Todd Morse was the last member of the Morse family to run the park until it was sold to the State in 2006. He wrote a book on his family’s stewardship called, “ For The Love Of Chimney Rock: Four Generations of Morse Family Stewardship.” Mr. Morse met with Christian Roughton on Wednesday, March 27, 2019 for an interview for this website. He also contributed all the archival documents to UNCA that were used in this project. Below is a transcript of that interview.
Christian- I’m Christian Roughton, I’m conducting an interview with Todd Morse on Wednesday March 27th 2019. We’re going to talk about his family’s Stewardship of Chimney Rock. So I think going back to its earlier roots, the property was bought in 1902, do you know why essentially, the why of it all?
Todd- That’s a good question, but I guess the way that way I’d share that is that my great-great-uncle, dr. Lucius B. Morse, came to this area around 1900, I didn’t have a specific dates but he had contracted tuberculosis in his practice medicine in Chicago and ended up in Asheville after looking around at other places and their climate be able to recuperate from tuberculosis but he ended up settling in Asheville and worked with Dr. Westray Battle who had a tuberculosis sanatorium in Asheville at that time. It’s my understanding that Dr Morse loved to ride horses and he used to ride for recreation from Asheville all over the place, but he would particularly enjoy going down through Hickory Nut Gorge where Chimney Rock is, and I’ve always been told that the story was that he paid the family that owned Chimney Rock 25 cents, in 1902 and that you could go up by horse back to Chimney rock and the walk and take some stairs to the top and that he immediately fell in love with the property and wanted to acquire it. So he did acquire 64 acres back in December of 1902 and got his two brothers, once who was my great-grandfather Hiram involved the next year in 1903. I think Dr.Morse just loved the area and was probably struck with its beauty and was probably intrigued about the whole idea of operating an attraction because Chimney Rock at that time would have been somewhat accessible so he probably saw the possibilities that exist there, as he would moving down in history to the development of Lake Lure.
Christian- Right cause I have a pamphlet or booklet, from 1926 I believe, that is a development proposal and he even hits on some of the stuff your are talking about, the proposal does. It talks about the climate flora and its very nature focused. I know at this time health vacationing was kind of a thing where, like FDR would go to these springs, I’m from Georgia, these springs back near Georgia to help him heal, so it feels like part of that kind of cultural movement.
Todd- In North Carolina at the time there were alot of tuberculosis sanatoria, I think is the correct plural of sanatorium, in Western North Carolina but also in the sandhills in the middle of the state and both where for whatever reason even though they are very different thought to it would be very good for tuberculosis, yeah absolutely there was a lot of health tourism.
C- Yes that’s a good word for it. So he got the land kinda on a whim it sounds like?
T- Uh yeah I wish I could have found out more about that uh how that all came down.
C- DId you ever know him?
T- No he passed away in 1946 I was born in 1960 but I never knew my great-grandfather either he was gone before I was born as well. I really wish, that’s one of those things that if you could go back in time or if you have a wish to time travel, that I would love to actually go back and talk to Dr. Morse and find out why. I was always so fascinated with the story of the Lake Lure development, because if you look at a picture of before Lake Lure was there, I thought there’s no way I would have seen what he saw.
C- No and when you look in that development booklet he has drawings that are almost mediterranean in how the actethic he was trying to reach it’s really interesting.
T- He was a fan of that, I never could find any direct evidence of his travels but I know that he was very interested in creating a mediterranean or european style, a lot of people think of Chimney Rock as being similar to the parts of Switzerland or Germany and I think he wanted to model some of what he had seen there.
C- Yeah it does look like something from that area, I hadn’t been able to totally nail down what it reminded me of.
T- Back to your original question about, about what made him want to buy this I really do think that somehow, and I wish I knew more,that he did have a great vision for what chimneyrock could become that was bigger than what he was seeing when he went to visit at the time.
C- Yeah it seems like, and this is entirely speculation almost entirely off that booklet and a few other documents i read, that he wanted to turn it into a little almost Denver like resort town with an entire industry built around tourism. It’s really interesting because he’d probably be be a little, maybe not shocked, but how do you think he’d feel about the state owing it?
T- What was interesting to, me so Dr. Morse set out with Lake Lure to create what would have been the largest resort development in the eastern United States at that time and it encompassed 8,000 acres, which is the size of the biltmore estates properties and holdings now. But 8,00 acres was a pretty immense property back then and I think that he wanted the lake to be the centerpiece, He wanted this to be a playground for people but that fell short because of land busts and so forth. it’s funny that when people would invoke during the sale to the state, when we announced that we were putting it out on the market publically, after we got in a log jam with the state, it was a very difficult time for me because I hoped we would sell it to the state but we had to put it out through Sotheby’s and we had all kinds of different types of interest in it and I would occasionally get these comments of what would your ancestors thought, or what would they have done, and sometimes i felt like saying my great great-uncle who wanted to build the largest resort in the eastern United States, that conservation minded guy your invoking him? I don’t think you know your history very well. I think in his own was Dr. Morse was interested in conservation and I know my grandfather wanted this to become a state park and I think his father saw the possibility of it becoming a state park, I think that Hiram and my grandfather both would have been very pleased and I do think that Dr. Morse would be happy that its protected for all time and its accessible to the public for all time.
C- And it’s a famous south eastern landmark, I’m from Georgia and we used to go up to Chimney Rock when I was a kid, and I think that ultimately, I mean it sounds like he fell in love with a piece of land and wanted to share it with everybody.
T- Even with the Development I think that was his primary driver as opposed to just being infinitely wealthy.
C- That’s not the vibe you get from anything that they’re building, because it could have been a lot more commercial development plans, and it seems to be a little escape wonderland and a little Swiss or German resort in the middle of the North Carolina mountains.
T- Sorry I will talk, in my book you can tell I know how to tell a story.
C- That’s good, getting the insight into the initial, it’s all a little mysterious, this might be to private but was it family money or had he come into it with investing…?
T- No that’s fine, well you know what’s interesting to me too about Dr. Morse was that Dr. Morse grew up on a farm. It was in central Illinois, around decatur illinois which is in the middle part of the state. I think probably that he didn’t grow up in affluence or this traveling the world lifestyle. I think once he contracted tuberculosis maybe as early as when he was in Chicago then all the way through his travels to try to find a place to live with his tuberculosis, he probably got exposed to all kinds of different things that got his wheel turning.
