North Carolina – Asheville: The City’s Colorful Revival

Asheville’s growth in the 1920s was exponential.  Paths that had been used to bring hogs, cattle and produce to market were improved and turned into roads.  The age of the automobile had arrived and that allowed more visitors to pour into the city.  Asheville was booming.  

In 1901, George W. Pack donated the land where the old courthouse stood to create a park and today Pack Square is a reminder of the old trading path that led through what is now the heart of Asheville.  Bronze pigs and turkeys follow a well-worn footpath while traffic and pedestrians move past and high-rise buildings shade the sculptures from the afternoon sun.

Nearby is the distinctive Art Deco City Hall that opened in 1920.  At that point, Asheville was alive with new construction and it was the biggest and busiest place in all of western North Carolina. 

Asheville had been nicknamed “Land of the Sky” and thousands of visitors were driving over the new roads to come and experience what the city had to offer.  Post-World War I prosperity meant people had more money and the shift from an agrarian-based economy to a highly industrialized workforce meant that people had jobs that gave them extra spending money and allowed for free time to take vacations…a new concept for the rapidly emerging middle class. 

Families came to enjoy the cool mountain air and the outdoor recreation during the summer months when school was out, and all year long Asheville’s resorts and hotels hosted conventions and large groups.  The city also offered entertainment for all of its visitors; there were operas and orchestra concerts in the Asheville Auditorium as well as a variety of vaudeville acts, movies and music venues.

Some of the vacationers came to Asheville for spiritual self-improvement.  The country’s culture had changed and the Puritan ethics of hard work, discipline and sobriety had been modified over the years.  The 1920s ushered in the Jazz Age and a society moving rapidly toward secularism.  Asheville was the perfect location for members of the Southern Baptist Convention and other church groups to meet and hold large rallies to fight this moral decline and bring people back into the fold. 

Although many tend to associate religious revivals with the South, their history in the United States dates back to the Great Awakening in 1734 when a young pastor named Jonathan Edward began a campaign in Northampton, Massachusetts to reignite and convert souls to Christianity.  In the mid-1800s, the Presbyterian Reverend James McGready began his zealous preaching in Logan County, Kentucky, and that led to the Second Great Revival.  Meanwhile in New York City in September 1857 Jeremiah Lanphier began leading weekly prayer sessions for businessmen.  Attendance grew quickly and the sessions became daily events.  After the Bank Panic of that year, their popularity escalated and spread, and religious revivals sprang up in cities across the country.  (A Brief History of Spiritual Revival and Awakening in America, churchleaders.com). 

Different church groups established permanent campgrounds over the years like Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and Old Orchard Beach in Maine, and outside the circle of tents enterprising folk added attractions to lure the visitors to spend their time and money in between sermons.  Asheville was no exception.  Her historic hotels, resorts and churches had already been hosting large groups for years…so it wasn’t surprising when the First Baptist Church hired Douglas Ellington (architect responsible for the Asheville City Hall) to design a new church complex with a sanctuary capable of seating 2,000 people and additional meeting space for another 3,000 participants (National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, nps.gov).  

But then the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression changed everything.  The nation was brought to its knees…not only in prayer.  The resorts, businesses, churches and even the city of Asheville itself had borrowed heavily to fuel the building boom and its rapid expansion.  Asheville area’s level of debt exceeded almost any other city in the United States and suddenly their revenue streams were shut off and there were no prospects of recovery.  Everything froze and the city sank into stagnation. 

As bleak as the picture looked, there were three seeds planted during this time that ultimately saved Asheville and contributed to the city being such a beautiful and vital place to explore today.

First, the city council took the lead and made the difficult and uncommon decision that the city would pay off all of its debts.  Their fiscal responsibility meant that the city functioned at an austerity level for the next fifty years and only the most essential repairs or projects were undertaken.  As a result of this, Ashville has one of the largest intact collections of Art Deco architecture in the country (second only to Miami).  By the time the local economy began to improve the preservationist movement was coming alive and the beautiful old buildings were being claimed for historic status and saved from “urban renewal projects” and the wrecking ball.

The second seed was the arrival of the CCCs to build the Blue Ridge Skyway and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which spans forests in both Tennessee and North Carolina.  These projects provided jobs for many unemployed young men and created legacy projects that would further enhanced Asheville’s reputation as a tourist destination. 

The third seed was planted by Frances L. Goodrich (1856-1944), the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and granddaughter of the famed dictionary author Noah Webster.  After she graduated from Yale’s School of Fine Arts, Goodrich relocated to Riceville, North Carolina.  In this small town nine miles outside Asheville, she began her missionary work.  When a local friend gifted her with a forty-year-old Double Bowknot woven coverlet, the gift inspired Goodrich work with local women to help them revive traditional weaving techniques. 

In 1897, Goodrich moved to a remote area in Madison County, NC, called Allen’s Old Stand.  Drovers had been coming through this small crossroads for years when they moved their cattle, pigs and other livestock to market in Asheville. 

When Goodrich worked with local women, she encouraged them to make smaller, marketable items like table runners and pillow covers …meanwhile she established religious centers that served simultaneously as schools for the children.  These centers also promoted improved farming practices in the area.  It was here that Goodrich developed Allenstand Cottage Industries.  She encouraged the division of labor so more people would be involved and she also began bringing handmade products and craft demonstrations to Presbyterian Church meetings in Asheville. 

In 1930, she and a group of like-minded leaders established the Southern Highland Craft Guild. What started as Goodrich’s mission outreach has become a leading force in the craft movement across this country.  Guild members’ work is on display and for sale at the Folk Art Center at Milepost #382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as in the Guild’s gallery in the Biltmore Village, at their Tunnel Road location and in the Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.   

Woodworking, paper, glass, pottery, and metal pieces created by Guild members are on display in the second floor galleries…

…as are exceptional pieces of fiber art: quilts large and small, woven pieces, and embroidery.

Also on the second floor are pieces from the Guild’s permanent collection, which was started when Goodrich donated her personal collection of handcrafted items to the organization.  It has now grown to more than 5,700 items ranging from AD 1000 to the present day.  On display are a variety of works from traditional handmade mountain dolls to pieces fashioned from natural materials like these blue jays competing for a seed.  There are also excellent examples of Frank Caracci’s highly detailed and entertaining wood sculptures. 

In the Guild Craft Shop on the first floor a dazzling array of member’s works are available for purchase.

In addition to displaying and selling the member’s work, the Guild also provides educational programs and events throughout the year.  The Robert W. Gray Library is available for those interested in research, and the Guild organizes two major craft fairs in Asheville each year (July and October) that bring buyers and collectors from across the country and around the world.

Goodrich’s efforts contributed significantly to the rebirth of Asheville after the city had been so severely affected by the Depression.  The city’s re-growth began to emerge with the opening of small art and music venues, independent bookstores and restaurants.    

By the 1970s, Asheville managed to pay off her debts, unlike almost any other city in the country.  Although the previous years had been difficult, the city’s unique culture benefitted from the seeds that were planted during its hard times.  The beautiful Art Deco buildings set the scene for a charming walk-around architectural experience and are now perfect homes for shops and galleries filled with a wide range of unique products made by local artists.  The concept of local “arts” has expanded over the years and has grown to include music, dance, and theater which are expressed on stage and in the streets and parks.  

As part of this expansion, Pack Square Park has grown from its original size (the site of the former courthouse) to the six and a half acres it is today.  George W. Pack would not recognize the square block of land he donated to the city back in 1901 because it is now a lovely green space in the heart of the city with the 1920 Art Deco City Hall anchoring the lower corner of the park.  In the warmer months, fountains flow and the area is filled with locals and visitors enjoying the concerts, festivals and other art venues that fill this space while specialty shops, galleries and restaurants rim the park.     

Across the street from the original square, is a bronze angel standing in from of the Asheville Art Museum.  The angel is a tribute to Thomas Wolfe and his epic novel Look Homeward Angel.  In addition to being the site of the former Asheville Library (opened 1926), this is the place where Wolfe’s father, William O. Wolfe, had his monument shop.  Julia Wolfe (Tom’s mother) sold the land after her husband’s death and Asheville’s first skyscraper was built on this block in 1924.  This photo shows the fifteen story structure looming over the neighboring buildings.   

[NOTE: For any passionate historians or dedicated fans of Wolfe’s writing, the original stone carved angel that was on display in the window of his father’s monument shop now resides on a grave in the Hendersonville Cemetery, about a half-hour drive away.]

The angel and the other sculptures outside the art museum are just a sampling of the ever expanding collection of art on Asheville’s streets.

Buskers are a common sight and there is even a sculptural tribute to these street musicians and entertainers.  Their songs range from old mountain tunes to contemporary works.   

One of my favorite pieces is this enormous old flatiron.  On our last visit I volunteered to take photos for two visiting girls while they stood next to the sculpture.  It was not until we got home and I started writing that I realized that the sculpture stands across the street from Asheville’s historic Flatiron Building (1927).  Luckily the artist’s tongue-in-cheek humor wasn’t entirely lost on me.   

Art is on display everywhere.  In addition to all the artists’ studios and galleries, there are three historic arcades where artists display their works: the Kress Emporium with over 100 artists; the Grove Arcade (which I wrote about in my last blog entry “North Carolina – Asheville: Three Men Who Left Their Mark”); and the historic F.W. Woolworth Building with nearly 20,000 square feet of display space.  

Many of the restaurants and store fronts have adapted to this culture, making the streets of Ashville colorful and entertaining places to walk.  In the photo below, be sure to notice the bowling balls embedded in the wall in front of the Mellow Mushroom Restaurant. 

As we have been visiting Asheville over the last ten years or so, the city has become quirkier and more colorful, but that also means that some of our favorite antique shops have been pushed out by rising rents and changing interests.  Lexington Park Antiques (65 W. Walnut St.) is now the only antique venue left in the heart of the city.  When we talked with the proprietors they said that classic antiques still sell, but their vendors have added a lot more retro and vintage items. 

Many of the other antique shops are located near the confluence of the French Broad and the Swannanoa Rivers, where the first settlers made their homes.  This area is also not far from the Biltmore complex.  Riverview Stadium (191 Lyman St) is tucked between art galleries on a stretch along the Swannanoa River.

