History of Banner Elk
From the time William Linville and his son were killed and scalped by Indians on the Linville River in 1766, it took 30 years for the entire Toe River Basin - now Mitchell, Avery and Yancey - to acquire 80 families.
These few lived in an isolation that persisted for generations, and kept Avery a frontier long beyond the frontier era. Says Horton Cooper:
"The loneliness and isolation pressed against the poles and logs of their cabins and invaded their hearts."
But not all. Some were "young, hopeful and content." Also stubborn. The first permanent settler (1774) was Samuel Bright, who seems to have been more rugged even than his environment. Cooper describes him as "rough, daring, lawless at times; a Tory." He guided immigrants through the wilderness to the Watauga Settlements over a trail of his own hacking called Bright's Trace. His wife was horsewhipped as a thief and Bright himself was tried (but acquitted) on the charge that he incited his friends, the Indians, against the borderers.
In 1779, one Samuel Hix traveled from Cheraw, SC, into Valle Crucis. Fearing Indians, he erected a barricade of split logs. A short time later, he pushed deeper into the wilderness into what is now Banner Elk. He built a cabin on what is now the site of the Grandfather Home for Children. Rumor has it that he escaped the Revolutionary War in this location.
Around 1845, the first of the Banner brothers (of Welsh descent) moved into the area, shortly to be followed by six other brothers. During the years of the Civil War, from 1863 to 1865, two of the brothers operated an underground railroad for escaped Federal prisoners and Union sympathizers trying to get through to Tennessee. A battle known as the Battle of the Beech occurred in the Fall of 1864.
The multitude of Banners, along with the Elk stream, so-called by early hunters for the elk that supposedly roamed the forests, gave the town its name. The town is surrounded by the Beech, Sugar, Seven Devils and Grandfather Mountains. It was a valley of plenty for the people who were willing to work, but the mountains which protected it also shut off much contact with the outside world.
Only a trail existed through the laurel thickets from Banner Elk to Linville Gap until a road was built in 1895; the same year a young Hampton-Sidney Presbyterian Seminary student named Edgar Tufts arrived in the mountains of North Carolina for summer evangelistic work. He traveled by train to Lenoir, then an all-day trip up the mountain (22 miles) to Blowing Rock. The trip to Banner Elk was another 20 miles by horse. There he found two stores, a post office, a hotel, a Methodist church and a school house, with widely scattered homes.
Much of the tradition of friendliness and hospitality of Banner Elk goes back to this young man. In 1899, he and his wife began a “fireside school” in their home. This has evolved over the years into the four-year college known today as Lees McRae. Numerous cultural events are scheduled around the campus, including community theater, Scottish Folk celebrations in connection with the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, and the prestigious Forum Arts and Lecture Series which has continued a tradition born in the 1930s.
Reverend Tufts also began a hospital in 1908, which is now known as Cannon Memorial Hospital. Reverend Tufts’ third major achievement was the establishment of the Grandfather Home for Children - founded in 1914 as an orphanage and serves today as a refuge for children who are victims of abuse and neglect. Many of the buildings in the core of Banner Elk are of beautiful, native stone construction. This is largely due to Reverend Tufts’ desire to use permanent, fireproof building materials; and as a by-product began a craft which has been handed down in the families. Some of the finest stone masons at work today are from this region.
Edgar Tufts died in 1923 and his son, Edgar Hall Tufts, replaced him at the college. He continued with the work his father began and continually expanded all three institutions until his death in 1942. Today, much of the work is carried on through the Edgar Tufts Memorial Foundation.
The Banner Elk area is a thriving tourist destination. A place to come in the summer to escape the heat and perhaps play one of the area’s numerous golf courses. A place to visit in the autumn to see the glorious color of the changing leaves and attend one of the many festivals in the area. In the winter, it is the South’s major ski destination with four ski resorts with a 30 minute drive - a natural snowfall which can average 5 ft. or more and snow-making capability which improves on nature. And in the Spring - a place to renew your spirit with a bountiful array of wildflowers, numerous trails to walk and majestic waterfalls to discover.