C- Would he have been there for the world’s fair in Chicago?
T-What year was that?
C- I think it was, I think he would have been there like the 1880’.
T- In the late 1800’s he was in Chicago medical college and then it was during that time or right after when he got into practice that he developed tuberculosis and I don’t think when he moved and he moved around the country I don’t think he stay anywhere particularly long until he got to Asheville.
C- Did he die in Asheville?
T- You know I can’t remember exactly, he died in our area but I can’t remember if he was in a hospital in Asheville or if he died at home.
C- And so he moved the whole the whole clan down here? I mean did I hire him now.
T- So Hiram, my great grandfather had, he was and I would have to double check this but I want to say he was seven years older than Dr. Morse. I know he was older, but Hiram had already gotten a law degree and then he helped run a legal newspaper in St. Lewis In the late eighteen hundreds, in the early 1890s. Hiram, and this was trying to get back around to your question about the finances. So Hiram created this, or got into this business in 1891, this legal newspaper, and became very successful and he became quite a successful businessman. Dr. Morse it’s really unclear where he got the money. He would have had to come up with four thousand five hundred dollars to buy Chimney Rock in 1902 and I’ve not seen any mention of whether the brothers at that point bankrolled him or not. But the fact that he granted an interest to his brother Hiram and their other brother Aisill who was Hiram’s twin in 1903, to me says a lot about him, Dr. Morse wanting his two brothers to be involved because I’m sure he realized they could be financial backers for him. That he probably didn’t have a lot of money because he had been sick and I don’t know how fully he was practicing but and I think Hiram was the one who over time would be the financial backer of the brothers.
C- I know he started showing up more and more as the time went on, by the 40 he seemed to be kind of steering the ship here.
T- He really was.
C- Yeah. So it almost seems like it was the younger brother with a lot of ideas and not a lot of capital maybe came to the older brothers and they’re like ok well we can maybe help you out.
T- And I think what’s interesting about that is to me is if you look at the history of Chimney, Rock it’s the three brothers together that made it work because I think with just Dr. Morse there would have been a lot of vision but not necessarily a lot of business sense to take it to the next place. But with Hiram he may not have had quite the vision of his brother but he certainly had the business acumen to be able to help it go. The other brother, adult, it’s unclear how much he was involved. He passed away in 1939, but I know he was a successful businessman as well in Kansas City. One thing that’s, not to get off on a tangent again but one thing that I did think was curious was there was a fourth brother and there was no record and that was one of the great mysteries to me is he was the oldest of the bunch. Why they didn’t draw him in. I would find that, what little I did, was that he was involved with real estate development. So he would have seemed to have been a natural but it’s unclear why he wasn’t involve. Hiram definitely was, I think for decades.
C- Because didn’t really actually die after..?
T- He died in 1952, about six years after Dr. Morse.
C- I thought so, who took over after he passed on?
T- My grandfather was the second generation and he’s the one I was showing in the book that had graduated from University of Pennsylvania business school in 1929 and got into the family business at that point he was Lucious the second
T- Named for his uncle Lucius who was doctor
C- And there is a Lucious the third?
T-. Yes that was my dad and then my brother Lucious the fourth.
C- That makes sense. My brother’s Bert the third so I also dogged the family name. So Lucious is ran it for a while then huh?
T- Yeah. My grandfather started getting active probably, well he got active in the business in the early thirties and then finally turned over his shares in the company probably in the late 70s to early 80s. So yeah he was he was involved and helped grow the business overall because we had other businesses other than Chimney Rock.
C- And was your father involved in the sale and all that.
T- He was. My father got involved with the family business in the 60s and then he took a break in the early 70s from the family business when we moved to Boston and then he came back in the mid 70s and stayed there until he passed away in 2009.
C-So when you did.., and you did take over right?
T- Yeah. Well that’s a whole other story.
Yeah I got involved with the family business. I became a board member in 1984 after I got a graduate school. I got an MBA at Vanderbilt and and then in 86 is when I joined Chimney Rock. And the idea for me was to start at Chimney Rock the smallest of the businesses and work my way through to where ultimately I would oversee the whole corporation and at that time in 86 we had multiple printing operations one in Tennessee one in St. Lewis one in Baltimore, the Baltimore area.
We printed Rolling Stone magazine nationally.
C- So it was just a piece of the family business.
T- And I ended up working at that business for a short time as a little break from Chimney Rock in 90-91. I came back. But yeah the idea was that I would work my way through and ultimately be over it but then and the late eighties was when our business empire kind of came crumbling down and that’s to me that the beginning of why we ultimately sold was that we were just tampered with so much debt and an inability to service that very well
C- It’s a huge piece of land.
T- Well and we ended up selling businesses over time to help get us more and more out of debt . But in the end it was it was, ended up really being too much.
I can talk more about that if you want but it’s..
C- We can pull back and go over some of the earlier history. I’ve got a strange question I was looking through the archives and I saw there’s a lot of correspondence happening with silver? Silver Lake Missouri? Silver?
T- Oh Silver Dollar City?
C- Yes, so what was, do you know what was going on with that exchanging about.
T- Oh yeah.
C- And this would have been Lucius the second?
T- Yeah. Well you know what was interesting and I think it relates to the sale and in kind of a funny way that my great great uncle, Dr. Morse and Hiram both, Dr. Morse was hands on. He was on the property and he was there day to day. Hiram spent a good amount of time there but mostly he was in St. Louis. He at least had his brother there day to day but when both of them moved on we really didn’t have a family presence down here. And I think my grandfather was trying to expand our business interests in printing and we had a couple of car dealerships too. And he didn’t really have a lot of time to spend down here. But he was very interested in Chimney Rock. He got to know Peter Herschend, and if you look in my book or whatever there’s more details about this . Oh hopefully my book and the table of contents will give you reference points that you could pull, without having to read the whole manifesto. But I guess is my grandfather was trying to understand what to do strategically with Chimney Rock. He drew in Peter Herschend who was over at that time Silver Dollar City and it would become Persian Family Entertainment which owns Dollywood and actually owns the or has the lease for Stone Mountain in Georgia. They operate Stone Mountain for the state.
