Compiled from works by R. L. Tuten & Sherry Corbett
The first known human inhabitants of Beech Mountain were the Cherokee Indians. They called Beech “Klonteska” or the Pheasant. It was a favorite hunting ground due to the bear, deer, and elk living there. Arrowheads and pottery shards have been found along the rivers of Beech Mountain, the Meadows area of Beech Mountain, and along the ridges on the northern side of Beech.
Local legend tells of a battle between two Indian tribes on Beech. One chief had lost so many young men during the fight he hanged himself in despair from the top of the rock pinnacles on Beech.
The Great Trading Path, which originated in Virginia and stretched across the Carolinas to Georgia, is said to have crossed Beech Mountain. Evidence of this is an old knotted tree marker on top of Beech. Indians would knot a young sapling to point in the direction of their camps to aid other Indians in travel. The Beech Mountain tree marker is one of a very few still in existence in the United States. It has grown to over a foot in diameter with a 30-foot trunk spread.
The Great Trading Path originally was an old animal trail that Indians used, and which later white settlers adapted to their needs. A number of major cities throughout the south have grown up along these old trails since these were the places pioneers stopped and finally settled. The Beech Mountain Marker likely helped settlers to find and settle the Watauga and Elk River areas.
In 1774, the first white settler to our area was Samuel Bright. Bright helped guide pioneer families from the Yadkin and Catawba River Valleys into the early Watauga settlements. They crossed over the Yellow Mountains on the old Indian trail that later became known as Bright’s Trace.
Samuel Hix and his son-in-law, James Holtsclaw settled on the Watauga River near Valle Crusis. They were only 40 miles from Bright’s Settlement, yet probably never knew of each other’s existence.
Hix moved on into the Elk Valley, near what is now the Grandfather Home in Banner Elk. His home site became known as the Hix Improvement. An “improvement” was a settled area too primitive to be called a village, yet still an “improvement” over wilderness.
In 1825, Delilah Baird, daughter of Colonel Bedent Baird of Valle Crucis, came to the Big Bottoms of Elk, a mile below Banner Elk (approximately the site of the Elk River Airport today). At the time though, she thought she was in Kentucky.
Delilah was only 18 when she met the married Deacon, John Holtsclaw. The Deacon, a father of seven, convinced the young Delilah to elope with him to a cabin he had built in Kentucky. She agreed, and for days they traveled over mountains and through valleys. Delilah never realized they were only moving in circles. Finally they reached the small cabin.
Delilah was happy in her home in “Kentucky”, and often dug ginseng on what was actually Beech Mountain. One fall day she heard a familiar sounding bell and searching found a cow that resembled one her father owned. As she searched further, she found her parent’s farm, only 8 miles as the crow flies from her own on the Elk River.
John and Delilah’s first child, born in 1826, was named Alfred B. Baird. He is said to be the first white child born in what is today Banner Elk. Banner Elk was originally called Banner’s Elk. Martin Luther Banner moved to the area in 1845 from the Piedmont region. The town was named to describe one side, or Banner’s side of the Elk River. It wasn’t until the postal service requested the change that it became Banner Elk.
During the Civil War, Banner Elk was a stopping point for men who wished to reach Union lines in Tennessee. They would meet in Blowing Rock and move through Shulls Mills, Dutch Creek and Banner Elk, to Shell Creek, Tennessee where Dan Ellis, known as “Red Fox”, would take them in charge.
In 1864 the Battle of Beech Mountain was fought. A squad of ten men from Tennessee claiming to be Confederate soldiers raided the area, stealing horses and shooting residents. Major Bingham, officer of the Confederate Home Guard made a retaliatory raid. He took a Union soldier prisoner at Heaton, and recaptured the stolen horses. Later they passed through Banner Elk and camped about ½ mile outside of the town on Beech Mountain near Balm. Jim Hartley, a Union Scout, was guarding the trail that led from Blowing Rock to Shulls Mills and saw the campfires. He met with Polly Aldridge who lived on Beech Mountain above the campsite. Together, they worked out a plan.
When Bingham broke camp, Polly walked through the group of marching soldiers asking if any of them had seen her spotted cow. After surveying the situation, she ran down the path (now Hwy 184) to Bower’s Gap and reported that Bingham had taken an alternate route. Hartley pursued and over took the marching columns and a battle then raged that claimed two lives. It has been known since that time as the “Battle of the Beech”.
In 1895 Edgar Tufts first came to the small village of Banner Elk, and history was forever altered by this great man. Not only the founder of Lees-McRae College, but also Grace Hospital (now Cannon Memorial) and the Grandfather Home for Children. The beauty of the stone buildings in Banner Elk stand as a tribute to the hardworking, wise man.
Another great citizen of Banner elk was Shepherd M. Dugger, author of the Balsam Groves of Grandfather Mountain and the War Trails of the Blue Ridge. Mr. Dugger loved Beech Mountain dearly and spent many hours hiking its trails.
In 1911, Avery County was formed. Previously all of Beech Mountain had been part of Watauga County. The need for a county seat was established and it was decided it would be chosen from the towns of Elk Park, Montezuma, Minneapolis, or the Old Fields of Toe.
The Old Fields of Toe had previously been a muster or militia ground before the Civil War. Here men would meet and train in military maneuvers. Thus, it was called the “old fields” of the “Toe” or Estatoe River.
