Steeped in History
OLD EDWARDS INN WAS HIGHLANDS' EARLIEST BOARDING HOUSE
Known as Central House, it was built in July 1878 on property owned by John Norton.
Norton paid $60 for four lots on the southeast corner of 4th & Main and built a 2.5-story frame structure with a gabled roof and a two-tier front porch. In 1880, Norton traded Central House for Joseph Halleck's new Highlands House. Halleck ran it for eight years and sold it to James Rideout, who immediately traded it to David Norton for Satulah House, a new inn on Norton’s 5th Street property.
From May through October, David Norton and his wife Martha “Mattie” Adams, better known as Uncle Dave and Aunt Mat, managed Central House for the next seventeen years. Their inn became widely known for its hospitality. The Norton's entertained generously and lavishly. Rev. Archibald Deal called Aunt Mat a, “joyous spirit which warmed one like a sunbeam.” Uncle Dave and Aunt Mat were good, honest, loyal to their friends, and known for their charity.
Formerly a lieutenant in the Confederate Army and then a school teacher, Dave Norton served as Highlands postmaster during President Grover Cleveland’s Administration. In 1893 he established the post office in the granite store, also known as the Stone Store House, and then the Rock Store, one of the buildings that would later become the foundation for Hotel Edwards.
In 1905 Norton sold both the Central House and his Stone Store House to Uncle Billy Potts. Potts’ wife Martha “Mattie” Ammons took in many boarders. Her son, Shine, remembered that there were 11 bedrooms and no plumbing or electricity. Water for the kitchen and the single tub on the second floor came from a half-mile pipe that ran down along 4th Street from Lamb’s Spring. Heat depended on wood stoves; kerosene lamps provided lighting.
A four-hole outhouse, two for each sex, was located 30 or 40 feet east of the inn’s back corner. Another small building housed the laundry and firewood. Cut from the lake, ice for the summer season was also stored in a building behind the inn. As a businessman who ran a livery stable, and a Baptist minister who traveled, Uncle Billy left the house's management to Mattie. She supervised the help, which included emptying and cleaning the pitchers, bowls, and chamber pots in each room.
In 1911, Uncle Billy sold his Stone Store to Porter Pierson, and in 1913, and sold Central House to the town’s Police Chief, J. Grover “Diamond Joe” Edwards, and his wife, Minnie Zoellner. Minnie ran Central House for the next three dozen years. According to Pearl Potts, Minnie’s job, working with her two sisters at Hall House, had prepared her to manage Central House according to specific routines that she trained her own help to follow. She also worked in the kitchen, helping her cook, Dolly McCall, prepare scrumptious meals of chicken, beef, or lamb and fresh garden vegetables, including her own delicious specialties of turkey soup and snow pudding, a rich chocolate base generously topped with whipped cream. She was also famous for her “big biscuits.”
Minnie managed not only her help but the guests too when they struck her as unruly. One night the guests behaved unreasonably, causing the help considerable consternation, but by morning they acted like a whole new set of guests. When asked what she had done or said to them during the night, Minnie replied, “I made them over,” meaning she’d decided not to put up with their shenanigans...and she meant it! In 1920, Porter Pierson sold the Rock Store to his brother-in-law W.S. Davis of Hampton, Georgia, who had managed it for five years as a grocery store and continued it as such for the next dozen or so. When Grover Edwards died in 1925, Minnie hired Will Cleaveland to build a two-story addition to Central House and raise two dormers on the roof of the main building.
Four years later she married Grover’s uncle, Will Edwards, on his return from twenty-five years in Wyoming. Minnie’s son Louis claimed this changed his life: “My mother married my father’s uncle in ’29 which made me my cousin and my mother my aunt.” In 1934, Will and Minnie Edwards hired Wilton Cobb, a local builder and hardware store owner across the street, to construct Hotel Edwards. The old Rock Store was its foundation and lobby. The three-story brick & rock hotel was designed by architect Linton H. Young. A beautiful paradigm of the classical, traditional style, the Hotel Edwards opened in 1935, the same year Rev. Billy Potts passed away. Minnie ran Hotel Edwards as well as Central House, and one of her best and most loyal helpers was Bernice Zachary Hedden, who at age 14 helped feed 100 to 125 people every meal. Work ran from 7 am until 9 or 10 pm, seven days a week. She lived in a room over the kitchen and made a dollar a day. When she worked especially hard, she got a bonus with her monthly pay.
Each day entailed setting up the dining room for meals, washing and drying dishes, making the beds, putting fresh towels in the guestrooms, doing laundry in the afternoon and hanging the bed, bath, and table linens when they were dry, and then ironing, stacking and putting them away. By 1950, Minnie’s health and eyesight were failing, so the Edwards family leased Hotel Edwards to Charlie and Gladys McDowell, and Steve Potts. Dick and Marjorie Rawls managed it during the early sixties. Eventually, Minnie’s son Louis Edwards and his wife Elizabeth realized that neither they nor their lessees were really interested in running a hotel. They tried to remodel into shops, which proved even less satisfactory.
Hotel Edwards closed in the mid-sixties until Rip and Pat Benton, who ran Blanche’s Courtyard inn and restaurant on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, bought and remodeled it in 1982. It’s been said that the Benton's restored Central House and Hotel Edwards to what they should have been originally.
Old Edwards Inn & Spa Present Day
- In 2001 Art and Angela Williams of Palm Beach, Florida, bought the restaurant and inn, and began building on the 132-year-old tradition.
- The Williams invested over $150 million in renovations and purchased Kelsey Hutchinson Lodge which became The Lodge at Old Edwards.
- The Spa became a world-class wellness center, The Farm a spectacular special events facility, and an Executive Conference Center was added.
- Madison’s Restaurant was refurbished and named after a granddaughter of the Williams.
- In 2009, the Williams purchased Highlands Cove Golf Club, invested $8 million, and reopened it as the private Old Edwards Club.
- Spring of 2013 brought the opening of Falls Cottages with 26 new guestrooms, a second outdoor heated mineral pool & whirlpool, an outdoor fireplace, and special events venue called Springhouse. A spa café opened along with Art’s at the Lodge coffee and cocktail bar, and two historic guest residences were added.
Today, listed on the National Register for Historic Places, Old Edwards Inn and Spa stands as a beacon of wellness, relaxation, and rejuvenation for visitors across the country and the globe.
Source: Randolph P. Shaffner,
Heart of the Blue Ridge: Highlands, North Carolina
Historic Images courtesy of Highlands Historical Society, Inc.