C- Oh that’s an entirely different kind of place.
T- Yeah .And so back in the early 70s Peter Herschend and I remember hearing he liked to as part of his own growth and development and do consulting for other businesses and he didn’t charge any money for it. But he would if he liked you I guess you know he took an interest in you he would work with you and I guess my grandfather got to know him because they were in Missouri in southwestern Missouri and somehow they got his attention and had meetings and then Peter did extensive consulting at Chimney Rock.
And there’s a good bit in my book that I talk about it. Why I put that in there was I think Peter Herschend has one of the great marketing minds in tourism, whether you like Dollywood or not is a whole nother subject. And it almost doesn’t matter. I think even if you don’t like Dollywood you have to appreciate how they do what they do.
C-It’s a successful operation.
T It is. And I think so a lot of the things in Peter’s report were honestly things that we considered during my time there that were harmonious with what we had. But what would help it be a more profitable attraction like adding more retail facilities that were geared around what crafts were made in the region and stuff like that. But I think Peter understood what a sensitive incredible place we had and didn’t want ferris wheels and roller coasters like at Dollywood and so forth that he wanted to do something that would help expand Chimney Rock but keep it as much the way that it was. Why I bring that up was that. And let’s just say I can’t really talk about our dealings with them because we are bound by a confidentiality agreement on that. But it was became public knowledge that Persian family entertainment was interested in Chimney Rock and the editorials went out like “we can have that they’re gonna build ferris wheels” and I kept thinking you know sadly you really don’t know what Peter Herschend might have done with Chimney Rock.
C- Another thing I was just curious about because there’s I found some a little artifact and I’m like “what’s the full context,” and I find a little envelope that has your grandfather’s initials on them and inside he’s got what looks a hand drawn, I think it’s from 1945, a hotel?
T- Yeah that was Hiram’s. It’s hard to know because in 1945 Hiram would have been, he died at 88, so seven years later so he would have been like 81 years old. I think Hiram loved chimney rock and loved to see the possibilities in chimney rock.
You know it’s that particular plan. It’s hard to know whether that was something as he was kind of romanticizing about. I’ll put it that way rather than saying he was losing his mind.
But I think what he really wanted to do was instead of because, remember in 1945 would have been before the elevator was constructed, and so that plan preceded there was this back and forth about should we do the elevator should we not do the elevator. Hiram was actually the driving force ultimately behind the elevator but as they debated about that and it looked like at times they weren’t going to do that and I think Hiram realized that the Cliff Dwellers inn which would have been just below where he was talking about building this hotel was deteriorating and probably needed maintenance and so forth. And I think what Hiram wanted to do was build this big big fireproof hotel as a way to attract more people to be able to stay on the mountain.
C- and fireproof I guess would have been useful.
T- Yes later yes. Fire proof for the Sky Lounge would have been helpful. Yeah but that never happened and I think what what took its place was probably within the year was when the pendulum swung back to the elevator because 46 would have been when Dr. Morse died, and 47 was when construction on the elevator actually began and certainly all the planning was going on at 47 and a lot of the construction was done in 48 and it was open in 49 .
C- The last sort of plans that I saw the most recent ones were from 94 which I guess you would have been pretty intimately familiar with
T- yes I was intimately familiar with them.
C- Yeah I bet that I am looking through all the, oh I don’t know the name for it?
T- Like master plan?
C-Yeah master plan blueprints. Like was that just a standard renovation that you were doing or?
T- No. Actual what happened was, so in 1986 I arrived we were able to make a lot of improvements to the property. Then in 88 we had the financial difficulty. And so but while we had the financial difficulty we were doing some things with marketing and customer service and so forth that was helping to build Chimney Rock’s business and then we had this great phenomenon in 92 called The Last Of The Mohicans and The Last the Mohicans came out in September of 92 and in October of 92 our attendance grew. We had our biggest day on record was exceeded by about 20 percent.
C- And that was what year?
T- In 92 in October.
C- That’s something that my family must been part of. I was born in 93 and my brother was probably 7 or so and I bet they were part of that whole gang of people because my parents loved that movie.
T- What what was great about The Last Of The Mohicans was that it was the only place in the movie that was named in the credits and was recognizable. There was a scene from the Biltmore Estate but you wouldn’t really know that. And there was the manor in Asheville you wouldn’t know that either. There was some sort of generic footage and Pisgah, well what’s now Pisgah Forest, and all these other places but Chimney Rock Park was featured prominently in the credits and because the big climactic fight scenes took place on a mountain and the burning of Hayward at the stake and everything that was other property we owned and the rest of the movie was on our property except the very last scene. But so people loved it and we’re like “I gotta go see where that was made” And the next year in 93 our attendance went up 20 25 percent. I mean it was huge. And so we knew that with this bump that we had gotten in addition to some other marketing that we did we needed to plan for that. We needed to be able to plan for parking and retail and food. So that’s where the master plan came in.
C- That makes perfect sense. How did the master plan go.
T- Well the what was great about it was we hired a guide Geoff Rausch and that’s Geoff with a g e o f f and a r a u s c h his name is in there too. And we interviewed a number of people because we wanted to find a land planner that had sensitivity to our site that could really understand it. And my dad oddly enough in his work with Missouri Botanical Gardens and he oversaw a master plan for the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis their arboretum project out west of St. Lewis So he got to work with Geoff Rausch and he appreciated the for profit element of what we were doing. But he was definitely tuned into the natural and what we could do to highlight this incredible biodiversity that we had and protect it. And so we were so thrilled that we got with him and we spent months working through him with our team trying to understand what things we could strategically add to better serve our guests and to handle the increasing guests and also improve the visitor experience. One of the things in that master plan that’s probably not very evident was that we were talking about taking the upper parking lot out as parking and we were gonna have a hopefully some sort of a more eco friendly tram system that would run up the mountain and drop people off because Geoff said when you come to Chimney Rock and you round that last bend and that’s when you really see Chimney Rock what immediately comes right in front of you is a sea of cars and if you could take that and have trees and other natural things planted, so all of that. Those were the kind of things that he integrated into our planning which is fabulous. Sadly the 94 hit and we started implementing that. We changed our front entrance and we moved our ticketing operation off the main street but by the time we got to the late 90s some of our financial problems reared their heads again and it just prevented us from being able to fulfill those dreams unfortunately.
