By Bob Heafner © 1984-2012
Issue: August 1984
[Update 2011 - Many things have changed in this area since this BACKROADS tour was written, but the beauty and history of this area are the same. All along the way you will discover changes and surprises to make this drive even more enjoyable today than it was in 1984.]
As a teenager, in the early 1960’s, I spent a week deer hunting in Pisgah National Forest. My base camp was the tiny mountain community of Edgemont, North Carolina, which is located about 25 miles north of Morganton, North Carolina. Edgemont consisted primarily of Mr. Coffey’s Store. It was an old timey general store with everything from hoop cheese to kerosene lanterns. I remember the place had the smell of a fresh oiled gun. In those days, it seemed to me as if it were straight out of the pages of “Field and Stream” magazine.
The store was situated in a narrow mountain valley and was separated from a 20 foot wide trout stream by only the narrow gravel road. High ridges rose on both sides of the valley. It was a truly picturesque place.
One morning I had come out of the woods about 11:00 and headed to Mr. Coffey’s in my car for lunch. I passed an old fellow walking and offered him a ride. He accepted my invitation, climbed in the car and immediately began pointing out the sites of long disappeared homes and businesses. At one spot he announced, “This here’s Mortimer.” The few old deserted and dilapidated buildings that I had passed without thought were once Mortimer, North Carolina.
There was no trace of a railroad then but my new found friend informed me, “That building over there was the depot and that one over there was the hotel.” Tall weeds and underbrush almost completely hid the buildings then, but not from the old man’s memories. He told how there used to be a cotton mill and sure enough, as he pointed, I saw concrete walls standing in the woods. The outline of the buildings could easily be seen and all the walls were intact but there were no windows, roof, door and even the area within the walls was now covered with a growth of large trees.
My first reaction was, “What happened?” The old man informed me that in 1940, a tremendous flood had rocketed through the narrow valleys, sweeping away homes and businesses, including the cotton mill. Families had little notice to head for high ground and lives were lost. As the old man talked to me that cold November morning, I could see the towns of Mortimer and Edgemont, North Carolina as they were in his memories. I could smell the sweat of the two mules that pulled the wagon “by this very spot” the morning a feuding neighbor took a drunken shot at him and thankfully missed. My drive to Coffey’s Store that morning took longer than usual but it was well worth the extra time.
On later drives by the places he had pointed out, I could imagine the log cabin that “stood right over there” and the hustle and bustle that must have accompanied the mill in its heyday. No longer were the areas just pretty, but now they were fascinating places where imagination was ignited like dynamite. In the space of a thirty minute drive, I had “seen” over half a century. Sadly, I cannot remember the old man’s name, but thankfully, I will never forget his stories.
This month our BACKROADS tour will go to Edgemont and Mortimer, North Carolina. We’ll visit Mr. Coffey’s Store and witness some of natures most rugged and spectacular mountain beauty. There are white water rivers rushing through gorges filled with boulders the size of houses and high mountain vistas all to be seen and enjoyed along our route. Take a picnic basket and a camera. It’s the kind of place you’ll want to linger and show your friends later.
Our entire tour will cover a total distance of 59.4 miles and you should allow at least four unhurried hours to complete this scenic drive.
BACKROADS tours always make a complete loop back to the point where we started. The underlined numbers at the beginning of each paragraph indicate the total number of miles we've traveled from our point of beginning. The numbers in parenthesis ( ) indicate the distance from the last point of interest that we passed.
00.0 (0.0) If you are traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway, exit at milepost 291.9 onto US 321 and 221 and proceed into Blowing Rock. The Blowing Rock Town Hall at 1036 Main St, will be on our right and we will start our mileage reading here as we head south on Main Street from this point. Main Street is also US 321 Business.
00.2 (0.2) The beautiful rock church on our right is the Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church.
00.3 (0.1) Turn right onto State Road 1537 (Globe Road). This is the second road to the right past the church.
00.4 (0.1) Pavement ends here.
04.4 (4.0) There is an old mountain cemetery on our left.
05.8 (1.4) Here we bear to the left on state road 1367 continuing towards Globe, North Carolina.
05.9 (0.1) Here we cross a bridge spanning a beautiful stream.
06.6 (0.7) A beautiful old farm house is on our right.
07.4 (0.8) John’s River is on our left. This area is dotted with Christmas tree farms and they are beautiful, standing cone shaped and straight, row after row and field after field.
08.1 (0.7) Silver Wings Campground is on our left.
08.4 (0.3) At this stop sign, we are directly across from the Globe Baptist Church. We will turn left onto state road 1362.
08.7 (0.3) Here we cross another bridge over the river.
09.3 (0.6) At this point, we turn right onto state road 90.
09.5 (0.2) Here we cross a one lane steel bridge over beautiful John’s River.
12.0 (2.5) We continue straight ahead on state road 90.
15.5 (3.5) Mortimer Station Offices of Pisgah National Forest is on our right.
15.6 (0.1) A beautiful picnic area is on our right and the river is on our left.
16.4 (0.8) As we cross this bridge, the view of John’s River is spectacularly beautiful.
