Railroad’s return to Dillsboro would cost Jackson $817,000

Great Smoky Mountains Railway this week promised to return to Dillsboro in a big way, on this condition: Jackson County must come up with $817,176.

“We need to explore how we can work together and get that train here, and market it together,” railroad owner Alan Harper told county commissioners.

Taxpayers’ dollars would:

• Pay for moving a train set from Maine ($322,000 in the form of a grant).

• Restore and paint the locomotive and exterior coaches ($95,176, also a grant).

• Install a turntable in Dillsboro’s Monteith Park ($250,000 in the form of a loan).

• $150,000 in annual tourism advertising funds (in the form of a matching grant).

Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, Great Smoky Mountains Railway did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.

Now this news — 110 to 120 days of train service each year, 15 to 20 new jobs created in Jackson County, low estimates of at least 20,000 visitors to the tourism-dependent town, and the possibility of turning Monteith Park into a train destination in its own right, too. Harper said he has a steam engine that doesn’t work, and he’d be willing to possibly park it at Monteith. And, another sweetener — an unused metal bridge the town could use to span the creek in Monteith Park. All that for just more than $800,000, Harper said.

County commissioners clearly were not surprised by the request or presentation (the details were included in a pre-assembled packet for commissioners and reporters. Plus, Harper said he’d been discussing the deal with Dillsboro town leaders “individually,” and the possibility of a turntable had been bubbling about the town of just more than 200 residents for the past few weeks).

A turntable would do just what it says — serve as a means of turning the train around. Town leaders, Harper said, have indicated they believe Monteith Park would work for that purpose.

The train excursions would, he said, be first class using a steam engine. Commissioner Charles Elders asked when they would start if this deal is struck, and Harper said possibly by mid-summer. Commissioners took no action, with Chairman Jack Debnam telling Harper the county looks forward to working with the railroad.

Hear that lonesome whistle blow? Dillsboro a little less alone with limited train service this winter

In many ways, Brian Hockman and wife Carrie of Claymates, a “paint your own pottery experience,” serve as the perfect business portrait of the new Dillsboro.

This is Dillsboro post the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. A Dillsboro that maybe hasn’t exactly risen from the ashes like some resurrected phoenix, but a town that has, nonetheless, persevered and survived.

Claymates is located in the downtown section on Front Street: within a hop, skip and a jump of the railroad tracks that run through the town. The train once served as a major business conduit, disgorging crowds of tourists — about 60,000 a year — into the waiting arms of merchants.

Brian and Carrie Hockman came to Dillsboro a short time after the tourist train pulled out in 2008. In the midst of the recession, the train consolidated business operations to its new headquarters in nearby Bryson City and canceled passenger service to Dillsboro. The train moved just one county away, but the shift might as well have been to the moon as far as Dillsboro merchants were concerned.

People lost jobs — 22 full-time railroad employees and a handful of part-time workers were stranded. Stores lost money. Businesses went elsewhere.

So why did Brian and Carrie Hockman settle on the economically (and for merchants, emotionally) depressed Dillsboro during such a bleak period?

The rent was low in those just post-train days, and Pennsylvania native Brian Hockman was eager to start a business showcasing his photography. As a sideline, his wife started Claymates, a pick-out-a-cute-porcelain-figure-and-paint-it-yourself business — and the sideline became the mainline as the couple built a successful store. Brian and Carrie Hockman don’t depend heavily on tourists and walk-ins. Claymates instead relies more on events such as birthday parties, girls-nights out and office parties.

So recent news that the Great Smoky Mountains Railway has once again expanded seasonal excursions into Dillsboro doesn’t matter that much to Brian Hockman. Truth be told, he really just hopes his rent won’t increase as a result.

Other business owners in this small Jackson County town are more excited than that. But they, too, remain cautious — any help during these hard economic times is, of course, welcome news. Just be clear on this: Dillsboro won’t ever put all of its eggs back in that one basket again.


