Little Switzerland at 99 Years Old

At 99, still pretty little
BY JAY PRICE, Staff Writer
LITTLE SWITZERLAND, NC - Almost exactly a century ago, a man who was to become one of North Carolina's most contradictory figures reined in his mule to drink in the view here.
It took awhile.

Heriot Clarkson and two companions were atop the ridgeline that forms the Eastern Continental Divide, and for 360 degrees around them some of the most inspiring scenery in this half of the nation rose and fell into the distance: Table Rock, Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Hawksbill Mountain and the deep valleys between them and endless unnamed wrinkles and folds of altitude-cooled forest.

This, the Charlotte lawyer pronounced, was it: the place where he would build an idyllic summer colony where people -- the white ones, at least -- from the steaming flatlands of the South could seek relief. And, not coincidentally, make him a tidy profit.

Later he pulled together some partners and they settled on a plan for 600 lots of about one acre each. Commercial property was tightly limited to the basics: an inn, a post office and a general store. And that's pretty much what's here now.

Evidence of Clarkson's vision and prodigious force of will, Little Switzerland became and remains almost exactly what he wanted. Almost.

"From day one, it has maintained its demeanor as a quiet little community of summer houses, and a lot of us are real proud of that," said Mark Morgan, a Durham plumber whose family has been coming up for four decades.

The community, which got its name partly because Clarkson perceived a resemblance to the mountains of Switzerland, but also because it simply sounded nice, earned a brief entry in the Federal Writers' Project's "Guide to the Old North State" in 1939. The guide described Little Switzerland, which is northeast of Asheville, as rustic and simple, with "neither golf course nor electric lights."

While electricity has arrived, life and traditions still follow the rhythm of nature. In winter, said Gary Jensen, owner of the Switzerland Inn, there are maybe 40 residents. Then, as things warm up, the summer folks begin their annual migration back to cottages that, in many cases, their grandparents or great-grandparents built. By summer, the population tops out at about 1,000, and a low-key social scene hits its peak.

There are private cocktail parties, community socials, regular "Local Ladies Lunches," square dances, covered dish suppers and literary events, beer and oysters at the inn on Wednesday nights and lunch dates over smoked trout with capers at the Switzerland Café.

By September, the summer population has begun to drain away, though traffic at the inn and café spikes again with fall leaf-viewing season.

Pull of the Parkway

Besides the seasons, the other underlying force is the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the best-known Depression-era public works projects still around. It tunnels under the heart of Little Switzerland, bisecting the community as it follows the scenery down that ridgeline where Clarkson stopped his mule.

The parkway is America's most-visited national park and the world's longest and narrowest. And nowhere is it narrower than Little Switzerland, and nowhere else does it have an exit that directs traffic off the parkway directly to private property: the inn that Clarkson's sister opened in 1910 and that still forms the heart of the community.

Bending the Blue Ridge

These things happened because Clarkson bent the parkway planning to his will after he mounted a bruising legal and public relations battle in the late 1930s to challenge the park service's plans.

Clarkson had become one of the most influential men in North Carolina, serving in the legislature, then on the state supreme court. He got his way, wringing more money out of the government for the land it needed for the road, limiting the width of the corridor and forcing the exit that essentially funnels motorists right to the inn's entrance.

Not that modern visitors would necessarily notice all this, since the rustic feel of the inn and surrounding community fits the style of the parkway.

Clarkson did great things for the state. For one, he played a central role in creating the highway commission, and fought for what became a nationally known system of good roads.

But he also was a powerful white supremacist and led the successful charge to revoke black citizens' right to vote.

Deeds in Little Switzerland still include his now unenforceable restriction barring black buyers, but diversity has come, said Ann Kernahan who, with partner Lora Lanier, owns the café. There is at least a handful of black residents. Stickers on a window of their general store admonish folks who still see things as Clarkson did: "I won't ski with bigotry" and "Celebrate Diversity."

Clarkson also was a key leader in the state's prohibition movement, and in a lesser rebuke, inn owner Jensen's father led a successful push for a law that made alcohol sales legal within a mile and a half of entrances to the parkway.

The main things Clarkson wanted, though, are still here and seem to have become as permanent as the mountain ridge itself.

Not that it's easy, especially for the handful of merchants, who must deal with the challenge of a short season.

The inn, with its restaurant and its rustic bar, and the café, general store and an adjacent bookstore, are crucial anchors for the summer residents, but they also have to attract enough business from passing motorists and short-term visitors to stay afloat.

"When you're open for six months, you've got to get every slice of the pie," said Kernahan. "If I go to the restaurant association and ask what could I do next, they say find your niche. Well, we need lots of niches since we're only open six months. So we've got to appeal to your hamburger crowd and your vegetarian hummus-eating, tofu-eating crowd, your upscale arts crowd and your motorcycle crowd and families that just want PBJ's all the way around."

Its labor-intensive menu and philosophy of using fresh, local ingredients is working. The cafe's reputation as one of the best food stops in the mountains draws a crowd all summer.

Meeting at the inn

The inn, meanwhile, has become a popular retreat for wedding parties and for sports car clubs and motorcycle groups, who will come and stay sometimes for nearly a week, arraying gleaming vintage Jaguars or Austin-Healeys on the lawn, when they're not soaring up and down the mountain roads or parkway. The inn even has a wing designated for motorcyclists, with special parking.

The inn celebrates its centennial next year, and as part of the advertising campaign, Jensen plans to borrow a phrase Clarkson once used when vowing he would win the fight to shape the parkway plans to his benefit: "By the grace of God and a Mitchell County jury."

Of course, Clarkson is gone now, and with him that clout.

When the stretch of parkway running through Little Switzerland was closed recently (it's open again), the detour route bypassed the community, to the dismay of merchants.

"It was a big political fight, and a bunch of towns got in it," Jensen said. "We obviously didn't have the connections Judge Clarkson had."

Still, Jensen said, the judge secured the key parts of Little Switzerland's future long ago.

"Clarkson was smart," Jensen said. "This place will never be a row of T-shirt shops. It's always going to remain a mountain town."

Published: July 28, 2009 The Old North State  by Jay Price, Staff Writer

Posted in News.