Chamber celebrates a century of history in building

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Among the first businesses to cater to the growing demands of an increasing number of tourists and permanent residents entering Black Mountain around the turn of the century was McGraw’s Coffee Shop, located in a small brick building on East State Street. Inside, patrons could grab a cup of coffee and a piece of Claudia Crawford McGraw’s pound cake while looking out at the budding town.

While few would have guessed the very place they were sitting would go on to become the launchpad for an international industry, none could have predicted that a century later it welcome tens of thousands of visitors each year into a thriving business scene in the Swannanoa Valley.

Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob McMurray stands outside of the Visitor Center where a celebration of the building's 100-year history will be held on Sunday, Oct. 28.

That history and more will be celebrated from 12-3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28 at the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce, which has used the building as its Visitor Center since 1983. The event will commemorate the 100-year history of the building and 125 years of the town itself.

Black Mountain was still in its infancy when John Gary and his wife Claudia built McGraw’s Coffee House along the newly paved highway that runs east-to-west through town. The restaurant was a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

It was also the place where Claudia would become famously known as the “Apron Lady." Mary Standaert began learning about Claudia and her aprons after moving to Montreat full-time with her husband Joe in 2006. While researching local history for Black Mountain Presbyterian Church's centennial celebration, she discovered the aprons and the story of the woman who made them. 

Claudia Crawford McGraw, known to many as the "Apron Lady," opened McGraw's Coffee House in 1918 with her husband John Gary. An event celebrating the history of the building, which is now home to the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce, will be held on Sunday, Oct. 28.

“She went on to set up a cottage industry that employed a number of women around Black Mountain,” Standaert said. "Her story wasn't typical at that time; she was a brilliant entrepreneur." 

The aprons made by McGraw were regularly displayed in the coffee shop. There they caught the eyes of locals and visitors alike. Tourists from other states would take them home and missionaries visiting from nearby conference centers would travel all over the world with theirs.

Claudia’s work gained international exposure and her aprons were featured in Southern Living magazine. They are still collected by many, including Mary, to this day. Several will be on display during the celebration of the building’s 100 years.   

“We think it’s important to celebrate Claudia McGraw and her business,” chamber executive director Bob McMurray said. “She was well known and respected as an entrepreneur and that spirit still lives on here today.”

Claudia closed her coffee house after running it for 20 years, but she continued to make her famous aprons at her home next door, now the site of the Black Mountain Bistro, until her death in 1986 at the age of 95. The Bistro will join the chamber in celebrating McGraw's legacy on Sunday, opening its outdoor area for refreshments. 

Andy Andrews, far right, is presented with a check from the State of North Carolina in 1986 to help complete renovations to the former McGraw Coffee House building.

The closing of the McGraw Coffee House did little to diminish the significance of the building, however.

Dr. Sam Cooley, one of the only doctors in town at the time, would use it as the location of his office and laboratory until 1970. His son, Craig Cooley, is one of around 40 regular volunteer at the chamber. He will be among the guests for the celebration, where he'll share his experiences around the building. 

Black Mountain’s ABC Store would occupy the space for the next 12 years before the chamber, under the leadership of the late Andy Andrews, raised the money to purchase the building.

“Andy Andrews, a beloved figure in this community, was the director at that time,” McMurray said. "This building is named after him, the Andy Andrews Visitor Center."

The chamber invited the public to an open house at its new location on March 31, 1983. Three years later, Andrews was presented with a check from the state to help complete the renovations the chamber had been working on.

Today, as the visitor center welcomes tens of thousands of visitors every year, McMurray is proud of the building's legacy as one of the Black Mountain's earliest local businesses.

"It wouldn't be the same in any other building," he said. "Our role is to help businesses in the Swannanoa Valley succeed, and this building has been home to very successful ones."

Its red tin roof makes it more recognizable than ever, but the oversized red rocking chair out front is what shows up in all of the photographs taken by the tourists, said the chamber's assistant director Glenda Morrow. 

"That's got to be one of the most photographed spots in the world," the Black Mountain native said laughing. "And if not the world, then definitely here in the Swannanoa Valley."

Around 30,000 people walk into the visitor center each year, according to McMurray, and it's the volunteers and staff at the chamber that help them form their first impression of the town. 

But the visitor center provides resources for locals as well, McMurray said, and the upcoming celebration is an opportunity for the community to see that. 

“We spend a lot of time talking to people who are visiting from out of town about what a great place the Swannanoa Valley is,” he said. “This is a chance to bring people from right here in the community into the visitor center.”

Dressed as Claudia Crawford McGraw, Pearl Hall presents pound cake made from the recipe used by the "Apron Lady" to the board of aldermen on Oct. 8.

The event will include pound cake made from Claudia's recipe. Pearl Hall, who played the Apron Lady in a performance at Black Mountain Elementary last year, presented a plate of the pound cake to the mayor and board of aldermen during their regular October meeting. 

A Swannanoa Valley Museum & Heritage Center listening station will be set up as well, allowing people with memories of the building to share them. 

A silent auction of 25 rocking chairs featuring the work of members of the Swannanoa Valley Fine Arts League will be held as well. The money raised will be divided between the chamber and the SVFAL. 

On display, the chamber will have photographs of the building over the past century, as well as old Black Mountain marketing brochures. 

"This place is special," McMurray said. "And a big part of what makes it special is its history and the businesses that have served this community over the years. This celebration will showcase that."