Continuing along the river you come to Altamont Vintage Collectables & Antiques (120 Swannanoa River Road)

Even if you are not shopping for antiques, you do not want to miss a visit to the Antique Tobacco Barn (75 Swannonoa River Road).  This vast old building is a fascinating piece of history.  Just imagine the enormous space hung with large stalk-cut tobacco bundles and the industrial size fans moving the air to help dry the crop.  Be sure to look up above the handing racks to see the leaf-shaped numbers that identify the rows and lots of tobacco.

Nearby Sweeten Creek Antiques (115 Sweeten Creek Road) has a lot of vintage merchandise.  

One shop we never miss is Village Antiques (755 Biltmore Avenue) with its beautiful settings of furniture, art and more. 

Asheville wears her age well.  Instead of becoming a stodgy old city, this is a place that celebrates its history.  That history combined with the seeds that were planted during challenging times have grown into a vibrant and colorful culture, making Asheville a fun and entertaining place to explore.

North Carolina – Asheville: Three Men Who Left Their Mark

Asheville means something different to everyone you ask.  Many immediately think of the Biltmore mansion, others say its food, craft beer brewing, distilleries and music.  Some people mention the beautiful mountain scenery while outdoor enthusiasts wax on about local trails, tubing, fishing and hunting, and many are drawn to the city for its art, architecture, music and antiques.

Asheville is a colorful town in a magnificent setting with lots to offer and it is a wonderful place for a two- or three-day visit.  In the roots of this vibrant city, three men figure prominently in shaping what Asheville is today.  George W. Vanderbilt, II, Edwin Grove and Thomas Wolfe have each left an indelible impression.

But long before they arrived, the Cherokee used to meet and hunt at the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers.  When the explorer Hernando de Soto arrived in 1540, he found a good-sized established community and he and his men left behind enough strains of European diseases to kill most of the inhabitants.   It was not until after the Revolutionary War, that a significant number of newcomers began pouring into the area.  Most of them were former soldiers who came to settle the land grants they received in lieu of pay for their military service. 

As early as the 1830s, people began coming to these mountains to escape the blistering summer heat of the lowlands and to enjoy the fresh air and restorative mineral water cures.  During the antebellum era, resorts were built…they were primarily health spas offering restorative treatments for those suffering from bronchial problems or rheumatism.  These establishments also offered their guests gourmet food and diversions like carriage outings in the mountains.  Some of the resorts even had grand ballrooms with full orchestras.  For many of the gentry who lived in isolation on rural plantations, a trip to Asheville, no matter how challenging the route may have been, provided an opportunity to enjoy social interaction and high culture in the society of their peers. 

Civil War fighting did not reach Asheville until April 1865, just a month before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Most of the damage to the city came after the war was over.   Renegade troops came to plunder and burn the homes of some of the Confederate supporters. 

The arrival of the railroad in 1880 marked a pivotal time for Asheville since it opened the way for local industry to expand.  It also eased the journey for visitors who came to escape summer low country heat and enjoy the mountain scenery.  Others came because their doctors had prescribed its fresh mountain air and mineral waters to cure their ills.  Asheville even had the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the United States. 

George Washington Vanderbilt, II (1862-1914), came to Asheville for the first time in 1887.  He returned the next year to look at the area again and to accompany his mother on a visit to one of the fashionable resorts.  He was a shy, quiet man who had no interest in business…instead he had inherited his father’s passion for collecting books and art.  He was so taken by the beauty of the mountains and the refreshing climate that he began buying land so he could build a rural retreat far from the noise and demands of city life.  His retreat ultimately encompassed 125,000 acres and became America’s largest home, a 250-room French Chateau with 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. 

When you visit, it is the lavish grounds that make your first impression.  Richard Morris Hunt designed the home while the landscape designer of New York City’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead (portrait below), did the surrounding grounds.  In this, his last and arguably his greatest accomplishment, Olmstead completely reshaped and sculpted acres of land around the home and designed the plantings that would create gardens, terraces, paths and a model forest on what was originally flat land with scraggly growths of trees. 

Olmsted’s touch is evident from the moment you enter the three-mile drive leading up to the home.  The drive meanders through a secluded forest and suddenly the trees open to reveal the magnificent chateau, surrounded by hundreds of acres of rolling forested woodlands.  

Surrounding the home itself is a profusion of gardens that bloom throughout the year colored with their seasonal plantings. 

Terraces and paths spill out beyond the gardens, inviting visitors to enjoy a leisurely stroll with pauses to take in the beauty of the scene and the moment. 

Greenhouses were built to propagate plants and to grow the flowers that would be used to create fresh floral displays throughout the home. 

Now for the spectacular house itself…construction on this amazing chateau started in 1889 and was completed in 1895.  Looking at the detail that was lavished on these carved figures…their fingers, toes, faces…or the dolphin in the copper drain pipe… knowing that they are only a hint of the master craftsmanship that is seem throughout the home, it is amazing that the Biltmore could have been built in only six years as it is more like a cathedral than a house.

Once the construction was done, and even before all the landscaping was in place, Vanderbilt left for Europe where he began shopping for art, antiques and furnishings to fill the rooms in his enormous new home. 

In the course of his European travels, he met, fell in love with and married Edith Stuyvesant Gerry.  Edith came from a prominent New York family, and by quietly getting married in Paris, they neatly sidestepped the big social wedding that would have been mandatory back home.

The newlyweds were anxious to return to Asheville and booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but at the last moment they bought tickets on another ship.  This was not just lucky for them, but many others ended up benefitting from the life George and Edith were to create in Asheville. 

In the building of the chateau and the estate, many local workers found labor and armies of workers were brought in from other parts of the country and Europe.  Skilled craftsmen from Europe carved the stone, shaped and finished the wood and new construction concepts and techniques were learned and shared.  Even after the home was complete many workers stayed on as other projects grew around the Biltmore and in Asheville itself.

Both George and Edith felt strongly about helping the local population.  Vanderbilt’s sister Lila and her husband were creating Shelburne Farm in Vermont and they were focused on new techniques for raising dairy and beef animals.  Vanderbilt was impressed with their operation and decided to take on a similar pursuit at the Biltmore.  In 1890, a horse barn and dairy were added to the grounds.  A working farm was created to help make the estate self-sustaining and to test innovations in dairy and farming practices.  Vanderbilt shared his findings with local growers, and he also established the first school of forest management.  Edith took a strong interest in the living condition of local families and visited their homes, bringing food and medicine when it was needed.  She also taught sewing and health care classes for the women.  In 1901George and Edith created Biltmore Industries as a way to teach people the skills they needed to make items they could sell like woven goods and needlework as well as baskets and small pieces of furniture.

Sadly and suddenly, George Vanderbilt died in 1914, but in spite of this tragedy, Edith and her daughter Cornelia remained at their Biltmore home.  One of the first things Edith did was to donate many acres of land to help establish the Pisgah National Forest.  She took over the management of the estate and was able to hold on to the property through the devastating days of the Depression when even the Vanderbilts suffered severe financial setbacks.  Acreage had to be sold over the years so the estate now measures only 8,000 acres, significantly reduced from its originally 125,000 acres, but the vistas are no less grand thanks to the neighboring Pisgah Forest.  The estate is still privately owned by Cornelia Vanderbilt’s children and grandchildren.  It is open to tour and many elements (such as lodging, dining and a winery) have been added to make a visit to the Biltmore a vacation destination.  The vision George and Edith shared is still playing out in Asheville and its environs today.

In 1896 medicine maker, Edwin Wiley Grove (1850-1927) came to Asheville hoping that the restorative mountain air would help relieve his bronchial condition.  “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic” had made him a wealthy man and a well known figure especially in the South. 

Grove had started his business career quietly enough in 1874 as a clerk in a pharmacy in Paris, Tennessee.  He became a partner in the business and in 1880 became its sole owner.  He liked to experiment and create new cures, and in 1885 he brought out Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, a quinine-based liquid that brought relief from malaria, a disease known as “the scourge of the South.”  Sales of this product were further increased when the British Army began to purchase his tonic for their troops stationed in far reaching places around the commonwealth. 

By the turn of the century, Grove had moved the business to St. Louis because he needed much larger production and distribution facilities.  Grove was not just a creator of pharmaceutical products, he was also a master of advertising and promotion.  The combination brought so much growth that they opened branch offices in Toronto, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires.  The company also became the largest consumer of quinine in the world.  Some of his other successful products were his Videx, an aspirin and magnesium oxide compound “for the relief of simple headaches and neuralgias, minor muscular aches and pains.”   Grove’s Laxative Bromo Quinine tablets were an early and popular treatment for the common cold.  Unlike many of the cure-alls on the market at that time, Grove’s products contained little to no alcohol because he was a firm prohibitionist.

During his 1896 visit to Asheville, Grove was taken with the beauty and dynamic growth of the city.  In 1910 he bought land on Sunset Mountain and in 1913 built the Grove Park Inn with the help of his son-in-law Fred Seely who was especially interested in the architectural design of the period.  This grand resort’s design was inspired by Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone. 

Hand-cut granite boulders were quarried higher up on the Sunset Mountain then hauled down to the building site and assembled there into the still-grand structure that has been visited by U.S. Presidents, leaders of industry and many celebrities over the years.  The “Rogues Gallery,” just off the lobby, features photos of some of the inn’s famous guests such as Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Ford, Will Rogers and Eleanor Roosevelt.

It is no wonder that visitors continue to fill the Grove Park Inn.  While many come to enjoy the luxurious resort amenities, the mountainside setting affords restful views of the French Broad River Valley and the surrounding forest. 

The enormous scale of the inn’s lobby becomes apparent when you consider that the twin stone fireplaces at the ends of the room are each almost forty feet across.   

The Grove Park Inn is famed for its Arts and Crafts décor and more than a thousand pieces of Roycroft furniture were bought for use throughout the facility.  Many of these pieces can still be seen in use today and a National Arts and Crafts conference is held at the inn annually.

But Grove didn’t stop building when the inn was finished.  In 1920 he bought the original Battery Park Hotel, which had been built in 1886 and was located in the heart of Asheville on the city’s highest hill.  Slightly down the slope of the hill and also facing Pack Park, stands the Art Deco-style City Hall that opened in 1920.  The original Battery Park Hotel was an elegant sprawling structure that was rapidly becoming outdated and impractical in its setting, so Grove had it torn down and built the new fourteen- story 220-room Battery Park Hotel in its place.  The new hotel opened in 1924 and helped accommodate the thousands of tourists and businessmen who were pouring into Asheville every year. 

