worried that once a town was established, it would take over the entire valley. 

“It will be more big salaries for big bosses,” Grady Henry told the Mountaineer April 1. “The idea is the work of the devil.”

Petitions circulated by Joey’s group showed that inside the proposed town limits, only 33 people were opposed to the idea, out of about 90 registered voters.

On April 3, Messer further pushed the bill with opponents, reassuring them that the N.C. Local Government Commission would monitor the town’s debt levels and intercede if necessary. 

Meanwhile, the bill passed its second reading in the House, and headed to the Senate April 4. 

On April 8, Sen. Taylor scheduled a hearing before the Senate’s Calendar Committee for April 9, to let opponents make their final push to derail or delay the effort. With the April 12 adjournment looming, it was beginning to look like they might succeed. 

Opponents Bill Ewing, Harvey Eure, Jim Rich, Mrs. Jim Plott and Rev. Charles Mehaffey, represented by attorney Ed Thornhill, continued to fight the measure, as proponents Sam McCrary, Mr. and Mrs. Tip Hargrove, Tom Ferguson and Clarence W. Fowler, represented by Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian, made rebuttals until 6 p.m. that night. 

All they succeeded in doing was changing the proposed election date for town officials from June to November, but that was almost enough to run out the clock on the bill. 

The Calendar Committee put it on the Senate floor the next day, where it was voted up, but the slight change — the elections provision — meant that it would have to go back to the House for a sign-off, presenting yet another opportunity for the bill to die there. 

It didn’t, and a day after that, on Friday, April 12, 1974, around noon, the Town of Maggie Valley, hewn from half-billion year-old rock by erosion and tectonic machinations, ancestral home to the Cherokee and Horace Kephart’s Southern Highlanders, was willed into existence with a pen in Raleigh. 

Four years later, the General Assembly authorized Maggie Valley voters to hold an election on whether or not to allow alcohol. It passed, overwhelmingly.

“I’m not foolish enough to say it wasn’t about alcohol, because of course it was,” Brenda said. “At that time, the money from the liquor store would be what would pay for the town staff and the police department. That would be the value of the ABC store — most of that money would come back to pay for things that we couldn’t otherwise pay for. Joey knew that with alcohol would come the funds to run this town. So when they were saying they weren’t interested in alcohol, that wasn’t true.”

In 1977, Canton native Al Matthews was working for Canton Town Manager Bill Stamey when he heard that the Town of Maggie Valley was looking for a full-time town manager instead of continuing to split one with Hazelwood. 

He applied and got the job he’d spend nearly a quarter of a century in, over the town’s most formative years. 

“A little bit has changed,” said Matthews. “Initially, it was …  let’s call it a little more raucous then it is today. When I came here, there were 13 street lights throughout the entire town, no sidewalks, no sewer.”

As Brenda O’Keefe explained, proponents of the town weren’t doing it for the alcohol, but knew they’d need the alcohol revenue to pay for things the town needed just to survive the onslaught of visitors. 

“One of the first assignments I had within a matter of days of coming here was meeting with groups in Raleigh to get bonds issued for the construction of the sidewalks,” Matthews said. 

More importantly, as Ghost Town continued to both feed and be fed by the chain of mom-and-pop motels now lining Soco Road, the infrastructure in Maggie — population 202, in 1980 — wasn’t prepared to handle their waste.

“It was a necessary thing to do because of the numbers of motels and restaurants and things like that,” said Matthews. “Straight-piping was not very healthy for the creek.”

With some critical infrastructural enhancement underway, the town in the form of Matthews began to craft ordinances, one by one, that would refine Maggie Valley’s aesthetic while managing responsibly the growth that was expected.

“Of course, name recognition came primarily through Ghost Town, and then spinoffs from that like the Parkway, and the area in general,” he said. “People became enamored of the little village of Maggie Valley.”

Some ordinances dealt with the proliferation of signs, or the mobs of transient roadside vendors that showed up seasonally, but the most irritating even above and beyond alcohol — especially to the Old Names — was zoning. 

“The attitude was, it’s my property and I can do whatever I want to with it,” Matthews said. “It’s my land, and my daddy’s land before me, and you can’t tell me I can’t do this.”

Matthews related an incident from early on in his career that illustrates how some locals viewed the comparatively new government.

 

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“I hadn’t been here but a couple of months,” Matthews said, “and there was a guy who had one of those names. He owned some piece of property.” 

Matthews had to explain to the man that what he was doing on his land wasn’t permitted. 

“You’re nothing but an import,” he snapped at Matthews. 

“Man,” Matthews replied. “I’ve come from just 18 miles away!”

“But you’re still a [expletive] import,” the man told him. “You put one foot on my property, and 12 good men will decide my fate.”

Matthews had the fortune to encounter many of the latter-day characters and controversies that swirled about the booming young town through the 1980s. 

“You could say it was a little more rough-and-tumble in the early years,” he said. “The first Harley rally, that was quite controversial. People didn’t want them. Some of the business owners closed their businesses, some of them were afraid. Before the rally, I talked to a police captain in Myrtle Beach, and he said he’d rather have the Harley rally than the Shriners, because they were less trouble. Yes, there were complaints and yes, there were problems, but they were handled.”

Handled — by the town’s first police chief.

“I. C. Sutton had a unique way about him,” said Matthews, adding that like fictional N.C. small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor, Sutton would often leave his firearm behind, in favor of diplomacy. 

Matthews also recalls an instance in which he, Sutton, and the town’s other police officer were standing outside an establishment where a large fight was taking place. The officer unholstered his weapon and prepared to raise it to the door when Sutton laid his arm across the officer’s chest. 

