Merchants float idea of downtown association in Bryson City

Business owners in Bryson City’s downtown are following in the footsteps of neighboring towns, attempting to put together their own downtown merchants’ association.

The infant group has been meeting for three months, but hasn’t yet gotten around to structure or membership, two issues that will be instrumental to the group’s future.

Currently, the only group serving merchants is the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. Several downtown business owners surveyed last week for this article said they chamber adequately serves downtown interests and they weren’t interested in a second organization.

Chamber Executive Director Karen Wilmot said that the idea of a downtown association has been tossed around town for years, although she expected it to come to from within the chamber.

“We’ve always hoped that when someone chose to start a downtown merchants’ association that they would choose to umbrella it under the chamber so everyone could stay in the same loop,” said Wilmot. By that she means making the association something like a chamber committee.

But that’s not how they want to do it, said Tim Hall, who runs the Storytelling Center of the Appalachians and is heading the effort.

“I want to be able to work beside the chamber, hand-in-hand with the chamber, but the chamber again is — even though they’ve done a good job on promoting Bryson City as the major city of Swain County — they are still a Swain County organization,” said Hall. “It might not be a bad idea to have two organizations that would work in conjunction with one another, in splitting out some of the responsibilities. The chamber could communicate with the county and then the merchants’ association for downtown Bryson City.”

Several towns in the region have their own downtown organizations, including Sylva, Waynesville and Franklin, that operate in addition to a chamber of commerce.

The challenge of maintaining both a chamber of commerce and a downtown group could prove straining for a town Bryson’s size, however.

Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, said that active involvement from members and a committed point person are key to actually bringing benefits to downtown businesses.

“Someone has to be in charge,” said Phillips. “There has to be a voice and a committee of others in charge, but there still has to be that one person that makes sure that something is going to happen.”

No officers have yet been elected in Bryson City, but Hall said that’s what he hopes the group will become.

A lot of people have ideas for downtown, but no way to get them off the ground.

“Everybody has their ideas, but what we’re wanting to do is take those ideas and have a clearinghouse for them, to work in conjunction with the other organizations in and around Bryson City to develop a cohesive plan,” said Hall. “(We want) to take the input of the merchants, the input of the visitors, the input of the residents and combine them all together.”

A clear mission with clear goals will be key to raise funds or soliciting members, according to Linda Schlott, director of Franklin’s Main Street program, which is run by the town.

“I think when you ask for that money, you really have to have something, a really good plan,” said Schlott.

In Bryson City, there has been no talk of a town-run program, and since Hall and his associates want to stay separate from the chamber, a dues system is one of the remaining options.

They haven’t yet convinced downtown businesses that banding together would be mutually beneficial — they’re touting things like standardized late opening hours, to combat the view that the sidewalks roll up at five o’clock — but some are just waiting for the group to mature before climbing aboard.

Ron Larocque, owner of the Cork and Bean on Everett Street and the president of the chamber, said he was taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Wilmot said the chamber isn’t against the idea, especially if it’s what the town’s merchants want.

“The chamber certainly is not threatened or does not feel antagonistic in any way towards the creation of a downtown merchants’ association,” said Wilmot. “If this is something that our members feel a need for, then we want to be able to fill that gap.”

Public restrooms coming to downtown Bryson City

Visitors to Bryson City will have a free place to go when nature calls once public restrooms are installed in the historic courthouse.

There are plans for the now-vacant courthouse to one day be home to a visitor’s center manned by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and a museum.

But for now, commissioners want to move forward with installing public bathrooms instead of waiting for the rest of the project to come online.

Putting men’s and women’s facilities into the historic structure will cost around $50,000. The county will pay for it with interest earned off the North Shore Road cash settlement.

This would be only the second project paid for with the long-awaited money, yet commissioners didn’t specifically vote on the measure. It will be embedded as a line item in the county’s budget.

The project idea was discussed in a county budget work session on Monday. The four commissioners at the meeting came to a consensus on the plan, and County Manager Kevin King made an administrative amendment to the proposed budget to include the bathroom costs.