C- It seems like there is a sad aspect to this story as a lot of a lot of heart and a lot of vision and not always the capital to make it come true.
T- There’s a lot of heart and heartbreak. Yeah I think that was the common thread. I named my book for the love of Chimney Rock because that really was the common thread. All of our family loved Chimney Rock and we probably made bad business decisions because we loved Chimney Rock and that’s why it was the last of our businesses that we kept. But through it all even during the most difficult financial times that we encountered in the late 80s when our printing company went south and we, my father and I, talked about the one thing we want to do is save and protect Chimney Rock that that’s the one we want to keep in this whole thing. We can sell these other businesses but Chimney Rock is very special to us. Maybe to a fault.
C-Well that actually will lead us to, well because my other partners couldn’t be here because you know school is crazy but they did send questions.
C- I wanted to ask.
C- And actually some of them I think kind of relate back to what we’re talking about about kind of more your personal experience there. So this is just a very general question but it think it’s a big one.What is your favorite memory of Chimney Rock, if you had to pick once?
T- Well it would be kind of a group of well, I got a couple so I’ll throw out a couple one of my my favorite memories is running all over the mountain as a kid with my brother when we were little that we would come down here and we were so excited we’d come down here once a year from St. Louis. and literally it would that day would break and we’d grab some bowl of cereal and we’d be up in the mountain and all over the place and we loved it. And I think you’d probably know if you’ve looked at my book at all that my brother sadly was killed by a drunk driver. And so some of my greatest memories and my brother are at Chimney Rock. So I think that’s a meaningful one. Another highlight I have to throw this in there was when my wife and I got married on top of Chimney Rock.
C- I think I’ve seen pictures of that.
T- That was pretty amazing actually. My wife and I are still together all these years later.
C- So that was when?
T- in 1986.
C- Wow. Congratulations.
T- Thank you. Some days i need that more than others.
C-Yes Positive Affirmation.
T- And then honestly the the other one was probably when we made the announcement with the governor and I realized that we had been able to do to help achieve this wonderful outcome for the property for our employees for our family and for the state of North Carolina and for the land through the sale of Chimney Rock to the state. I mean that was that had been such a weight for me that I just knew that we were having so many difficulties. But to be able to get to that point and realize it was done was huge. So those would be my top three
C- Makes sense. Well when it comes to your kids would you take them there too as they were growing up?
T-Yeah. One other memory I’ll throw in there just for whatever it’s worth was when we sold Chimney Rock and when we had announced that I was I decided to train for a marathon I ran the Disney marathon in 2008 because I needed a real finish line it kept changing and moving and all this other stuff. But what I was going to say was before the park was open I would run the road and it gave me an opportunity to get very intimate with the property because I’d go. I ran up and down the mountain three times at my last training run which is brutal. Yeah but I would be up there before anybody else in the cover of my book is one of those kind of mornings where you were above the clouds. Nobody was there. It was totally quiet and so beautiful and I just. That’s such a tremendous memory so I guess that would be number four. Anyway back to your question and if I’m babbling on too fast…
C-I like babbling
T- And you’ve got the tape. I love taking my older son Tristan who you saw would have been 10 when we sold Chimney Rock and he used to love to come down when I was working on the weekends and we’d go hiking and his favorite activity was riding the shuttle bus up and down the mountain and we’d find him at some point conked out asleep on the bus. He loved the bus driver K, but we have a lot of great memories up there of different hikes that we took and everything and sadly my younger one would have been just he’d just turned three when we sold Chimney Rock. So he didn’t really have that much of a connection to it but he and I have hiked there since he’s in ninth grade or now but you know one of the I’d say probably the most difficult thing in the whole sale process was the night that I had to break it to Tristan and my older one that we were selling Chimney Rock. And I had held off telling him anything about it until the eve of the governor’s announcement because he was a kid and you know he might have said something and this was very hush hush secret. But when I put him to bed that night and I shared with him that we were going to be selling the park to the state and that it was a really good thing because it would help protect the property for all time and I said and you know another good thing is that we’ll get to spend more time together. I was working crazy hours. And so his response I was kind of hanging there expecting oh why are you doing this. I love Chimney Rock but his response was if it means I get to spend more time with you it’s a good thing .
T- still to this day it
C- That’s pretty sweet.
T- It really was and I knew then that I had done the right thing.
C- Well I think love and family seems to be more important to the Morse family than… That’s something I really want to try and get across. And because you know I’m talking about development and investment and that can often be kind of a cold capitalistic exploitation of a park.
T- But I think that it’s funny my when I put my book on Amazon I had to do a little bio and I put on there that I am. I really feel like I’m more of a psych major trapped in an MBA body that I think for me I didn’t necessarily want to be in the family business. I didn’t really want to be in business at all. But when my brother died I thought well I’ve gotta pick up the ball and write it. And so I thought if I’m going to be in business I’m going to do it in a way that I can have fun and that it as hard and meaning and integrity and and love and all those things and so I think that’s the kind of culture I helped to build a chimney rock with our our team and I believe that we had such a great group of people. And I think it was how much we all cared about each other and loved where we worked. That made such a big difference in the end. I think that is true of all of our generations.
C-This is turning into a very heartwarming story. it’s pretty nice. OK. This is another question she asked, do you associate any myths or legends to the area did you grow up like hearring any ghost stories or find little folks store tales about the place.
T- Well one and you’ll find some of that and some of the stuff that I donated and maybe some of the stuff I had donated previously and Mary can help you with that too. There was a little book that the Hickory Nut Gorge chamber used to put out that was all about the legends of Hickory Nut Gorge and one of the ones that I never really heard about any of it until I came to work here that when I was growing up and as a kid I don’t remember hearing about that. My GreatUncle Norman Gregg told a story about falling rocks but it was some silly story that about this Native American man and woman who were in love and blah blah blah. And then he disappeared and that’s why on the highways today you’ll see the signs watch for falling rocks. This you know he drew me and…
C- That’s a pretty good line.