Elk Park at the time was a “boom town”. A major station of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, Elk Park had major hotels and telephone service. Since “Tweetsie” stopped there often, it was the main trading center for the area. Surreys ran the 8 miles from Elk Park to Banner Elk. Everyone felt sure Elk Park would be chosen as the new county seat.
The election was held July 1, 1911, and Old Fields of Toe won. The name was changed to Newland in honor of Lt. Governor William C. Newland. Today it is still the highest county seat east of the Mississippi River.
Beech Mountain at the time was an important lumbering area. Small cabins were built where men lived during the week and on weekends they would go home to their families and farms. Ruins of these lumber camps can still be found in some areas of Beech.
Beech Mountain was also a favorite site for residents of Banner Elk and students of Lees-McRae College to picnic. Horseback riding and mountain hikes were weekend excursions on Beech.
The first record of skiing on Beech Mountain was in the 1930’s. Mr. Clinger, the head of the Department of Industrial Education at Lees-McRae College introduced the idea of skiing to his students. The students, who had probably never actually seen skiing before, reacted with enthusiasm. The woodshop at the college was soon producing skis and Beech Mountain had its first novice skiers.
The news media was surprised at the idea of skiing in North Carolina and flocked to cover the novel concept. The Lees-McRae students even established their own ski organization, the Skiing Zero Club.
In 1936 and 1942, huge snowstorms hit the area. Over 30 inches of snow fell in a matter of hours. Snowdrifts were measured at over 30 feet deep. Probably the most uncanny weather occurrence was on June 1, 1909, when a two-minute flurry of large snowflakes fell on a relatively normal June day.
In 1941 it was noted that bears were still prevalent on Beech Mountain. Many people still report spotting bears.
According to some Banner Elk residents, silver and gold was also found on Beech Mountain during the 1940’s. Two men lumbering on Beech Mountain happened upon some silver nuggets. Legend has it that the two men had an Indian worker who found out about their discovery. Fearful that the Indian might return and rob them of their treasure, they murdered the Indian on the way to Elk Park. After the murder, no silver was ever found on Beech Mountain again.
In 1961, a dentist from Birmingham, Alabama, Thomas Brigham, purchased a large tract of Beech Mountain land. He planned a ski resort development on top of the mountain. Brigham became involved in politics and sold the land to the Robbins brothers in 1962.
Harry and Grover Robbins were originally in the sawmill/lumber business. They soon became interested in resort development at Beech after their success with the Tweetsie Railroad Attraction in 1955, and later the Hound Ears Resort. They purchased the lands both on top of the mountain and Banner Elk (now known as the Elk River Club) under the name of Appalachian Development Corporation during the years between 1965-67.
The Robbins joined other investors and created Carolina Caribbean Corporation in 1965. The name evolved from the coupling of their Beech Mountain resort with their St. Croix resort in the Virgin Islands.
Their dream was to put together 9,000 families on 10,000 acres of land with a property owners’ association formed after a certain percentage of the property was sold. The association was first known as the Carolina Caribbean Club.
To promote land sales, the Carolina Caribbean Corporation enhanced the mountain with a ski resort, a summer recreation area, a golf course, and a theme park. The ski area opened for business in the winter of 1967. In 1969, Carolina Caribbean Corporation constructed an Olympic-sized, heated pool, 4 tennis courts, a bathhouse, and a gazebo all situated on 1,314 acres of land now known as the Beech Mountain Club Recreation Area. The first 9 holes of the golf course were also completed. 119 acres was designated for the golf area.
The Robbins dream continued to develop with the opening of the Land of Oz theme park in 1970. The idea was conceived by Grover Robbins, designed by Jack Pentes, and choreographed by Alice Lamar. The first year of operation over 300,000 visitors come to Oz.
The following year, 1971, the remaining 9 holes were completed at the golf course with the hope of constructing two additional courses; one in Banner Elk for tournament play; and a third course in the West Bowl area on Beech Mountain. The course was started but never completed.
During the same year, the property owners organized. Many property owners felt the Carolina Caribbean Corporation was applying their money to the overall support of sales efforts and neglecting road conditions, long ski lines, and garbage pickup. In early 1972, a Property Owner’s Association Board of Governors was established to improve relationship with the Carolina Caribbean Corporation hierarchy.
Continuing to expand, the owner’s organization secured a space at the end of one of Carolina Caribbean’s warehouses and established the Beech Mountain Volunteer Fire Department. They took over the equipment and assumed the responsibility for fire protection from the Carolina Caribbean Corporation.
In 1975 a fire destroyed Land of Oz building “C”, which housed many valuable items. The original 40-year old dress that Judy Garland wore in the MGM production of the Wizard of Oz film, donated by Debbie Reynolds, was believed to have been lost in the blaze. Many believe the dress was actually stolen!
It was a bad year for Carolina Caribbean. They declared bankruptcy. The Land of Oz, which had opened in the spring of 1970, closed in 1981.
In 1981, when Beech Mountain incorporated as a town, the Property Owners Association split from them and began establishing their own reputation. That same year the Town of Beech Mountain formed the first Police Department with 3 security officers.
The Beech Mountain Club and the Town of Beech Mountain have their roots deeply embedded in the past, but are both reaching toward the future. They are anxious to see where the path of the yellow brick road will take them. The man who started it all, Grover Robbins, who liked to be known as an “imagineer”, had his ashes scattered over the pinnacle of the mountain. A memorial to Grover, who died on March 4, 1970, is located on the path between the Memorial Outlook and Uncle Henry’s farm in Oz. It reads, “Gentlemen, Gather Around and Sing Happy Songs”.