Most of our readers know about Whistling Woman, the book Christy and I wrote about our great-aunt’s formative years living in Hot Springs, North Carolina. In an effort to remain true to the history of the small town, we did tons of research both on-line and in books. Luckily, a cousin of ours, Jackie Burgin Painter, who grew up in Hot Springs had written several books about the area, including our most valuable research tool, The Season of Dorland-Bell, History of an Appalachian Mission School and An Appalachian Medley: Hot Springs and the Gentry Family, Vol. 1. In Jackie’s books we were able to see pictures of our great-grandfather (Papa in Whistling Woman), John Daniels, as well as a copy of Aunt Bessie’s diploma from Dorland-Bell (Dorland Institute at the time) dated May 21, 1899. And we also learned about Aunt Bessie’s sure-fire cold remedy (warm moonshine mixed with honey and rock candy).
The books were a tremendous help to us but I think the one thing that really made us feel as if we were a part of what we were writing were the frequent visits to Hot Springs. Both of us feel a sense of “homecoming” whenever we go there, whether for a couple of days to edit or for only a couple of hours to have lunch.
This past Wednesday, using the excuse of our mom’s birthday, we met in Hot Springs for lunch at what has become our usual place (so much so that the waitresses recognize us!), the Smoky Mountain Diner. The weather was perfect, sunshine, very little wind, and temperatures in the 60s, so we took the opportunity to stroll around and take pictures (don’t ask me why we never thought to do that before) and we’d like to take you on a walking tour of our favorite town, Hot Springs.
Here we go! We’ll start at Smoky Mountain Diner where we usually eat. Best hot dogs in town (or anywhere else, for that matter) and they have a lot of options, everything from pizza to pot roast. All yummy!
Walking down the right side of Bridge Street (the main road) toward downtown the first thing we come to is a marker for the Appalachian Trail which runs the length of the town. Hot Springs is well known to hikers and they host a trailfest during the summer.
Also, along Bridge Street, you’ll see historical markers about happenings and places in the town. First is one about an English folklorist, Cecil Sharp, who collected ballads of the “Laurel” area in 1916 and the next one is about Dorland-Bell Institute which is where Great-aunt Bessie went to school.
Next up, is another favorite of ours, the Hot Springs Public Library. This was the first place we went when we started doing the research on the book. The librarians are friendly, knowledgeable, and very helpful.
After the library, it’s Gentry Hardware. The Gentry family is well known in Hot Springs and have been there almost since the beginning. Jackie’s book, An Appalachian Medley, is about the Gentry family.
And then we come to the Hot Springs Welcome Center. The welcome center used to be housed in a Southern Railway caboose, which they moved just down the road from the new building.
Next, we cross the bridge over Spring Creek. The creek played an important part in our Great-aunt Bessie’s life. It weaves throughout the story a lot like it weaves through the town of Hot Springs.
Next, comes the Hot Springs City Hall. No one could tell us if this is the actual location of the small jail we describe in Whistling Woman, but in our minds as we were writing, this is where we imagined Papa’s office was.
Cross the railroad tracks and cross the street and you come to the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, excuse me, the World Famous Hot Springs Resort and Spa (at least that’s what the gate says). This is where you can go to take the waters and cure whatever ails you. It’s not as grand as the Mountain Park Inn that stood there in Aunt Bessie’s time but it still is the focal point of the town.
Going back down the other side of the street, our first stop is at the Harvest Moon Gallery in a house that was built back in the 1800’s. We’d been told one of the houses our great-grandfather built was still standing and were hoping this was the one. Research showed it wasn’t, but it was so close to the house we described in the story it was a bit spooky when the owner allowed us to walk through as if it was our own home. (Why am I hearing the theme from Twilight Zone in my head?)
After that, it’s the Dorland-Bell Presbyterian Church which was built and opened in 1900. The chapel takes center stage in an important event in Great-aunt Bessie’s life. It’s a gorgeous building even though it’s over a hundred years old and the stained glass windows alone are worth a trip to Hot Springs.
Last but not least, behind the chapel we have the Hot Springs First Baptist Church which is where Great-aunt Bessie’s graduation ceremony from the Dorland Insitute was held (this was before the chapel was built). They used the Baptist Church because Dorland didn’t have a building large enough to hold all the people who came to see the graduation. Great-aunt Bessie was one of only seven members of the first graduating class but it was an event important enough to the town to have people coming from near and far to see it. As a matter of fact, it was so well attended they had to hold two ceremonies, one in the afternoon and another one in the evening, to accommodate everyone.
So there you have it, our favorite little town nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or as the sign for Madison County says, “The Jewel of the Blue Ridge.” We hope you’ve enjoyed walking with us through the setting of our book, Whistling Woman, and hope if you ever find yourself in Hot Springs you’ll stop in at the Smoky Mountain Diner for a cup of coffee and a slice of their scrumptious pecan pie or maybe a piece of their delicious German chocolate cake. And don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of Papa, Bessie, Mama, Roy, Loney, Green, and Thee–we’re convinced their spirits are all there.