“Whoa, son,” Sutton told him. “It’s easier to whip the winners than it is all of ‘em.”

The town continued to grow through annexations, eventually extending another mile east down Soco Road, to total 3.6 miles, end to end, and the sewer system really took shape under Maggie Valley’s second mayor.

“Jim Miller,” Matthews recalled. “He owned the Soco Garden Zoo. Only mayor in North Carolina that milked rattlesnakes for a living.”

The town also acquired the old Maggie school thanks to an anonymous donor who financed the purchase with very attractive terms. Today it’s town hall, but back then, it was also the police department, where Matthews said he’d run into another legendary Maggie Valley character from time to time. 

“I knew Popcorn Sutton for years and years and years, and you could either make up your mind to get along with him or not,” said Matthews of the convicted moonshiner. “And he didn’t care.”

Once, during the Christmas season, Popcorn entered the back door of the police station, approached a small Christmas tree perched atop a table, and began clipping $100 bills to it, like festive ornaments. 

“Corn,” Matthews said. “You can’t do that, son.”

“By God, I can give money to my friends if I want to!” Popcorn growled. 

“No, you can’t do it here little pal,” said Matthews. “I’m sorry.”

Popcorn stormed out, bunches of crumpled hundreds in his hands. 

Of course, no discussion about the characters of Maggie Valley would be complete without mentioning storied banjo player Raymond Fairchild, who recently turned 80 and can still be seen performing around the valley today. 

After Matthews left Maggie Valley to return to Canton in 2001, he hired Fairchild to perform some stonework at the town’s pool. Fairchild, as Matthews tells it, spent the day pointing at rocks and at pointing at laborers, but performing no actual physical work. 

“Raymond,” Matthews said. “Ain’t you gonna do anything?”

“I don’t want to hurt my pickin’ fingers,” Fairchild grumbled. 

Looking back on it all, Matthews thinks that Fairchild is a fair example of the Maggie Valley ethos. 

“He’s a unique individual,” said Matthews. “You can sum up a lot of the people around here that way. They are their own people, they have their own core values, and they stick to them.”

Almost 115 years after Maggie Mae Setzer lent her name to a post office and almost exactly 45 years after a pancake baron, an amusement park owner and a host of local businesspeople banded together to engage in this experiment of local self-determination, none of the concerns raised by opponents seems to have materialized. 

Maggie has not, as was noted in a newspaper headline of the time, “gone to Hell in a handbasket” because of alcohol.

The creation of a universal development ordinance — to replace and refine longstanding zoning standards — is well underway and should be complete this year. 

The town’s corporate limits still haven’t swelled much past Soco Road on either side. 

Property taxes have traditionally been the lowest, or among the lowest, of any municipal government in Haywood County.

The town itself — population 1,150 in 2010 — has less than $95,000 in debt against a yearly general fund budget of $2.4 million, and town aldermen could decide to pay it off altogether in the 2019-20 fiscal year’s budget, due to be passed by July 1. 

The town also has a fund balance — think of it as a government’s savings account — of $2.7 million, which means that in case of emergency, operations and services could continue for more than a year without additional revenue being needed. 

Objectively, the town’s been managed in exceptional fashion, thanks not only to Al Matthews and elected boards of the last 45 years, but also to two Matthews protégées, longtime Town Clerk Vickie Best and Town Manager Nathan Clark. 

“Vickie has an extreme amount of knowledge,” Matthews said. “You ask her, and she’s got it. And Nathan. Sit down with Nathan, and you’ll find out he’s one of the sharpest guys around. The town is extremely fortunate to have the boy, they really are.”

 

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Ghost Town, 1963.

 

All that took place even as Ghost Town began its long slow slide toward sputtering fits and starts and sales and auctions and a general decline that hit the local economy hard during the Great Recession. 

Alaska Presley reacquired the park a few years ago. 

“At the time, I never dreamed about owning it myself, but then later on as years passed, why, it just sort of come handy, and I ended up a-buyin’ it,” said Presley. 

She’s been looking for a buyer herself, and has entertained several offers, the most recent of which fell through at the last minute, last winter. Even if a rumored current attempt is successful, today Ghost Town would merely be an addition — albeit a welcome one — to Maggie Valley, instead the definition of it, as in years past. 

“Everybody bases everything on Ghost Town,” said Brenda O’Keefe. “I don’t. I have tried to say, ‘People, this is not about Ghost Town anymore. This is 50 or 60 years later. We have the National Park, we have the Smoky Mountains, we have the Blue Ridge Parkway.’ That’s what Maggie Valley is really about. We have the Appalachian culture, clean streams and rivers and we’re the closest mountain range to Florida. That’s why people are coming here.”

Matthews thinks that means even more growth for Maggie Valley over the next 45 years. 

“It will grow down towards Dellwood, and down Jonathan Creek, and up Soco. I see a growth pattern there that’s continuing in the same vein,” he said. “More and more, people are finding scenic tourism, heritage tourism, agritourism — all these various and sundry buzzwords on tourism that have always been here and always appealed to people but have never had a name stuck to them. That will continue to grow, and I think the town is continuing to foster growth and protect what they have.”

Miss Maggie at middle age? Maybe. Indeed, 45 years is but the blink of an eye in ancient Appalachia, but as the personification of a municipal government with some strong years under her belt, Miss Maggie’s eyes are fixed not only on the next 45 but also on the first 450. Maggie Valley’s most important character thinks most important Maggie Valley’s character. 

“We have maintained it, and that’s one of the things we have always said. We don’t want to be a Gatlinburg,” said Matthews. “That was not our mission or goal. We wanted to be the unique little mountain valley community with a nice mix of businesses and residences that could all get along.”

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