|A History of Sherrill's Tavern by Mrs. James McClure Clarke [Elspeth Clarke]. Presented before a meeting of the Western North Carolina Historical Association, October 28, 1978.|
I am delighted to be asked to tell this distinguished group something about Sherrill's Tavern, now Hickory Nut Gap Farm where I am fortunate to live.
About 1801 a man named John Ashworth purchased land in this area. The deed records he paid 50 shillings for each 200 acres. He built a cabin about 1806, but Mr. Westall Sr., who had studied the history of the county, told my parents, Elizabeth and James G. K. McClure, that a log fort was built there earlier, just before 1800, as a precaution against Indian attack, before any settlement was made in the valley. This "block house" still stands in the court yard behind the main house, having been used as a smoke house for many years.
About 1834, Ashworth sold his house and land to Bedford Sherrill, an enterprising man who had just secured the contract to carry the mails from Rutherfordton over into Tennessee. Sherrill enlarged the house to nearly its present size and began to operate it as an inn. He also had a store, which made the establishment something of a trading center for the neighborhood.
Fortunately the registers of the tavern are in our possession, 1850 to 1909. D. Hiden Ramsey spent considerable time researching these registers and account books. We are deeply grateful to him for our detailed knowledge of the historical significance of many of the travelers.
The early guests at Sherrill's were an assorted lot --- traveling preachers, drovers, lawyers, politicians and occasionally prosperous families from Charleston and the East coming to the mountains to enjoy the cool summers. Some of the travelers came by stagecoach. These were the old-fashioned Albany coaches, and the horses were changed about every 8 miles. These conveyances carried nine passengers inside and had room for the driver and others on top. The driver used to blow his horn some distance before reaching Sherrill's Inn to indicate how many passengers he was carrying. The the family knew how many guests to prepare In rainy weather the road up the mountain was often deep in mud. The driver and all male passengers had to help push the heavy coach through the deepest ruts. When the coach arrived, Mr. Sherrill would go out and offer apple brandy to the weary passengers. His black boy would take the horses to the barn and the guests would be shown to their rooms -which were small. A person sleeping the the back bedroom downstairs had to go through four other bedrooms to reach his own. But these hard-ships were soon forgotten in the tap room where apple brandy and other refreshments were available.
In the winter business was mainly from the drovers, from the early 1800s until about 1885 drove great herds of cattle, and hogs, and mules, and flocks of turkeys from Kentucky and Tennessee to the plantation country of the South, where the plantations specialized in money crops and did not raise their own food. The Buncombe Turnpike from Asheville south through Saluda Gap was the principle route of the drovers, but a good number did come by Sherrill's Tavern. Bedford Sherrill, like other tavern keepers, had to keep plenty of corn on hand to feed the animals. He probably accumulated most of it in exchange for goods sold in his store, but chestnuts were then so plentiful that he offered a choice of chestnuts or corn for hogs. The turkey drovers had a special problem. The birds would not travel after dark. They would roost in the nearest trees and could not be persuaded to move an extra mile to reach an inn or "stand."
The drover trade dropped off rapidly after the coming of the railroad to Asheville in 1880, because it was cheaper and easier to ship cattle and hogs by rail and there was much less loss of weight, but the drovers had made the taverns and "stands" prosperous, and this money in turn trickled out into the countryside in payment for feed for man and beast.
My mother, Elizabeth McClure, painted murals in one room of the house depicting life at Sherill's Tavern. Several old timers who remembered the coaching days were still alive when she began the series, and were able to tell her about details. These pictures are used as illustrations in Miss Ora Blackmun's excellent book, The History of Western North Carolina to 1880, and I will now pass around a booklet of the paintings, which were painted in oils, because my mother preferred to work with them. She used a special medium to give the painting the effect of water color wall paper. During the stagecoach days the road came straight up the mountain past the east end of the house, instead of curving away as it does now.