17.5 (1.1) Up the narrow shaded lane to our right is the picturesque Edgemont Baptist Church.
17.6 (0.1) This is Edgemont, North Carolina and Mr. Coffey’s General Store is on our left. We will stop here for a while before heading back the way we came. More than likely Archie Coffey will be sitting on the bench in front of his store when you arrive and a neighborly smile and a “How do you do,” undoubtedly will greet you as you walk up the steps to the store. Mr. Coffey has operated this store for 48 years. 38 1/2 of which, he was postmaster of Edgemont. The old Post Office window is still in the rear of the store, although it is no longer a post office. The store is filled to the brim with antiques which are not for sale, but Mr. Coffey obviously enjoys explaining the uses and history of the various items. On three separate occasions, the floorboards of this store have been under flood water – in 1895, 1916 and again in 1940.
Mr. Coffey recalls August 13, 1940 as, “A day I’ll never forget.” It had rained all night and morning brought no relief. Wilson creek in front of the store was getting dangerously high, so Archie and Mrs. Coffey opened the front and back doors of the store, hoping the raging waters would pass through rather than carry the building away, and started climbing Jonas Ridge, which rises almost vertically behind the store, on their way to higher ground. As they climbed, rain was coming in torrents and although they were close enough to touch, they could barely hear each other speak over the roar of crashing boulders being washed downstream in the normally small mountain stream nearly a half a mile away. Boulders the size of house were washed away never to be seen again.
On top of the ridge they met up with 15 of their neighbors and there the small band, all relieved to find each other alive, huddled together and prayed for the safety of their neighbors who lived across the creek and for their homes and belongings which surely would not last out the day.
From their vantage point on Jonas Ridge, they could see entire houses being washed downstream. As Mr. Coffey described the events of August 13, 1940, it was easy to understand why that was a day he’ll never forget.
When you enter Coffey’s General Store and shake the hand of Archie Coffey, do so with the knowledge that here is a man that typifies mountain people everywhere; a person who has faced hardships and danger without losing faith; a person who has endured the changes of time and natural disasters only to become stronger in character and in faith. Archie Coffey is a mountain man and nothing, not economic hard times or natural disasters can separate him from his mountain home and way of life.
When you are ready to leave Coffey’s General Store, we will head back the way we came, toward the Mortimer Station of Pisgah National Forest.
[Update 2011 – Unfortunately Mr. Coffey has passed away, I wish you could have met him. He was a genuinely nice old mountain gentleman.]
19.9 (2.3) Turn right onto state road 1328 (Brown Mountain Beach Road).
20.3 (0.4) To your right is evidence of where the railroad once crossed Wilson Creek.
20.6 (0.3) Here we cross a low water bridge across Wilson Creek.
20.7 (0.1) In the woods on our left are the walls of the old United Milling Company Mill. For the next tenth of a mile, evidence of the last remnants of Mortimer, North Carolina can be seen.
Mortimer was primarily a lumber camp town with over 600 residents in 1929. The “crash of ‘29” brought an end to its heyday and by 1930 the entire town was closed down. By 1933, only three people were left. Along about then, Mr. O.P. Lutz of Lenoir, North Carolina, bought the entire town and a thousand acres of the surrounding mountains. He reopened the old mill with a plan to manufacture nylon hosiery, which were the new and coming rage at the time. Six machines were ordered from Germany and each one came packed in boxes containing over 30,000 pieces. Machinists from Germany came with the machines to assemble them and begin production of samples. The plant was only in operation for 6 or 7 days when the flood of 1940 completely destroyed Mr. Lutz dream and Mortimer’s hopes of revival as a manufacturing center.
Today the heirs of O.P. Lutz still own the property, but the signs of Mortimer, like the house size boulders, are washed away in the stream of time.
21.9 (1.2) Here we cross a one lane bridge.
24.0 (2.1) At this point we bear to the left over a one lane bridge. The upcoming views are magnificent.
27.7 (3.7) Entrance to Brown Mountain Beach Store and Campground is on our right. Pavement begins here.
28.5 (0.8) Turn left onto state road 1335 at this stop sign.
31.7 (3.2) At this stop sign, we are in Collettesville, North Carolina and here we turn right onto state road 90.
39.5 (7.8) At this stop sign, state road 1352 turns left but we will turn right and continue on state road 90.
40.4 (0.9) Enter Lenoir, North Carolina city limits.
40.8 (0.4) Turn left onto 321-A North and cross a bridge.
41.1 (0.3) Turn left at this stop light onto 321 North towards Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
57.4 (16.3) Entering the town limits of Blowing Rock.
58.3 (0.9) Turn left onto 321 Business Route (Main Street of Blowing Rock).
59.4 (1.1) We are back at our point of beginning at 1036 Main St, Blowing Rock, NC and the Blowing Rock Town Hall is on our left.
I hope you enjoyed this tour as much as we did. For me, it was a ride down memory lane, for the rest of the family it was a day of, “Isn’t that beautiful,” and “Look over there,” and for each of us it was a day of fun. Billy got to ride on Tweetsie Railroad while we were in the area. (To tell you the truth, he wasn’t the only one who enjoyed that. It was my first train ride too!) Have fun!