The project will get the go-ahead if the budget is approved as-is at the commissioners’ next meeting on August 8.

Commissioners expressed their support of the idea, which would be the first phase of the old courthouse’s revitalization.

“That’d be the first step,” said Commissioner Donnie Dixon. “I think we should.”

The final two portions of the revamp — the museum and visitor’s center, which might also feature a bookstore — must be completed simultaneously, said King.

He hopes they can be finished within the next two years.

What will be done with the remainder of the North Shore interest money this year, another $135,000 or so, remains to be seen.

Earlier in the summer, commissioners were ambivalent when asked about plans for the cash, as there was so little of it built up.

Several were in favor of a committee populated by community members that would vet and recommend projects, but no moves have been made to form such a body.

The first allocation from cash settlement money funded five granite pedestals outside the county’s administration marking major events in Swain’s history. The $20,000 pedestals were partially funded by a $7,500 grant.

The settlement is compensation from the federal government for a road that was flooded by the creation of Fontana Lake during WWII. The county has $12.8 million in the bank and is supposed to eventually receive $52 million.

The money itself will remain untouched, held in trust for the county by the N.C. Treasury Department, but the county gets the yearly interest. The funds made less than 2 percent return this fiscal year which was paid out at the end of June.

Kephart Days: Bryson City gearing up to honor, remember writer

Luke Hyde is too young to remember Horace Kephart, but his parents and grandparents knew the great American outdoor writer well when the St. Louis transplant was living in the Bryson City area.

“He was a highly talented man who did some good things. Horace Kephart also was a human being who had some warts,” said Hyde, owner of The Historic Calhoun House in Bryson City and cofounder, with Kephart great-granddaughter Libby Kephart Hargrave, of a foundation to honor the writer and benefit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Kephart was pivotal in making the park a reality, working tirelessly through the 1920s to protect the Smoky Mountains he loved so deeply. Kephart wrote letters, articles and a booklet, plus teamed with photographer George Masa to raise awareness about the unique beauty and importance of these mountains.

Kephart penned the regional classic Our Southern Highlanders; he wrote what even his fiercest critics acknowledge might well be one of the best outdoors books ever written, Camping and Woodcraft.

Though few, if any, would deny the value of Kephart’s efforts to preserve the Smokies — or attempt, with much legitimacy, to denigrate the overall value of his writings — his legacy in Western North Carolina has remained somewhat contentious.

That Kephart drank to excess is true and well documented. That he abandoned his wife and children in his retreat to this region is arguable with any seriousness only by some of his descendents, who find this apparent rejection of the family hearth a source of some lingering pain, or perhaps, shame.

That these truths somehow tarnish Kephart’s legacy as a writer and protector of the Great Smoky Mountains is certainly peculiar, though the debate of late has focused on Kephart’s “right” as an outsider to chronicle the lives and times of mountain people.

Despite the venom displayed by many of Kephart’s critics, since 2009 Bryson City has begun to openly — if a bit cautiously — embrace the man who made this Swain County town his spiritual and creative base.

Horace Kephart Days Celebration is scheduled for Friday through Sunday, (April 29-May 1). Hyde, for one, is happy to see the writer get his due, and so is Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker.

“It’s part of our history,” Walker said. “I think it’s enjoyable to have Libby (Kephart Hargrave) here, and for us to reflect on those days.”

The event isn’t huge, the mayor noted, but it is drawing an increasing number of people into Bryson City.

“It’s a piece of the (economic) puzzle, a part of things that go into making a whole,” Walker said of the event.


Horace Kephart Days Celebration

• Friday, 7 p.m.: Meet and greet at the Calhoun
House, 135 Everett Street.

• Saturday: Breakfast at the Calhoun House, reservations required, $10 per person, 828.488.1234

• Saturday, 10 a.m.: Ceremony at Hillside Cemetery

• Saturday, noon: Riverfront Park with the Schiele Museum Interpretation Camping Team; musician Lee Knight; artisan Bill Alexander; speakers
Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; researcher and writer
Janet McCue; researcher and writer George Ellison; and more.

