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Tour of the Month: Valle Crucis

Tour of the Month: Valle Crucis Mast Farm Inn, Valle Crucis

From the last stoplight on the western outskirts of Boone on N.C. 105, it is 2.7 miles to the traffic light just after the bridge over the Watauga River. Turn right onto Broadstone Road, heading toward Valle Crucis.

In 1883, Wilbur Zeigler and Ben Grosscup wrote in The Heart of the Alleghanies that “one valley in particular, by the Watauga, is of captivating loveliness. The mountains rise around it, as though placed there with no other purpose than to protect its jewel-like expanse from rough incursions of storm.” Those who travel through the valley they described are likely to agree with that assessment.

It is 1.1 miles to where a green walkway goes over the highway. The walkway leads to part of Camp Broadstone. Bob Breitenstein, former assistant football coach at the University of Miami and future head coach at Appalachian State University, started an athletic camp here in 1956. In 1961, Appalachian State purchased the 55 acres for use in programs outside the traditional classroom. In 1975, ASU turned the property into an outdoor adventure and retreat center offering summer camp for the academically gifted.

Frederick Shull Farm

[Frederick Shull Farm]

The main entrance to the camp is 0.3 mile around the curve. Across the road is the original farm of the Shull family—the homestead established by Frederick Shull in the 1770s. The Shull home was a stagecoach stop on the route to Abingdon, Virginia. The recently renovated house on the right was built in 1888.

Mast Farm Inn

[Mast Farm Inn]

Continue 0.6 mile to the Mast Farm Inn. In Sketches of Early Watauga, Betty MacFarland described how this farm complex grew from its humble beginnings as a simple log cabin built by David Mast in 1812: “With this building as a nucleus, the farm illustrates the progression of an enterprising pioneer family from this rude early house on a small homestead to a larger more comfortable house, the seat of much larger landholdings. The complex includes one of the most complete and best-preserved groups of nineteenth century farm buildings in western North Carolina.” The log house on the left in front of the large frame house is that original cabin. When the frame house was built in 1885, the log cabin was converted to a weaving house. A bedspread fashioned there was used in the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Along with the barn across the road from the house, the farm consisted of a wash house, a springhouse, a meat house, a woodhouse, an apple house, and a blacksmith’s shop—everything necessary for a self-sustaining farm complex.

Barn at Mast Farm

[Barn at Mast Farm Inn]

Before long, the Mast Farm became recognized for the good food and hospitable lodgings it offered tourists seeking to escape the lowland heat. The tradition continues today. The Mast Farm Inn operates as a bed-and-breakfast inn featuring a restaurant noted for its excellent food.

Mast Store Annex

[Mast Store Annex]

It is 0.1 mile to the beginning of what might be called the commercial district of Valle Crucis. On the right is the old Valle Crucis Company store, erected in 1909. It now serves as an annex for the famous Mast Store. Across the street is Valle Crucis Methodist Church, built in 1894 on the same site as its predecessor, an 1870 log church. In the 1940 flood, the church was washed off its foundation, but it was prevented from going downstream by the large sugar maples in the churchyard. These buildings and the school across the road are located on a tract settled in 1779 by Samuel Hix and his son-in-law, James Holtsclaw. The two men built a palisade of split logs to protect themselves from Indians and wild animals. Hix came to the wilderness to escape military service during the Revolutionary War; it is said he sided with the British. He eventually moved on to Banner Elk, where he became a well-known character who earned a living by hunting and making maple sugar. It is said he sold his landholdings for a rifle, a dog, and a sheepskin.

Mast Store

[Mast Store]

Continue 0.2 mile to the well-preserved Mast Store, built in the 1880s. The store is a popular tourist attraction that has spawned several imitators in the area. Goods touted in a 1940 advertisement for the store included “everything from toothpicks to caskets.” Today’s merchandise is equally eclectic. Many of the items mentioned in Sketches of Early Watauga can still be purchased here. “Even though it is now a general mercantile business, the store is a vivid commentary on early America in both goods and in atmosphere,” Betty MacFarland wrote. “Commodities typifying by-gone days include the following items: famed penny candy, cheese and crackers, fatback; Chesterfield hats in yellowed boxes, bolts of cloth, leather goods, washboards, washtubs, cast iron pots, kerosene lamps, cherry seeders, apple peelers, sausage grinders, saddles, horseshoes, sets of harness, turning plows and cultivators.” Current owner John Cooper also carries skiing and outdoor clothing and equipment reminiscent of the popular L. L. Bean store in Maine.

On a hill diagonally across the road from the Mast Store is the Hard Taylor House. The original structure was built by Henry Taylor before the Civil War. The existing house was constructed in two stages by Henry’s son, Thomas Hardester “Hard” Taylor, whose plan was to incorporate his father’s two-room brick house as a nucleus. It was the first home in the valley to have closets in every room, indoor plumbing, and central heat. It now operates as 1861 Farmhouse restaurant.

Hard_Taylor_House.jpg

[Hard Taylor House, now 1861 Farmhouse restaurant]

W.W. Mast Home

[W.W. Mast home]

On the left just past the Mast Store is the W. W. Mast home, built in 1903. Another 0.5 mile down the road is the Baird House, on the right. The original log cabin at the site was incorporated into this four-room, two-story house constructed sometime before 1873, when David and Elizabeth Baird moved in. Tradition says that this was the first home painted white in the area. The house and its barn serve as evidence of the prosperity of this farming valley.