T-This was one of those legends but one of the ones that I thought was so funny or fun, one of the first ones I heard about was the legend of the little people. The Cherokee had grown tobacco, as you leave Chimney Rock and go east it becomes part of the Piedmont until it flattens out and there would have been where Lake Lure is quite a bit of farmland there and so I think the Cherokee came through Hickory Nut Gorge reportedly from where they live to where they farmed. And but they became afraid because they were aware of these little people hiding in the rocks and it scared them away for a long time and they had I guess effectively like a shaman come in and do something to help sweep the area of the little people before they’d come back. I thought that was neat. And the other ones that I heard about were the big ghost cavalry battle in the sky which was some apparitions above Chimney Rock Mountain spectral whatever. And I can’t say that I know a whole lot about that. The big other one that I heard about was that there was Confederate gold buried. So we used to have an elevator operator that told that story and I kept trying to say to him you know you’ve got 30 something seconds to tell people where the bathrooms are where Chimney Rock is let’s skip the Confederate gold story but yeah I don’t know if I don’t believe they’ve ever found a gold. But that apparently these confederates that were carrying this gold went under attack. So they hid it thinking they’re going to come back and the only one that survived apparently went blind after he left here and couldn’t you know directly that figure out how to get. So it’s another one of those who knows whether any of this is true kind of thing but…
C- that’s why they’re called legends.
That’s exactly right, just one other thing and you could spend a lot of time looking at that. Was this Lost Colony up on top of our mountain and they’re actually in some of , in a piece that I just gave there is a story all about this group up on top of the mountain that was living there that little was known about that lived on their own and really didn’t interact with people from what I understand but that’s not a lost colony on oak or coke or
Roanoke? So this was the other lost colony?
T- They didn’t get quite as lost in the original lost.
C-So what do you think if you had to pick like one defining characteristic of the area that you think is specifically special what do you think it would be.?
T- Well let me tell you the top two and then we can vote on that.
C- I’m okay with top twos.
T- Well the top two are the scenic beauty and it’s like the combination of scenic beauty because you get these long range vistas you have these rugged mountains with cliff faces, waterfalls. So it’s it’s got all this incredibly diverse scenic beauty in one place and then the the other thing that I would say is the incredible biodiversity. Chimney Rock Mountain probably has some of the greatest biodiversity anywhere in the United States and certainly in the eastern United States.
But I think in the United States and we had a my dad was as I mentioned involved in this Botanic Garden in St. Lewis where the foremost botanist in the world Peter Raven was the director and he came down and hiked several times and he was blown away by the biodiversity that we had we had a number of rare plant species animal species and and it was because of the orientation. A lot of it faced to the north that we had a plant that this is as far south as anybody’s ever seen it. It was something that moved with the ice age. Wow. It was an Arctic plant but because it’s in the shade all the time never sees the sun it still thrives on chimney rock mountain but it’s never been seen south of this so just as one example. But it’s the microclimate and the little communities of plants are unusual and there were. It’s a treasure.
C- It is a little botanical pocket. I mean it’s in such a sweet spot. It is it really is. I mean he found and even transportation wise because he has these diagrams saying exactly how long it gets from all the major cities I mean it really is interesting how this is the location location location really worked out on that on that side of it. OK. I think we’re going to ask you some stuff about the hill climbs, so,,,
T- I was the mean one who shut it down.
C- Oh OK.
T-Get that out of the way quick.
C- Well why? What were the,why did you shut it down.?
T- Well the hill climb originally came in. I want to imagine, and Mary could give you specifics. But my understanding was that we were probably approached by the Sports Car Club of America to do an against the clock run because we had such a winding road. It was a really cool place to do that. And so she could probably give you the origins of the hill climb. But you know there were only that I’m aware of three hill climbs in the country one was at Pike’s Peak. One was a Chimney Rock and then one was at Mount Washington in Hampshire. And and so it was a neat event. And I think so much of what appealed to our side of it was that it gave us something to talk about in the spring to kick off the season and say Hey we’re open again and come visit us. And the event over time grew and grew and attracted more cars and more people. And for a period of time in the 50s because I think the first running was in 1955 or 56 I can’t remember the date but there were multiple years where it ran twice a year once in the spring once in the fall. And that’s why 95 was the fiftieth running because they were doubled up for a period of time. But yeah I think it was a fun event that was kind of a rite of spring. And but I guess it was probably in the late 80s early 90s. The event hadn’t really grown much in recent years but yet our visitation was growing greatly. Like I said in 92 and then 93 we had this huge spike with the Last the Mohicans. And it made us think that. And what happened during the hill climb with this increased visitation was a lot of unhappy visitors because they would have to shut the road down for the event and they’d only be able to open it periodically as there were breaks in the race. And then even so there were only limited spaces at the top parking lot because of the race cars being up there. You could park and people were so mad. There were like “We didn’t come here for a car race we came here to enjoy nature and you know what do you do and let us up there.” So I think we had to sit with you know what are we doing here. And we knew that in 1995 would it would be the fiftieth running and we believe that our options were either we figure out a way to help it grow again or we make this the last hurrah. And of course we chose the latter and tried to help it go out with a lot of style and dignity and fun and and it was. It was a great event and it was very sad there. There were so many nice folks that were involved with it. But if we had another road to the top maybe we could have kept running it. But the idea of preserving nature and auto racing didn’t really seem like compatible business objectives.
C- Yeah. So you did you like watch it as a kid?
T- No because it was at the end of April and I came down once a year and I was you know when I’d get into college it was right before finals it was just not going to happen. And so the first time I saw it was four months before I started working here. And I didn’t at the time. No I was going to be working. It was interesting to have that perspective before I came here. But it was it was a fun event and it was pretty neat. They’d fly up the mountain that if, you remember chimney rock there’s a house about two thirds of the way up the mountain, it looks like a little Swiss Chalet kind of thing, in that straight away and in that straight away they would get up to 100 miles an hour in the fastest cars.Which is crazy when you look at it because it’s really not straight you know but it’s straighter than some other folks did.
C-Was there ever any catastrophic accidents or any of that?
T- We had injuries but nothing fortunately I know serious things. I mean when we go rocketing I mean I wish we did have a few go over the side that they landed in the kudzu.
C- Ah kudzu, was kudzu a constant problem?
T- Yeah there was a problem
C- Yeah I hate kudzu so much , my dad and I would spend hours and hours trying to get rid of all the kudzu .