• Sunday: Breakfast at the Calhoun House, reservations required, $10 per person. Guest speaker will be Bill Alexander, mountain poet and East Tennessee artisan.

HandMade engages Bryson to create road map for a better town

In the sunny, windowed front room of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, a group of people are gathered around a table littered with maps, the light from the windows filtering through more maps and photos and wishlists that have been taped there. They’re a conglomeration of planners, business-owners and residents and they’re here to discuss the future of Bryson City.

In another corner on a cluster of leather couches and wooden chairs, more locals sit with team members from HandMade in America, who are assessing the town’s needs and wants, and will ultimately make recommendations on how to get there.

This is the second assessment Bryson City’s done with HandMade in America, a regional nonprofit that promotes crafts and cultural heritage as an avenue to economic development.

The town has been part of the group’s small towns program for nearly 15 years now, but their last assessment was in 1999. And, needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

So HandMade leaders decided it was time to bring pretty much everyone back to the table — business owners, the outdoor community, non-profits, churches, artists, residents, business organizations, even students — and ask them what they want their own town to become.

Luke Perry with the Asheville Design Center, who is helping with the project, spent the morning stationed in front of various maps of the town, sketching people’s ideas and wishes onto sheets of overlayed tracing paper. The idea, he says, is to find patterns or connections between what people want and how it can be achieved, connections that might not always be obvious.

Take the Tuckasegee River, a concept that kept resurfacing as people drifted in and out of the brainstorming session, looking at the aerial views of the town’s streets and postulating what could make them better.

“How can we activate the river?” That, Perry says, is a key question the community has been asking for years but never solved.

Everyone kept mentioning how inaccessible the river is — apart from Island Park, the best you can do is admire the waterway from the bridge and hope you don’t get sideswiped by the traffic flying by. And that leads to another problem: by car is how most to get to Island Park — there’s no dedicated sidewalk — and many other places outside the small downtown district.

So that led Perry and his colleagues to start sketching out how, exactly, the town could be more bike-and-pedestrian friendly, while giving residents and visitors better access to the river at the same time.

“One of the biggest things we’re doing here is telling stories,” says Perry. “How do you tell the story of Bryson City?”

Judi Jetson is at the head of the effort. She’s the director of the small towns program at HandMade in America, and it’s her job to get those stories, going around asking people what makes their community great and what could make it better.

For her, assessments like these are about creating the intersection between idea and implementation.

“This is not a pie-in-the-sky group,” she says. “It’s easy to have ideas, but if you never find out how to implement [your plan], it just sits on the shelf and nothing gets done with it.”

Perry echoes those sentiments. “We don’t want something that’s going to be a great plan and published with pretty pictures, but it’s never used,” he says.

So the ideal end-product of the exercise will be an action plan handed over to town officials, listing out 40 to 60 real — and feasible — suggestions for improvements, complete with recommendations on how to make them work.


Looking for local options

For Bryson City, a lot of what Jeston et al. heard from residents wasn’t just about improved pedestrian access, but more amenities for the community.

“This county needs a recreation center,” said Megan Cookston, who works with Yellow Rose Realty. “That’s the one thing I miss about living in Jackson County.”

Others repeated the general sentiment, noting that while there is a surfeit of stuff for tourists to do, activities and events geared towards locals are relatively few and far between.

It’s insider knowledge like this that Jetson says is vital to making a helpful, useful plan for a town. That nugget, for example, is something that she says she’d never have known without getting in-depth local feedback.

But appraisals like these aren’t just about slating towns, enumerating everything they don’t have to offer. There’s a reason people move to and stay in Bryson City, and it isn’t just the pretty scenery. So looking at what works, and why, is a good place to start when seeking to ferret out improvements.

Jeston and her team did interviews with a number of groups throughout the day, but in this particular idea session, many identified the small town’s smallness as its best asset, topped off by its naturally appealing locale.

“Well, just look around,” exclaimed Cookston, when Jetson asked the assembled crowd how they would pitch the place to outsiders. “And you can be in the National Park in three minutes.”