Here’s the deal

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad started four-hour roundtrip excursions from Bryson City to Dillsboro in January, and plans to continue them through this month. Tourists riding the train have an hour-and-a-half layover to wander the town.

On occasion, that layover means an extra customer or two for Jill Cooper at Haircuts by Jill on Front Street. Men who decide they need a trimming and a place to sit while their wives shop, she said, or men ordered in by their wives who want to visit other stores without them hovering nearby. Additionally, some of the train’s employees get their hair cut while in Dillsboro.

But even though the direct business benefit might be of marginal importance for Haircuts by Jill, Cooper is very happy the train is back — no matter for how briefly, or for such a short layover.

“It’s exciting,” she said.

The train has brought back a certain liveliness missing since it left, said Cooper, who lives — as well as works — in Dillsboro.

Limited runs by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad started back up in 2010, with the train bringing tourists in June, July, August and October. Peak season summer and fall runs were a good sign, but trips in the winter are an even better indication that Dillsboro might again secure a place in the train’s long-range regional vision.

“It is a bigger deal because we are coming in the winter,” agreed Sarah Conley, marketing manager for Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

It turns out Dillsboro’s character was popular with train riders, and that had a lot to do with the train’s decision to restore passenger service to the town.

“Dillsboro is such a quaint little lively town, and it has a lot of strongholds. It is an added bonus for riders to have a destination. When they get off they say, ‘Oh this is neat. It is a little quaint historic town,’” Conley said.

Additionally, the 32-mile roundtrip from Bryson City to Dillsboro has sights that interest most riders, Conley said. There is the 836-foot Cowee Tunnel to pass through, The Fugitive movie site to eyeball, and the scenic Tuckasegee River to enjoy.   

“Another thing that is really neat on the way to Dillsboro is they go by the train shop where our engineers work on the trains,” Conley said.

While the recession is still taking its toll on tourism, Conley said ridership was up last year compared to 2009.

Many of the passengers on these winter excursions are day-trippers, the marketing manager said. People who have visited Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and are looking for more things to do. Tourists who come over the Smokies by way of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for an opportunity to ride the train, and North Carolina residents who are in search of something to do on the weekend.

In early January, new customers came into Twin Oaks Gallery and told owner Susan Leveille they had learned about her shop after visiting Dillsboro via a ride on the train.

“That was more than I had heard in a long time,” Leveille said of the train-Dillsboro connection.

Twin Oaks Gallery, which features works in pottery, glass, iron and such by local artisans and craftspeople, isn’t in direct sight of the train tracks. That means Leveille can’t be sure exactly how much business Great Smoky Mountains Railroad funnels into her store — she must rely on customers to tip her off.

“In concept, though, I think it is a great thing they are making trips here and connecting with Dillsboro again,” the longtime business owner said. “It can’t be anything but good for us.”

Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.

Dillsboro lights up December nights

One of the more traditional holiday experiences in Western North Carolina takes place in Dillsboro the first two weekends of December.

Each year, this small mountain village is awash in the glow of white paper bag luminaries during the Dillsboro Festival of Lights & Luminaries.

This year’s festival is Dec. 3-4 and Dec. 10-11. On these special Friday and Saturday evenings, the town’s merchant “elves” illuminate the streets and sidewalks with more than 2,500 luminaries. The merchants also flip the switches on strands of small white lights trimming the town’s buildings, many of which date to the 1800s.

Once Dillsboro is aglow, carolers fill the streets, musicians stroll through town playing Christmas favorites, and Santa visits with children at Town Hall. Shopkeepers add to the merriment by staying open late and serving holiday treats with hot cider and cocoa.

New in 2010 are horse-drawn carriage rides on both weekends, and performances by the Smoky Mountain High School Show Choir on Dec. 3 and Dec. 4.

