The town of Montreat turns 50

Presbyterian Heritage Center tells the story of a young municipality

Fred McCormick

The history of Montreat as a mountain retreat can be traced back 120 years, when the Rev. John C. Collins and a group of clergy bought the cove for a mountain retreat. Since then the cove north of Black Mountain has provided a setting for countless people to relax in the summer months as they soak in the surrounding beauty.

For most of its history the Mountain Retreat Association, doing business as the Montreat Conference Center, managed the needs that arose as thousands of people passed through the iconic gate. And in July 1967, the town of Montreat was born.

Ron Vinson points to a photo of Letta Jean Taylor in the town of Montreat exhibit at the Presbyterian Heritage Center. Taylor served as mayor for 18 years, longer than any other mayor in the town's history.

The story of Montreat as a municipality unfolds in a 50-year historical retrospective on display at the Presbyterian Heritage Center. The center chronicles the heritage of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, as well as that of Montreat itself, which is inextricably linked to the Presbyterian church.

Ron Vinson is the executive director of the center, which opened in 2008. The Presbyterian Heritage Center hosts multiple exhibits at any one time, staggering them so that their show dates vary.

Not all exhibits are about Montreat, nor are they all Presbyterian, Vinson said. The exhibit about the town's 50th anniversary is about both.

"In the 1960s there started to be talk about whether or not Montreat should be incorporated as a town," Vinson said. "In the beginning it was only the conference center, and they did everything. They had to write the charter in 1897 to have a town marshal and to collect taxes and institute fines."

As an unincorporated community Montreat did not qualify for state and federal aid, which would have been beneficial to the conference center as it experienced a "financial squeeze" during that time, according to Vinson.

"In 1967 the state legislature enacted the charter to create the separate town," he said. "There was a two-year transition period where the conference center continued to run the town, but they did so as a three-person town council."

Around 18 months later the town held its first election. Andy Andrews was elected to the town council in 1969 and appointed by the body to serve as mayor (he resigned in 1970). Andrews would go on to serve on the town council for two decades and, in 1985, was the first mayor of Montreat elected by the public. He was the only person in the town's history to serve in that position twice.

But he was far from holding the office longest. That distinction belongs to Letta Jean Taylor, who served from 1997-2015, more than twice as long as any other mayor in the history of the municipality.

Montreat formed its police department under the guidance of Pete Post, its first chief of police. His first uniform, complete with the original billy club, is on display in the exhibit.

"The exhibit highlights the workers and town administration," Vinson said. "We also highlighted the police chiefs, and many of them lived in Black Mountain or Swannanoa."

The Montreat Police Department's first uniform is one of the historical artifacts in the Presbyterian Heritage Center's exhibition of the town of Montreat's 50th anniversary.

In its first year the police department operated on less than $30,000 a year.

Ronnie Halford became Montreat's second police chief in 1976 when Post became the town's first administrator. David Arrant, who on July 13 was sworn in as the sixth police chief, replaced Jack Staggs who retired in April. Staggs held the police chief position in both Black Mountain and Montreat.

While the incorporation of Montreat brought services like police, water and administration, it also brought zoning, a significant change in the community, according to Vinson.

"There were no (property) setbacks before the town was incorporated, so you could build wherever you wanted and in any style you wanted," he said. "All of the regulations have come about over the course of the past 50 years."

A phenomenon distinct to Montreat and what is perhaps its recognizable landmark has also come about since the town's creation. The archway that visitors to the cove must pass through upon entering is often referred to as a "gate" because from 1922, when the archway was built, until the town formed, there was a gate across the entry way.

A portion of the exhibit recognizing the town of Montreat's 50-year history is dedicated to the numerous incidents surrounding the iconic arches at the entrance of the community.

Visitors to Montreat would stop at the gate to pay an entry fee, even those who owned houses in the community. Once it became a town, the gate itself was removed and the archway remained. Since then cars have hit the "gate," still owned by conference center, many times, Vinson said. Many of those instances are part of the exhibit.

"When there was a gate there weren't people running into the Montreat arches," Vinson said. "There have been at least a dozen incidents involving the stone archway since the gate was removed."