Diane Jones, who runs the Rocky Face Mountain development, said the chance to get out of the rat race is what makes the town so attractive. “That’s why I moved here,” says Jones. “There are people coming out of Atlanta to get away from the neon and get to the old-time Mayberry.”

Pulling against that slightly, though, is the truth that this is, after all, the 21st century, the digital age. Old-time and slow-paced are both valuable, but on the other side of the coin is the real need for connection, a struggle in the area.

High-speed internet and wi-fi were both sources of considerable ire for some locals, who made the insightful point that the idyllic atmosphere is only desirable long-term or even, increasingly, short-term inasmuch as it is connected to the wider, less-idyllic world.

That’s a problem that will probably be closer to the large-scale end on the recommendation continuum.

But Jetson says that’s the point. Yes, everything they suggest will be doable, but some things are more quickly completed than others.

“It’s going to be little things, like cleaning up a piece of property that’s really an eyesore, to more ambitious things,” she says. And with this visit, her team is taking the first steps toward helping the town work, in big and small ways, to make it a better, more vibrant place for locals and tourists alike.

Bottoms up! Bryson City brewery opens

Beer brewing in Bryson City just took on a whole new look this weekend when Nantahala Brewing Company threw open the doors of its brand new tasting room. The town’s fledgling brewery welcomed friends and fans into its front room on Depot Street, which they’ve transformed into a rustic, high-ceiling tasting room – a beer bar to accompany the brewing operation that’s been cranking in the back for some time now.

Joe Rowland, head of the company’s marketing and part owner of the business, said that they’re thrilled to be able to serve their own brews. In fact, said Rowland, it’s the key to their business model, along with the self-distribution plan they’ve been working in the area.

“We want to be the beer destination in the area,” said Rowland, and with their tasting room just across the street from the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, they hope to pull in the droves of tourists that flock to the town in warmer weather.

For now, they’re pulling four of their own taps – Noon Day IPA, Appalachian Trail Extra Pale Ale, Bryson City Brown Ale and Eddy Out Stout – as well as a couple of guest spots reserved for brews from neighboring Greenman Brewing in Asheville. But Rowland says that they hope one day soon to be serving upwards of 20 different beer varieties, some of their own mixed with the plethora of other local brewers in the region.

And the region is replete with hometown craft breweries, a product, said Rowland, of the friendly environment North Carolina offers breweries.

Though the brewery taxes are high, he said, this is one of the only places in the country that affords beer-makers the right of self-distribution, allowing them to sell and send to restaurants, bars and stores themselves, cutting out the costly middleman.

Still, said Rowland, opening up in such a small location that’s so reliant on seasonal tourist traffic hasn’t been an easy proposition for the company, owned by himself and brewer Chris Collier.

“The brewing community is a very small community,” said Rowland, “and most of our friends thought we were insane.”

But sanity notwithstanding, they’ve been successful so far, getting their products into stores and restaurants from Weaverville to Murphy and even scoring places in Charlotte and Winston Salem.

Rowland said he was thrilled by the local response to the tasting room’s opening, too; they welcomed more than 120 visitors on Friday night alone, with only a few days’ notice.

“It’s been pretty huge,” said Rowland of the response, and with the opening comes a solution to one of the company’s perennial problems — regular hours.

When it was just a brewery, it wasn’t always easy for eager customers to catch someone at the warehouse. Now, those in search of a good beer and a good time know just when and where to come for them.

And for such a small community, Rowland said the regional response to their product has been pretty impressive.

“There’s a huge appetite for it here,” Rowland said.

This doesn’t really surprise Paul Gatza. He’s the director of the Brewer’s Association, a national organization that pretty much lives up to its straightforward name.

“All the consumer trends are pointing to a bright future for craft breweries,” said Gatza, which is good news for locals like Nantahala.

Technically speaking, a craft brewery is small, independent and brews their product in line with traditional beer-making techniques.

And those are qualities that appeal greatly to younger American consumers, even in this slouchy economy. While the major domestic breweries have shown a downturn in profits, the craft-brew revolution has meant a spike in profit for craft breweries, even in the most dire recession years.

