Sharing My Memories of a Little Town Called Montreat

Montreat: Musings/Ramblings around Those Mountains

By Dr. Martha Benn Macdonald

This article was originally published in the April issue of Rock Hill Reader the Magazine

Are you/were you ever a summer person vacationing in a place whose experiences were enriched by someone who was world renowned? Maybe you were and did not realize it until later in life. Maybe you were not. It really does not matter, for every summer experience is different. It is usually an escape, is it not, from the routine, whether it’s climbing a mountain, surfing, visiting family, camping, or just reading and imagining?

In February of 2018, world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham died on a mountain top in Montreat, North Carolina, at the age of 99.  You may have read about him online, in magazines, in newspapers, or heard about him on the radio or television, or perhaps you knew him or his family. As a child, I remember waving to him as he and a friend were backing out of his family’s drive way onto Mississippi Road where we also owned a home. He was headed to Anderson Auditorium, the stone building where conferences, church services, and meetings were held (Anderson Auditorium was the place where the “summer folk” attended church, not to be confused with Gaither Chapel on the hill above where Billy and Ruth were married in 1943, and where the “year-around-folk” or “the winter folk” in Montreat attended church).

I was absolutely thrilled that summer afternoon when Billy Graham waved to me and smiled. I was a little girl, probably around seven or eight—and a very shy child—at that. I appreciated his genuine smile. My identical twin sister, Mary, five minutes older, was much more confident.  We were playing with the Graham children on Mississippi Road. We marveled over their huge dog, Balthazar, and enjoyed looking at their gorgeous home, imagining its lay-out. It seemed very “modern” compared to our 1898 house which, in later years, I came to treasure and appreciate. We were the “summer” folks, and our house was on the other end of Mississippi Road. The Grahams lived there year around.  Of course, when he wasn’t in Montreat, Dr. Graham was traveling around the world spreading the Gospel of Christ.

Montreat, where it seemed to be ten degrees cooler than any other nearby mountain town or where rain seemed to pour down nearly every day after lunch, when we wanted to swim in nearby Lake Susan, hike up Lookout Mountain or Greybeard Mountain, or play tennis or baseball, do almost anything, but stay inside and rest or read (there were not always a lot of options), was a pleasant town filled with delightful paths fragranced with laurels, rhododendrons, cedars, pines, and hemlocks.

Presbyterians throughout the South and perhaps some from other denominations bought old homes there, some making changes. Some built new houses. Some simply rented, but everyone paid the gate fee in the early days at the stone entrance if they were “summer folks.” They paid by the month, by the week, or for a couple of days, as I recall. This community, begun in the late 1890’s, was first called the Mountain Retreat Association. Ice was often hauled to Montreat from Black Mountain, two miles away, first by wagon, later by a truck, or by residents themselves. Black Mountain was then a very quiet village between Asheville and Ridgecrest. My aunt, Janie Lynn Benn, used to say that in the “old” days (1895-1910 or so), many people would take the train to Black Mountain and then hire a wagon to drive them over to Montreat where younger folks pushed their older family members or friends up the mountain. Aunt Janie recalled the time her parents’ home on Texas Road (most of the roads in the earlier years were named for the southern states, for Montreat was, after all, home to Southern Presbyterians for many years until the Southern Presbyterian Church merged with the Northern Church) being turned upside down during a tornado. Only a gas chimney broke, and according to the tale, the house was turned back over, simply a little higher on the mountain. A strange image, a wonderful miracle!  Do you agree?

Billy Graham may have taken the short cut via Texas Road to Anderson Auditorium when he preached that night when he waved to me, or any night he headed for Anderson Auditorium. Or he may have taken the longer route. Either way, he would have turned immediately to the right from Mississippi onto Louisiana and made a left on Assembly Drive, then a right onto Texas (short cut) or a right on Lookout Road (longer), crossing the creek, looking perhaps at the enchanting waterfalls on the left, and parked at the auditorium. Of course, he may have turned to the left on Louisiana, then eventually made his way to Tennessee Road by the tennis courts to Assembly Drive and on to Anderson Auditorium, but that would have been longer.  I did not know.

Billy and Ruth settled in Montreat because Ruth’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Nelson Bell, medical missionaries, retired there and had a beautiful home on the corner of Louisiana Road and Assembly Drive.  A Presbyterian, Ruth knew Montreat. Billy was a Baptist. That’s why the Baptists from nearby Ridgecrest, N.C. always came, intrusively peeking, determined to see their Baptist brother.

Why did we go to Montreat? My father, Dr. Roderick Macdonald, simply could not decide where we should spend our summers.   For several summers, we went either to Ocean Drive Beach, S.C. or to Montreat, where Daddy’s preacher brother had a home “way up on the mountain” from which one of his daughters skated down the steep hill for her summer job, taking care of missionaries’ children at one of the homes on Lookout Road. So Daddy finally settled on Montreat because his brother vacationed there and because a number of friends from Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in the heart of Rock Hill, South Carolina, summered there as well: Dr. Brown and his family, Bernard Craig and his family, Goody Thomas and his family, Dr. Henry Sims, president of Winthrop College (now Winthrop University) and his wife, Letitia, John Roddey and his family, and many, many  others, including the Whites, from the First Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill. They were descendants of Annie Hutchison White and her husband, George Pendleton White, early settlers (circa 1837) before the village was named Rock Hill.

