An eccentric town in a mysterious mountain setting bursts with individual flare. And its residents, both old and new, have happily decided that works for them.
The old woman is dressed like a traffic light. A red skirt stretches to her feet, a green shirt has long sleeves and a collar, a yellow apron covers the front of her skirt, and a yellow sunbonnet covers her hair. The only parts of her body not hidden underneath bright fabric are her face and hands.
This is the costume Jackie Duncan wears to work. She plays the part of Miss Maggie, mascot of Maggie Valley. Her job is to walk and wave.
Wearing a pair of white LifeWalkers, Duncan, 74, spends one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening walking along U.S. Highway 19. Her loop is three miles. Along the way, she strolls by all the individual enterprises that make up this curious little mountain resort town. A pancake house where everybody meets. The renovated chairlifts that once carried thousands of people a day up to an amusement park in the sky. A Catholic church built by a man who became a priest in his 80s. A restaurant where a bootlegger named Popcorn used to sell his liquor. And a museum known worldwide for its motorcycles.
That’s what Miss Maggie passes as she walks and waves.
Here’s what passes Miss Maggie:
A middle-aged woman in a white Honda Civic smiles and taps her horn three times. An older man driving a blue minivan reaches his arm across his wife’s face to wave back. Another gray-haired man with a Tar Heels national championship bumper sticker waves so hard you’d think he saw Roy Williams. And a man and woman on a Harley-Davidson stretch their right arms diagonally downward and hold out two fingers.
When people are in or on vehicles, they’re insulated by the windshield and motion, meaning the choice to wave or not doesn’t come with social consequences. They can just keep driving, no harm done. For some reason, though, on this stretch of road passing through a distant town in the Great Smoky Mountains, Miss Maggie breaks through and connects. More people wave back than ignore her. This probably has something to do with her attire; you can’t miss her. But it says a little something about the town as a whole, too. Miss Maggie is dressed in bright, competing colors designed to draw attention, but when you look beyond the clothes and past the gimmick, Jackie Duncan’s smiling face and friendly wave still convey an authentic desire shared by everyone in Maggie Valley: Hope you like it here.
Creating a draw
For all the isolation Maggie Valley provides its residents, most folks who live here spend an extraordinary amount of time hoping for a crowd. Bringing in people is the region’s commerce now. The hills are difficult to farm, the textile and furniture industries have mostly disappeared, and the arts scenes are just up the road in Asheville and Waynesville.
In order to be, Maggie Valley has to attract.
The town has no shortage of people who try to do just that, and it sometimes causes debates. Locals and transplants regularly challenge each other. In some way, though, the range of opinions makes Maggie Valley one of the state’s best small towns for ideas. One woman has a ranch on a hill with horses, open for anybody to stay. A man has a museum that tells the story of the American motorcycle industry, open for anybody to see. Another woman wants to restore the roller coaster at the top of the mountain overlooking town and open it for anybody to ride. Another just wants to make pancakes, for anyone to eat. Even the protected elk — reintroduced into the wild in nearby Cataloochee Valley — stand still, seemingly posing for pictures for anyone to take.
This is part of the beauty of the place: Everybody tries. They want you to enjoy Maggie Valley, to remember Maggie Valley.
Interestingly, this unified desire to get people here directly contrasts the story of the woman whose name is on the town.
Miss Maggie, the woman who walks about town in bright colors today, is actually a fictional portrayal of a real person. Maggie Mae Setzer Pylant was born in 1890 and lived in a log cabin in the then-unnamed mountain settlement with her family. That family included two sisters (Cora and Mettie) and a brother (Jonathan). Their dad, Jack Setzer, was responsible for fetching the mail from nearby Plott, about five miles away, and delivering it to the people in the settlement. By 1901, he was hauling enough mail that he asked the United States Postal Service to establish a post office here. The government agreed and asked Setzer to submit a name for the town. He entered all three of his daughters’ names. In 1904, he received a letter saying that the town would be named after his 13-year-old, Maggie.
When Setzer told Maggie the news, she went to her bedroom to cry with embarrassment where nobody could see. Three years later, she married and moved to Texas, never to move back.
But the name stayed and the legend grew. And many of the people who’ve lived here since have devoted their lives to making sure anybody who leaves Maggie Valley wants to come back to Maggie Valley.
Dale Walksler is a gearhead, full of grease and grit, and he’s standing in the museum he runs talking about his motorcycles. There’s one, a 1909 Reading Standard Board Track Racer, that was in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s basement. Another, a 1916 Traub, is the world’s rarest motorcycle. Only 40 of the 1940 Hemi-Head Crockers were ever built, and Walksler has one here. There’s a 1916 Harley that starts up perfectly now. It hadn’t run since 1921 until he restored it a few years ago.