I will mention a few of the better know[n] visitors to the Inn in pre-Civil War days. F. W. Pickens of Edgefield, S.C., U.S. Minister to Russia from 1857 to 1860, the first Governor of South Carolina after the state seceded from the Union and a successful planter. D. H. Jacques of Charleston, author of many books and editor of an agricultural magazine, "The Rural Carolinian," and perhaps author of the poem "Swannanoa." Walter L. Steele of Richmond, N. C., Secretary of the N. C. Secession Convention in 1861, Charles Edward Bechtler, one of the remarkable German family who minted gold coins near Rutherfordton.
Two young ladies who stayed at Sherrill's during the 1850's were Miss M. A. Morrison and Miss Eugenia Morrison, of Cottage Home, N. C.. They were daughters of Rev. R. H. Morrison, one of the early presidents of Davidson College. Mary Ann Morrison later became Stonewall Jackson's beloved second wife. Eugenia married General Rufus Barringer of Cabarrus County. Another visitor at this time was D. W. L. Hilliard, well-known Asheville physician and ardent Democrat, who was one of the principals in the last duel fought in Western North Carolina. John D. Hyman, editor of the Whiggish "Speculator", wrote an editorial attacking the mail service in Asheville, while Dr. Hilliard was postmaster. This caused the duel but fortunately it was bloodless.
Among the churchmen stopping at Sherrill's, one of the most prominent was Bishop Ives of Raleigh, who established the Episcopal Mission at Valle Crucis. When he became controversial because of his tendency toward Catholicism, Bishop Atkinson succeeded him and also stayed with his wife at the tavern. Bishop Atkinson was an important factor in bringing about re-conciliation between the Episcopal churches of the South and North after the Civil War.
The inn had its share of political leaders, too. Among them was A. S. Merrimon, a Western North Carolinian who was U.S. Senator from 1873 to 1879. Millard Fillmore, former President of the United States, stopped at Sheri11's in 1854, probably to see Zeb Vance, who was a member of Congress at that time. Vance was Whig and a member of the "Know Nothing" party. Governor Johnson, of Tennessee, later, of course, a most controversial President, stopped at the inn before the Civil War.
The War slowed the flow of travelers. Unwelcome visitors to Sherrill's Tavern near the end of the War were soldiers of General Stoneman's raiders. Descendants of the family have told me how one of the daughters shook her stockings over eggs frying for the soldiers, saying, "They can eat the dust off my feet and they'll think it's pepper!"
After this the Sherrills sold or leased their home to a Thomas J. Lee, a Confederate sympathizer from East Tennessee, a strong Union section. Mr. Lee called the place "Cold Spring" He left books and books of letters, copied in his flowing hand. Some were scathing letters to his debtors in Tennessee, the rest humble letters to his creditors. In 1874 the Sheri11s took possession of the Inn again. Perhaps he could not meet his payments.
After the coming of the railroad to Asheville in 1880 the type of guest at Sherrill's changed markedly. The drover trade dwindled and in their place came a stream of Northern visitors. There were also more and more residents of Asheville, making the outing to Chimney Rock. John P. Arthur, the historian, was often a visitor at Sherrill's in this period. He was apparently inclined to excessive indulgence in drink and on one occasion signed the register - "J. P. Arthur -sober!" The names of a great many of the parents and grandparents of present day Asheville residents appear in these registers, including Jack Woodcock's and Henry Colton's grandfathers, and many well known people of the period.
By the early years of this century the Sherrill family, of 6 sons and 5 daughters, had come down to two bachelor brothers and a maiden sister, Miss Molly, living at the inn. When Fairview township voted a school tax, they sold out and moved to Swannanoa. A retired navy man, Captain Spaugh, bought the place and later sold [it] to "Old Man" Judge Phillips. The Judge, when he was 80, married his ward, who was 18. Then came the 1916 flood, making the road all but impassable. Somehow my parents made their way over it by automobile, digging their way through the creeks.
While my father discussed possibilities of purchase with Judge Phillips his young wife took my mother out on the porch and tearfully implored her to buy the place so she could get back to civilization. And thus ends the story.