Please welcome guest blogger David Biddix. Biddix co-authored, along with Chris Hollifield, ‘Spruce Pine,’ (Arcadia Publishing 2009), a photographic survey of that North Carolina town’s colorful history.
Charlotte lawyer Heriot Clarkson sat atop Grassy Mountain in June, 1909 surveying a 360 degree vista that stretched for miles below him. Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, was just a few miles away to the southwest. Grandfather Mountain, reputedly the oldest in the Blue Ridge chain, was off a bit farther to the northeast.
The distinctive shape of Table Rock rose over the rugged Linville Gorge in the east, and Roan Mountain with its large natural rhododendron gardens rimmed the skyline in the north. Cool mountain breezes wafted over the ridge.
Clarkson was a mover and a shaker. A prominent member of the Democratic Party, he served as an alderman and state representative for Charlotte. He was involved with party politics of the late 1890s, when the Red Shirt Movement conspired to re-assert Democratic control of state government through the dissolution of the union between Republicans and African Americans that had swept the G.O.P. to power, and to disenfranchise African-Americans from voting. He was also involved in the Prohibition movement that saw legal alcohol sales outlawed from 1920 to 1933.
Clarkson, along with Harriet Morehead Berry, spearheaded the Good Roads Movement in North Carolina. Their efforts led to the landmark 50 million dollar bond sale by the North Carolina Legislature that was used to build a network of paved highways statewide.
Clarkson also served as campaign manager for Cameron Morrison’s successful bid to be North Carolina’s governor. He was later named an associate justice to the North Carolina Supreme Court, a position he held from 1923 until his death in 1942.
Heriot Clarkson had a vision for leisure. He was seeking a mountaintop paradise where a respite from the summer’s heat, combined with scenery and a simpler way of life, would rejuvenate spirits and foster a community. Contacting Reid Queen and Floyd Gardner, real estate agents in Marion, he expressed his desires for property that would meet his dream. Queen, a native of Phenoy, a small community in southern Mitchell County, had an idea of some land that might fill the bill.
The three men boarded a train to Spruce Pine, and from there set off to view the property on mules. After their trip to Grassy Mountain, Clarkson returned to Charlotte and formed the Switzerland Company with a group of twelve investors. They directed Queen to procure 1,100 acres, including Grassy Mountain and nearby Chestnut Ridge, to start their venture.
Anna Twelvetrees, a secretary to one of the investors, suggested the name “Little Switzerland.” She came up with the idea after hearing Clarkson’s description of a recent trip to Switzerland, surmising that the terrain in the region resembled that of the European country.
After receiving Clarkson’s OK to proceed with the purchase, Reid Queen returned to the Phenoy community seeking landowners willing to sell. Several agreed, including Nancy Buchanan, who owned a significant tract along the mountaintop that had been in her family for generations.
In exchange for her property, The Switzerland Company gave Buchanan a life estate to live in her home until her death, which occurred in 1935. Queen put together acreage that straddled the Mitchell/McDowell County boundaries for the proposed community.
In the summer of 1910, The Switzerland Company began development, dividing their purchase into lots and drawing up common community rules such as outlawing alcohol sales, establishing a one house per lot restriction, and determining lots where commerce could be conducted. The company then began soliciting buyers for lots. Sales were slow to begin with, as the property had little more than paths connecting it to the surrounding communities.