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Tour of the Month: Shulls Mill

Tour of the Month: Shulls Mill Trout Lake on the Moses S. Cone Estate

The following is an excerpt from "The Valle Crucis Tour" from Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads." It is only part of the tour; come back to this site each month to see additional tour samples.

Total mileage: approximately 35 miles

The tour begins in the town of Blowing Rock where U.S. 221, or the Yonahlossee Trail, heads toward Linville. Approximately 0.6 mile from Main Street on U.S. 221, a road on the right leads to the Bass Lake parking area, which gives access to many of the 25 miles of carriage trails on the Moses S. Cone Estate. A walking trail encircles what was formerly one of Cone's well-stocked trout ponds. The trail is especially popular in the summer and fall.

16_1Bass Lake.JPG

The trout ponds are just a small part of the 3,516-acre estate once owned by Moses and Bertha Cone. The eldest of 13 children born to a Bavarian immigrant who achieved success as a dry-goods merchant, Moses Cone started out as a drummer, or traveling salesman, who solicited orders for the family business. He discovered Blowing Rock on one of his sales trips.

He and his brother Caesar began to amass a sizable fortune when they switched their focus to the growing textile industry. Moses started buying land in Blowing Rock when he was 36 and continued to add to his estate for 35 years. He purchased most of his acreage between 1893 and 1899.

16_2Cone Manor.JPG

In 1899, the Cones began construction on their Victorian Neocolonial manor house atop nearby Flat Top Mountain. An impressive gabled home with Tiffany windows, it now houses the Blue Ridge Parkway Craft Center. The Cones built a self-sufficient estate on which they raised sheep, hogs, chickens, and milk cows. Their dairy was the first classified as Grade A in Watauga County. The estate was so large that it supported 30 families. In an effort to introduce an alternate economy for local farmers, the Cones even experimented with apple orchards. At its height, the Cone estate had 10,000 apple trees of approximately 20 varieties.


When Moses Cone died, he left the estate to the hospital in Greensboro that now bears his name. His will specified that Mrs. Cone would have use of the estate until her death. The hospital later discovered that the money set aside for upkeep was insufficient, so it arranged to donate the house and surrounding land to the federal government. In 1949, the National Park Service took over the development and maintenance of the estate as a recreation area and public park.

 16_4Grandfather from Cone Est.JPG

To tour the Cone manor house on Flat Top Mountain, continue on U.S. 221 for 1 mile, then turn right, following the signs to the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the parkway, turn right and go approximately 1 mile to the entrance to the manor house parking lot. A popular and easy 2-mile round-trip hike leads from the parking area under the parkway to the Cones' grave site. If you wish to add another 4 miles to the hike, you can continue to the fire tower on top of Flat Top Mountain.

After visiting the manor house, head back toward U.S. 221. Just before the junction, turn right onto Shulls Mill Road, which travels under the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just beyond the overpass, follow Shulls Mill Road as it forks left. It is less than 0.1 mile to an unmarked road on the right. This is a one-way route to the parking area for Trout Lake-another lake in the estate's system.


From Trout Lake, return to Shulls Mill Road and turn right. The road winds its way through the woods and offers occasional vistas of Grandfather Mountain to the left. About 2.3 miles past the trout pond, it runs through the center of a resort development built on the former site of Camp Yonahlossee, one of the area's first summer camps for girls. Camp Yonahlossee began in 1922 under the direction of Dr. and Mrs. A. P. Kephart. The developers of the new resort have preserved much of the camp's original rockwork and many of its rustic buildings, including the barn, on the left, and the dam with its waterfall, around the curve on the right.

After another 1.5 miles, you will see the first signs of the Hound Ears Club. The fairways and greens of the club's golf course are visible through the trees on the left. Shulls Mill Road leads through the center of the property. The clubhouse and hundreds of expensive summer homes cover the surrounding hills. Atop one of the hills is the rock formation local residents were fond of comparing to a hound's ears before the deciduous forest grew up to cover it from view.

 16_6Hound Ears Club.JPG

Just beyond the entrance to the Hound Ears Club and past Old Turnpike Road is a building across the road from Shulls Mill Baptist Church. This structure housed the community's general store. The former store and the church, both of which were built around 1850, are all that remain of a once-prosperous community that claimed a population of more than 1,000 at its peak.

Shulls Mill began around 1835 when Phillip Shull, the grandson of a German immigrant who had moved to Valle Crucis in the 1770s, built a gristmill near his farm. It was during those days that some of the community's most colorful residents began to leave their mark on local folklore.