“I think especially with the younger legal-drinking-age adults, they’ve been able to discover the world of craft beers themselves,” said Gatza. “There’s qualities of the small, local, independent that they can identify with in themselves.”

And with North Carolina being one of the most craft-brewery friendly states in the nation, it’s no wonder that last year, Asheville snatched the annually bestowed Beer City USA title from Portland, Ore., long crowned the nation’s best city for finding good brews.

Rowland and his company are happy to ride that craft-brew wave, and he’s confident enough in their product that even if the wave crests, they’ll still find an audience willing to shell out for the taste and experience that no other shop in the city can offer.

Nothing like old-time boardinghouses

Are there boardinghouses still operating here in the Smokies region? There are, of course, hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels galore. But I’m wondering about the true, old-fashioned boardinghouse, which flourished throughout the region until the middle of the 20th century.  

Unlike any of the establishments mentioned above, a real boardinghouse had several distinctive features. It would often come into existence as an expansion of the proprietor’s original home site; or, it was sometimes established in a renovated commercial structure of some sort.  

Rooms would sometimes be let out for overnight guests. For the most part, however, a boardinghouse catered to those staying for at least a week. And it wasn’t unusual for them to stay either for an entire season or even on a permanent basis. Working-class guests were as common as vacationers. Long-term boarders were often adopted into the proprietor’s extended family. Concern for his or her general welfare became a part of the socio-economic relationship.

Family style meals were the mainstay of a boardinghouse. Sometimes all three meals were served each day. Serving times for each meal were posted and the proprietor expected boarders to be on time. Most guests honored this system as a matter of courtesy. They also realized that those arriving late had less — or sometimes very little — to eat.

Some of the rooms had bath facilities. These cost more. Most guests shared a bath, which always seemed to be located “Just down there at the end of the hall.” A guest taking too much time or using up all of the hot water would hear about it from his fellow guests. If the habit persisted, the proprietor would weigh in.

There was always a common sitting, reading, and TV room used primarily during the winter or just before meals were served. When the weather was fine, there was also a front porch with rocking chairs.  

In my experience, the last true boardinghouse in this region was the Swain Hotel located on Everett Street in Bryson City. From 1967 until 1996, it was owned and operated by Mildred and V.L. Cope. Swain County native Luke Hyde, an attorney, purchased and renovated the establishment, opening in 1997 as the Historic Calhoun Country Inn. Family style meals are still served, but the current operation is not a true boardinghouse in most regards. Although many of the guests return from season to season, none are of the long-term or permanent variety.  Most are vacationers.

“Until 1966, the business was known as the Calhoun Hotel,” said Hyde. “It was operated by Granville Calhoun and his family. My mother, Alice Hyde, worked at the Calhoun Hotel for 30 years. That’s why I converted to the old name.

“As far as I know the Swain Hotel as operated by the Copes was the last true boardinghouse west of Morganton. I stayed in a lot of places when I was looking for a suitable location of my own, and it was the only one I encountered.

“I remember when mother was working at the Calhoun Hotel that the Simonds family would come and stay for the summer. He operated a real estate business and had a sign right there in the front yard. She operated a clothing store.”

I stayed in the Swain Hotel on two occasions in the early 1970s shortly before deciding to move to Bryson City. For some reason, memories of those visits — once by myself and once with my wife and three children — remain vivid.               

Mrs. Cope, who orchestrated the meals, had jet-black hair, powder-white skin, and was something of a character. Her specialties were fried eggs and biscuits and gravy for breakfast; sliced cured ham, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce for dinner; and pork tenderloin or chops, baked sweet potatoes, and blackberry pie for supper. Fried chicken was reserved for Sunday dinners. Mr. Cope was one-armed but could perform any maintenance task with great dexterity.   