Just blocks away from the hotel he also created the Grove Arcade, which occupies a full city block and opened in 1929, two years after Edwin Grove died.  This magnificent building with light streaming in through skylights high above was (and still is) the home to many fine shops and services on the first floor and offices on the levels above.  It is a joy to walk in this setting and enjoy curving open staircases, the lacy ironwork and the many architectural details that contribute to this elegant and graceful space.         

During WWII in 1943, the Federal Government took over the entire building and issued orders that all the tenants (74 shops and 127 offices) vacate in a month.  AS one of many security measures the exterior was bricked over and the building was filled with offices that supported the war efforts.  After the war this space became the home for the National Climatic Data Center and the brooding exterior remained, hiding the beautiful façade until local preservationists began to rally to save this significant landmark.  Finally their efforts paid off and after extensive renovation the sun-filled atrium was reopened in 2002.  Today, the arcade is again filled with shops, restaurants, offices and luxury residences. 

Amid all this growth and bustle, Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was born into a somewhat unusual family setting.  After divorcing his first wife, William Wolfe moved to Asheville with his second wife, hoping the mountain air would help her health.  After she died, he married Julia Elizabeth Westall, a local bookseller.  The senior Wolfe was a successful artistic stonecutter who specialized in gravestones. He even displayed one of his finest pieces, a stone-cut angel, in the window of his business.  She would come to play a starring role in the title of his son’s most famous work.

Although he was able to provide for his wife and children, Julia was much more ambitious than her husband and she began investing in real estate, which was fast-moving and lucrative during the early 20th century boom days of Asheville.  He was tolerant of her professional ambitions until she purchased a boarding house and announced that she was going to move into the property and run it herself.  With that William drew the line and said that he would never set foot in the place.  Julia packed up her youngest son, Tom, and moved into the nearby boarding house that was named “Old Kentucky Home” (photo on the left…the family home is no longer standing).

Suddenly, six-year-old Tom was living with his mother amid an ever-changing cast of characters and visiting his father and siblings who were back in the family home less than half a mile away.  His mother was a tireless worker and was so keen to make a profit that every part of the house was configured for paying guests.  She even turned an upstairs hallway into a windowless sleeping room with four doors allowing passage through it. 

In true boarding house fashion, the rooms were serviceable and decorated with mismatched pieces of furniture.   The boarders did not always know who would be occupying the next bed and the hallway bedroom Julia devised was not the only room that had guests walking through it to reach another sleeping chamber.  Privacy was at a minimum…but available at a price. 

Julia’s own bed was in a pantry-size space off the kitchen.  Tom did not have a bed or a room of his own and slept in whatever bed or sofa was available when night fell. 

The boarding house parlor and sun porch were nicely appointed and places where residents socialized.  In the warmer months rocking chairs were arranged on the generous front porch and the shade of the trees made the yard an inviting place to relax as well. 

The dining room was a pleasant and comfortable setting as well and Julia did not stint on the food she served, but Tom was not allowed to eat there.  He had his own small dining nook in a hallway where he took meals while he listened to the guests conversations.  He grew up oddly alone and adrift in the midst of a setting with hundreds of people transiting at close hand.  It is not hard to imagine their stories being implanted into that impressionable young mind. 

When he was sixteen, Tom left Asheville to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied playwriting.  He graduated in 1920 (the same year the new Art Deco City Hall opened back in Asheville) and went on to Harvard where he continued studying playwriting and earned his master’s degree.  By 1924 he was teaching English at New York University and continuing to work on his plays, but due to their extreme length he had little success in getting them staged.  

Around this time, he realized that his writing style was better suited for fiction and in 1926 he began work on an autobiographical novel that would ultimately, after much editing of its 1,100 pages, become Look Homeward Angel.  The novel was published in 1929, just eleven days before the Stock Market Crash. 

After the publication, it was years before Tom returned to Asheville, which he had named Altamont in the novel and the Old Kentucky Home was renamed “Dixieland.”  Although he had assigned new names to his characters, it was easy for his family and locals to know who he was writing about and many people were angered by his portrayals.  The book was even banned in the Asheville library.  In spite of the lean economic times, the novel was a success and sold well in the U.S. as well as in Europe…at age 29, Tom Wolfe was an established writer. 

His fame came so early that the Old Kentucky Home boarding house was still a family business when Look Homeward Angel was published.  People began visiting just to see where the author had been raised and suddenly Asheville had another attraction for its visitors.  By the time Tom returned to Asheville eight years later, he was welcomed back, but in a funny twist, some prominent local people were now “put out” that they had not been included in his best-seller.

For the rest of his short life, Tom continued to write and travel extensively across the United States with frequent visits to Europe.  In July of 1938, he was in Seattle, Washington, when he became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He was sent to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where he was operated on but it was too late to save him and he died just days short of his thirty-eighth birthdays.  

Whether or not you ever decide to read one of Wolfe’s works, I would strongly recommend a visit to his home that is now a state historical site where visitors see everything as it was when he was still alive.  There is also an excellent museum with artifacts and photos from the different eras of his life and a short film with old footage documenting his travels and activities.  The center also has a research library and hosts writing conferences and other related activities. 

Looking at Asheville today, it is plain to see how William Vanderbilt, Edwin Grove and Thomas Wolfe each contributed significantly to what the city has become today.  Without their influence, Asheville would have probably continued to grow and become a popular recreational site, but their contributions encouraged the development of art, architecture and culture that makes the city such a wonderfully diverse place to visit and explore.  My next posting will show more of the current feel of the streets of this city.

Tennessee – Cades Cove: The Heart of the Smoky Mountains

Before we began spending time in East Tennessee, I thought of a cove as a place people went fishing or swimming, but here in the Smoky Mountains I’ve come to learn that coves can also be areas of land or valleys surrounded by mountains.  Cades Cove Loop Road takes visitors on the 11-mile, one-way, one-lane route around a place of natural beauty that was, for one hundred years, the home to a thriving community.

After entering Smoky Mountain National Park, there is much to see even on the drive before coming to the Loop Road.  The route runs along a brisk flowing stream with evergreen hemlock trees, deciduous trees and rhododendron grow up the steep slopes on each side of the road.  Ferns cling to rock walls and in many places the walls themselves weep from underground water sources that freeze into ice formations in the winter.  On clear days, it takes a long time for sun to get high enough in the sky to angle light down to the stream and the roadway in and out of the cove. 

Once we begin driving on Loop Road we still have a little distance before suddenly the steep hillsides recede and the 4,000 acre expanse of Cades Cove lays open before us in its breathtaking beauty.  We pull over and pause to enjoy the vista before us and the snow capped mountains in the distance.

The Cherokee Indians hunted in this area, and explorers and trappers passed through this densely forested land…but it was not until 1818 that John Oliver and his wife, Lurany, followed an Indian trail over the mountains into the cove to become the first permanent white settlers in what was then the country’s western frontier.  They felled trees, cleared land and built a cabin.  After spending her first winter in the cove, Lucretia said that she wasn’t going to stay unless she got a cow.  She must have been a hearty soul and deeply in love with John because after the cow arrived she did stay, raised seven children and welcomed others to join her family in taming this remote wilderness. 

Cades Cove is best visited in off seasons since during the summer and fall months the road is clogged and the remaining home sites are overrun with visitors.  But the cove is a wonderful place to come at any time of the year.  Each season brings out different phases in the natural beauty of the land.  After the leaves are gone in the fall, it is easier to get a real perspective on the layout and a good look at the historic context and how those early families lived through the different times of the year. 

Before going on, let me tell you that the Cades Cove you see today reflects what life was like in the earliest days, long before the establishment of the Smoky Mountain Park by the National Park Service.  The cove had become the home to over 120 families by the time it was annexed into the national park.  This area was filled with churches, schools, stores, grist mills, homes and farms…the land was cleared and farmed not just in the open flat area but on up the mountain sides.  It is hard to imagine this today since the trees have grown back over the years and reforested much of that land. 

Starting in the early 1900s, the Federal Government began acquiring private land to establish a park, in part as a response to the clear-cut lumbering operations that were decimating entire forests in North Carolina and other nearby areas. 

Early planning for the Smoky Mountain National Park did not include Cades Cove, but by the late 1920s things changed when east Tennessee business interests began to realize the bonus tourism would bring to Knoxville and its environs.  Once the Tennessee General Assembly passed their approval for funding to buy land the Park Commission had the power to purchase or seize properties by eminent domain.  Many of the families in Cades Cove were furious over this decision and the threat to their homes and livelihoods.  John W. Oliver (son of the first settler) even battled the loss of his family’s land in court several times and took the case it all the way up to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  In the end he lost.  He left his family home on Christmas Day in 1937, almost 120 years after his family crossed the mountains and settled in the state of Tennessee.

In planning the park, the decision had been made that it would reflect the natural wilderness of the Smoky Mountains with their different forests of trees, plants, wildflowers, birds, animals, reptiles and fish…so the cove was initially scheduled to be left to return to its natural forested state.  But conservationists advocated that the cove’s meadow remain and others advised that the primitive homes and barns be kept to represent the history of the early homesteaders’ lifestyle. 

Much of the work throughout the Smoky Mountain National Park was carried out by the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC).  The CCCs carved through walls of rock to create tunnels and they built roads, dams and retaining walls.  

In Cades Cove, they dismantled the more modern homes and farms, leaving this part of the park with a rich collection of log structures and early frame buildings.  The cove became a unique area where visitors could learn more about pioneer settlement and how their forbearers lived.  These days on a drive around the Loop Road, it is hard to imagine what it looked like in the early 1900s when the cove was a bustling farm community, but in the spring blooming daffodils mark home sites where farm houses stood. 

The CCCs also brought more of the outside world into the lives of cove residents.  Thousands of young men from cities and towns all across the country were suddenly living in camps in their midst.  Residents of the cove had not been totally isolated.  They had interacted with merchants and others in Maryville and Knoxville, but this influx of men brought different speech patterns, music and husbands “from away” for some young women (much to the chagrin of the local farm boys).  By early 1940 much of the work was complete and with the advent of WWII, the project was shut down.  Many of the CCC workers enlisted in military service as did many of the young men from the cove.

