Reems Creek Bowl

The summits of the Craggy and Black Mountains cap the horizon of Reems Creek Valley just outside Weaverville, NC. It is a stunning backdrop that epitomizes what we love about the southern Appalachians. An important side ridge off the crest of the Craggies was recently for sale and could have been purchased for development, which would have detracted from Pisgah National Forest and conserved land just west of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fortunately, this beautiful 229-acre tract is now an SAHC-owned nature preserve. Wildlife will continue to roam the mountainside, and headwater streams of Reems Creek will flow pristine while people enjoy the beautiful forested views for many years to come.

The Reems Creek Bowl Preserve boasts pristine headwater streams and habitat, beautiful forested slopes enjoyed as scenic views from public lands and trails, and a rich family history with memories shared by generations who loved and cared for this land. Three sibling landowners – Jane Stikeleather, Becky Norris, and James (Jimmy) Stikeleather, III – needed to sell the remarkable tract they had inherited and managed together for many years. They sold the majority of the property – 229 acres – to Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. This bowl-shaped cove of forested ridges and rocky hillsides arches across the ancient Craggy Mountains, rising to 4,800 ft. in elevation and adjoining Pisgah National Forest and other SAHC-protected lands, including our Snowball Mountain Preserve and Woodfin Watershed conservation easement. They sold the balance of the property – 69 acres at lower elevation – to a couple who intend to use it as a mountain retreat. This acreage includes the locally famous “Blackberry Inn,” mentioned in the book Cabins and Castles, The History & Architecture of Buncombe County, NC.

Protecting the Reems Creek Bowl

“This is a proud accomplishment,” says Executive Director Carl Silverstein. “The Reems Creek Bowl is an incredible place, a conservation priority for Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and our partners for decades. A beautiful cove surrounded by public lands and other conserved tracts, it would have been a shame to see it sold for development. Because of the landowners’ needs and time constraints, that was a real risk. Fortunately, SAHC has built an internal revolving loan fund which enables us to close on time-sensitive transactions like this one before such opportunities are lost.

For Reems Creek Bowl, SAHC has secured a grant from the NC Land and Water Fund to help pay for the land. However, the months required for the State’s due diligence and grant administration before it can release the funds would not have worked for the landowners. They simply could not have waited longer to close on the sale. Thanks to SAHC leaders whose foresight led us to establish a revolving loan fund, and our generous donors who helped us build the fund, we had capital to enable us to complete this important purchase before the opportunity was lost.”

SAHC is working with NC Land and Water Fund to administer the grant so that we can receive the funds from the State, re-pay the internal revolving loan, and make the capital available for future SAHC conservation acquisitions.

The Reems Creek Bowl has been a longtime conservation priority of SAHC and our partners because of its high elevation, over two miles of headwater tributaries of Reems Creek, and other qualities. Also, it, adjoins a network of thousands of acres of protected land in an important wildlife corridor, and borders a beloved public trail – the Snowball Mountain Trail.

“The Reems Creek Bowl property contains significant, biologically diverse and rare habitat, including high elevation rock outcrops and early successional glade communities, not to mention remarkable stands of old growth forest,” says Stewardship Director Sarah Sheeran. “It truly is a magical and stunning property.”

Hikers can look down into the bowl from the vantage point of Hawkbill Rock on the Snowball Mountain Trail, a spur off the Mountains-to-Sea Trail accessed near the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area. Although the property will be managed as a nature preserve and not generally open to the public, the beauty of Reems Creek Bowl is easy to enjoy from the Snowball Mountain Trail.

“For over 100 years, the Stikeleather family cared for this treasured land in the Reems Creek Valley,” says Land Protection Director Michelle Pugliese. “The property was visited by many locals, from campers gathering to stand inside the cavity of the locally famous ‘Stikeleather Poplar’ to visitors of the historic Blackberry Inn that sits on the southern portion of the property (not purchased by SAHC). I imagine a great deal of exploration occurred on these slopes of Snowball Mountain over the past century. Today, the popular Snowball Mountain hiking trail lies on the property’s upper boundary where it joins the Pisgah National Forest. When people hike to the Hawkbill Rock overlook, they are standing on SAHC’s Reems Creek Bowl Preserve. This is one of my favorite hikes in the region. The view from Hawkbill Rock also looks over SAHC’s 1,840-acre conservation easement on the Woodfin Watershed. You can continue on the Snowball Mountain Trail to traverse the top of the Reems Creek Bowl property and experience the solitude of this special mountain.”

SAHC’s purchase of the property was made possible by a grant from the NC Land and Water Fund, substantial donations from Brad and Shelly Stanback, Little Acorn Fund H, Joanne and Tom Parker and other generous donors and members.

