Archived Arts & Entertainment

Preserving the past, perpetuating the future: Smoky Mountain Heritage Center sparks inspiration, camaraderie

The Meadowlark Motel in Maggie Valley is also home to the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, which hosts weekly events for the public. (Garret K. Woodward photo) The Meadowlark Motel in Maggie Valley is also home to the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, which hosts weekly events for the public. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

Cruising along Soco Road in the heart of Maggie Valley, one immediately notices the bright lights of the sign in front of the Meadowlark Motel. The retro fixture is a beloved sight along the roadside, with the next event happening at the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center, located on the property, proudly displayed on the marquee.

“I always envisioned something that had meaning, that would be successful,” said Joseph Franklyn McElroy, owner of the motel/center. “With the heritage center, we’ve worked to create this memorable experience. People come here and they learn about the culture of these mountains, and they come back again — it’s working.”

Although the motel has been in McElroy’s family for several decades, the heritage center only came to light in the summer of 2021. The idea for the center has been on McElroy’s mind for years, with it finally becoming a reality when he tapped the shoulders of acclaimed Appalachian historian/author Bob Plott, who is the general manager of the center.

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Joseph Franklyn McElroy (left) and Bob Plott.

“We started out doing the [Gateway to the Smokies] podcast. I handle the podcast, and Joseph interviews guests from all walks of life here in Appalachia,” Plott said. “And then, we started kicking around the idea of heritage center, to put on concerts, open jam sessions, workshops, and storytelling. With all of the events we’ve put on just in this year, the word is getting out — this area needs a place like this.”

Since its inception, the center has weekly happenings, all of which on the motel property. Strolling the grounds of the Meadowlark, there’s a peaceful vibe wafting through the large backyard and patio area. When the weather is nice, programs are held under the “Back Porch” pavilion, which also includes a bar/lounge area for patrons. Exiting the pavilion, one soon wanders over to the cozy campfire along the small creek running through the property.

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“Our goal is to perpetuate Smoky Mountain heritage through shows, seminars, hikes and tours of this place we call home,” Plott said. “And we’re always looking at different ways to do a variety of programs for the community — we’re here for the enjoyment of anyone who wants to learn about the history and the beauty of this region.”

At one recent gathering, renowned Nashville singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale performed in the pavilion, backed by the talents of Songs From The Road Band, a rollicking string act based out of Asheville. The artists were part of a weekend workshop on songwriting, with Lauderdale and SFTRB’s Charles Humphrey leading the writing sessions.

“I like to sit there and get [the song] done, to show up with less instead of more, so there’s room to collaborate and create with others,” Humphrey said. “You’re coming up with something right on the sport, and you’ve got several different first instincts to filter through when you’re creating — then, the spark of inspiration hits, and we’re off and running.”

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Songs From The Road Band. (Garret K. Woodward photo)

Those sentiments were also held by Charlie Chamberlain, another hit Nashville songwriter who was invited by the heritage center to come and share his lyrical wisdom that weekend.

“It’s like anything in life, where you do the work. You put in the work with the tools you have,” Chamberlain said. “You learn to use the tools you’ve acquired over the years, and you’re constantly sharpening those tools, so you’re ready when inspiration strikes. And, when you’re in those ‘seat of your pants’ moments, you’re ready to go.”

With Lauderdale and SFTRB cranking away onstage in the pavilion, Plott leans against a nearby fence, a slight grin across his face as he looks towards the audience, all of which just in awe of the musicianship and intricate nature of the performance.

“This center is a gratifying thing for me. Sure, it’s a job, but it’s also a labor of love,” Plott said. “To see it grow from just an idea to something of value for the community? Well, that’s just such a great feeling.”

Want to go?

Located in the Meadowlark Motel in Maggie Valley, the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center hosts an array of live music, workshops, presentations and open jam sessions throughout the year.

Upcoming events include singer-songwriter Mike Ogletree 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct 22; Cherokee Scholars Summit Nov. 4-6; Americana act Pigeon River Messengers & Andrew Wakefield 6 p.m. Nov. 5; Mountain Heritage Festival from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12; and singer-songwriter Andrew Wakefield 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3.

For more information on the SMHC and/or a full schedule of upcoming activities, go to meadowlarkmotel.com and click on the “Events” tab or call 828.926.1717.

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