Methodists and Baptists were the predominant religious groups in the area and Cades Cove Methodist Church is one of the three remaining churches.  It was first built as a simple log structure and this newer church was constructed in 1902.  It took 115 days to complete, earning the builder $115.  The building has two front doors.  Methodists did not follow the practice of separate doors for men and women, but since that was a feature on the set of plans the builder used the church ended up with an extra door.   

The Visitors Center is about half way around Loop Road and is located at the site of the John Cable Grist Mill, which was constructed in 1868.  The mill’s overshot wheel is powered by water that has been diverted from Mill Creek and Forge Creek.  Both corn and wheat were ground on the hand-cut grinding stones. Corn was the most prevalent crop since it was used to feed the livestock and was central to the human diet as well…not to mention its use in whiskey production. 

In the fall the crop was picked and stored until the cobs could be shucked by hand, bagged and taken to the mill where the corn would be ground to different degrees, depending on its intended use.  In one form or another corn was part of every meal from cornmeal mush and grits to hominy and cornbread.  The toll for grinding was one gallon of ground grain for every bushel.  Saturday was usually the day when people went to the mill.  The expression “milling around” comes from folk gathered at the mill waiting for their turn.  It was a chance to see friends and catch up on the news.  The children would play and in the heat of the summer, they could swim or fish in the mill pond.

Across from the grist mill is a different type of grinder and a molasses still.  Most families would raise some sorghum, and in the late fall they would harvest the crop and strip the leaves.  The stalks would be individually fed into a press that had a mule or horse hitched to a long shaft.  The animal would tread in a steady circle, creating the power for the grinder.  The juice that was extracted would be boiled in large vats.  While the juice was cooking it was stirred and the impurities were removed.  Finally, when the water was boiled off and the sugar cooked to perfection, the syrup would be ready for use.  It takes about ten gallons of juice to make one gallon of molasses so you can see what a slow cooking process this is…but what a tasty treat on a piece of cornbread or griddle cakes.

In the background of the grinder photo is the Becky Cable House and a collection of other structures that the Park Service has moved here to show different types of buildings that were in common use in the 1800s.  The house was originally located on Forge Creek Road and was used as a general store.  In 1887, Rebecca Cable (1844-1940) and her brother Dan bought the structure and made it their home. 

Aunt Becky, as she was known by all, never married.  The story is told that her father abruptly moved his family to the cove to end Becky’s romance with a young suitor.  She never forgave her father.  When her brother died at an early age, leaving behind a sick wife and a house full of children, Becky took on full responsibility for raising the children and ran the farm of six hundred acres.  

She spun, wove, knit, tended her garden and handled the other necessary domestic chores.  In addition she chopped wood and “worked in the field like a man” (Voices of Cades Cove Part 7 interview.)  Becky seldom to never wore shoes.  Once the threat of snow was over in the spring, she (in her bare feet) would herd her cattle up the mountain to graze for the summer.  At times she took in boarders, ran a small general store and operated her father’s mill.  The house never had plumbing and was heated only by the fireplaces.  All the family meals were cooked in the fireplace and on the cooking stove. 

Aunt Becky was a much loved and respected figure in Cades Cove and the Park Service allowed her to live in her home until her death in 1940.

In 1932, Aunt Becky donated land for a school just down the road from the Cable Cemetery and she also provided a team of horses to help with the construction work.  The one-room Cable School was built and it was the last one to close after the Park Service took over.  The school was heated with a big wood stove and the students carried drinking water to the building from a nearby home.  The CCCs cut and provided wood to heat the schools and churches in the cove.  At some point a cook stove was moved into one corner of the school and a local woman came and cooked a lunch for the students every day. 

Once the school was closed, the students attended classes in Townsend.  Initially there was no bus service and Rufus Coada would drive some of them over in his 1939 Chevy.  There was always a bunch of spectators waiting in the schoolyard to see the seven teenagers and six younger children piling out of that car in the morning.  At times, if Rufus had taken a load of cattle to Knoxville for sale the ride home from school would be in the back of his cattle truck.  Eventually, a bus was acquired and Rufus became the school bus driver (Voices of Cades Cove Vol. 7).

The Park Service moved several other buildings into the area around the Visitors Center, the Cable Grist Mill and Aunt Becky’s house, including a cantilever barn with pens and wings, a smoke house, a blacksmith shop, and a corn crib with a hinged roof that allowed corn to be thrown in over the top of the walls.

Further down Loop Road, the Dan Lawson Place is a most unusual structure in that it is made of smooth sawed logs and has a brick fireplace; the bricks were handmade of clay from a nearby hillside on the property.  The isolated room on the front porch is a “stranger’s room.”  Hospitality was the custom in the cove and when families put up strangers for the night, the stranger’s room, with its separate entrance, meant that the front door of the house could be latched from the inside for security.   

Another interesting feature at the Larson place is the “bee gums.”  Pieces of blackgum tree logs were hollowed out and used as bee hives.  Blackgum logs don’t split and can be used for years.  Many in the cove raised bees and sold jars of honey at roadside stands to park visitors in the summer.  This shed cover gives some protection from the hot sun and weather elements.

William “Fighting Billy” Tipton was a Revolutionary War veteran who was able to secure several land grants and become an early speculator, selling off acreage at a profit to others for creation of farms in the cove. 

My favorite barn in the cove is the double-cantilever structure on “Fighting Billy’s” Place.  The open center in the barn allows wagons to drive through and unload hay, grain or other supplies, and it has two pens for animals.  The generous overhang makes excellent protection for animals or equipment. 

Look closely at the interesting hewn and shaped logs, the use of tree branch crotches and wooden pegs to hold the ladder in place.  Nicely finished hand-hewn pointed staves were used in the wall-mounted hay bin.  Many of these structures have interesting and creative artistry in their construction.

As we are leaving the cove we see yet another white-tail deer that appears to be accustomed to cars and cameras.  Deer and turkeys are common sights especially in the early morning and late afternoon twilight (the Loop Road is open from dawn to dusk).  The wildlife is easy to spot because all traffic comes to a stop as eager tourists grab their cameras and jump out of their vehicles to take pictures.  Black bear, coyotes and other animals are here too but require much more luck or patience to see. 

The cove also has many hiking trails including a five-mile round trip hike to Abrams Falls.  One of the most popular trails leads up to Gregory Bald where visitors have a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains.  Usually in mid-June, a profusion of wild azalea blooms color the mountain slopes.

The “balds,” as they have come to be known, are treeless mountain tops where cattle, sheep, horses and mules were brought to graze on the nutritious natural grass.  Like Aunt Becky, many people moved their herds up to the mountain tops in the spring.  Timing was essential because a late snow storm could wipe out whole herds, as had happened one year in April when a two-day snowstorm buried a thousand head of cattle and they were frozen and starved in place. 

Herders built cabins on the tops of the balds and kept an eye on the herds in the summer.  They put out salt for them from time to time and sounded a horn that could be heard for miles around, which summoned the animals to the salt lick.  At the highest elevations, sheep grazed.  The herders and their dogs kept the animals from ranging too far and kept their guns handy to stave off panthers and other animals that preyed especially on stragglers and the young. 

The herders would grow gardens and offered hospitality to hunters who came by in the summer and early fall months.  Usually herders would stay on the bald most of the week and come down on Saturday to see their family, work a bit on their own land, go to church and head back up on Sunday afternoon to resume watching over the communal herds and flocks.

Hogs also roamed among the chestnut trees that grew on the sides of the mountains.  They fattened themselves up over the summer months and especially in the fall when they fed on the ripe chestnuts.  In the Fall before they were rounded up for slaughter or to be taken to the market.  The pork meat would be smoked, stored and used to feed families all winter.  Before the blight killed almost all of the American Chestnut trees Cades Cove residents would gather bags of chestnuts and sell them to eager buyers in Maryville and Knoxville.  Nothing went to waste in the cove. 

As one of the former residents recounts, when the Cable School was to be torn down, one of her family members volunteered to take on the task so they could reuse the lumber.  Everything was saved: doors, windows, boards, and the youngest children in the family straightened the pulled nails for reuse by pounding them with a stone.  

As you can tell from my recounting of this drive, Cades Cove is a most unique place.  The sheer natural beauty of it would be enough to make it worth a visit, but when that is combine with the stories of the lives of the people who settled this place it becomes firmly lodged in your heart.  For anyone interested in learning more about the history of Cades Cove and the families who settled and farmed the area, there is an excellent documentary video series, Voices of Cades Cove.  The nine-part series begins with the geology and the earliest settlers and takes viewers around the Loop Road, introducing them to different families and their lives through the hundred years that the cove was home to these people.  These former residents share their own family’s stories, homes, historic photos and artifacts in a way that brings the vitality of Cades Cove to life.  I hope that through my words and photos that I have been able to share my love of this special place. 

Georgia – Athens: A City that Grew Around a College

Back in 1785 when the Georgia legislature selected the site for their state university, the city of Athens was called Cedar Shoals and it was little more than a remote trading post on the Oconee River.  Just nine years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Georgia was the first state to make such a move.  The legislators granted 40,000 acres of land to be sold and the money generated would be used to build a state-funded college.  It was not until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 that this method of land-grant funding for schools would become common practice in many states. 

John Milledge, one of the Georgia trustees and future Georgia governor bought over 600 acres of the grant land and donated it to the college.  After that other people began buying adjacent lots for businesses and homes.  When the city of Athens was officially founded in 1805, 35 years after the establishment of the university, the Georgia governor chose to name the new city in honor of Plato and Aristotle’s home in Greece. 

As could be expected the city of Athens’ culture is dominated by the university.  The school employs 10,000 people.  Two area health centers employ over 5,000.  The largest private industries are the Caterpillar Athens plant with 1,600 employees and Pilgrim’s poultry with 1,300.  The city of Athens has truly been built around the university.

Our visit to Athens was on a Friday and we booked a room at Hilton Garden Inn, which is situated in the heart of the historic downtown.  We quickly dropped off our things and headed out for a walk.  In spite of COVID, the streets were pleasantly busy, populated with polite and well dressed students.  Many of the young women wore dresses and some of the young men were even wearing blazers.  As busy as the streets were that evening, we were later told that on game weekends in football season the town is completely overrun with enthusiastic football fans. 