Baird House

[Baird House]

Continue on Broadstone Road as it passes over the Watauga River. It is 0.8 mile from the Baird House to Mast Gap Road. Turn left, following the signs to St. John’s Church. In 0.5 mile, Herb Thomas Road goes off to the left. Follow this gravel road that parallels the river for 0.6 mile to the church. Information about the history of the Episcopal Church in this area is presented later in the tour. This historic church was built in the mid-19th century by William West Skiles, who is also discussed later. The church is now operated as a summer chapel. Worship services are held each Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The church is also frequently booked for weddings.

St John's Church

[St. John's Church]

Retrace your route for 2.6 miles past the Mast Store to Valle Crucis Elementary School. Turn right onto N.C. 194 South and head into the most scenic part of the valley. In A History of Watauga County, published in 1915, John Preston Arthur wrote, “There is, perhaps, more interest in this place and its romantic history than in any other in Watauga County. It is called the Valley of the Cross because of the fancied resemblance to that symbol of our faith caused by two creeks, each flowing from an opposite direction into Dutch Creek. . . . There is a dreamy spell which hangs over this little valley.” Arthur accurately captured the area’s romantic overtones.

Taylor House

[Taylor House]

After 0.8 mile on N.C. 194, you will see the Squire Taylor House on the right. Taylor’s first home, built in 1890, was located where Dutch and Clark’s creeks flow together on the left side of the road. The 1940 flood destroyed the original structure, as well as Taylor’s gristmill. The second house, built in 1911–12, survives as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

apple barn in Valle Crucis

The Apple Barn, built in 1911 as the Dairy Barn. The building visible to the left is the original Apple Storage Barn, now known as the Bunk House.

[Above is the current Apple Barn. Below is same building in 1911, known then as the Dairy Barn. The building visible to the left is the original Apple Storage Barn, now known as the Bunk House.]

It is 0.1 mile to a restored barn that is part of the Valle Crucis Conference Center complex. Much of the history of Valle Crucis revolves around the work of the Episcopal Church. In the 1840s, L. Silliman Ives, the bishop of North Carolina, grew interested in this area. One of the best-known men Bishop Ives brought here was William West Skiles, a layman who later became a deacon. In 1842, Skiles wrote, "The highland valley was magnificent in natural beauty. It lay in the elevated country between the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies, nearly three thousand feet above the sea, while grand old mountains of successive ranges, broken into a hundred peaks, rose to nearly double the height on either hand, many so near that their distinctive features could be clearly seen, while others were only dimly outlined in the distance. These mountain ranges were peculiarly interesting, differing in some particulars from those of any other parts of the country. The vegetation was singularly rich and varied. The valley, entirely shut in by forest-clad mountains, was watered by three small, limpid streams, two of them leaping down the hillsides in foaming cascades."

Conference_city.jpg

[Auchmuty Hall (left) & Auxiliary Hall (right) circa 1910s. Auxiliary Hall burned in 1919, was rebuilt, and is now known as the Annex. Auchmuty Hall is now commonly known as the Inn.]

By 1844, Bishop Ives had used his own money to buy 2,000 acres of land and a sawmill in the area. He began building structures of adobe brick. As the buildings were completed, young men were brought in to study for the ministry and to serve as teachers in the boarding and day school. Ives also shipped in a herd of dairy cattle and hired Skiles, an experienced farmer, to supervise the operation.

About that same time, Ives established the Society of the Holy Cross, the first monastic order for men in the Anglican communion since the English Reformation in the mid-1500s. By 1849, authorities in the Episcopal Church were growing concerned that “the Mission at Valle Crucis had begun to drift away from the teachings of the Church, and was fast becoming a feeble and undignified imitation of the monastic institutions of the Church of Rome,” as the bishops of North Carolina stated in a report. Bishop Ives resigned in 1852, and the monastic order and divinity school were disbanded. But William Skiles, so impressed by Ives’s mission that he had joined the monastic order and been ordained a deacon in 1847, elected to stay in Valle Crucis, where he ran a store, practiced medicine, and taught school until his death in 1862.

Valle Crucis Episcopal Church.JPG

[Church of Holy Cross Episcopal Church]

In 1895, Joseph Blount Cheshire, then the bishop of North Carolina, came to the area to revive the church’s work. He built a dormitory and chapel with classrooms attached. A few years later, Junius Horner, bishop of the newly created Asheville district, encouraged the school even further. In 1903, the Episcopal Church bought 435 acres of the land previously owned by Bishop Ives. It began apple orchards and a dairy, built a sawmill and a wagon factory, and installed a hydroelectric power plant. The new school conducted classes from first grade through high school for both boarding and day students. A stone church, the Church of the Holy Cross, was built in 1926. Area public schools expanded by 1936, so the mission school dropped classes for the first six grades and became a boarding school for girls only. It closed in 1943, thanks in large part to World War II. The surviving facilities, many of which have been renovated and modernized, are now used as an Episcopal Church conference center.

Bishop Ives's Cabin.JPG

[Cabin of Bishop Ives]