All of our fellow guests were exceedingly cordial but not intrusive. Most were working-class and dressed accordingly for meals. One elderly couple dressed up for meals. They were permanent residents. He was the only man in the dining room with a coat and tie. Everyone got along. Everyone was exceedingly courteous about passing food and not taking too much.  Personal matters, politics, and religion were not discussed. Weather was the primary topic at each meal, but hunting and fishing were well within bounds. Children were made over. The black-and-white TV in the sitting room was always turned off right after the evening news.  All in all, the boardinghouse provided the context for a functional and agreeable lifestyle.


George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Kephart, transplants and the debate over legitimacy

You can be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).

Pick your side.

Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.

Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.

I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.

Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.

Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”

Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?

I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).

The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.

Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.

Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.  

Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.

Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.

Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.

He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.

A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.

Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Bryson AM station lights up the airwaves again after year-long hiatus

The airwaves in Bryson City are active again now that WBHN is back up and running.

The radio station, the only one that calls Swain County home, went off the air about a year ago because of financial problems. Two independent efforts to rescue the station were launched. One spearheaded by Lloyd Brown, pastor of Spruce Grove Baptist Church, resulted in what is now the new Tom Harris Memorial Station.

The name was chosen as a mark of respect for the former pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Bryson City. Before he passed away, Harris had a daily program on WBHN for at least 35 years.

Brown said Tuesday that efforts are under way to secure a license in the new nonprofit’s name through the Federal Communications Commission. The radio station is focusing on gospel music, and also will offer some bluegrass and country programming.

The community only had until Sept. 16 to get WBHN back on the air. Otherwise, the FCC would have permanently canceled the license after one-year of being non-operational and the station would have been “dark” permanently.

To listen, tune in to 1590 AM.

Immersed in art

Spiral Creek stands as a contrast to the everyday.

Away from jarring news reports and routine responsibilities, the Bryson City artists’ sanctuary allows guests to work with only art in mind.

During the day, students take arts and crafts classes from seasoned artists in an intimate studio bathed in light. All meals are taken care of and going to bed only requires a walk upstairs to one of three cozy bedrooms.

“It’s peaceful, but it’s kind of exciting when you’re in a group of people being creative,” said co-owner Dee Dee Triplett. “It seems like the air is different.”

A certain camaraderie tends to spring up around the dinner table each night among a newfound community of like-minded friends, says Triplett, who founded the new studio along with her husband Robert.

Part of the appeal of staying where you create is there’s no long drive back home from class at faraway schools. Guests also enjoy total freedom from chores.

“You don’t have to cook, you don’t have to make your bed,” said Triplett. “It’s just a total separation.”

Dee Dee Triplett has taught craft classes, including doll making and embroidery, at the John C. Campbell Folk School for 22 years already. Meanwhile, Robert taught coppersmithing and metal work also at the Folk School.

In 2004, The Tripletts decided to build their own small-scale retreat for artists from scratch. Spiral Creek would allow a small group of artists to be wholly immersed in art for days on end.

“The news that bombards us every day is scary if you listen to too much of it,” said Triplett. “When you can get away and do something that feeds your soul, it helps you cope with all of what’s going on. You’re doing something positive.”

Bringing the studio to fruition involved a long journey through actual construction and countless inspections. Dee Dee painted the entire interior of the two-story building and had to pick out all new furniture before Spiral Creek could open its doors.

“It seemed like a mountain to climb at first,” said Triplett. “Everything you did added three more things to your to-do list.”

Now, each room is fully outfitted with two twin beds, down comforters, ceiling fans, individual heating and air conditioning units, and a private bathroom.

“We tried to make it really comfortable,” said Triplett.

Spiral Creek will host about ten classes each year, mostly in the spring and fall. Future workshops will include quilting, papermaking, felt making, light metal and painting.

The studio celebrated its debut this summer with a doll making class taught by two prestigious Dutch artists, Marlaine Verhelst and Ankie Daanen. Students learned to hand-sculpt dolls from air-drying stone clay, paint details with watercolor and even clothe the dolls in handmade outfits.

The Tripletts were expecting six people to show up but were met with 13 eager students. Publicity through the National Institute of American Doll Artists brought artists from as far away as Mississippi, Florida and Virginia.