Athens is also known for its music scene.  Plans for a music festival to kick off the introduction of the city’s Music Walk of Fame were derailed by COVID, but in September the first ten distinctive guitar-shaped plaques were unveiled at sites downtown.  These plaques honored the inaugural inductees such as R.E.M., Pylon and The B-52s. 

As we strolled the streets that evening, we enjoyed looking at the lovely old buildings and the golden fall leaves of the ginkgo trees. 

The next morning we began with a walk around the central business district.  Standing outside City Hall is a unique double-barreled cannon that was cast in the Athens foundry.  The gun had been designed during the Civil War to fire two balls simultaneously.  The balls were linked together with a chain and the intent was to “mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat.”  Thankfully, the gun failed because it would not fire both barrels in the same instant and the weapon was never used (Interpretive Marker: The Athens Double-Barrelled Cannon). 

The bright morning light brought out interesting architectural features and we could have tarried longer…

… but we were eager to start touring the university’s Old North Campus, which we could see just across Broad Street.  Two members of the original planning committee were Yale graduates and they pressed for the campus to be laid out in the quad-style of their alma matter. 

We started our tour at the Arch at Broad Street and College Avenue.  Today the arch’s graceful cast-iron columns stand for UGA’s founding principles: wisdom, justice and moderation…but it was originally installed in the 1850s as a gate to keep stray cattle from roaming the quad. 

The earliest structures were of log construction and they have long ago been replaced with stately buildings. 

At the far end of the quad is the Old College building that was completed in 1806.  It was the first permanent structure to be built on the campus and it is the oldest building in Athens.  The statue in front of the building honors Abraham Baldwin, the first president of the university.

Just a few steps away from the quad is the Founders Memorial Garden, which is dedicated to the twelve founding members of the Ladies’ Garden Club of Athens, and is credited as being the first garden club in the United States. 

The university continued to grow over the years and it is now more than two miles from the Arch down to the State Botanical Garden, which is at its southern border.  Next, decided it was time to get in the car and drive to see more of the university as well as some of the historic sites in town. 

Early on, cotton mills had been the driving industry and had fueled the city’s growth.  Railroad lines arrived in the 1840s.  The burgeoning industries combined with the university’s growing influence and Athens was on its way to become one of the state’s most important cities.  Athens has a total of seventeen historic districts for those who want to really delve into its story.  As the first step in our touring, we opted to visit four of the historic Antebellum Period homes located along Museum Mile

Athens Welcome Center at 280 E. Dougherty St. is located on the site of the Church-Waddle-Brumby House (1820).  This Federal-style home is believed to be Athens’ oldest surviving residence and its restoration helped spark the local historic preservation movement.

The Ware-Lyndon House (1856) was built for Dr. Edward Ware and his family.  Dr. Ware became involved in Athens business community and eventually left his medical practice to develop his business interests.  He became active in city matters and become Athens’ mayor for four terms; meanwhile, his lively and social wife, Elizabeth, made their home the social center of the city.  In 1880 the home was purchased by Dr. Edward Lyndon and his wife, and they raised six children in the home. 

The city of Athens purchased the house in 1939 and it served many government agencies before becoming a home for visual arts in 1974.  The house was developed into a museum highlighting the stories of its two named families.  The Lyndon Arts Center, with its five galleries of exhibition space, was built and connected to the house.  

Be sure to pause to enjoy the home’s Parterre garden with its white wooden fence and statuary…as well as the elegant front walkway.

The T.R.R. Cobb House (Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb) was built in 1852 before Cobb went on to become a one of the principal authors of the Confederate Constitution and a Confederate general in the Civil War.  The home was moved to Stone Mountain Park in 1985 and then returned to Athens in 2005.   If you visit the home’s website you can see a fascinating time-lapse video the house being moved back to Athens and being reconstructed (www.trrcobbhouse.org).

The fourth of the most noted Athens houses is the Taylor-Grady House that was built in 1844 by Robert Taylor, a planter and cotton merchant.  Henry Grady’s father bought the house in 1863 and Henry lived here during his years at the university.  He went on to be the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper and in his writings he stressed “the importance of reconciliation between North and South” (Interpretive Marker “The Taylor-Grady House”).

During the Civil War, Athens had been a supply center and it was spared any major battles.  The Reconstruction Era brought continued growth to the city and the university.  Freed slaves moved to the city where they could now receive an education.  They also developed their own businesses and culture in different parts of the town. 

After seeing these four historic homes, we turned back toward the university to tour more of the campus and along our route we ran into more interesting historic properties, colorful neighborhoods, and quirky sites. 

The Old Fire Hall No. 2 with its wooden doors and cobblestone drive caught our attention.  This flatiron building with its distinctive triangular shape is perfectly fitted to the tight corner lot at the intersection of Hill Street and Prince Street.  This area was originally known as Cobbham (the Cobb House is just across the street) and in 1833 was Athens’ first suburb.  The building was on the docket to be demolished in the mid-1900s, but the public outcry saved it and it is now the home of Historic Athens, a group dedicated to preserving the city’s history and heritage. 

The next corner is home to the colorful Daily Groceries Co-Op.  Their friendly staff and fresh produce department were enough to convince us that we would be regular customers if we lived in the area.

One thing in Athens that we didn’t want to miss was a visit to the stately white oak that stands at Dearing and Finley Streets and is known as The Tree That Owns Itself.  “According to a legend first printed in the local newspaper on August 12, 1890, Colonel William H. Jackson’s will deeded the tree possession of itself and all the land within eight feet of its trunk” (visitathensga.com). 

When the original tree was felled in a wind storm in 1942 and the Junior Ladies Garden Club of Athens decided that the legend should not die.  The members gathered acorns from the site and nurtured them.  The tree that stands here today was just a sapling when it was planted on December 4, 1946, and it was granted the same tax-free status as its parent.  It is probably one of the only property owners in the city that doesn’t receive a real estate tax bill each year.

The tree is located in the Dearing Street Historic District and there are some interesting homes on the streets surrounding it.   

Reentering the UGA campus, one of the first things that caught our eye was the UGA Latin American Garden, which was cultivated to research medicinal plants use by the Mayans.   

Touring the campus on a quiet weekend has its advantages, but many of the University buildings are not open so we were not able to visit the University of Georgia’s Special Collections building that holds a collection of historic items.  If this is of interest, you may want to check the university schedule before you visit. 

Fortunately, the Georgia Museum of Art (the state’s official art museum) was open on the weekend so we were able to tour its extensive collections.  The special exhibit, The Art of the Chair, gave us rooms full of chairs that included little doll chairs and children’s seating to fascinating patented devices from the Victorian Era and more unique pieces up through 21st-century designs. 

As one of the interpretive signs explains: “Few objects tell the history of modern design as eloquently as the chair.  Aesthetics trends, the emergence of new technologies, ergonomics, social and cultural developments are all reflected in the evolution of chair design.” 

From there we wandered through galleries holding works of Old Masters to early Georgia O’Keefe, American Impressionism, Ash Can School paintings and more.  

The museum has a strong and growing Southern Decorative Arts collection with objects ranging from Choctaw basketry and weather vanes to ornamental needlework.

After touring the entire space, I determined that my two favorite pieces are works by Margaret Morrison, a professor of painting and drawing at UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art.  Morrison’s massive paintings were inspired by her visit to an open-air market in Arezzo, Italy, where she saw table after table laden with antique pieces for sale.  Atomic No. 47 and Keramilkos are part of a series of works she created based on that experience.  “Atomic No. 47 is tightly packed with its radiant silver objects, and Keramikos, which overflows with resplendent ceramic cups an crystal goblets, are the first two paintings in this series” (Museum sign). 

Looking closely, at individual pieces in Atomic No. 47, you can see reflections of buildings, sky and other objects on the shining surfaces.  Both are fascinating works for their composition and what there is to be discovered within each piece.  In the body of this teapot, if the reflection of a person leaning forward to take a photo of the display…I wondered if this was a humorous “selfie” Morrison added to her work.

If you still have time in your visit you may want to enjoy the 300-acre State Botanical Garden, which is located just south of the campus.  Be sure to wear good walking shoes because there is much to explore with a variety of gardens to view, five miles of trails and its conservatory, herb and physic gardens.   

Now it was time for us to leave Athens, but not without one last photo of the UGA mascot wearing the school’s distinctive red and black colors.

Georgia – Atlanta: Scott’s Antiques and Stone Mountain

We were headed down to Atlanta to have lunch with friends and decided to take a little extra time touring since we hadn’t been out in a while.  As it turned out our visit was perfectly timed with the monthly opening of Scott’s Antique Market so after lunch we drove over to see what treasures we might discover. 

Vast monthly market with vendors offering heirloom furniture & antiques, collectibles & knickknacks” is how Scott’s describes themselves on their website and “Vast” is an apt descriptor.  Scott’s fills the two Atlanta Expo Centers with vendors and goods for four days each month.  It is worth the $5 admission fee just to see the variety of goods being offered.  Parking is free, but remember to hold on to your ticket stub because you will need it to enter the parking lot at the second Expo Center on the other side of the freeway. 

First-time visitors might like to walk a bit to get oriented, but make note of the location of any vendors you may want to revisit so you can find your way back easily.

Antiques, art, silver service, china and jewelry…smaller sized goods are more on the right-hand side of the building.  Large pieces an furniture are more to the left, but throughout you’ll find interesting pieces from fine art to fun and funky. 

Many of the vendors are regulars so it is a good time to catch up with old friends.  I was happy to run into a Florida-based dealer we know from shows in Brimfield, MA.  He deals in fine jewelry and high-end decorative pieces and brings his sweet sixteen-year-old Yorkshire terrier to all the shows.  She is always dressed in high fashion. 

Now we are approaching the left side of the building where it is like Disneyland for anyone looking for furniture and rugs…

…and remember that this in only half of what we have come to see…more awaits on the south side of the freeway.

Before we go inside, we like to take a look at the offerings in the open lot outdoor.  I was especially taken with these colorful portable chicken coops.  There are always beautiful seasonal plants for sale and this is a good place to look for architectural salvage pieces.

Again, here in the annex there is a lot of space to cover and an amazing assortment of goods on display from rare books and coins to vintage autos.