“Folks tell us every year how genuine this event is, and how much they enjoy it,” said Julie Spiro, tourism director for Jackson County. “It’s a nice combination of cool winter weather and warm holiday spirit.”

The Festival of Lights & Luminaries begins each evening at dusk and runs until 9 p.m. There is no admission charge and lodging is plentiful with more than half of Jackson’s County guest rooms located in Dillsboro or within a 15-minute drive.

For information, go to www.visitdillsboro.org, or call the Jackson County Visitors Center at 800.962.1911.

Dillsboro puts out welcome mat for WCU

The town of Dillsboro will host Western Carolina University faculty, staff and students during a special event called “Destination: Dillsboro!” on Thursday, Nov. 18, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Designed to show Dillsboro’s appreciation for WCU, the event will feature merchants staying open late and offering free samples and discounts especially for the WCU community.

The evening will feature a raffle drawing for numerous prizes from Dillsboro merchants for faculty and staff and a scavenger hunt using the social network Twitter for students.

To be eligible for the prizes, faculty and staff will enter their registration forms into a basket at the Jarrett House, which is serving as headquarters for the event. Registration forms are being sent through the WCU e-mail system, and prizes will be drawn throughout the evening. Once visitors register at the Jarrett House, they will be given a new holiday shopping guide that provides an updated map of the town and ideas for holiday gift giving from Dillsboro.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald will be greeting guests and making an official declaration of appreciation for WCU at the Jarrett House at 6 p.m.

“We’re looking forward to a great night,” Fitzgerald said. “The town will be decorated in purple and gold, but we’re rolling out the red carpet for the Catamounts. We hope WCU folks and their families will come down — if only for a little while — to check out the shops and eat at the restaurants. We’ve made a special effort to provide free child care and activities for the kids, so the whole family can enjoy the event.”

For WCU personnel with children, volunteers will provide free child care services at the Jarrett Memorial Baptist Church on Church Street. There will be 20 spots available from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and 20 spots from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Children ages 3 to 12 are eligible and advance reservations are required. Art activities, games and snacks will be provided. To RSVP for child care, contact Casey Hodges at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Destination: Dillsboro! is the latest event in a recent partnership forged the town and WCU. The overall goal of the partnership is economic revitalization. Numerous faculty, staff and students from across the university are working on a variety of projects including small business counseling, survey research, marketing, public relations, broadcasting, arts, entertainment and special events.

For more information about the Dillsboro/WCU partnership or any of the Nov. 18 activities, contact Betty Farmer, special assistant to the chancellor for Dillsboro, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.227.3804.

— By Matthew Hoagland, WCU

Potters converge on Dillsboro Nov. 6

The Western North Carolina Pottery Festival expects record attendance this fall as the juried festival continues to attract master potters from across the U.S.

This year’s event will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 6, on the streets of downtown Dillsboro.

The festival features 42 clay artists, each demonstrating their craft throughout the day; roughly half of the potters hail from the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, while the other half are from as away as: Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio.

“The festival has taken off higher than we ever imagined,” said organizer Joe Frank McKee of Dillsboro’s Tree House Pottery. “Attendance increases each year and the potters who apply get better and better. What started as a local pottery festival has blossomed into more of a regional and national pottery festival.”

Admission is $3 and includes a ticket for a day-long raffle. Children under 12 are admitted free.

828.631.5100, or www.wncpotteryfestival.com. For lodging information call the Jackson County Visitors Center at 800.962.1911.

WNC Pottery Festival is Nov. 6

The sixth annual Western North Carolina Pottery Festival is set for Saturday, Nov. 6, in Dillsboro.

This juried festival showcases more than 40 master potters demonstrating a variety of techniques.

The WNC Pottery Festival was established in 2005 by Travis Berning and Joe Frank McKee of Tree House Pottery and Brant Barnes of Riverwood Pottery. The show’s concept is for potters to interact with the public through demonstrations and sharing their general knowledge of clay. It also gives pottery collectors a chance to meet and take home a piece of pottery from their favorite artists.  