Walksler is a proud man, short and scrappy. He’s devoted his life to motorcycles. When he was 21, he opened a dealership in Illinois. He was named the best motorcycle dealer in the country four times. He spent nearly every dollar he made out front in his shop restoring antique bikes in the back. His collection grew to one of the world’s largest of functioning antique motorcycles. So 10 years ago at age 46, Walksler came to Maggie Valley and opened a 40,000-square-foot nonprofit museum, Wheels Through Time, and put his life’s work on display.
Why did he choose Maggie Valley?
“Because I knew you’d come,” he tells everyone.
He gave Bob White that answer several years ago. White is a gearhead, full of wisdom and romanticism, a retired history professor from Appalachian State University. White’s wife is the director of the Appalachian Studies program at ASU, and he shares her interest in anthropology. With a long, white beard that hasn’t been trimmed in years, White often thinks about the political makeup of the mountains. Most of the same divisions that were here during the Civil War are still present today, he says. He says mountain people have a certain ambitious spirit that might at times seem rebellious — the same characteristics shared by motorcycle riders.
“There’s the culture of elevation here,” White says of the town. And later, of the museum and bikes, he adds: “It’s part of the American spirit — a willingness to get up, go over the mountain, and see what’s on the other side.”
White and Walksler seem like an odd pair, but it’s clear they need one another. White serves as Walksler’s more politically correct spokesman, and Walksler gives White thrills through horsepower.
When White came to volunteer years ago, the first words Walksler said to him were: “I knew you were coming. We’re going to work together.” Those first words don’t seem so strange now.
The thing about this museum that makes it different from other museums is this: Everything runs.
During a quick tour, Walksler hops on a 1912 Excelsior Autocycle and fires it up. The engine’s growl echoes throughout the building. A crowd gathers. He hops off.
“Come down here,” he tells the visitors in Wheels Through Time: The Museum That Runs. “We’ll make one roar.”
He cranks up a 1917 Henderson, unhooks it from its podium, and puts it in gear.
“Be right back,” he says, laughing.
And just then, Walksler does what every kid who’s ever been on a field trip has always wanted to do: He rides one of the exhibits around the museum.
Keep on riding
Miss Maggie says motorcyclists always wave.
“They’re great,” she says. “Very friendly.” Of course, they have less of a barrier surrounding them.
One of the most popular roads in the world among motorcyclists, the Blue Ridge Parkway, runs past Maggie Valley about five miles from the center of town. The parkway is part of the reason the Wheels Through Time museum attracts 70,000 visitors per year. And it’s part of the reason Miss Maggie spends so much of her time waving at motorcyclists.
Someone who’s almost certainly ridden past her before is Beth Robinson Reece. She owns the Maggie Valley Inn and Conference Center, which includes the Rendezvous Restaurant. It’s a popular place, and one summer night a keyboardist sits in the corner and plays songs meant for clogging. It is only Monday, but a crowd gathers. People dance and laugh until they retire to their rooms.
Reece is from Bryson City and describes herself as an independent woman. She worked and stayed single until she was 38. That’s when she met the man of her dreams, Wade. They married and bought the restaurant and hotel. Wade ran it while she worked for the state. In June 2006, Wade bought his first motorcycle. The next morning, he went for his first ride. Not long into the ride, he wrecked. Wade died shortly thereafter.
“I woke up, and he was gone,” she says. “And I knew nothing.”
The women of Maggie Valley came to help. One ran the bar. Another ran the restaurant. Someone gave her a quick course on the various types of alcohol, like how to navigate this small distinction: “I didn’t know the difference between Scotch and beer.” And soon Reece was running the place on her own. For at least an hour a day, though, she let herself into one of the hotel rooms and cried so none of the guests would see.
The accident taught Reece many things, she says, but most important was that she can’t control everything in life.
So when she began to look for a new boyfriend a couple of years ago, she did so with an open mind. The one she found, the one who stuck, the man who helps her run the business now, rides motorcycles.
And six years after her husband died, Reece hopped on the back of her new boyfriend’s bike and took a ride.
The people of Maggie Valley are like that.
Miss Maggie stops into Joey’s Pancake House on her loop around town every morning and waves to the customers and owner inside.
That owner, Brenda O’Keefe, has the most coveted secret pancake mix around. She makes thousands of pancakes a day.