After all this walking you may be wondering what we came home with…

I found a vintage Cherokee basket in perfect condition.  This obviously older basket is well constructed with a lovely interplay of natural colors and a bentwood handle notch-fitted on the underside.  Basket in hand, it was time for us to leave if we were still going to see Stone Mountain this afternoon. 

Stone Mountain is an enormous, smooth gray granite monolith that rises over 800 feet above everything in the surrounding area.  It was Creek Indian land until the 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs opened the area for new settlers.   European explorers and fur trappers had already been through this area and by the early 1820s there was an inn hosting visitors to the mountain.  Newly developed stagecoach lines brought more travelers, and by the mid-1840s rail service was established and even more people came to view this natural wonder (Stone Mountain, Georgia, Wikipedia).  

The city of Stone Mountain rings the mountain itself and is about twenty miles northeast of Atlanta.  The business district and residential area is often called Stone Mountain Village to differentiate it from what has become Stone Mountain Park.  Although this area voted against secession prior to the Civil War, it was not spared when Union troops, under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman, arrived for the Battle of Atlanta (1864).  The antebellum homes that were being used as hospitals were spared, but the rest of the town was destroyed.  In the Village, the train depot roof burned but the thick stone walls remained standing.  Later that year, thousands of Union troops returned and tore up the railroad tracks.  “The rails were rendered useless by heating them over burning railroad ties, then twisting them around trees. The term Sherman’s neckties was coined for this form of destruction” (Wikipedia).

Quarrying had long been the major industry in the area and during the Reconstruction Era, the demand for granite across the country quickly reignited the quarry operations, which continued up until the late 1970s. 

In 1912, Mrs. C. Helen Plane, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), came up with a new idea for the mountain.   As the Stone Mountain Park website tells the story she envisioned an enormous carving on its surface with three figures: Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  At that time, the mountain was owned by the Venable family.  The family deeded the face of the mountain over to the UDC with the stipulation that the work be completed by 1928. 

Gutzon Borglum, who later gained fame for the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore, envisioned the piece to be of a large army of soldiers with several mounted figures.   Funding problems and WWI slowed progress and he couldn’t begin dynamite blasting until 1923.  By January 1924 he had Lee’s head completed, and after a dispute in 1925, he walked off the job.   Augustus Lukeman and his crew took up the work using pneumatic drills and cleared all earlier work.  They began on a less expansive design, but by the 1928 deadline Lee’s new head was the only area that was completed and the project was out of funding.   “The Venable family reclaimed their property, and the massive granite mountain remained untouched for 36 years.”  [Note: This and all subsequent quotes are taken from the Stone Mountain Park website.]

In 1958, Stone Mountain and the surrounding land were purchased by the State of Georgia and an arts committee held a competition for yet another design for the mountain.  Massachusetts artist Walker Kirkland Hancock’s drawings were selected and carving resumed in 1964…this time with a new technique utilizing thermo-jet torches.  The torches were much more effective and in eight years the work, as it stands today, was completed.  The carving is actually much larger and more detailed than it appears to park visitors.  “Eyebrows, fingers, buckles and even strands of hair were fine-carved with a small thermo-jet torch.  Workers could easily stand on a horse’s ear or inside a horse’s mouth to escape a sudden rain shower.”   The sculpture was dedicated on May 9, 1970.  “The carving takes up three acres on the surface of the mountain and is larger than a football field.  The carving is 400 feet above the ground and measures 90 by 190 feet.

But on our visit to the park, we noticed that we were almost the only people who had come to see the carving on the mountain.  As we drove on the on-way road around the circumference of the mountain, we were happy to see the number of people walking, jogging, and bicycling through the beautiful wooded terrain.  We quickly learned that there is much to enjoy at Stone Mountain that has nothing to do with the now controversial Confederate carving.

The mountain is surrounded on three sides by lakes.  Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards are available for rental, and fishing is allowed if you have a Georgia fishing license.  The century-old wooden Washington W. King Bridge was originally built in Athens and was moved to this location in 1969 after the Oconee River’s flooding began damaging the structure.  In its new site, it allows vehicles and pedestrians to cross Stone Mountain Lake to a picturesque island.  The structure was designed and built by Washington W. King in 1891.  According to the park brochure, “The King family were prominent African-American businessmen for decades in multiple Georgia cities.”

This “covered bridge” or “lattice style” bridge was common in the in the nineteenth century.  It is interesting to note that heavy wood pegs were used in the construction.  “Bridges like this were refuge for travelers during storms, courting couples and robbers who hid themselves on the overhead timbers and dropped down on the unsuspecting victim.”

A little further along the route there is a 100-year-old grist mill that was moved to the park from Ellinjay, Georgia, and a quarry exhibit that describes the quarrying process at the mountain.  Granite from this quarry was used in buildings of every state across the nation and was shipped to construction projects around the world, including the Panama Canal.

Park visitors can also enjoy a daily concert played on the 732-bell Carillion that was donated to the park by the Coca-Cola Company after it was exhibited at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. 

While early visitors had to walk up the strenuous one-mile trail to stand on the summit, now with the purchase of a ticket, a cable car ride takes people up past the sculpture to the top of the mountain to enjoy the view. 

There are fifteen miles of trails throughout the park with varying degrees of difficulty.  The Songbird Habitat and Trail is in the area that was used for the archery and cycling events in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.  The area is filled with native plant life that makes it a good place to watch for songbirds and other regional species. 

If you are going to be in the area for any time or returning within the year, you may want to consider a $40 parking pass that will allow no-cost return visits…otherwise there is a $20 one-time charge to drive into the park.  If you have the time and are feeling particularly energetic, you can walk into the park with no admission fee, but to do this you will have to park in the Village and walk from there since there is NO parking on residential streets in the area.

We could have spent more time really exploring Stone Mountain Park, but the sun was getting low and we still had a quite a drive if we were going to get to Athens, Georgia, before dark.  

Virginia – Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction

When we were planning a stay with our friends Mark and Kathy at their Grand Oaks Air B&B, they said that they had something special for us to see and that we had to stay until Thursday.  This was intriguing.  We didn’t ask questions and did not attempt to do any research to find out what the surprise might be. 

One Christmas when I was about seven years old, my sister and I went hunting to see if we could find any Christmas presents.  We searched high and low in every room of the house and at last in the back of the very top shelf in the linen closet I found a watch case…inside was the Cinderella watch of my dreams.  We put it back, put the ladder away and quit searching.  That Christmas Day was the second most miserable of my life when I had to feign surprise and delight with my gift.  The joy was gone and I learned to wait for the good things life would bring.

On Thursday morning, we left Grand Oaks and rode with Mark and Kathy down narrow country roads, over and around hills and past impressive and tidy farms, most of them owned by Mennonite families who settled in this area generations ago. 

The land flattened out and larger farms spread before us with the hills and mountains rising in the background…then we pulled into a field with well-populated parking lot. 

We had arrived at the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction (SVPA).  As their website declares it is the largest such auction in Virginia and the place “WHERE QUALITY MEETS QUANTITY.”  The auction was formed in 2005 by some local producers who had seen the success of similar operations in Amish and Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  This Virginia facility has grown to “over 20,000 square feet that stands in the heart of Rockingham County’s Old Order Mennonite community.”

“The auction provides a central location for area growers to sell their harvest in bulk from early spring to late autumn.”   The products consigned to the auction are grown by commercial growers and gardeners within a 100-mile radius of the SVPA.  Their website also gives the auction schedule and a list of the types of produce that could be offered in each season.  The list is an overview of what comes to market during the seasons and not specific to what growers will be bringing on any given date. 

When they arrive, auction items are “graded and packed in standard containers (by box, pallet or bin lots).”  The morning we arrived there were pumpkins, squash and gourds in every variety, shape, and size up for bidding. 

And fresh vegetables…

And bedding plants and succulents…

And seasonal specialties…plus so much more!!!!!

These lots were loaded onto flatbed wagons then the drivers waited in line until their turn came to pull into the separate auction shed. 

Buyers stand on a raised platform in the center of the shed and observers can stand on walkways on the outer sides.  Two people climb aboard the flatbed…one of them holds up a sample of what is being auctioned and the other waits and records the hammer price on a tag attached to the container.  The auctioneer describes the lot then the fast-paced bidding begins until we hear the familiar…“All in and all done”…and seemingly without a breath the auctioneer moves on to the next lot.

“Although the auction is directed to wholesale buyers such as grocery stores, roadside stands and farm markets, anyone who uses fresh fruits and vegetables for canning, freezing and preserving is welcome to buy.”  There is a 20% buyer’s premium for those who don’t meet the wholesale buyers’ guidelines.

I was sorely tempted to bid on a couple of the colorful lots, but I knew we couldn’t put anymore into our already loaded little Honda FIT; and I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about the work that canning and freezing would require. 

Flatbed after flatbed loaded with pumpkins, squash and vegetables rolled through the auction shed and then wagon loads of mums arrived.  One of the sellers chose to hold her own full-bloom plants for buyers to observe.  After the bidding closed, the woman used her elbows to make space for the displayed mum and carefully put it back into its place on the wagon.   Her extra care was recognized and worth it.  Her plants brought in more than the next lots that had not been as well handled for they had plants with some broken stems.

After the bidding was done, the flatbeds lined up back at the large shed area where they waited to be unloaded.  The buyers settled their bills then transferred the day’s purchases into their vehicles, which ranged from old long-bed pick-ups to 18-wheelers.

FOOD!!!  Sadly, we had eaten a full breakfast and weren’t yet ready to taste test the hearty burgers and sandwiches that were on the menu or the generous slices of peanut butter, apple and banana-topped coconut cream pie…but after seeing these little boys, we found room for a shared ice cream cone. 

Mark and Kathy had certainly found a unique auction for us to see and a delightful way to conclude this visit to the Shenandoah Valley. 

We drove away marveling at the wonderful time we had enjoyed and already looking forward to exploring more of the Shenandoah Valley on our next visit!

Virginia – Mount Solon: Grand Oaks and Lots More

We took exit 240 and began following three-digit state roads.  Near an especially early looking farmhouse with its cut stone foundation and ancient barn we came to Mossy Creek, an area first settled in the 1740s.  An aging historic marker told of the Mossy Creek Iron Works that was established in 1775.  “The ironworks became an important industrial enterprise” that sold its products “throughout western Virginia.”  A community grew up around it and “by 1852 the Mossy Creek Academy was established by Jedediah Hotchkiss,” who would later become the cartographer for Stonewall Jackson.  Both the school and the ironworks closed around the beginning of the Civil War.