Treasured Memories

All three of the sibling landowners – Jane, Becky, and Jimmy – shared warm memories and perspectives about the Reems Creek property. A sense of love and nostalgia permeated each of their stories, paired with gratitude that SAHC has purchased 229 acres of the land and will conserve it in its natural state.

Becky shared photos of the cove and a historic newspaper clipping about the “Stikeleather poplar” or “Big Poplar” as the locals called it. It was purported to be the largest yellow poplar east of the Rocky Mountains, with a diameter of 28.7 ft. before it was lost to a fire set by campers. Meeting for an interview with SAHC staff, Becky proudly and quietly started with a lovely 8×10 print of their property – a view of the Blackberry Inn cabin, wisps of smoke curling up from the cabin chimney, with orchard and asparagus bed in the foreground and the Woodfin Watershed rising in the background. Cherished memories seemed to hover just beneath the surface as she reverently explained the different aspects of the land in the photo.

“That picture says it all,” Becky said. “What could be a nicer place to live? It was a beautiful place, and beautiful memories. This was the place where I grew up.” Her statement sums up a wealth of emotion and experience. When they were children, the three siblings and their parents lived in North Asheville and spent summers on the land in Weaverville. Sometimes, they would rent their home in town to tourists while they enjoyed the rustic cabins in their mountain retreat. There were five cabins at one time, each with a descriptive name – the Blackberry Inn, Orchard View, Shingle Shack, Clearwater, and Wildcat. The Blackberry Inn was the largest and the one most often used by the family.

“We had many wonderful summers there,” added Jane. “There was good spring water that never ran out, and the view from the house, watching the sun come up, is pretty incredible. The view from the top is also incredible, but it wasn’t an easy mountain to climb. Every significant birthday I tried to climb Cross Knob. Because of the rattlesnakes, it could be a bit dicey.”

Jimmy recounts that their father and a friend once caught a rattlesnake in a sack on Cross Knob and brought it down to the children so they could see what to watch out for. The rocky rise called Cross Knob seemed to be an excellent habitat for the snakes. They described it as a rattlesnake den, perhaps similar to the Rattlesnake Lodge site which is situated off the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby.

“Growing up we would go up on weekends,” recalled Jimmy. “We would hike up to Hawkbill from Craggy Gardens on the Snowball Mountain Trail – it was always a great adventure and a pretty strenuous hike. We could see down to the cabin, and it was a big highlight of our visits. Our dad truly loved that place. He was 10 when his father bought it, so he spent a lot of time there.”

The cabins were usually closed up during the winter season. However, Becky spent five years living on the tract year-round in the 1970s; she remembers it being very cold in the winter. Both of her children were born during that time and spent early childhood in the shadow of the venerable Craggies. All three siblings continued to enjoy the property throughout their lives, sharing experiences with their own families and friends.

History of the Reems Creek Bowl

The history of the land echoes that of many Blue Ridge mountains whose ancient trees fell during the logging boom which swept the Southeast in the late 19th and early 20th century. The mountains have since become covered again by mature forests, but artifacts of the past remain.

“One of the places that stands out in my mind on the property was a steep spot we called the ‘log slide’,” shared Becky. “They would cut the trees and send them down the mountain in this area – you can still see it when standing on the property.” Becky thought that American chestnut trees had been growing there when it was logged, before her family became involved.

The land the three siblings owned was part of a much larger tract purchased by James Gudger Stikeleather and his associates as a real estate investment in 1915.

“Grandfather Stikeleather was a businessman,” said Becky. “The timber on the property was important, but not his main reason for purchasing it. He came from Iredell County, but his mother was a Gudger from Candler, so he was familiar with and loved the WNC area. He purchased the land as an investment along with other investors; that is what they did – purchased property in WNC and resold it. That was how they made a living.”

The land was marketed in a 1916 real estate booklet as “Kersbrook – A Valuable Hunting and Fishing Preserve” of 3,000 acres. The pamphlet describes Kersbrook as uniquely suited for hunting and fishing, with plentiful game and “four head streams of Reems Creek and innumerable springs and brooklets” as well as rich soil, verdant pastures, bountiful nuts and wild berries, and “forest growth of great variety and very valuable” with trees that are “large and stand well apart.”

In total, Kersbrook encompassed land that became part of the 1,841- acre Woodfin Watershed (protected by SAHC with a 2005 conservation easement) and an area of vacation cabins built and formerly owned by the Brank family. In 1922, Stikeleather bought out ownership of the land from his partners in the Kersbrook Development Co., and he acquired the cabins.