16_7Shulls Mill store.JPG

Around 1820, a man named James Aldridge arrived in the area and persuaded Betsy Calloway to marry him. They had seven children. All apparently went well until 1836, when another Mrs. James Aldridge appeared on the scene. It seems that Aldridge had deserted a wife and five children when he left the Big Sandy area in what is now West Virginia. A fur peddler traveling through Watauga County had recognized him and passed along his whereabouts. As to Betsy's reaction when her husband's first wife showed up, John Preston Arthur recorded that "she was sulky, but that [Aldridge] himself was treating both women exactly alike, and had no doubt but that Betsy would soon get over it."

Sources disagree on whether or not she really did "get over it." The first Mrs. Aldridge returned to the Big Sandy. Shortly thereafter, three sons and a daughter from Aldridge's first family came to live in Watauga County. Aldridge spent the next few years bouncing back and forth between Shulls Mill and the Big Sandy until both wives grew unreceptive, at which time he started living with a third woman. Betsy struggled but managed to raise her children, and occasionally the children from her husband's previous marriage as well. She died in 1900 a well-respected woman. No one remembered much about James Aldridge by that time.

16_8Grandfather from Shulls Mill.JPG

In 1859, another citizen of Shulls Mill entered the history books. John Preston Arthur described David Colvert "Cobb" McCanless as "a strikingly handsome man and a well-behaved, useful citizen till he became involved with a woman not his wife, after which he fell into evil courses." Arthur didn't supply the woman's name, but other sources identified her as Sarah Shull. Those sources also suggested it may not have been wholly Sarah Shull's fault that McCanless turned out the way he did.

In 1856, Cobb McCanless was elected sheriff. One of his duties was tax collection. In January 1859, he and Sarah Shull absconded with the funds he had gathered. Several months later, McCanless's brother took Cobb's wife-Mary-her children, her father, her mother, and his and Cobb's sisters west to join the fugitives. How Cobb managed to balance life with Sarah Shull and Mary is not clear, but he apparently achieved some measure of success until the Civil War, when word arrived that he had been killed in Kansas.

It wasn't until 1883 that locals learned Cobb had actually been killed in a shootout with Wild Bill Hickok. The McCanless gang had allegedly been impressing horses for the Confederate cause. Hickok, known to side with the Union, disagreed with those actions. In an interview in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Hickok offered a description of Cobb McCanless: "You see this M'Kandlas was the captain of a gang of desperadoes, horse-thieves, murderers, regular cut-throats, who were the terror of every body on the border. . . . I knew them all in the mountains, where they pretended to be trapping, but they were there hiding from the hangman. M'Kandlas was the biggest scoundrel and bully of them all, and was allers a-braggin of what he could do." In December 1861, a shootout occurred between 10 of Cobb's boys and Wild Bill and his men. All but two of the McCanless gang were killed. Sarah Shull returned to Watauga County.

Shulls Mill was a regular stop on the toll road that ran from Lincolnton, North Carolina, to Abingdon, Virginia. Between 1855 and 1861, a nine-passenger stagecoach named Old Albany made daily stops at Joseph Shull's place. But by 1893, traffic was bypassing town, and the section of the turnpike from Blowing Rock to Shulls Mill was turned over to Watauga County to be maintained as a public road. In 1914, some local citizens, dissatisfied with what they considered county neglect, established the Valle Crucis and Blowing Rock Turnpike Company. This tour follows the route of the original toll road.

Shulls Mill began its finest hour in 1915, when William Scott Whiting, the owner of the Whiting Lumber Company, selected it as the site for a band mill. The same community that had listed a population of 25 in 1910 claimed 1,000 residents by August 1917. Though the town had previously boasted only a few stores (including the building on the left), a hotel, and a post office, the Whiting Lumber Company helped bring a train depot for the new railroad spur, a barbershop, a movie theater, a hospital, and housing for hundreds of workers.

By 1918, the lumber company had sawed over 1.6 million feet of lumber from 1,436 acres in the area. By 1925, timber close enough to the mill to allow the company to make a profit was growing scarce, and William Scott Whiting began moving his operation to alternate sites. He invited his workers to relocate at one of his other mills. Most accepted the offer. The flood of 1940 destroyed the majority of the buildings that remained.

Continue on Shulls Mill Road. At the stop sign just past the bridge, turn right onto Old Shulls Mill Road, which parallels the Watauga River, on the right. In the summer months, this part of the river is a popular swimming hole and fishing spot for local residents. It is 0.8 mile to an intersection with N.C. 105. Turn right and go 0.8 mile. At the traffic light just before the bridge, turn left onto Broadstone Road, heading toward Valle Crucis. You can continue on N.C. 105 into Boone.