We drove on, passing large and tidy farms and we kept climbing…about ten miles from the interstate we reached Tall Oaks Lane and drove up toward a beautiful stand of oaks.  There we found Grand Oaks, our friends Mark and Kathy’s home and Air B&B. 

This was a far cry from their stucco-clad Arizona house set in the mostly untamed landscape of the Sonoran Desert with the occasional saguaro cactus standing stately and tall amid shaggy mesquite, palo verde and creosote.  Oak trees surrounded and towered over their two-story home, creating a sun-dappled setting.  Beyond the house and the trees were the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley.  What a breathtaking setting…no wonder their guest suite had been filled steadily by people wishing to escape their urban environments and get away to such a peaceful and magnificent setting.  #GrandOaks

The property came complete with a horse barn, which now houses Mark’s 1958 turquoise GMC pickup and also gives him ample room for his workshop and wood storage. 

They have built a “red barn” that is a welcoming social center.  The bar in the center of the barn was strongly influenced by their favorite cantina in Cave Creek, Arizona, and its shelves hold an impressive and colorful array of empty beer cans and bottles that Mark has been collecting since he was a teen. 

It also holds another impressive collection.  Mark has owned nine cars in his lifetime and six of them are on display here in the barn (you’ve already seen his turquoise pickup).  The collection includes his first car…the ’63 Corvair he drove on their first date…and the white ’63 Oldsmobile that they drove away from their wedding…as well as a ’53 Pontiac, ’70 Buick Skylark, ’79 Camaro and a ’79 Shortbed Chevy Cheyenne.

The cars are moved outside when the space is being used for weddings and other celebrations.  Don and I explored the loft area, which overlooks the cars below and is also a comfy place for guests who simply want to hang out here with its interesting collection of antiques. 

The next morning we decided to do a little roaming around and Kathy suggested we stop at Valley Pike Farm Market, but before we could leave we had to talk with the “parking lot squirrel.”  This chatty fellow seems to have taken great offence that we were parked under his oak tree and complained vigorously about it.  I was thankful he didn’t take a few acorns from his winter supply and throw them at us.  My respectful attention must have satisfied him because after he was done venting he scampered further up the tree.

There was a school bus parked outside Valley Pike Farm Market.  The Old School Burgers must be pretty tasty because there was a growing line of customers waiting to order. 

Inside the market, there was a wonderful array of products to consider.  Local wineries were well represented with a broad range of wines on display.  The chocolates in the candy counter were tempting as was their selection of old-time candy favorites. 

The colorful jams, jellies, preserves, honey and syrups gave us lots of options to stock our pantry…and there were beautiful pottery pieces to use for serving these delights.

The deli counter was doing a brisk business building sandwiches and there was a Wet Whistle station for those who wanted to sample some of the local wines and craft beers.  The decorated loft offered comfortable seating and a great view of the action below.

The Route 11 Potato Chip display caught my attention (the market is on Route 11, the old highway that carried traffic before the interstate was built).  I have since discovered that the next time we are touring in this area we can stop at the Route 11 Potato Chip factory store in Mt. Jackson and view the frying operation.

We barely got a half a mile down the road and when we came to Rocky’s Antiques.  This isn’t your ordinary antique shop.  We entered into a large room filled with silver flatware and hollowware and an impressive selection of coins.  In our search for sterling silver luggage tags, we were directed into the next room, which was filled with fine jewelry as well as costume jewelry.  A sign directed us to “MORE ANTIQUES” and the next doorway led us into “10,000 square feet filled with antique furniture, glassware, signage and more.” 

Our next stop was the Factory Antique Mall in Verona, which bills itself as the “Largest Mall in America and Still Growing.”  With over 135,000 square feet there are miles of aisles to explore and it is a good place if you want a lot of walking.  The aisles are filled with home décor, advertising, books, furniture, kitchenware and glassware and lots more. 

Nearby Verona Antiques is “something to crow about” according to their sign.  The shop isn’t as large as Factory Antiques, but this former roller skating rink is filled with good quality antiques, art and furniture.  With it being so close to I-81, we marked it on our map as a place to stop when we are staying in the area or even just passing through. 

Now, it was time for us to get back to Grand Oaks to meet up with Mark and Kathy for the next phase of our Virginia adventure. 

Virginia – New Market

It was dark and dry when we left Maine at four in the morning.  We made it around Boston and all the way through Hartford to Danbury before the rain started.  With all the rain there wouldn’t be any bold displays of fall color as we drove along the steep ridge above Wilkes-Barre.  We’d be lucky to stay on the road when the spray of the passing 18-wheelers hit our windshield and overwhelmed our wipers. 

Over the years, we have spent a lot of time on this route and usually when we get to Virginia I put aside my knitting and simply enjoy the fields and pastures that spread across the broad, rolling landscape and climb on up to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I can tell you from memory that the cheapest gas along Route 81 is to be found at exits 279 and 17.  Those are usually our only stops, but this time we were going to turn off the highway for a visit with former neighbors from Arizona. 

I was especially curious to see their home because they had lived just down the road from me in the northern reaches of Scottsdale.  Theirs was a stucco-sided ranch-style house with walls that resembled an aging hacienda.  The land between our houses grew mesquite, palo verde, saguaro cactus and creosote that scented the air after the monsoon rains.  Coyotes and javelinas ran in our washes and a great horned owl hatched her young each year in a burrowed hole in a tall saguaro at the curve of the road. 

Thankfully, the rain eased up by the time we got to New Market and we were ahead of schedule so we stopped to take a quick look at this historic town in the Shenandoah Valley.  New Market is the birthplace John Sevier, Revolutionary War hero and the first governor of the state of Tennessee, but it is remembered for the Civil War battles that took place here, especially the one in May of 1864 when the students from the Virginia Military Institute grabbed weapons and fought along with the Confederate soldiers.  Together with the troops, they broke the Union line, captured several cannons and sent the Union Army back north in retreat.  If you are so inclined, there are two Civil War Museums to explore in addition to the battlefield.

In town, Jon Henry’s General Store and the Strayer House (on the right) anchor opposite corners of the street at the town’s only stoplight.  “On May 21, 1862, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson watched from the building’s stoop [Strayer House] as his ‘foot cavalry’ turned east toward New Market Gap to surprise the Federals at Fort Royal.”  He returned two weeks later and stayed for a while at the Strayer House after the tent he had been sleeping in got washed out in a “torrential downpour” (Historic Marker).

We took a little time to walk the streets of New Market where every building seemed imbued with such a strong sense of history.   #shenanoahvalley, #virginiaforlovers

One of the things we noticed was that most of the buildings had a “stoop” like the one Stonewall Jackson had stood on to watch his men parading past. 

A sign in the window of the Calvert House dates the bricks in the house and the sidewalk back to 1770, giving it a solidly pre-Revolutionary history. 

The sign on the Henkel House dates its back brick portion to 1802 and said that the two-story front had been added in 1855.  “A metal plate nailed on the right beside the latch covers the holes broken into panels by the rifle butts and bayonets of irate Yankee soldiers who had been doused with hot water thrown from the upstairs window.”  A sign like that leaves a lot of story to be imagined.

The Henkel Press came into existence in 1806 when Ambrose Henkel “began publishing Lutheran devotional materials, newspapers, song books and children’s books” in German and later in English.  “The Henkel family believed it was a way to preserve their culture, language, and religious beliefs” (Historic Marker).

People also come to this area to enjoy subterranean touring in the Endless Caverns and nearby Luray and Shenandoah Caverns that are all part of a vast underground network that runs through the valley.  New Market lies in a gap in Massanutten Mountain, which caused it to be an important battle in the Civil War.  Today it is also known for the hiking trails that cross the mountain’s ridges, giving those who like to travel on foot a challenging piece of the Appalachians to explore. 

If your wandering take you down the aisles of antique markets, this area has a lot to offer for you as well.  Burt Long Antiques is just one example of a shop selling furniture, collectibles and memorabilia that have come from homes and families in this area.

We’d now used up our spare time so we turned our GPS on to find the way to Grand Oaks for our visit with Mark and Kathy.

New Speed Limit

We have some friends who live in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.  When the highway narrows down to two lanes we know it is time to turn down their road and then we drive for a couple of more miles on a narrow, curving road with no shoulder.  Once we get to the dead end and come through the gate there is a barn and beyond that a herd of Black Angus grazes in a broad expanse of land, a miracle of flat meadow surrounded by forested hills rising steeply on all sides. 

For the first time in miles the road in front of us is straight. 

The scene is so beautiful that I always want to stop just to drink in the view, but maybe everyone doesn’t have that same feeling because there is a sign nailed to a fencepost with a 21 mile per hour speed limit.  The sign has been there so long that the wood is now dark, the paint faded and moss grows around the edges. 

When I started this travel blog a year ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would post an entry every week for a year.  I just read the blog’s “Mission Statement” and “About Traveling Toni” and to my surprise I had more sense than to make public mention of that goal.  But here we are a full year later with fifty-two postings that somehow managed to appear every Thursday evening over the course of that time. 

It started with that road trip from Maine to Glacier National Park with stops in Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Ohio.  Then we chased around Tennessee for a while before we took a meander through a swatch of the South on our way to Orange, Texas, to visit a Western art museum.  Once things warmed up in Maine, we spent the summer along the southern coast and ended up walking much of Portland…and of course the last several months of this travel was done under the strict constraints brought on by COVID-19. 

With the fifty-two week goal met and travel still somewhat constrained, we are going to slow our pace a bit and post on a little more leisurely basis.  Our bags are at the ready, but we are going to take time to get our Honda FIT an oil change and a tire rotation and do a bit of planning before we take off again.   

For those of you who have been followers since week one (this means you Mom), we appreciate your interest, kind words and faithful support.  I look at the big three-ring binder filled with all the red edits on the final drafts and am reminded of how grateful I am of my husband Don’s editing, driving and patience.  This truly has been a gift for us to be able to relive our adventures and to have these treasured memories to share with each other as well as our family and friends.

We look forward to seeing where the road leads next, and we invite you to continue to travel with us albeit at the new reduced speed. 

