Museum tour takes in old hunting club and Vance estate

Staff reports

As part of the region's celebration of the centennial of Mount Mitchell State Park, join the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center on an exclusive historic driving tour of the west side of the Burnett Reservoir to explore part of the once thriving North Fork Valley community.

Gombroon was built as a summer retreat for Vance and his second wife, Florence Steele Martin of Kentucky, after they were married in 1880.

The tour takes place inside the city of Asheville watershed and, to protect the watershed, is limited to 25 participants.

On a balmy March day in 1903, the North Fork Reservoir’s newly-appointed warden, Will Burnett, turned a brand-new cast iron valve to emit the first trickle of drinking water for Asheville, located more than 20 miles away. The water, some of the purest in America, would soon flood the school, church, graveyard and homesteads built by Burnett’s family and neighbors over the last centuries.

With permission from the Conservation Trust of North Carolina, the will lead two tours through the Asheville watershed on Saturday, Nov. 12. The driving tours will highlight several historic sites on the watershed’s west side and allow participants to walk amid the ruins of the formerly thriving settlement. Historic interpreters and descendants of the community’s earliest settlers will share stories about the North Fork Valley.

After the city of Asheville purchased roughly 5,000 acres in the North Fork Valley, Will Burnett and his brother Bart, the sons of Confederate veteran Marcus Lafayette “Fate” Burnett, were selected as the first wardens to patrol the newly established municipal watershed.

As wardens for four decades, the Burnett brothers guarded the land from trespassers (including other fellow North Fork Valley natives and members of their own family) that their great-grandfather Frederick Burnett helped settle in the 1790s.

Much of the history of the North Fork Valley was lost when the residents were forced out by eminent domain and the city of Asheville flooded the valley.

Much like the Cades Cove, one of the most popular attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the archaeological remains of the isolated North Fork Valley offer clues about daily life in a 19th and early 20th Century close-knit Appalachian community.

Today, the public-use restricted watershed encompasses 22,000 acres. The museum’s tours will focus on the history of the west side of the reservoir (on April 29, 2017, two additional tours will focus on the east side of the reservoir).

The trip on the west side of the watershed will begin with a talk from the old Rod & Gun Club overlooking the valley. The Rod and Gun Club formed in 1894 and was chartered in 1907 to promote hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports in Black Mountain. Though primarily (and almost exclusively) a men’s organization, two women who owned the property they met on in 1907 insisted, as part of the club’s lease, that they be allowed to join.

For at least 90 years, until 1998, the Rod and Gun Club — consisting of top Asheville city officials, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen - met in the North Fork Valley. After the city acquired the land in the 1930s, the club had the city’s tacit (if unwritten) permission to meet there, rent-free. At the time, no other private groups were allowed access to the 22,000-acre property. The club was exempted, however, as they had a lengthy history of meeting on that land by the time the city foreclosed on the property in 1927-28.

The view from the old rod and gun club shows some of the 22,000 acres the city of Asheville foreclosed on the property in 1927-28.

In 1998, the Asheville City Council voted to end the Rod and Gun Club’s privileges at North Fork, as well as the privileges of all other groups – including the City Council, which had summer retreats at the lodge. The lodge will be demolished in 2017 to make way for a new spillway.

The lumber used to build the Rod and Gun Club lodge was part of a small house built and occupied by Joseph Elcany "Caney" Allison (1835-1908), his wife, Mary Jane Burnett, and their four children.

The tour will continue to a second stop at the Judge Lancaster Bailey Law School. The school was established by Judge J.L Bailey in 1856 and was apparently successful, reportedly operating until the beginning of the Civil War. The school closed, however, when many of its students volunteered or were drafted to fight for the Confederate Army. Later, the property became a part of Governor Zebulon Vance’s Gombroon Estate.

A visit to Col. John Kerr Connally's lodge will be part of the museum tours.

From here, the caravan will stop for participants to view the entrance to Gombroon as well as the Gombroon wall. Vance employed locals to build the impressive, miles-long stone wall, offering them fair pay for steady work during a time when paid jobs were scarce.

Following that, the tour will pass the Left Hand Fork Intake and head to the Dan Burnett Place. Dan Burnett was a famed hunter in the North Fork Valley and was said to have once killed a large bear with nothing but an ax.

The tour will end with the ruins of Gombroon and will include the foundation, heart-shaped pool, spring house and the McGinnis cabin. The Gombroon estate was built as a summer retreat for Vance and his second wife, Florence Steele Martin of Kentucky, after they were married in 1880. The home boasted all of the most modern amenities of the time and impressive craftsmanship. Unfortunately, in 1936 the home burned, apparently struck by lightning.

Because the tours involve some  moderate walking on rough terrain, participants are advised to wear hiking boots and dress for the weather.

Asheville Watershed, west side

Hike: Historic North fork Valley Tour

When: 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Nov. 12

Meet: Swannanoa Valley Museum, 223 W. State St.

Difficulty: Moderate

Cost: $50 museum members, $75 nonmembers

Register:, 669-9566