This year, potters from as far away as Texas, Florida, Michigan and New Jersey are exhibiting their wares.

Steven Hill, this year’s featured potter, has been a professional studio potter since 1974. He started working out of a backyard studio and selling his work, mostly at art festivals. By the mid 1990’s he was looking for a way to expand his studio, to begin a resident artist program for aspiring potters, and to provide space for other ceramic artists to work.

Red Star Studios became the home of Steven Hill Pottery from 1998 to 2006. Hill now lives in Sandwich, lll., and has founded Center Street Clay with his partner Kim Miner. This is a studio and residential workshop facility.

Hill has been single-firing his functional stoneware since 1972. Although at times it is frustrating to glaze raw pots, he finds it encourages directness and spontaneity in his work.

Hill received his BFA from Kansas State University in 1973. His work is featured in nationally juried shows and in many ceramics books. He has taught more than 200 workshops throughout the United States and Canada and has been published multiple times. For more information about Steven Hill, Center Street Clay and his workshops visit www.centerstreetclay.com.

A Clay Olympics will be held on Friday, Nov. 5, from 1-3 p.m. at Treehouse Pottery. Prizes will be awarded to the winners in this throwing contest.

Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. rain or shine. Admission is $3 per person and includes a ticket for a day-long raffle. Kids under 12 get in free.

For festival information call Tree House Pottery at 828.631.5100.

Vision for Appalachian Women’s Museum stalled

A long-range plan to create a museum highlighting the role and contribution of Appalachian women might be in limbo.

The Dillsboro town board last month informed representatives of the Appalachian Women’s Museum — which wants to renovate and turn the historic Monteith farmstead into the museum — that they were tabling, for six months, a request to sell or lease part of the property.

“That leaves us up in the air as far as securing funding for the project,” said Emma Wertenberger, president of the museum board. “We are considering options. We would like the partnership, but if it doesn’t work out, there will still be an Appalachian Women’s Museum somewhere.”

Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald said he knows the museum group is disappointed by the town board’s decision, but that it might well resurface before the six-month stipulation has passed.

“They are looking at it still,” Fitzgerald said of his board. “They just don’t want it to keep coming up every meeting and taking up time.”

Additionally, the town board’s members are simply acting as good stewards of taxpayer dollars by carefully reviewing any possible legal ramifications of such a deal, he said. The group is eying 1.4 acres that comprise the core farmstead out of a total 16-acre tract.

The delay, in the short term at least, will hinder attempts to secure certain grants, Wertenberger said. The group says gaining title to the property is critical to secure funding to restore the historic farmhouse, which would house the museum.

The town of Dillsboro bought the Monteith farmstead in 2003. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places five years later.

With the train gone, Dillsboro searches for new ways to attract tourists

The town of Dillsboro, once a thriving retail market for tourists, has taken a beating in the past two years. First, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, a business that delivered 60,000 visitors per year to the downtown, moved its operations to Bryson City and cut train routes to the quaint shopping hamlet. Meanwhile, the recession hit the mountains full force.

“What Dillsboro experienced is the perfect storm,” said Dr. Betty Farmer, communications professor at Western Carolina University. “That railroad left and the economy tanked, and the timing really could not have been worse for them.”

Farmer is one of a cadre of WCU professors working with the town and its business community to redefine its marketing strategy and enliven its retail district.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald said the partnership could help the town develop a new identity, something that’s not tied to the success or failure of one business.

“I think that identity — with or without the train –– is what we’re working on right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re at a crossroads.”


Life without the railroad


For two decades the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad drew visitors to Dillsboro’s Front Street and created foot traffic for a downtown retail district that emphasized local crafts.

In 2008, the train line pulled out for economic reasons, leaving 22 full-time employees jobless and the town without a major tourist draw.

Walt Cook, owner of the Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, opened his business just six weeks before the train left. When the train stopped coming, so did his walk-in customers.