O’Keefe, too, is a widow.
In 1966, she and her husband, Joey, drove to Virginia to inquire about buying a hotel. The deal fell through, but on the way home they detoured into the mountains and found Maggie Valley. A tiny building once a restaurant was up for lease. They bought it on a whim and opened a breakfast place, Joey’s Pancake House. Joey worked in the kitchen. Brenda worked out front. “His shoulders shook when he laughed,” she says.
Joey only wanted to work six months a year. So that’s what they did. They made breakfast half the year and vacationed in Florida and the Caribbean for the other half.
For 35 years.
When Joey died — 11 years ago exactly; Brenda keeps count of the months in her head — Brenda hired a kitchen manager and kept the business open year-round. She’s now a full-time Maggie Valley resident, a town leader comforted by the memories of her husband and the people around her.
Ghosts and skis
Miss Maggie skips across U.S. 19 in the crosswalk and heads east. “I’ve almost been hit a few times,” she says.
Just across the street from Joey’s is Ghost Town.
Alaska Presley bought it last year. She is 89. She, too, is a widow.
During the 1960s, Ghost Town was one of the most popular amusement parks in the state. With a roller coaster and rides, shooting ranges, and an old west village, the park attracted 15,000 people a day at one point. They all rode the famous chairlift up from the valley below. The amusement park sits at 5,200 feet above sea level, about 1,200 feet above Maggie Valley.
Presley is an adorned and proper older woman who owned a restaurant and hotel in town with her husband. She and her husband also helped R.B. Coburn build Ghost Town 50 years ago and watched it become great. She wants that to happen again, with one big change.
Presley is renovating the attractions, the chairlift, and especially the old west village. But she wants to tear down the dance hall and move the motorized swings, Tilt-a-Whirl, and red barn arcade. In place of all that, Presley wants to erect a statue of Jesus to overlook the town.
“Can you see it?” she says.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine. Quietly, some townspeople balk at the prospect. But here in Maggie Valley, the overriding sentiment is that if a person wants to do something, she can at least try.
Just north of Ghost Town, even higher on the hill, is a ranch. It’s called Cataloochee Ranch, and it’s probably the most beautiful place in Maggie Valley.
A woman named Judy Coker helps run it with other family members. She’s the daughter of Tom Alexander. In the 1930s, Alexander worked in the forestry business, and one of his jobs was to estimate the value of timber on the big mountain that overlooked Maggie Valley. In 1932, the company went bankrupt, and he lost his job. As a settlement, the company gave Alexander the land. He built a home here. He inherited a crew consisting mostly of people hiding out from the law. He put that crew to work, and they turned an old barn into a ranch house. They built a fireplace out of fieldstone. Nearly everything standing here today was built from materials on the property. In May 1938, Alexander and his crew opened a lodge and resort.
Winters, though, could be tough. And Alexander wanted his crew to have work. So he opened a ski area in 1961.
That might have seemed crazy then — skiing in North Carolina? — but Cataloochee Ski Area remains open, under new ownership, as the longest-running ski area in the state.
Hidden among all of this — down the hill from the ranch and ski resort, a few hundred yards west of Ghost Town, a mile or so up from the motorcycle museum and the pancake house — Ginger and Bud Shinn and their family run a place named Smokey Shadows Lodge.
Ginger grew up in Miami, but her family vacationed in North Carolina in the summers. In 1956, they stayed at Smokey Shadows. In the 1970s, Ginger saw an ad in The Miami Herald for a North Carolina ski and summer lodge for sale. “This has to be Smokey Shadows,” she told Bud.
They bought it. They restored it and waited for people to come.
To their surprise, that didn’t happen right away. So Ginger began to offer something extra: her cooking.
At first she opened the dining room on Sundays and holidays for dinners. She still has one of the best holiday meals in the region, locals say.
One Friday this year, she sent word that she’d be cooking dinner that Sunday. Thirty showed up on short notice. She serves in homestyle dishes on checkered tablecloths. Her daughter, Tracy, now cooks. On this night, she has tomato pie and onion casserole. The people of Maggie Valley pass dishes around the table. An old woodstove sits in the corner. Bud’s great-grandfather’s tools hang on the walls.
As dinner concludes, Ginger tells an old friend, Steve Weams, to bring out his guitar. The most popular music is Jimmy Buffett, which seems like an odd match for the mountain-loving crowd. But there’s an explanation even for that: Peter Mayer, a member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, regularly stays here and plays a small concert for guests and townspeople.