T- We used to have a program at Chimney Rock and Mary could talk to you about that, with the kudzu Queen of Rutherford town.
C- Oh yeah?
T- She made chips out of kudzu and jelly out of it and cards and flowers and they’re going to be fine. It was a love hate kind of a workshop. They
C- Make the best of what you got.
C- OK. So really no crazy stories about the hill climb really just kind of…
T- Well it’s kind of funny that in the 70s it got a reputation for being a pretty rough event . And in fact your Atlanta Journal Constitution I think there was and is your dad involved with it at all still anymore.
C- Oh yeah he does consulting there, he only retired like a year ago.
T- Well he might be able to find me worthy of when there was a Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department person with somebody who had gotten out of hand and the picture was of a gun right to this guy’s head
C- So the crowd was the part that was rowdy
T- The crowd was the rowdy part. They drank a little bit and got a little wild. But it but that was not the kind of publicity that I think we needed to have
C- A guy with a gun to his head? ] I’d say that Lucious is probably less happy with that than the sale. OK. Let’s see one more person’s .
T And like I said Mary’s your great resource on the hill climb. She can tell you what kind of cars were in there. OK good.And you know fastest times and now blah blah blah. [She can fill you with as much information as I’m sure you want on the hill climb.
C- Yeah. Because you know part of our project is we are partnering with a games programming class and they’re going to build some kind of interactive game thing to go along with the website.
We’re gonna do a little digital hill climb. I’m not sure how it’s gonna work out, I’m a history major but that’s what I’ve been told.
T- That’s fine.
C- Okay. So what was it like when you first took over as director of the park. Like what was the financial or like how many people were coming in. Was it going well?
T-Well so a couple of things. One was when I arrived in 86 it was two weeks before my twenty sixth birthday I became general manager which kind of is insane when I think about it now . I don’t know. But of course I was an MBA who who knew all kinds of things but not really. I learned just how little I knew in Chimney Rock. But that’s so I came there just before my twenty sixth birthday and our visitation that year was about eighty five thousand visitors when at our peak year in 1998-99 was just about two hundred and eighty thousand. So we really grew the park a lot in that time. When I got there, It had come out of five years of really dire financial straits where we were trying to reconstruct the company. There was a general manager that in 1980 took over and that’s, I talk about that in the book, that he was the general manager from the Biltmore Estate. And I don’t think we did our due diligence as a family probably as well as we should have. But he came down had great ideas but in the end had that relationship ended. And just after that was when the sky lounge burned after that separation.So there were about five years prior to my arrival where we were rebuilding literally and just didn’t have a lot of financial resources and so. But when I got there I pretty, I think our part of the business at that time was such that if Chimney Rock needed something here’s some money you know to take care of that. But that you know my father and his father both were so focused on St. Lewis And what was going on there that that Chimney Rock it was just trying to keep it going. Because we all loved it. But when I got there I realized the incredible potential in Chimney Rock as a business. And it was kind of funny though that one of my favorite memories of when I first arrived there was when I went into the kitchen in our office somebody had put up a photograph of a two storey outhouse and somebody at hand written on the top level management and on a bottom level employee
C- Oh no.
T- And so I said to the group I’m going to take this picture down because this is not the way things are going to be here now and I know they probably looked at me like Yeah right. I’ve heard that before because you know you got to understand too that when I got there there were probably some interesting stories about me because when, I there’s a picture in the book of me with long flowing hair, that I was kind of wild college student there. And you think about it. You know I got the keys to chimney rock mountain and you all are leaving for the day and you’re going to lock the gate behind you and me and my buddies have this whole mountain ride all over. Tell me we didn’t get into some crazy stuff.
C-I know I would.
T- I just shared the one story which was kind of humorous about that if you have if you read nothing else in that piece I think you’ll enjoy that. But I’m sure there were people who thought oh boy here comes the owners kid and he is he’s a partier kook whatever. But I think one of the things that I did early on and I had had a first job in Memphis before this after I got out of graduate school and it was really helpful for me my manager said I want you to do everything. The people that work for you do. And one of the areas I was over was housekeeping. So I was hauling trash this new MBA and I never forgot that because I thought you know it’s absolutely right you to be able to manage or be a manager or a leader you really have to have empathy and empathy only comes when you have shared experiences and so I spent the first months and actually first year two doing a lot of I dug post holes with our maintenance crew and did some trail work and you know I worked at the cash registers and so forth and cleaned toilets and because I wanted to make sure people knew that you know I was not above anything that anybody did in the company. And I think that engendered a lot of team spirit and I think it helped people see that I’m not just some spoiled rich kid or whatever who has gotten a job because of daddy that I really cared about them and that I really did. And so I think from that platform we helped build a business and it was one of the things that I will say of note is that I had two years from 86 to 88 where I was able to make some investments. We totally renovated from chimney rock all the way out to the chimney. Some of the trail systems we put in the guardrails all over the man. We renovated the elevator system all these things to try to improve the experience for our guests and then that’s when the printing company crashed. And so left with that I had that task, you know you could fold the tent and throw up your hands and walk away, but I knew that there was something about Chimney Rock that was important. And so I tried to figure out what is it that we can do to improve our business without much money. And I landed on customer service and so we started doing customer service training and doing a lot of things that supported that. And we ended up winning a number of awards around customer service one international award. And I think it was so much of a reason why we differentiated ourselves from other attractions was our level of service. And so and it just felt good to me. I just enjoy that.
C- Got that Southern hospitality going on
T- Even though I’m not really southern.
C- Well you know we adopted you. Yeah so you already answered next one, pretty much. Which improvements did you tend to focus on, sounds likes infrastructural as well as team spirit kind of, making them more of a cohesive unit all working together.
T- So yeah I think we improved our our budgeting and our business skills and I tried to do a lot of training programs because I knew a lot of the people that work there didn’t have an MBA or didn’t have a lot of this basic business experience and so we did a lot of training programs that I’ve often led to try to help people understand things and ultimately in the early 2000s we did a lot of financial literacy training to help people understand how to read financial statements and to become more partners in the business and that to me was extraordinarily rewarding because it had helped them truly become part of the team. They knew what was going on in our difficult times and made a huge difference.
C-Did those people transition when the. Did they get all new house.