Parents wanted to spend their summers where they knew friends from “the Rock,” as my grown children call Rock Hill), and where it was safe. In addition, loads of activities from skating, square dancing, baseball, tennis, volleyball, crafts, hiking up Greybeard to Mount Mitchell or up Lookout Mountain where hikers had a magnificent view of Lake Susan and the Assembly Inn to swimming, canoeing, and much, much more awaited young people (“they won’t get in trouble,” so parents imagined)J. It was so safe that people hitchhiked.  All ages loved Montreat. It was beautiful, relaxing, and gentle.  My mother, choir director at Oakland Avenue for thirty-five years, along with others, enjoyed the music conferences every summer. There were, in fact, a number of conferences such as the World Missions Conference and the Women’s Conference, and others that never failed to attract life-long learners.

When too many tourists got through that stone gate and swarmed around Billy Graham’s house, many from Ridgecrest, the Baptist Conference Center a few miles away, sometimes even peering into the windows, curious to know what was going on, he and his family built a lovely home on the mountain top and moved up there. Although a few tourists still ventured to meddle and climb up that mountain, the magnificent barks of either Old Balthazar or another dog kept them at bay.

Whenever Billy Graham preached at Anderson Auditorium, we went, and I would like to share three memories: one painfully embarrassing to me, then an adolescent about fourteen years old, the second, my mother’s response which surprised me, and, finally, a picture in the newspaper.

Please do not be offended, dear readers, by the first. Ever since I started those monthly periods, I seemed to hemorrhage (not literally, of course), but enough to bleed through. And bleed through I did on that particular Sunday night when the auditorium was so packed that my twin and I had to sit on the narrow stone steps leading to where the choir sang. When I stood up, along with nearly everyone one to the strains of “Just as I Am,” I knew something was wrong. “Martha, there’s blood all over the back of your white dress,” Mary gasped. Hyperbole! But there it was.

And I could not run out of the auditorium! That was not an option. The other story relates to my mother’s response to the “Alter Call.” You may have experienced that. When the organist begins playing “Just as I am without One Plea,” members of the audience who will give their lives to Christ are invited to come forward. Even if they agree to try not to sin, they are invited to come down or to stand.  Most everyone stood that night.  To my surprise, there were a few people in the audience who did not stand up.  One was my precious mother. Later when I asked her why, she said, “I wanted to, Martha, but I could not be a hypocrite; I know I’ll commit those sins again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and.” And that was probably the first of our many religious/theological debates through the years until Mamma died in 1998.

The third story occurred when Richard Nixon visited Billy Graham. As my twin was leaving Anderson Auditorium, someone snapped her picture. We were all amazed a few days later when we saw Mary with Nixon in the distance in The Charlotte Observer. Unlike Lazarus’ sister, Mary, my twin was not visiting, and, unlike Martha, I wasn’t working. We were not named for the Biblical Mary and Martha.

Montreat has changed over the years. When my children and I left Virginia in the mid 1980’s, we moved to Montreat to live in our summer home.  The winter experience was an awakening. That house was cold! We enjoyed lots of beautiful snows, to name one difference. The post office and other shops, including a drug store, where you could get the most delicious scoops of Biltmore ice cream, a general store, and something else, had vanished. The post office was now housed in the Community Center where African-Americans who had come with earlier families had once gathered.  For four years, I enjoyed teaching English, French, and Drama at Montreat College, but when we had to strike the set in Gaither Chapel (yes, we were expected to produce three plays a year, one in the fall and two in the spring, in the pulpit arena on Friday night and Saturday night, but strike the set by 11 on Saturday night, well before Sunday morning).  I remember a police officer coming around to see what we were doing. “Striking the set,” I replied. I learned to keep the scenery simple. Later, I was shocked when I was chastised for producing a play by Tennessee Williams. “Duh, Martha. It’s a strict Presbyterian college, and you’re an Episcopalian.” I laughed.  Compared to my “summer” experiences, the “winter” ones were different, perhaps more realistic. It doesn’t matter.

During our year-around-life in Montreat, we developed an endearing friendship with Lenore Saunders to whom my mother had given clothes for her daughter when the Saunders were missionaries in the Congo. When we knew “Miss Lenore,” she was registrar at the college, and she had such a gentle spirit. She was very aware and very kind. I will always remember her telling me that the book of Proverbs was her psychologist.  We were devoted to her, and she was a close friend of the Grahams. In fact, she introduced me to some of Ruth Graham’s stories and poems which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I finally sold the old house on Mississippi Road. Modernized, it has lost some of the charm and delight of an 1898 home.  I return to Montreat to climb those mountains and take my granddaughter to rock hop in the creeks or to slide and swing in the “new” playground named for the Reverend Dr. Julian Lake who summered there and who baptized my twin and me years ago at Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church. The old playground with its antiquated, wooden merry-go-round remains only a memory, and a happy one at that.

Everyone has different memories of nouns—-those “people, places, things, and ideas,” whoever they are, whatever they are, wherever they are, and sharing those memories connects us, brings us together, unites us, and helps us to understand each other in our pilgrimage on this earth. Thank you for indulging me.

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