As Harold Clackett revs up his tractor, 30 bison come running across a hilly pasture on the 70-some-acre Buffalo Creek Vacations property in Haywood County. Massive, shaggy bulls jostle for first dibs as Harold’s wife, Harriet, and their daughter Cheryl Hillis, balanced on a front-end loader, dump buckets of grain into a long trough. This spring’s russet-colored bison babies, known as “red dogs,” try to sneak a bite.
Harold and Harriet Clackett. photograph by Erin Adams
Standing on a wooden viewing platform, safely above the fray, travelers from Missouri and Florida snap photos. Some have already seen the herd from rustic-luxe cabins with names like “Bison Overlook” and “Red Dog Barn,” which the Clacketts and their six kids built by hand. Others can view the bison as train conductors once did while crossing the American Plains: from the windows of cabooses, now refurbished as vacation rentals.
The Clacketts’ bison herd — which also provides a small amount of meat that they sell in their gift shop — is one of the many animal attractions that Buffalo Creek offers, along with homing pigeons, llamas, donkeys, and miniature horses for miniature riders. Young guests also delight in seeing trains, large and small, and even a castle. It’s a toy box come to life.
“When people get here, they have all these plans to go and do the things that our area is known for,” Harold says, referring to the tourism attractions in Asheville, half an hour away. “A lot of times, they just end up staying here and enjoying the great experience we have to offer.”
New Yorkers by birth (you can still hear a little Long Island in their accents), Harold and Harriet bought their first patch of land outside of Clyde after Harold retired from his career as a UPS driver in 1994. They were drawn by the beauty of the Smokies and the chance to ranch on a small scale, one of Harold’s childhood dreams. A decade later, when the adjoining acres became available, some of the Clacketts’ kids saw an opportunity to stake their own claims. They expanded the property to include homes for themselves, as well as vacation rentals.
The first caboose arrived five years ago as a birthday present for Harold from his family. A lifelong train buff, Harold has a model layout that occupies nearly the whole top floor of the Buffalo Creek visitor center, which was built to look like an old-timey depot. Once the family started turning his O-scale dream into full-scale reality, they didn’t stop — there are now five cabooses on the property. One is available for parties, and two others have been cleverly repurposed as lodging. Two more rentals will open in 2021. The grab handles that once kept conductors upright now serve as a ladder for kids to climb up to a loft bed.
Five cabooses have been renovated as rentals at Buffalo Creek. Agapeland Station (below) is a 30-by-50-foot model train layout in the visitor center, which is itself modeled after a train depot. photographs by Erin Adams
“We’re bringing back the good old days,” Cheryl says. The “chief officer of everything,” she commutes from her family’s home in Pinehurst, where her husband is wrapping up his military career; they’ll retire to Buffalo Creek next year. Clackett sons Jacob and Joshua already live on the property, where Joshua built a life-size version of the Fisher-Price castle he loved as a kid, complete with a moat and drawbridge. Other Clacketts plan to settle at Buffalo Creek when their lives and careers allow.
“This place is about family — our family, other families,” says Jacob, who heads up construction projects and runs a paintball course on the property. “When people find out that we work here together and we get along, they’re amazed. They want that kind of relationship with their own family, and we offer them a chance here to unplug and connect with each other.”
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.