My first thought when a reader told me the Mountaineer Inn had been sold for $6.1 million was very deep: “Huh?”
Six point one million American dollars? Seems like a lot of cheddar for a motel that dates to 1939 and has, shall we say, seen its better days. Hey, the total appraised value for the motel and two acres of land is $2,863,000, according to Buncombe County tax records.
My second thought was, “Well, that’s got to be a teardown, and another boxy new hotel for Asheville. I wonder if the giant hillbilly sign will finally go on the scrap heap of history.”
Like most folks who’ve lived here for a long time (I’m not a native, just a resident since 1995), I’ve got mixed emotions about the soaring, barefoot mountain man clad in rags, holding a musket and almost daring travelers to lodge at the motor court on Tunnel Road. And let’s not forget the smaller mountain men on either wing of rooms, including one rough-looking mountaineer who’s holding a liquor jug marked with “XXX.”
But maybe the worst part is the signs’ lettering: the backwards letters “E” and “N” in “Mountaineer Inn.” Hard not to read a message about supposed mountain illiteracy into that.
New owners will keep the sign
Before anyone gets worked up, the new owners, LOGE Camps (pronounced “Lodge”), plan to keep the iconic signs. LOGE stands for “Live Outdoors Go Explore,” by the way, and the outdoorsy vibe is a motif of the Bend, Oregon-based company.
“We’re more renovators than developers,” LOGE vice president Slate Olson told me in a phone interview. “We know it’s got a lot of charm and character, and it probably has a lot of work to feel like an even more modern, awesome place for those of us traveling today.”
Olson said the rooms will have a “gear wall” for people to hang their mountain bikes and other stuff, but, being a bit of a redneck myself, I swear I thought he said “deer wall.” We had a laugh about that.
“I do believe we would be really OK if somebody brought in a fresh kill, if that’s what they were into,” Olson joked. “We do build the floor underneath that so mud and dirt can drip.”
The motel has 76 rooms, and they plan to keep all but 10 of those, using the extra space to put in a cafe and bar space. They’ll also add a sauna, hot tubs and cold tubs, to help with recovery after all those outdoor activities, and they’ll update the rooms and bring in new furniture and decor. They plan to keep the rates reasonable — probably in the $129 to $169 range — and they’ll retain the motor court style.
“Probably the most important thing is we’re absolutely keeping the sign,” Olson said. “We don’t have any desire to see it changed in any way.”
I told him the sign has been much beloved but also much loathed in some quarters.
“It’s been a conversation,” Olson said. “Generally speaking, we like to keep the heritage of any place we’ve acquired.”
The company specializes in buying and renovating properties that may be a little past their heyday, he said, but their intent is never to erase history. Rather, they want to be part of the history and move it forward.
“It just feels like something that’s part of the DNA, and maybe part of a different era for sure,” Olson said. “It’s just such an iconic design element and a landmark, and we just feel like it deserves to stay.”
Olson said he understands “there’s a connection to the Beverly Hillbillies and the notion of hillbilly, but this feels like a piece of history that deserves to live.”
“Some things are just iconic, and I think this one is, in a positive way,” he added.
I do see the sign’s strange charm to some folks. It’s kitschy, full of neon at night, and it probably makes some locals nostalgic for the Tunnel Road of yore, back when it featured bustling drive-ins like Buck’s and Wink’s and Babe Malloy’s, and a regular throng of teenagers cruising the circuit in souped-up Chevys and Fords.
Like it or not, it is a piece of Americana.
‘We still hunt possum’
But it’s absolutely a stereotype of the moonshine-swillin’, overalls wearing, rifle-totin’ hillbilly.
Jim Buchanan, former editorial page editor at the Citizen Times and now an editor with the Sylva Herald in Jackson County, told me one time the hillbilly is the only flagrantly offensive stereotype in America that’s still fine to milk. Buchanan is a native of Jackson County, by the way, and the author of “Historic Tales of Sylva and Jackson County.”