All 13 hopefuls were accepted into the class, though some had to find accommodations elsewhere.

Triplett said that classes at the remote Spiral Creek will welcome beginners and professionals alike.

“A lot of people don’t think they are creative and they are,” said Triplett. “They just have to be allowed to create. You can show people how to begin and then their natural creativity can come out.”

For more information, 828.488.3883, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or

Supporters hoping to keep WBHN on the air

When Swain County faced an onslaught of snow and ice last winter, local radio station WBHN wasn’t broadcasting road information or school closings.

Die-hard fans of Swain County High’s sports teams haven’t been able to tune into any of the school’s games since last fall.

Financial hardship had forced WBHN to temporarily suspend operations on Sept. 16, 2009. If the station doesn’t find its footing by Sept. 16, the Federal Communications Commission will promptly cancel its license and the station will stay “dark” permanently.

Two independent movements have sprouted in the last year to rescue the Bryson City station from oblivion.

Lloyd Brown is leading an effort to convert WBHN into a listener-powered station, similar to National Public Radio. Brown said the newly-formed nonprofit, The Lighthouse Broadcasting Corporation, will primarily play gospel music, but also broadcast bluegrass, country, Western and easy listening. Church programming, youth sports and local bands such as the Rye Holler Boys will be featured.

“We’re not going to have any of this hard rock or any of this off the wall music,” said Brown.

Gary Ayers, who was a radio personality on WBHN from 1974 to 1984, is leading a separate attempt to revive the commercial station.

Many Swain County residents have expressed concerns about the station going off the air to Ayers.

“It’s just a lack of information, a voice for the community,” he said. Many elderly residents in Swain County rely on the radio for information.

“I have not run across one person who didn’t want this station back on,” said Ayers, who has made the rounds to local businesses to gauge interest in advertising with the radio station.

“People have been very willing to spend ad dollars,” Ayers said. “In some cases, it’s not a lot of dollars, but every business has been very open.”

Ayers is still looking for donations to help him become the next owner of WBHN.

But Brown said he has already offered $85,000 for a six-month lease, with $10,000 as a down payment and $75,000 to come in the next six months. As of last week, Brown said he had $8,000 in hand from private contributions. Victory Baptist Church has said it will make up the remainder, according to Brown.

Before he passed away, Pastor Tom Harris of Victory Baptist Church ran a program on WBHN every day for at least 35 years.

“He was a daily source of information,” Ayers said. “He would come on and say who was sick, who was in the hospital…Tom was like the county’s pastor.”

Brown says he plans on playing tapes of Harris’ past shows at least every Sunday.

“We’re going to keep his ministry alive,” said Brown.


Down to the wire

Ayers and Brown have mutually agreed that Tuesday, Sept. 7, would be the deadline for either group to buy the station from its owner.

“If a sale agreement is not reached, it’s very unlikely we’re going to have time to get it back on,” said Ayers.

When a financial hardship case is filed with the FCC, the station has up to 12 months to either sell the station or find funding to get it back on the air.

If the station isn’t broadcasting by Sept. 16, it would disappear from the dial for good, according to Ayers.

Finding a new frequency would be much more expensive than taking the station over before the deadline, Ayers said.

Brown was confident that the nonprofit model would be the key to success despite financial difficulties in the past.

“People won’t donate to an individual, but they will donate to a nonprofit,” said Brown.

If Brown’s nonprofit becomes a reality, it will be run by a community board and an advisory board with seven members each.

Ayers said he’s a friend of Brown’s and has no hard feelings against his group, whatever happens next.

“One of us needs to succeed,” said Ayers. “We’re just really hoping to get the station back on.”

Brown hopes Ayers will help with youth sports programming and advertising since “everybody knows him.”

Brown’s ultimate goal remains for the station to be cooperatively owned by Swain’s citizens.

“We want to keep this on for our grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren,” said Brown. “We’re doing this for Swain County.”


Pitch in to save WBHN (1590 AM)

Contact Gary Ayers at 828.506.9362 or

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contact Lloyd Brown at 828.488.2833 or 828.736.0280.

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