“My particular type of business relies on a certain amount of walk-around traffic, and Dillsboro doesn’t have enough of that since the train left,” Cook said.

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad resumed limited service to Dillsboro from Bryson City last year, and this year they’ve expanded service further. But businesses downtown can no longer rely on sheer volume of tourists to turn a profit.

Cook has decided to move his retail business to Waynesville because he doesn’t think Dillsboro has enough to draw tourists.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon last week, Douglas Siegrist, 33, of York, Penn., sat out front of Bradley’s General Store with his son, Tanner, eating ice cream cones. They had come on the one o’clock train from Bryson City, where their relatives run a campground.

Siegrist said he didn’t think they would have visited Dillsboro without the attraction of the train.

“Probably not,” he said. “We really haven’t heard much about Dillsboro.”

But having discovered the town, Siegrist said he would like to come back.

“It’s a nice little town, and it seems like there’s a lot going on,” Siegrist said.

Frank and Diane Lauterman of Clermont, Fla., arrived on the same train. The Lautermans were also staying in Bryson City, and Frank said that while the railroad lured them to Dillsboro, the town had its own selling points.

“I would move here,” Frank said. “This is the area I’d like to retire.”

Those reactions point at something most Dillsboro business owners can agree on. The town’s attraction is about more than the train.

“This town was a thriving tourist town even before the train was here,” said John Miele, owner of the Golden Carp, a home furnishings store that draws visitors from all over the region.

Miele said train customers were never a mainstay for his business, but he appreciated the energy they brought to the retail district. He thinks the struggles retailers are facing now have more to do with the state of the economy than anything else.

“The train leaving has nothing to do with what’s going on right now,” Miele said. “That we have any business at all is a miracle.”

Jean Hartbarger, owner of The Jarrett House and former mayor of Dillsboro, summed up the situation succinctly.

“The train didn’t kill Dillsboro,” Hartbarger said. “The economy did.”


The partnership


Last year, at the instigation of Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo, WCU began a multi-departmental partnership with Dillsboro and its downtown merchant community.

Bardo, whose academic background is in urban planning and community development, said the partnership fits the university’s mission of community engagement, but it’s also an effort to lend a hand to a neighbor.

“It became clear that, with the train not coming on a regular basis, people in Dillsboro were suffering,” Bardo said.

Bardo said the goal for the university is to offer its resources to small business owners who want help.

“A university can never tell the people of a community or region what to do,” Bardo said. “We’re trying to give the people of Dillsboro some help, so they can re-shape their course the way they want to.”

Dr. Betty Farmer, a WCU professor in communication and public relations, has taken the lead in coordinating the partnership. She said the first six months have been to a large extent about building trust and identifying issues.

Now that a working relationship has been established between the university and business community, the challenges have gotten more concrete.

“I feel like we have a firm grasp on what the problems are now,” Farmer said. “But the business people needed help yesterday, and it’s almost impossible for us to move as fast as they need us to.”

Farmer said one business owner confided to her that gross receipts had fallen from $130,000 per year to $30,000 during a three-year period.

In January, Farmer facilitated a large group meeting to discuss the action plan for the revitalization campaign. The result was an eight-step strategy that involves creating a coherent brand identity for the town, increasing the number of WCU faculty and staff who use the downtown district, and updating the town’s presence on the Internet.

So far, half of the downtown businesses have worked with WCU’s Small Business and Technology Development Center to develop better business planning, marketing and finance strategies. Also, economics professor Steve Ha has conducted surveys of the business community, WCU’s faculty and staff, and visitors to help figure out what the town needs to do to reach potential customers.

The faculty and staff survey, which was offered on-line, yielded more than 600 responses.

Miele has participated in the partnership, and he’s pleased with its results so far.

“It’s like anything. Sometimes you can’t see your mistakes until someone comes in from the outside and points them out to you,” he said.