On this night, Weams intersperses Buffett with other sing-alongs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Hey, Good Lookin.’ ” Ginger slaps her knee to every one. “He’s good, isn’t he?” she says.
Toward the end of the night, Weams takes another request for a Buffett song, and the crowd inside this mountain lodge hundreds of miles from the coast sings along with a little island music.
In the early 1980s, a woman named Jennie Reninger moved to Maggie Valley after leading a remarkable life in Florida. She’d started working in the 1920s as a bookkeeper at a local newspaper and then amassed wealth as a cattle farmer and real estate broker. In her 40s and 50s, Reninger traveled the world, going to 131 countries in 14 years, according to a 1985 newspaper story. But after all the traveling, Reninger decided to find a place to settle down. She chose Maggie Valley.
Reninger began taking walks. She hated seeing gum wrappers and cigarette packs on the sidewalks of such a pretty town. So she carried a garbage bag with her. Not wanting to be known as a trash lady, Reninger walked early in the mornings and in the evenings to avoid notice. But people still saw her, and word got back to town hall that an older woman was walking around picking up garbage. The town named her the Goodwill Ambassador of Maggie Valley and soon gave her a uniform that looked like a traffic light.
Now, Miss Maggie is the town’s symbol.
Reninger died in 2002, and a plaque honoring her sits in front of town hall, right where today’s Miss Maggie starts her daily walks.
Jackie Duncan is actually one of two women playing the character now. Dottie Rickman is the other. They don’t walk in the winter, but they do make appearances at local functions all year. When they’re in character, nobody dares call them by their actual names. On this day, a group of men in front of a house waves at Duncan. “Mornin’, Miss Maggie,” one says.
Because the real Maggie Mae Setzer Pylant never did this job, and because the woman who started this job wasn’t even from here, today’s Miss Maggie is not playing an actual person.
Instead she represents the idea of the Maggie Valley dream, a dream of what the town was and what it can be and what it is — a curious little resort town in the sky, where amusement parks and horses and elk and motorcycles and pancakes come together to create an unforgettable outfit of bright colors.
5 things not to miss in Maggie Valley
- Cataloochee Ski Area
Now in its 52nd season, this was the first ski area in North Carolina. An automatic snow-blowing system is capable of keeping 17 trails and slopes covered in two feet of snow throughout the winter. And with 4,000 sets of skis on hand — along with any and all other gear a visitor needs — it’s possible to show up in shorts and rent all the attire that snow requires. The season opened around November 1 and runs until mid-March. 1080 Ski Lodge Road. (828) 926-0285. cataloochee.com
- Maggie Valley Restaurant
This breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot has been in the Carver family since 1952, and famous local moonshiner Popcorn Sutton used to sell his liquid out back. Some loyal customers come every day. Some just pass through and stop. Sit long enough, and you might be lucky enough to hear one of the owners, James Carver, tell stories about his days playing minor-league baseball. 2804 Soco Road. (828) 926-0425. maggievalleyrestaurant.net
- Mountaineer Restaurant
Situated near a tower that claims to have the most photographed view in the Smokies, this restaurant has a back porch overlooking that same landscape. While they eat, people can sign a guest book titled “Million-Dollar View,” which asks them to finish the sentence, “If I had a million dollars …” 6490 Soco Road. (828) 926-1730. firesidecottages.net
- J. Arthur’s
Donna Mahoney and her late husband, John, bought the restaurant 27 years ago and moved here from Florida. In a town where most people rave about the breakfast and lunch spots, this is one of the top places for a nice dinner, with steak and prime rib leading the list of options. The fireplace makes the restaurant ideal for a cold winter evening. 2843 Soco Road. (828) 926-1817. jarthurs.com
- Cataloochee Area Elk
For hundreds of years, elk roamed freely in the Great Smoky Mountains. But early settlers to the region overhunted them, and the last elk was killed in the late 1700s. In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced elk in the region. One of the best places to find them is just outside of town in Cataloochee Valley. Take U.S. Highway 276 North. Just before the Maggie Valley entrance ramp, turn left on Cove Creek Road and follow the signs for 11 miles. Mornings and evenings are best. nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/cataloochee.htm
119 Ranch Drive
Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751
Smokey Shadows Lodge
323 Smokey Shadows Lane
Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751
Wheels Through Time
62 Vintage Lane
Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751
Joey’s Pancake House
4309 Soco Road
Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751
Ghost Town in the Sky
16 Fie Top Road
Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751
Michael Graff is the writer-at-large for Our State magazine. His most recent stories were “Saying Grace” and “Columbia” (November 2012).