“The person who created the cabins on the property was a man named Bradshaw Brank,” explained Becky. “The Brank family had deep historic ties to the Weaverville area. They called the collection of five cabins near the bottom of the cove a ‘resort,’ and would meet the train in town with a wagon and mules to take guests up there. People would stay during the summer for the cooler weather. It was part of a popular trend at the time – that folks [who lived in hotter areas] would travel to the mountains to stay where there were cooler temperatures. That’s part of what made WNC popular. When our grandfather purchased the property and our father inherited it, they continued to use the cabins as seasonal rentals and as a place for the family to escape in the summer. We always felt that it was ten degrees cooler there than in Asheville.”

The Brank family would meet guests for the rustic retreat at the train station with a wagon and team of mules. Photo from the album of Paul Brank.

Over time, portions of the sizable acreage once owned by James Gudger Stikeleather and his wife Nancy Weaver Stikeleather were sold off, until about 300 acres remained in the Stikeleather family.

Becky said that her grandfather had met Nancy Weaver when the two sang together in the choir at All Souls Episcopal Church. They were married in 1908. The pair became well known for their singing and were recorded by Robert Winslow Gordon in his collected Folk-Songs of America (1922-1932). Nancy had grown up on a farm in Weaverville and kept a big vegetable garden on the Reems Creek property. Becky recalls that her mother maintained the garden over the years, and she and Jane tried to keep it going as well. One of Nancy’s siblings planted an asparagus patch in the garden in 1936, and over the years it grew to be about 50 ft. long by 10 ft. wide. Jane, Becky, and Jimmy’s mother would harvest and freeze asparagus every year to cook for Christmas dinner.

“Grandfather was concerned with water quality,” recalled Becky. “He was interested in water because it was important to people, and he was an avid fisherman. He fished all over WNC. I don’t think anyone ever mentioned him as being an environmentalist or interested in conservation, but it seems like he was interested in protecting water quality because people needed it. The land in the Woodfin Watershed was once part of what he owned; he sold it to the town for the watershed.”

“The Depression era was a hard time,” Becky continued, “but the family did manage to hold onto the Reems Creek property, including the Blackberry Inn and other rental cabins. About that time, a lovely older couple – Mr. Fobes and his sister Catherine – had arrived in the area to stay at the cabins and convinced Grandfather Stikeleather to let them stay on through the winter. They convinced him that he could have an apple orchard up on the property. They had grown up on a fruit ranch in California, so they knew what they were doing. They established the orchard on about 9 acres near the cabin, and it produced apples for sale, for gifts, and for us to eat for many years.”

“Mr. Fobes had lost his hearing and profession as a musician, and had lost his wife and children to illness,” continued Becky. “He and his sister Catherine had lost pretty much everything in the Depression and were traveling around, making ends meet here and there. In addition to putting in the orchard, they convinced Grandfather to let them stay and became long term caretakers of the property. They lived there on the property into the 1960s; later on, our parents made sure they were looked after. Miss Fobes was just such a sweet person and a great influence on me when I was growing up. She taught me all about the wildflowers, and I learned to grow them from seed. I still have a passion for wildflowers.” Becky later learned that Miss Fobes had been a very educated woman; she had a Masters’ degree in Marine Biology from Stanford University.

The Next Chapter

The story of Reems Creek Bowl is one of those common to large tracts in the mountains. With a growing extended family dispersed over a wide geographic area, the three sibling landowners made a difficult decision to sell the property rather than pass the complexity of joint ownership to the next generation. During the process of listing the tract for sale, they were introduced to Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy – and pleased to find a buyer to purchase the majority of the tract for conservation purposes.

“The more familiar I became with SAHC and how you all would preserve the land, the better I felt about the whole transaction,” shared Jimmy. “Michelle was informative and helpful when we were trying to work things out, and I learned a lot about what you have to go through to get funding.”

“I just loved that property; it was a hard decision to make, to sell it,” said Jane. “It was a real bonus for us when we found out that the conservancy would be able to purchase much of the land and would be guardians for it. I have friends all over the country who spent time there – just endless friends and family who have enjoyed it over the years – and I have so much love and appreciation for the property. There have been lots of folks who loved it and took good care of it. I’ll miss it, but I know I can go back and visit and look at the mountain, that it will be taken care of by you all.”

And we are thrilled that the generosity of SAHC’s donors and availability of public funds to protect clean water resources and habitat made this acquisition possible. From timber to tourism and from real estate commodities to water supplies, the history of the Reems Creek Bowl reflects that of many southern Appalachian mountains. Thank you for helping us continue the story of this land, with permanent preservation as the focus of its next chapter!