As a result of his work with WCU faculty and students, Miele has developed a Facebook page that’s linked to his business home page, and he’s already found that it’s helped walk-in traffic.

“Just when I was going to 86 the whole thing, I started hearing from customers saying, ‘We saw your website,” Miele said. “Now it’s my catalogue.”

Farmer is confident that the business owners can learn from the partnership.

“I think there are some things Dillsboro businesses can do and they’re open to it,” Farmer said.

But she’s realistic about what the university can do for the town.

“We don’t have $500,000 to run a slick ad campaign,” Farmer said. “So we have to use other ways to increase the number of visitors.”


Playing to strengths


While the challenges facing all small tourist towns are great, Dillsboro has some natural advantages. Its location at the junction of U.S. 23/74 and U.S. 441 makes it extremely accessible. The town has public access points on Scott’s Creek and one on the Tuckasegee River.

Tyler Davis recently opened Blue Ridge Outing Company, a rafting business, in part of the old train depot. Davis has owned an outfitter business in Bill’s Flea Market on the Smoky Mountain Expressway for the past five years, but he jumped at the chance to open a location in Dillsboro.

“Nothing against the flea market. I love the flea market,” Davis said. “But for a business like this, it’s a much more appropriate location.”

Davis like the fact that his customers have access to public restrooms and a shopping district, and they only have to walk 150 yards to the boat launch to start their trips.

What’s still missing, he said, is a major draw.

“It has the buildings. It has the shops. It’s the amount of attractions. That’s what the town still needs,” Davis said. “The place has such a cool image as a mountain town.”

Carrie Blaskowski, a Dillsboro resident and assistant director of the Jackson County Green Energy Park, believes the partnership with WCU has helped the business community get a grip on what it needs to do.

“We can become complacent and rely on what we know or we can start over and collaborate on building the future together,” Blaskowski said.

The Green Energy Park has become a destination for travelers interested in sustainable business practices, in large part because it uses landfill methane to power a crafts studio for glass blowers and blacksmiths.

Blaskowski sees crafts as a lasting part of the town’s identity, but she thinks the future of the town relies on diversity.

“Dillsboro may be going back to its roots with some of the efforts in the crafts community but we’re also trying a lot of other things,” Blaskowski said.

For Farmer, Dillsboro has one asset money can’t buy. Location, location, location.

“It’s in the middle of so many great things,” Farmer said.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald is quick to point out that while Dillsboro’s retail businesses are struggling, the town is thriving as a residential community. He believes the town just needs to develop ways to build on its assets.

“It’s a historic crafts community, and it’s a quaint mountain town,” said Fitzgerald. “Unfortunately with the economy down, the crafting side of things isn’t bringing in the same revenue it used to.”

Over the hill in Cullowhee, Bardo has committed his university to the partnership for the long haul.

“It has to be a long-term relationship,” Bardo said. “What we’re seeing in the mountains is the local effect of what is a global economic downturn. It can’t be turned around quickly.”

Two towns at a crossroads

For decades Maggie Valley and Dillsboro were two of the mountain’s most iconic tourist towns. Sadly, both relied heavily — too heavily — on a single cash-cow. When Ghost Town shut down in Maggie and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad pulled out of Dillsboro, both lost tens of thousands of visitors once delivered to their doorsteps. Both towns are now struggling to find new identities.

Growth of dog bakeries tempt owners to indulge their canine companions

At the end of a rough week, your dog might consider stopping in at Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery in Dillsboro for “Yappy Hour” or perhaps heading to Woof Gang Bakery in Cashiers for a homemade gourmet treat.

Dogs older than the age limit have their choice of non-alcoholic beverages, including Bowser Beer and Sauvignon Barkundy from Bark Vineyards, “Fine wine for the canine.”

Depending on their mood, they can nibble on a barbecue beef bone (grill marks included), pumpkin pie fire hydrants, or snicker poodles at Woof Gang.

At Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, chicken and beef tacos, pizza, hot dogs, banana cream pies and even birthday cakes are up for grabs. Most treats will cost $2 each.

Jackson County has been no exception to the booming worldwide trend of gourmet dog food. It’s nothing like what has dominated store shelves for decades. And now more than ever, the trend is catching on in Western North Carolina.

Smoky Mountain Bakery plans to open a new location in Waynesville in the next month. Woof Gang Bakery recently opened a store in Cashiers, the Florida chain’s first in the state. A grand opening for a second store followed in Asheville last week, and one more is planned for Chapel Hill late this summer.

The gourmet dog treat business continues to thrive, flying in the face of the recession.

“The pet industry has not suffered at all,” said Janet Martin, owner of Woof Gang Bakery. “In fact, it has grown.”

More people are traveling with pets, and hotels are trashing their “No Pets” signs accordingly. A few are even tucking gourmet treats in their rooms to welcome canine customers.

Walt Cook, owner of Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, said with an increasingly mobile society and family members no longer living nearby, pets have become more important to people.

“You don’t have the connection, the family dinner every Friday night or the 4th of July picnic with 30 or 40 family members,” said Cook. “That’s what I grew up in, and you don’t have that anymore.”

The loss of a family member is what prompted Martin to get her dog late in life.

Her 20-year-old son Jacob died after undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Duke University. While coping with the tragedy, Martin continually felt an impulse to get a dog. Her younger son Jonathan had always wanted one as well.

Soon after, Brady joined the Martin family.

“I just thought it would be good for healing,” said Martin. “They’re such wonderful creatures. They give you unconditional love … They require you to walk them; they require you to keep on living.”


Recipe for success


The enticing aroma wafting from the oven at Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery easily deceives the human nose.

But one bite is enough to tell the difference.

“It tastes like a very bland peanut butter cookie,” said Cook, adding that it is a healthy treat.

Cook’s handmade organic treats have no sugar or butter. His simple recipes often include oat flour, oatmeal, carob and peanut butter.

“No wheat, corn, soy — none of the things that dogs have allergies to,” said Cook, who regularly researches to make sure all the ingredients he uses are puppy-safe.

In the last 10 years, there’s been a growth in the natural dog food market, prompted by the deaths of several thousand dogs in the U.S. after ingesting unsafe chemicals used in dog food. Many more had contracted serious health problems.

Cook’s foray into the dog treat business came after he noticed many travelers dropping into his restaurant in Florida with their dogs. He began baking treats for them, and they were so popular that travelers came back on their return trip specifically for more treats.

After moving to Dillsboro for retirement, he started hunting for something new to do.

“I don’t golf,” said Cook. “You can only fish so many days of the year.”

The store met with instant success, but Dillsboro shortly afterward lost droves of tourists when the scenic Great Smoky Mountain Railroad moved its operations to Bryson City. Forced to find a new business model, Cook began selling his products wholesale and online.

He’s hoping to shift back into retail with a new location in Waynesville. While he would like to see the Dillsboro store stay open, he’s not sure yet if it will.

For now, Cook, who is friendly with every customer that walks in, is looking forward to the grand opening of the store on Main Street in Waynesville.

With more space, Cook can offer more products. He will continue to focus on bringing locally made products to his store, especially items not commonly found in chains.

Meanwhile, Martin has opened her store to brisk business in Cashiers.

“It’s a very happy place,” said Martin. “When you walk through that door, everybody’s got a smile on their face.”

Woof Gang features dog-friendly concrete floors and a crystal chandelier over a table chock-full of treats.

Customers of all kinds have paid a visit even if they didn’t own a dog. In Martin’s experience, though, North Carolina is very much a dog state.

“I’ve quit asking customers, ‘Do you have a dog,’” said Martin. “I now ask them ‘How many do you have?’”

One recent customer had a whopping eleven of them, Martin said.

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