T-Well what was interesting about the state was that the quick version of that was when we were going through the sale process one of the things that was sticking in my craw a bit was and lots of people when we announced publicly that we were going to sell what we’re saying oh you need to sell to the state is a no brainer what’s there even to think about. And my internal thought although I didn’t express this publicly was well if we went as a true state park all of my people would lose their job right. And so I thought now I want to be able to try to help this transition into being a state property and I want to protect my and we were able to accomplish that. We created I think arguably a unique model for North Carolina State park management. State parks in North Carolina are under the conservation model that they don’t really believe in the commercial peace. Like if you go to Tennessee and Kentucky.
C-Yeah yeah South Carolina, even Georgia Georgia is a little better . Georgia is a little bit more like Carolina. Starting like 15 years ago it kind of flipped but North Carolina has always been don’t go and build too much here.
T- No. One of the things by the way when we were in negotiations that the state said was you know would you be willing to stay on for a few years to be able to help us transition is because if you all pull out we will probably have to close the park for two or three years to regroup and get this thing running and none of us wanted that. And so we were able to create this model and our employees from the day of the sale became employee owners of this concession company that operates the state park for her at least the Chimney Rock parks part of the state park for the state of North Carolina and they make and in the way the arrangement works is that they send money to the state. So unlike they all they, retain a certain amount for operations and promotion and all that stuff but they have a revenue sharing arrangement that gives money back to the state to help pay for capital improvements which to me was the beautiful part of all this. So when I think about it, I don’t want to be like shamelessly self promoting here, but I think about Dr. Morse and I think about his vision. If I could argue that if I had any vision at all, it was to help create what we ultimately came up with. Because the state, when we talked to them initially they didn’t they didn’t have any experience with this. So they relied. And I did actually talk to and get a copy of the lease for stone mountain to find out how they structure their arrangement. And we had to do something different. But but so I effectively worked with our leadership team to put together this the bones of the contract for us working with the state and and it was really pretty cool. I think like I said the most gratifying parts of this sale to me were that we preserve the land for all time that our family came out fine financially and that all of our people get to keep their jobs and we created this new model for potentially running state parks and North Carolina.
C- Yeah more attractive model to not so destroy everything right. Family, Okay. So when you were working there what was your favorite thing to do while you were there. Like what was your part of the job?
T- Well you know it’s funny. I’ve got to talk tomorrow with the Blue Ridge National Heritage area and it’s going to be talking about our four generations of running in Chimney Rock and the way I encapsulate that is. What was such a big deal for me at Chimney Rock was managing this balance of creating a viable sustainable business and creating a fun place to work that served our guests really well and protected an incredibly biodiverse place. And if you think about how arguably those are objectives that are going in different directions in some cases like how do you protect a place and grow grow a profitable business. I mean I seem to be counterintuitive in a way but but to me that was the most fun part of it was managing that balance trying to not get too far conservation and not making any money because we couldn’t sustain that and then not thinking all about the my almighty dollar and and not being just too fun that we were just goofing off all the time. Nobody got anything done. Fun was our last value of our all of our company values because I said well if it were the first we wouldn’t get anything done.But but that was probably the most fun part of me. But I’d say that’s the kind of standard textbook answer that I put in my book. But honestly the most fun thing to me was hiking the trails and talking to people I know I have and I tried to always encourage our folks that were walking the trails to do this too because I found it to be the best way to do it. Most of our people walked from chimney rock over the top of the falls on the skyland trail and came back the cliff trail. So in that rotation, so I would go the opposite way. So that that’s how I’d run into everybody and it breakup my hikes I’d get a rest and I’d see the most people that way and I’d said you know if you’re just going to hike the trails just to get it over with well go the regular way, but if you actually want to talk to people and engage with our guests then do it the other way against the flow. But it was just so much fun talking to him. And I love to hear that questions about things and I used to love to mess with people too and I had a tag that said president people would look like. What do you mean what are you president of and I was like all of this.There are all kinds of ways that I love to play with people and mess with. We had that for a long time. What was a real significant part of our customer service delivery. Ever been to Seattle.
T-You know about the Pike Place Fish Market. I throw station there it is. Well there was a whole program called the fish philosophy that’s off of that. It’s about having fun at work and you know slinging fish for a living is nasty smelly. These guys figured out a way to make it so much fun and there were some four components of that. We integrated that into our customer service delivery. And so I sort of just love to play with people and that you know if I see something that would give me kind of like a fortune teller or something like I’d seized some shirt that said something you know I’d use that as a And then they’d be like How do you know that. And they forgot. I was just funny. I love to have fun with people out on the trails.
C- Well let’s talk about it today. So how do you feel about how the parks are doing now. I mean you’re nearby a lot are you are you happy with how it’s being run nowadays.
T- Yeah I am. The employees and this employee ownership group still is managing the park today. Originally it only going to be a couple year deal with a couple options. Option periods but they I think it’s worked so well that the state has continued to renew their contract. So now they’re into their 12th year operating it and to me that that just makes my heart sing because you know it’s been a good thing for them financially because it’s their business they own it which was a dream of mine was to have Chimney Rock become an employee owned company that give people a true stake in ownership. So that piece I’m really grateful for. I think the thing that make my and makes my heart ache is all the difficulties that they’ve had have had multiple problems with the elevator over the top over a number of years and I think they’ve finally gotten that straight now and I’m happy about that then they’ve had all these landslide mudslides parking lot. And so that bums me out but they’re they’re working through that. You know I think that as I tried to tell people during the state, the state is a no brainer why not sell it to the state park. Part of the other thing in addition to saying all my employees would be gone would be be careful what you wish for because they’re not going to do things the same way we would have done had this state has closed down the upper trail system that was so popular with our guests, like 75 percent of our guests used the upper trail loop. They closed it down within about a year after we sold because there was a there’d been a death on the trail about a year after we sold and it was a small child great tragedy who had slipped on the trail and fallen off a cliff and they’ve reopened a new trail that goes way back in the woods away from the edge of the cliff and gets close to the top of the falls. I wish you know, I’m just sad that parts of the property that were accessible for guests for decades are no longer and I hope over time that they’ll do that again. But we’ll see.
C- Its tha that post 90’s early 2000’s over legislation of everything everything. Lawyers got overly involved in everything .
T- Don’t quote me as saying that.
