1950s Began A Tourism Boom In High Country

Watauga County had always had the resources to attract tourists, but it took some local visionaries and some national changes to get the High Country tourism industry going.

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Tourists were nothing new to the region. As early as 1840, the Mast family in Banner Elk took in short-term lodgers, most of whom came from lowland North Carolina to escape the heat and diseases of summer.

From then until World War II, tourism was locally important, especially in Blowing Rock. But most tourists were well-to-do; vacations for the average person were the exception rather than the rule. Poor roads also kept many from this region.1950s Began A Tourism Boom In High Country

World War II changed all that. An overall business boom that followed, plus G.I. benefits in education and housing, created a far stronger middle class than had ever existed in the nation before. The war had shown the weaknesses of America's transcontinental highway system. New and better roads began to appear everywhere. Cars became a necessity of life as never before, and families now traveled together in the summer and on holiday weekends.

That was what was happening nationally. Locally, the first big news of the decade was that work had resumed on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The war had shut down construction. On July 6, 1950, the first new section of the highway to open since 1942 was finished.

In 1950, the completed parts of the Parkway in North Carolina stretched from the state line with Virginia to Deep Gap, and from Beacon Heights (the intersection south of Grandfather Mountain) to Bull Gap (Milepost 375) near Asheville. By the end of the decade, the completed portion stretched from the Virginia line south to Blowing Rock, from Beacon Heights to Asheville, and in scattered sections towards the Smokies. That provided visitors with both a reason to come and an excuse to return to explore new sections as they opened.

In 1950, there were two attractions in the region. Grover Robbins Sr. had opened The Blowing Rock in the 1930s. In 1935, Julian Morton had improved an old road on Grandfather Mountain to a wooden observation tower and started charging admission. Much would happen in this decade.

When Hugh Morton returned service in World War II, he took over the management of the Linville Improvement Co. When the family business was dissolved in 1952, he took Grandfather Mountain, then a money-losing attraction.

He had a problem. From Linville Peak, a person could see for miles, with views into four states. The only problem was that between it and Stone Rock, which had access to the parking area, there was a deep valley. Morton came up with a remarkable solution: a 218-foot Swinging Bridge. In September 1952, in the presence future Gov. William B. Umstead and many other celebrities, the bridge was dedicated.

Morton proved a tireless promoter of the Mountain and the whole region. In 1952, barely 10,000 people visited Grandfather Mountain. By the end of the decade, that many might come on a good weekend.

They were helped in getting there by a new highway. N.C. 105 opened up the valley of the Watauga River to development. So were the first people to come to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which began in 1956 and has grown to be a major attraction in its own right.

Other exciting things were happening as well. Topping that list was some plans undertaken by Grover Robbins Jr., the son of the man who founded The Blowing Rock. In 1957, he opened Tweetsie Railroad on the highway between Boone and Blowing Rock. The railroad, which soon took advantage of the era's fascination with the Wild West, proved an instant success.

In Boone, another group of visionaries, excited by the success of the county's centennial celebration, decided to stage an outdoor drama on an annual basis. Within a few year's, Kermit Hunter's "Horn in the West" was yet another reason to visit the area.

The tourism industry, once a small part of Watauga County's economy, was on its way to becoming a major player in the region. The 1950s would prove the critical period for tourism in the area.

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