When I asked him about all this via text, he said, “I guess it was accepted ‘cause folks like Jed Clampitt always seemed to win. And ‘cause actual hillbillies really didn’t take time to get worked up about it.”
The comic strip “Snuffy Smith” still appears in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and it’s about as stereotypically offensive about mountain people as you can get. (Interesting side note: The guy who draws that cartoon, John Rose, lived in the same dorm suite I did as a freshman in college.)
Dan Pierce, a history professor at UNC Asheville, who moved to Buncombe at age 3 and traces his family history back to the mountains of east Tennessee, claims hillbilly heritage. While he said he’s been amazed at some of the mountain man stereotypes that transplants and retirees believe to be true when they move here — we joked that it’s like they think the movie “Deliverance” is a documentary — Pierce is not one to be offended by the hillbilly stereotype.
“I made a career out of it,” Pierce said with a laugh. “You’re not going to stop some people from thinking that way, but you can make them think.”
Pierce does occasionally ham it up when it comes to the mountain aphorisms and lore.
“I love the whole idea of playing the hick,” he said. “I drive an old pickup truck with a sticker on it that says, ‘We still hunt ‘possum.’ ”
Pierce is the author of several books, including, “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France,” and “Tar Heel Lightning,” a history of moonshining in the mountains. They’re delightful reads, and he’s clearly a very literate guy.
And, as he acknowledges about the depiction of hillbillies, “It is true that it is the one stereotype that is still fair game.”
But, even at age 67, Pierce is still the kind of guy who likes to interrupt a meeting with the university muckety-mucks by saying something like, “Let me throw a skunk in the middle of the table here.” The reaction is always priceless, he says.
So you may have guessed he’s in the “keep the sign just like it is” camp.
“I would hate to see it go because it’s been such an iconic thing in Asheville for my whole life,” Pierce said.
I’ll also note we have some high school and college teams around here called the “Mountaineers,” including Appalachian State University in Boone, which has a mountain man mascot called “Yosef.” I may or may not have a fleece jacket with Yosef on it, by the by.
Not like the ‘Chief Pontiac’ brouhaha
But back to the Mountaineer sign. I look for more lack of controversy over it standing sentinel over Tunnel Road for almost a century.
It is a study in contrast to the Chief Pontiac controversy that embroiled the “Harry’s on the Hill” GMC car dealership in West Asheville in 2018. A lot of locals were up in arms that Harry’s would remove the iconic fiberglass Indian chief after so many decades, but in my opinion and a lot of other people’s it was time for the shirtless figure to go — he ended up in a museum, by the way.
America has come to the conclusion that such patronizing depictions of American Indians is offensive. That’s also why we have the Washington Commanders football team and the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, instead of the Redskins and Indians, respectively.
But hillbilly poking is still fine, so I don’t look for any hew and cry for the Mountaineer sign to come down.
When my wife and I moved here in 1995, one of the first festivals we went to was “Coon Dog Day” in Saluda, in Polk County. Yes, it ostensibly celebrates the hunting dogs, but it’s also an excuse for a big parade and street party.
Grace and I still talk about this one hillbilly float that features an old Model T truck that had been rigged to constantly backfire and belch white smoke. Atop it rode five or six “hillbillies” clad in raggedy overalls, swilling something from the XXX-marked “likker” jugs.
I gotta say, it was hilarious. But should it have been?
Probably not, but there you have the duality of man. That’s probably too highbrow. Mountain folks might say it’s all “right contrary.”
The upshot here is I think we can rest assured the Mountaineer sign will continue to make friends and enemies along Tunnel Road.
Regarding that $6.1 million price tag, Olson told me he thinks they’re getting some great value for the price, between the location and Asheville’s thriving tourism economy. They plan to invest a fair amount in the property, which will remain open through the fall, then close for renovations that should wrap up in the spring.
“We feel like it’s really fair,” Olson said. “We don’t feel we overpaid. We think the value is there.”
I’d say the giant hillbilly is getting the last laugh.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org