C-I won’t , I said that.
T- But I am grateful that the state had some of the things happen to them that happen. If some of those things would have happened to us like the parking lot would have eroded that would’ve been devastating for us. And I think I’m grateful that the state now owns the property so I’m very happy about that that I know I don’t ever have to worry about what it may or may not be. I know what it’s going to be it’s going to be open it’s going to be protected so I’m eternally grateful for that part of the outcome. And I think the state’s done a fabulous job of. I mean they have a lot of resources and they have added a lot of stair construction that we wouldn’t have been able to do. It changes the vibe of the place a bit but but I really think that they’ve done a wonderful job and what they’ve created will be there for decades and decades. I just, yes I guess, all in all I’m very happy. People sometimes ask me Are you unhappy or sad and all that. And as I mentioned earlier what was good for me was that we announced in January that we were selling and even leading up to that I had to really get right with the whole idea of detaching from Chimney Rock and then the period from when we announced for the governor until the sale I got to detach more and that’s when I was starting to run the mountain more and then the period from when we sold in May. I stayed on till the end of the year. I got to make my final peace with the mountain and so now I am really happy about it because I think this is one of those rare times where everybody won in this deal and that’s a beautiful thing. And so I how could I be, hh I wish we had gotten a few more bucks,I’m not thinking that at all. I’m thinking what a great combination of things came together through the very hard work of so many people to help us all achieve this outcome that I’m very happy with.
C- Well this is a cheerful story then.
T- You know I think, you know it’s kind of funny and as I was reading it over again after I put the whole book together I thought there’s a lot of tragedy in here. There’s a lot of art a but there is also a lot of love and a lot of joy. And I think it did have a happy ending.But you know I think overall the story is a happy one.I think it has its moments of tragedy and challenge and and as well as joy.
C- Well that’s all the main things I wanted to get through. Is there anything that like really pressing that you want to get out there you want to make sure you put on the Web site or any any thoughts that you haven’t made public about it since the book came out anything?
T- You know, if not you do what you want to with this, but I’d love, I don’t know if you’re going to reference that I wrote a book and what the name of it is.
C- Yes I was planning on it.
T- And just to be clear about that I didn’t write this for fame and fortune and money. In fact I do these books, I just did a book talk last week and I’m doing one tomorrow. And I say that it was not about fame and fortune. I had an editor that I paid a lot of money to help me organize this stuff and get it into a form that I felt good about publishing I and I’ve donated tons of copies you have one here and one in the archives and I am much more about I don’t care whether you read it at the library and I never see a dime of it. I don’t care about that. If you love Chimney Rock and want to know more about the history somehow someway I hope you’ll find a copy of the book because it’s a I think it’s a it’s an interesting story to me of love and family business and struggle and challenge and and land preservation. And so when I wrote it I thought anybody who is in a family business would enjoy reading this because of the seeing the ups and downs. One thing that I hadn’t touched on and it’s not necessary to touch on the Web site but I’ll just share with you that I conclude the book with how my relationship with my dad ended because my dad and I worked so well together in the sale of the park and through my time there and I love my dad and I’m so grateful for the opportunity you gave me. But things didn’t end well between us and I thought it was informative to walk through some of that to shed some light on to dads who have their kids in the business or vice versa about things you want to avoid. I did a program for the family business forum here at UNCA. where it was the most difficult one I’ve done because I really got into that. But it’s all part of a family business. And my book is part history book part family business case study and part whatever but it I think anybody who’s interested. We had so many people over time when I’d go on top of Chimney Rock and somebody asked me a question about the history and I’d start talking usually we’d like everybody would draw around and listen and not because I have some brilliant anything to say but I think that it’s because people were fascinated that a family could possibly be involved with this. And we keep saying owned and I used in the book stewardship because we were you know whatever we were and we never really owned anything.
C-Yeah. I’ve been particular even about using that word to just because it doesn’t feel like you, once again this is never felt like a cold financial investment idea.
T- Yeah it really wasn’t.
C- And I think if it had been a problem when it got ruined I think so and that’s what’s happened. A lot of places and you know. I mean like you know Florida used to be one of the most beautiful states in our country and you know that’s what happens people lose sight of the value of the property is what it is. You know and I think what I really like about this interview is that it really shows me this is a family story this isn’t a story of investing is part of it but it really is a story of a family coming together and having a dream and pushing that dream forward and then you know it almost feels like the organization that exist now is like the baby of love of all of that it’s like your little brain child that is going and running along on its own now and that’s just that’s really cool. It’s something you should be proud of.
T- Yeah well thank you. I really appreciate that and I really am. And I think the that’s again why the title of the book. But one other point that I just throw out there is that I know that the dream of all of us also had to do with giving access to this incredible scenic beauty so however you weave that in and because we wanted people to be able to experience what we loved about the mountain and that was one of the things that drove me was to continue to improve our trail system and and all to get more people out there and to be able to enjoy
C- Well that makes sense because even in the plans I’ve seen I don’t see anything where they’re trying to make this like an exclusive super rich person now resort. True that might be an element here or there but it’s not the thrust isn’t determined in our rich person’s paradise.
T- No and we had to, the tricky part for us and the business as a bit of an aside was trying to manage keeping the admission price affordable but yet honestly using it as a way to not make it get overrun. As I told the state one of the things you really need to pay attention to is don’t ever make this a free place because it will get ruined. And I think you need to have some. Whether you drop the price is up to you or whatever but I think you always need to have some charge on this. We receive no money from the state or federally or whatever. So it was all about trying to do what we were doing and liability insurance alone was a huge expense for us. And so but we tried to manage that and keep it as affordable as we could and that was one of the things that led me to the decision with my dad that I don’t know that we can continue to sustain this because we can’t keep raising the price when you can go hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway for free. And why would people want to pay you know 10, 12, 15 bucks or whatever to hike on our man. And there were reasons that we had a lot of non-traditional hikers people on all kinds of goofy footwear out on the trail like they had no business being hiking bu, but it was great that they were out there and enjoying that. But so it’s an interesting thing. But you’re right. It was a family story and it’s definitely a family business story.
C-Yeah and even the business that exists now seems to be. I don’t know. I’m happy with how how much love was put into this place.
T- I appreciate it. Yeah. That was that was important to me.