Traveling Toni

Maine – Portland: The Old Port and Other Favorites

Now that we have rambled in other parts of the city, we will return to the Old Port with its quaint streets, mid-19th century buildings and layers of Portland history.  Boothby Square, just a block up from the waterfront is bordered on one end by the Customs House.  It is quintessential Portland with cobblestone streets, colorful old buildings (spared by the Great Fire of 1866) and an old stone horse fountain.  The grey building was Samuel Butts home and store and it dates to 1792. 

The other end of the square is anchored by the Portland Regency Hotel, which was built in 1895 as an armory for the Maine National Guard.  After it was decommissioned in the 1950s, it was use as a warehouse until 1984 when developers with a vision of what the city was to become converted it into a luxury hotel. 

Instead of moving further into the Old Port right away, we’ll take you on a little detour one block beyond Franklin Arterial to India Street and into what used to be the Italian neighborhood.   Walk past the horse fountain toward the Customs House and on to Fore Street Restaurant.  Depending on the time of day, you may see the staff stacking the daily supply of wood for their oven fire.  Take the landscaped stairway on your right and you will arrive at the front door of Standard Baking (as good place for coffee and a snack).  Turn left on Commercial Street, cross Franklin and walk one block to India Street with the Grand Trunk Railroad building on the corner.

In Portland’s early days, India Street was the main access leading down to the waterfront and it was lined with homes and businesses.  As the city grew and the congested neighborhood became less desirable, the area became populated by immigrants with India Street becoming a predominantly Italian neighborhood.  The close-knit residents even built St. Peter Parish Church, but for us the most significant reminder of that era is Micucci’s, a flourishing Italian food business that was established 1949 when Emilio (Leo) Micucci opened his food business.  The business is still family owned and run, and it holds fast to its heritage and the tradition of providing the finest products and service for both its retail and wholesale customers. 

This plain-front brick façade gives no hint of the vibrant and delicious offerings inside, from the deli counter with a wide range of cheeses and meats to the aisles of pastas, olive oils, canned tomatoes, capers, etc., to their wine selection and up a short flight of stairs to the spices and cold cases filled with fresh and frozen ingredients as well as separate case of tempting sweets.  If the line isn’t too long, be sure to queue up for a slab of their delicious Sicilian pizza.  That will help sustain you on your walk, but you will probably want to come back later to do the rest of your shopping.  Before you leave, be sure to go out the parking lot door and take a glance at the mural of Casco Bay and tall-masted ships on the wall of the opposite building. 

If you are interested in beer, a tour of Shipyard Brewery (just a block away) may interest you and for English majors, there is a boulder in front of the Marriott Residence Inn that marks the site of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s first home. 

For those of you heading back into the Old Port, Middle Street (right outside Micucci’s) will take you into the heart of things.  First you will pass a row of restaurants whose names will be familiar if you have been reading Portland dining and travel magazines: Duck Fat, East Ender, Ribollita, Honey Paw, Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co.  A local favorite just a few steps off this stretch is Tomaso’s Canteen, a former workingman’s bar who’s  location and good food has made it a favorite casual meeting place for friends.    

Follow Middle Street past the police station and enjoy the varied architecture that characterizes the Old Port.  At the corner of Exchange Street you will come to Post Office Park, the former site of a beautiful marble post office that was built quickly after the Great Fire out of white marble, a material not suited for northern winters.  It was eventually demolished and the empty lot gave rise to this popular urban park.  The only post box in residence these days is an interesting red post-style that was a gift from Shinagawa, Japan, Portland’s sister city. 

Across the street at Tommy’s Park, Mark Gatti has been selling steamed hotdogs at this location for 37 years now.  In spite of all the fancy food restaurants, his cart is one of the most enduring and endeared food venues in the city (Pierce).  At the back of the park is a new mural that, due to the building’s renovation, recently replaced the trompe l’oeil mural (1985) of the old post office that had stood in the park across the street.    

The new 4-story tall mural was selected from 47 applicants and was completed in 2019.  In the words of the artist Will Sears the design was inspired by “the color found about an hour before sunset incorporating only hues found locally” (Harry).

Standing on the corner between the two parks, you can look up Exchange Street to catch a glimpse of Portland’s City Hall. Across the street, opposite Starbucks, is the Exchange Building.  Originally, this was the site of the Customs House.  The present rich architecturally texture building was built in 1884 as the home of the First National Bank (“Ruins”).

Before turning down Exchange Street, take a few extra steps past Mark’s hotdog cart to visit the “Lobsterman” in front of the Nickelodeon Theater.  We love going to the Nickelodeon on Tuesdays for their $5 movie special.  For now, ignore the snow on the bronze statue, we’ll talk about that later.

This summer Exchange Street got a whole new look when the City blocked the street to vehicle traffic and encouraged the restaurants to create open-air dining venues, allowing them to comply with COVID-19 regulations.  The street is also home to a bevy of boutiques and galleries.  Remember to keep an eye open for interesting architectural details while you are shopping and dining.

Besides window shopping, remember to keep watch for unique trade signs and other interesting architectural and historical details.

If you have a taste for Irish fare or just want to stop for a beer or some other beverage, you might consider Bull Feeny’s on Fore Street.  According to their website the restaurant was named in honor of Hollywood director John Ford (nee John Martin Feeney), who was a Portland high school hero known for lowering “his leather helmet like a bull and charg[ing] through the line.” 

The building itself dates to 1867 and over the years it has had a variety of businesses housed within its walls.  Some time in the early 1940s it “became the Seamen’s Club to attend of the needs of the thousand of sailors in town during World War II.” 

The owners wanted their pub to reflect Portland’s strong Irish heritage so they incorporated a lot of that history into the design.  While you are there be sure to explore both levels to see all the old advertising signs and other pieces they have included in the comfortable décor.  While you are upstairs, remember to pause for a moment to look down toward the harbor through the beautiful arched windows.  John Ford would have approved of this set.

Across Fore Street from Bull Feeney’s are two shops we especially enjoy when looking for authentic Maine gifts.  Skordo offers freshly ground, small batch spice blends and rubs as well as cookbooks and beautiful items for the kitchen and the table.  Their four-jar spice packs are beautifully packaged and always a welcome gift.

Next door Maine Potters Market offers fine handmade pottery pieces from local potters.  They handle a wide variety of styles and price ranges, making it easy to find the perfect gift or souvenir to bring home as a reminder of your stay in Portland.

Fore Street’s curving path follows Portland’s original shoreline and was the main access road to the wharves before the major landfill that began in 1853 to make way for the arriving railroads and create Commercial Street.  The basement walls in many the businesses on Fore Street have waterlines that bear witness to the tides and wakes that slapped against their old reinforced stone seawalls.  The street with its 1850s- and 1870s-era buildings looks much as it did back in the days when huge ships were being loaded and unloaded just a half block below on Wharf Street. 

The cobblestones on Wharf Street slow down your pace but that is fine because it gives you time to take in the unique character of the buildings, shops, and restaurants in this stretch.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see what this stretch would have looked like, filled with tall-masted ships and sweating, swearing men moving the ship’s cargos.  The dirt and grime are mostly gone, but not the character.  Street and Company, the acclaimed seafood restaurant, is a wonderful choice for a candle-lit dinner in a space that has long been lit by candles and lanterns, and newcomer Central Provisions’ small plates menu is an excellent choice if you are able to score a reservation.  If a beer and a burger are more to your liking, Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub has been a favorite for locals, as well as tourists, since 1988.   

Many visitors to Portland spend most of their time in the Old Port, which is understandable, but something you might like to consider is a visit to the Victoria Mansion (a few blocks away at 109 Danforth Street).  Built in 1858-1860, the mansion was “the summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Moore and his wife, Olive.  They were both from Maine originally, but Morse made his fortune in New Orleans where he operated luxury hotels” (vistoriamansion.org).  Their summer home had all the newest conveniences of the day with “hot and cold running water, flush toilets, central heating, gas lights, a servant call-bell system, wall to wall carpeting, and a 25 foot long stained glass skylight.” 

One of my favorite rooms is the Turkish smoking room with its walls painted like a Bedouin tent.  During a special tour, we were delighted to be able to climb the house’s tower and discover that at the very top, the observatory was also painted in the same tent motif but it was still in unrestored condition.

The month of December is an excellent time to visit the mansion.  A bevy of local florists decorate its lavish interior and turn every room in the home into a holiday tour de force. 

I’m guessing that several readers are questioning my sanity in suggesting a visit to Portland, Maine, in the winter, but it is can be a magical experience.  Yes, it is cold, but nothing that a good down coat, boots and proper layering can’t combat.  The waters of Casco Bay help moderate the temperatures compared with those inland. 

One of the best reasons to come off-season is that the hoards of summer tourists are gone and it is much easier to get reservations at any of the finest restaurants.  Snow gathers on the architectural details of the buildings and the Old Port takes on the look of a scene out of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  

Bringing in a contemporary perspective to the city streets, local luminary artist Pandora LaCasse’s creations festoon building fronts and parks from the waterfront all the way up to Longfellow Square.  I’m actually eager to pull on my coat, boots, muffler and all that goes with it to walk out into the night and view these bold-colored, geometric designs.  The experience is especially magical when a light snow is falling.  Remember that there are an inviting number of restaurants and pubs that make excellent warming spots along the way. 

The snow doesn’t stop the lobstermen who come down to the harbor to warm their boats in the pre-dawn hours and shovel the snow off their decks into the icy channel before they take off for a day of fishing. 

Hearty joggers and walkers still take their daily walks along the shore and the stark contrast between the dark snow-lined tree limbs and the white snow is stunning. 

On certain mornings when a light wind blows very cold air into a warmer layer of air above the water, Sea Smoke, really a kind of fog, rises over the harbor, creating a magical cloudy effect.    

No matter what time of the year you come, Portland is a beautiful city with a vast array of opportunities to explore. We hope to see you on the streets some time soon.

Recommended Resource:

Harry, David.  “Portland historic preservation panel endorses Tommy’s Park mural.”  December 10, 2018.  PressHerald.com

Pierce, Kathleen.  “How a 34-year-old hot dog cart has survived Portland’s fancy food explosion.”  June 13, 2017.  Bangor Daily News .com.

“Ruins of the Merchant Exchange.”  Maine Historical Society)