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Marshall NC then and now

Dominated by the Blue Ridge Mountains and broken by rocky outcroppings created by the rush and flow of the French Broad River, Madison County is beauty actualized. Marshall is the county seat and sits with its back to the rocky edge of the mountains with Main Street running alongside the beautiful river.

This gem of a town is only 20 minutes from Asheville and 10 miles from the Appalachian Trail. Marshall occupies a narrow strip of level land that is often quoted as being a half-acre wide, a mile long and sky high. In the early days, its school was on the island in the river. Today, that building houses artists’ studios as the city continues to reinvent itself.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the beginning. Madison County was formed from portions of Buncombe and Yancy Counties in 1851.

At that time, Marshall was called Lapland and was a crucial location on the Buncombe Turnpike. Also known as the Old Drovers’ Road, the turnpike stretched from South Carolina to Tennessee and provided access to regional markets. Throughout the year, thousands of drovers would drive their stock of hogs, sheep, horses, mules and even turkeys (some say 10,000 at one time) along the French Broad River, stopping in Marshall along the way.

In the mid-1870s to the early 1880s, regional railroads were connecting to other rail lines, creating a railroad throughway that linked Western North Carolina with Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Ohio. With the completion of this throughway, the day of the drover was gone forever. Up to this time, corn had been the king of Madison County, but soon after, Tobacco would reign and business was booming.

But several times over the ensuing decades, Marshall would see a rise and fall in both its population and economy. The first time this happened was in the early years of the 20th century. But, following the Great Depression, young families moved back to the farms and mountains. Young men plowed the fields and food was plentiful, in spite of the lack of money during that time period.

Another exodus would occur after the war. It seemed as if Marshall was forgotten. With no new industries, no tourists and bypassed by the interstate road system, the bustling town seemed closed for business.

In the late 1960s and into the ‘70s, good farm products, particularly tomatoes, several mills, manufacturing plants and the promise of new industries fueled the local economy and things seemed to turn around.

Thousands of tourists were drawn to the area, visiting Madison Counties’ many unique towns and reveling in Marshall, the town built in the deep gorge of the French Broad. Back then, accommodations included the Cool Creek Court, Balsam Tourist Home and Stuart Tourist Home in addition to boarding houses. Visitors could find sustenance at the Rock Cafe, Plemons Restaurant and Madison Grill.

The town was bustling again with car dealerships, appliance and furniture stores, a number of clothing stores and groceries, several doctors and dentist offices, a library, barbershops and beauty parlors, two drug stores and three churches. Friendly residents walked the streets to and from their jobs, greeting visitors and telling stories about mountain living.

Although Madison has been primarily an agricultural county, its spectacular scenery makes it one of the most rugged and picturesque areas in Western North Carolina. And with that, a new renaissance began in the late 20th century. This has picked up speed with new people moving into Marshall and bringing with them a sense of community and a desire to respect the past.

While music, arts and crafts have been a regular part of Marshall’s history, it has gained momentum over the years.

In the fall of 2007, Marshall High Studios opened on the 10-acre Blannahassett Island in the French Broad River. Housing 26 art studios and an auditorium situated in a park-like setting, the studios have been successful in attracting artists with expertise in a variety of media. Originally, the building was home to Marshall High School and dates to 1925. Slated for demolition, it ended up being the perfect building and location for working artists.

Artists and musicians continue to move into the area and make it their home. Galleries have opened and Marshall’s creative vibe is drawing new people every day.

New shops and restaurants have also opened and are doing a brisk business.

Sweet Monkey Café and Bakery, named after a ‘term of endearment’ by owner and chef, Hollie West, serves delicious scratch-made craft food. Hollie made her way to Asheville in 2003 where she established a home bakery, which evolved into the full service restaurant in Marshall in July of 2014. Hollie says it is what she was born to do! And, she has a great deal of experience.

Born on Maui, Hollie and her sister quickly became entrepreneurs, picking plums and offering them for $1 to cyclists needing a little pick-me-up. Her favorite book as a child was her orange covered Betty Crocker cookbook and when she asked her mother, Dryna West, for an Easy Bake Oven so she could make muffins in her room, the response was, “You have a real one to play with.”

When the family moved to Washington State when Hollie was 12, she forgot all about cooking and got into music. As a matter of fact, she initially went to college to become a music teacher. She couldn’t play the piano and didn’t really like woodwinds, so she quickly realized that career path wasn’t for her.

