Bryson City Tales — The Hemlock Inn (Part 1)

This is from the third chapter from my best-selling book, Bryson City Tales. I hope that you’ll enjoy going back to Bryson City with me each week and that if you do, you’ll be sure to invite your friends to join us.

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 As we left the Douthit’s driveway, we turned up Galbreath Creek Road. Less than a mile up was the entrance to the Hemlock Inn—almost hidden in a large grove of massive hemlock and Georgia pine trees. The driveway turned steeply up and around what was to us flatlanders a small mountain—but was to the locals “just a hill.” At the top, the driveway opened into a clearing with several small sprawling buildings cast over the knob and looking out over the mountains.

We parked and followed the signs to the registration area. Opening a screen door, we entered a rustic lobby. Overstuffed sofas and wooden rockers were scattered comfortably around the room. A small crackling fire was burning in the stone fireplace, giving the room both a nice ambiance and a pleasant aroma. Shelves of books ringed the room. Tables with puzzles partially constructed and newspapers partially read were scattered across the room.

We walked out onto a side porch, with woven-seat rocking chairs strewn across it, to look out at the hills that were literally ablaze with color—reds and yellows were painted across the promontories, and amber and orange hues speckled the bluffs. The spectacular view all the way to the peak of the distant Frye Mountain reminded us of why so many chose to visit this wilderness area during the fall color season. I found myself placing my arm over Barb’s shoulders, and she leaned into me, taking in and then releasing a deep breath. I had come to learn that this was a sign of satisfaction—that she was feeling comfortable and safe. I looked down at her and she up at me. She gave me a squeeze. “I think this just might be the place.”

I smiled. “Maybe so.”

We looked back across the sensational expanse spread before us. We were indeed beginning to fall in love with this place.

“Well, well, well. Howdy, howdy, howdy,” boomed a baritone voice, just before the sound of a slammed screen door greeted our ears. A tall, handsome man, in his fifties I would guess, was rapidly strolling toward us. His smile was pleasant and welcoming, and his right hand reached out, seeking a mate.

“You must be the Larimores. Welcome, welcome, welcome.” He seemed to enjoy treble phrases.
“I’m John Shell, the proprietor of the Hemlock Inn. We are so glad you’re here.”

After introductions were made and vigorous handshakes dispensed to us all, including Kate, we were ushered to the rocking chairs where we had a bit of pleasant discussion. Between subjects, I asked, “Mr. Shell, tell me a little bit about this area.”

“John! Please call me John. Now, are you sure you want to talk about that?”

“You bet!” I exclaimed. “History is an interest of mine, Mr. Shell—uh, John.”

“Well, first folks in this area were the Cherokee Indians,” John began. “Their land holdings have long since been stolen from them, and many were forced to walk by foot to Oklahoma in what they called ‘the Trail of Tears.’ But many have returned, and the tribe has a strong pride that keeps the past alive through history and legends. The first white man known to walk these hills was William Bartram—who is described as having been an adventurous and courageous botanist. He came into this valley from the Nantahala Range in 1775. By that time there was an Indian village called Younaahqua, or Big Bear Springs. It was located on the present site of Bryson City. Later the village was called Tuckaleechy and later yet, Charleston.”

“How do you remember all those dates and facts?” Barb asked.

“Oh, Barb, I just tell these stories so many times it’s almost second nature,” John chuckled. “But that’s enough history for now. Let’s go get you folks registered. You won’t want to miss supper. Ella Jo is stirring up a right hearty dinner for you all.”

In a second he was up and off. We followed him through the living room and the dining room, set with round tables, each with a lazy Susan at its center, and into the small office. Then, keys in hand, we were off to our room.

The inn’s rooms, over thirty years old, showed their age— but the simple rustic character was appealing and relaxing. No TV or radio or phone—just the basics: an antique bed and chest of drawers, comfortable wing chairs, and a nice bathroom. The Hemlock Inn was not designed for guests to just stay put in their rooms. The days were for the hills.

I was unpacking our belongings and Barb was changing Kate’s diaper when we heard the ringing of a bell. “Must be the dinner bell,” Barb commented, almost to herself. She was humming and Kate was smiling. I sat down to wait for them to finish as the rays of the setting sun streamed in through the screen door, mixing with the evening breeze to rustle my wife’s hair. My soul smiled.

The dining hall was packed. Each of the seven tables had eight chairs around it. John was at the door, greeting each arrival and directing them to their assigned table. Seating and eating was strictly family style—with John arranging and rearranging the inn’s guests at each meal—guaranteeing a variety of conversation with people from all over the country. At our table alone were folks from New York, Atlanta, and Oregon—all escaping to the hills for rest and relaxation—some to read, some to think and meditate, some to hike. There was also a couple from Bryson City named R.P. and Sally Jenkins.

“Ella Jo’s cooking is known far and wide,” chimed R.P. “We like to come up here every chance we can—at least when John and Ella Jo have an opening at their table.” He laughed, and John Shell beamed.

As we were gathering at our tables and meeting our meal mates, the young servers were bringing out a smorgasbord of delicacies on large platters and in large bowls. I was curious as to why no one was sitting—everybody was standing and greeting each other—it was almost like being at a family reunion. But I wasn’t left to wonder for very long. At the ping of a small bell, everyone turned to Mr. Shell. At his side was a woman, about the same age but much shorter and rounder—and her smile was as radiant as an angel’s.

When the crowd had quieted down a bit, John began, “Ella Jo and I want to welcome you newcomers to Hemlock Inn, which is known for having the most beautiful innkeeper’s wife east of the Mississippi!”

He looked down at her and smiled, and her blush could have warmed the room. She grinned and whispered out loud, “Actually, east of California,” and laughed easily and gracefully.

“I agree,” he stated emphatically. “May we say grace?”

We all bowed our heads. Now I must tell you that this only made it easier to inhale the delicious aromas wafting up from the table. I was secretly hoping for a very short prayer—although surprised that there would be one at all. Not that I minded prayer—it was a regular part of my life, at least before meals. As a family, we always said grace before a meal. It’s just that doing so at a public dinner was a new and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me. However, after only a line or two, something happened.

“Our heavenly Father, we thank Thee for this beautiful day and this lovely location,” John prayed earnestly. “We thank Thee for our health and for the activities of this day. And now we bow to thank Thee for this bountiful provision that Thou hast laid before us this evening. Bless the hands that prepared it for us. Bless it to our nourishment. And bless us to Thy service. May our sleep tonight be both sweet and restful. We ask these things in the wonderful name of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

During the prayer, I had been instantly taken back to my paternal grandparents’ home in Memphis, Tennessee. We held hands as we sat at the table, and my grandfather, a Pullman conductor for the Illinois Central railway’s City of New Orleans, would pray, “Father in heaven, we thank Thee . . .” In John’s voice and words, I could hear my grandfather—and the feelings of warmth and nostalgia were overwhelming. As he prayed, so did I—thanking God for the blessing of a family, chock-full of memories and traditions.

I was brought back to reality when the entire room chanted in unison: “Amen.”



© Copyright Walter L. Larimore, M.D. 2019. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.

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