She worked for a time as a special ed preschool teacher’s assistant, went on tour with the Seattle Cascades Drum and Bugle Corp and finally at 20, enrolled in the Art Institute of Seattle’s culinary school. She worked as a caterer, did tailgate markets for five years, and has worked in a number of restaurants in and around Asheville. She was a baker at the Asheville School, made wedding cakes, made her own brand of granola, which she sold, along with her desserts and pastries at local markets.

She’s worked at the Flying Frog and was one of Savoy’s last pastry chefs before they reinvented themselves as Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian Restaurant. Hollie also won the Asheville Wine & Food Festival Challenge in 2015, which was the last year of competition. She had an hour to make six plates using the one secret ingredient (Quail) and other items (herbs, spices, etc.) supplied. Hollie clearly works well under pressure.

Hollie came to Marshall where she found the people to be welcoming and supportive. It was a fit for her, and she feels she couldn’t do what she’s doing in Marshall anywhere else. Six years ago, her mother, Dryna and father Richard, joined her here to help at the restaurant and to be close to their daughter and grandson.

Sweet Monkey is open Wednesday-Saturday from 9am-9pm and Monday from 10am-3pm. Breakfast is served until noon with lunch available until 5pm. Sundays are set-aside for brunch from 10am-4pm and they are closed on Tuesdays. Their unique house made pizzas are available from noon until 9pm. Dinner and brunch menus change often with such items as Mussels served in a rosemary white wine broth and Clams in a tomato, tarragon and garlic white wine cream sauce.

Brunch may include a Salmon Benny with roasted asparagus and a Florentine served on French toasted cheese bread. Regardless of what’s on the menu, the food is always fresh and delicious and of course, the bakery products and breads are amazing.

The Star Diner has been thrilling diners since it opened in the old Gulf filling station on Main Street. Executive Chef Brian Sonoskus and Chef de Cuisine Will Hogancamp serve up traditional dishes with a unique flair. The atmosphere of the “diner” adds to the experience.

Star Diner is currently serving lunch from 11:30am until 1pm and will soon be starting up Sunday Brunch again. But, you need to be warned, diners are coming from all over the region, so while dinner reservations are not required, they are definitely recommended. Dinner is served Wednesday-Saturday starting at 5:30pm.

Zuma Coffee was one of the first new restaurants to open on Marshall’s Main Street. Thursday nights you’ll find many of the locals and an equal number of tourists enjoying the weekly bluegrass jam. Multi-Grammy-winning fiddler, Bobby Hicks leads the jam session from 7-9pm, but you best get there early if you want a seat.

Mad Co Brewing was established in 2016 and is Madison County’s first brewery. With a covered patio, tasting room and a back deck that looks out over the French Broad and the Blannahassett Island, Mad Co is a popular local spot.

The Flow, an arts and crafts shop on Main Street, features “handmade adornment for body and home.” It is owned by five artists whose work you will find throughout the store. They also represent handcrafted work of more than 60 local and regional artists. They moved into the historic building at 14 South Main Street eight years ago. This building was actually the first one in Marshall that was purchased by someone outside of Marshall. The building was renovated, maintaining its historic significance, and condos were added in the upstairs space.

A woodworker living in the building was hired to help with the renovations, so the space is artistically crafted. The owners of Flow include: Kathy Goodson, Dream Silks (fine art on silk); Kari Morton, The Stash Store (quilts and custom quilting); Connie Molland, Rose Hollow Connections (woodworking); Pegi Pike (jewelry); and Lauren Rutten, Milkhouse Arts (creative writing).

If you visit Marshall, don’t forget to check out Bowman Hardware and Penland & Sons Department Store. The hardware store is like stepping back in time, where you can find things from the past like brooms made with broom corn. They also had a funeral home upstairs with actual drive-by viewing. Both Bowman Hardware and Penland are family owned businesses that have been operating for over 100 years. Sisters, Georgette Penland Shelton and Susan Penland Rector operate the department store now.

The latest newcomers, Michael Torres, a retired genetics professor, and Carroll Hauptle, a retired lawyer, are working to purchase and renovate the building at 90 South Main Street to create a community center focused on the arts, education and wellness.

New people are settling in Marshall and looking to make a difference in the community. Walking around this remarkable town provides one with a sense of history and a real possibility for a future that brings back the best of the past.

Marshall is a rich crossroads of rural Appalachian history. From its architecture—the Neo-Classical Revival brick courthouse was built in 1906 by the famed architect, Richard Sharp Smith—to its existing arts, crafts and music culture, Marshall is interwoven with a community spirit that is both energizing and welcoming.

Upcoming event: Mermaids in Marshall, Saturday, June 2. Chaired by Hollie West of Sweet Monkey, this festival features a parade, food, music and of course, Mermaids.

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