Western North Carolina is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about ecotourism and especially not eco-retreats. While the ecotourism industry has taken off in the developing nations of South America and East Asia, the U.S. travel industry hasn’t been as quick to jump on the bandwagon, even as 2002 marks the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism. But that may be changing.
In February, The Cottages at Spring House Farm, an isolated mountain eco-retreat just north of Lake Lure, North Carolina, became the first U.S. member of EcoClub, an international ecotourism club, based in Athens, Greece, that provides travelers information on environmentally friendly lodgings around the world. Spring House Farm is also a new member of the International Ecotourism Society, the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit ecotourism organization. Both organizations strive to promote conservation-minded tourism around the globe that respects both the environment and the native culture.
Arthur and Zee Campbell opened The Cottages at Spring House Farm in July 2000. At the time, they merely intended to operate a few bed and breakfast cabins on their newly acquired 92-acre farm. “The place originally started as just pro-ecology,” says Arthur, “but we’ve always been very conservation-minded here. Spring House Farm already fit EcoClub’s requirements. We didn’t have to do anything differently in order to qualify for membership.”
Established on land that was once cut over by logging, Spring House Farm today is blanketed in decades-old tulip poplars and hickories, even as neighboring land continues to fall victim to clear cutting. “When Zee and I first came here,” Arthur notes, “we were propositioned by people wanting to buy our timber. Now they leave us alone, and I think we’re setting an example for others by leaving our hardwood canopy here intact.” The only trees cut down since the Campbells took up residence at Spring House Farm were those used to build the guest cottages. Even the roads into the property have been established along old logging routes.
That’s partly to preserve the natural heritage of the farm but also to preserve its history. The concept for the property actually began in 1998, when the Campbells purchased the acreage and the accompanying dilapidated farm house that stood at its center. As Zee is quick to note, Arthur had a vision when purchasing the c. 1826 Albertus Ledbetter house, as it was in a state of severe disrepair. Neighbors thought the Campbells were crazy, but today the Ledbetter House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, due in large part to the efforts of the Campbells and the craftspeople they hired to perform restoration.
Upon cleaning and restoring the home, the Campbells discovered one of the most unaltered early 19th-century structures in the region. The home is a rare and intact example of transitional Federal/Greek Revival architecture of post-beam construction. Both the exterior and interior of the home display untouched, original hand-painted molded paneling. Also intact are the hand-painted doors with original locks and hinges.
During restoration of the home, the Campbells used period materials from a nearby structure whose age even the locals could not decipher: the old Wilkerson House in the Muntford Cove section of McDowell County. Elderly members of the community refer to the Wilkerson House as “built sometime in Washington’s day.”
In dismantling the home, they discovered far more than old heart-pine planks. They unearthed another treasure–quilts, dozens of them, some nearly 200 years old. There were 38 intact quilts in all, three more in tatters; some were stored in trunks as old as the oldest quilts, others in a 30-gallon oil drum.
“It took awhile for the discovery to sink in,” says Arthur. It didn’t occur to us what we had until we started shaking them out and looking at them.”All of the quilts were hand-stitched, most of them in near-perfect condition.
“We got excited,” says Arthur, “and called the curator at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Her first impression was that the quilts were very early and very special. She dated them from the early to mid-1800s to the 1940s.”
“We know it was a circle of ladies who stitched these quilts,” says Arthur, “but it’s still something of a mystery as to why these quilts were never distributed.” According to local women, the last owners of the house were two spinster sisters, whose family had lived in the home since it was built at the end of the 18th century. When they died, there were no heirs to take the quilts.
Today the Campbells store the quilts in their historic home and will occasionally show them to guests at the property. In the long-term, they hope to establish a small museum on their farm to house the quilts and to share the cultural heritage they represent with the surrounding community and visitors.
For now, with restoration of the Ledbetter House behind them and completion of the farm’s fifth and final cottage, the Campbells continue to work diligently on maintaining the private wildlife sanctuary they have created at Spring House Farm. As visitors to The Cottages at Spring House Farm will quickly see, this is not a typical lodging facility. One well supplies water to all five cabins on the property as well as to the Campbells’ historic home. All power lines run underground, and the couple makes very limited use of pesticides.
With miles of hiking trails through forest and meadow, along pond and stream, and the common glimpses of wild turkey and deer, Spring House Farm represents nothing if not seclusion, for people and for wildlife.
“There’s a balance here,” says Arthur, “that wasn’t here when we first came here. It’s known among our neighbors, many of whom are hunters, that we don’t allow hunting, and they respect that this is a special place.”
The Cottages at Spring House Farm play host to a variety of species indigenous to western North Carolina: white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobcats, indigo bunting, pileated woodpeckers, and multitudes of hummingbirds. “We don’t do anything to attract the wildlife,” Arthur explains. “The species seem to follow one another here. We don’t have to do anything.”
Native flora and fauna abound on the farm as well. Hillsides are draped in luscious rhododendron in late spring. Mountain laurel and ladyslipper orchids are also common among Spring House Farm’s private woods, which Arthur likens to a tropical rainforest canopy. “I’ve seen rainforests in South America,” he says, “ and this place, while not tropical, is similar to those in that it supports an abundance of wildlife and birds. In the morning here, it sounds like a tropical rain forest.”
Guests to The Cottages at Spring House Farm appreciate the property’s remoteness from the outside world and the closeness it provides to the environment. Robert Parrish of Waynesboro, Georgia, says, “It’s so secluded. It’s like having your own place. You don’t have to see anybody once you check in.”
Arthur understands why guests are drawn to the isolated cabins at Spring House Farm over more conventional lodgings. “I was raised in the country on a plantation in South Carolina,” he explains. “I felt a real connection to that place when I was a kid, and I felt the same thing when I came here. Most people don’t get to experience nature every day. I want to give people a place where they can reconnect with nature.”
Many people have done just that. Zee says there are some weekends when she could easily fill a dozen cottages if she had them. Many guests who come to Spring House Farm are so enchanted by the place that they just can’t stay away. Patsi and Michael Sheets of Charlotte, North Carolina, have stayed at the eco-retreat four times in the last year and a half.
“We like the trout pond and hiking,” Michael notes, “but especially the privacy. Things are so hectic in our lives, but here I can relax.”
Of course, being North Carolina’s first and only eco-retreat, The Cottages at Spring House Farm stay pretty full, especially in the height of summer and fall. But no matter the season, The Cottages at Spring House Farm promise guests serenity they won’t likely find at other lodgings, plus a proximity to nature that is disturbingly absent in modern everyday life.
For more information, contact: The Cottages at Spring House Farm, P. O. Box 130 , Chimney Rock, NC 28720; or call toll-free (877) 738-9798. Their website is www.springhousefarm.com. Rates are $200-265/night; weekly rates available. The cottages sleep only two., and no smoking is allowed indoors. For more information on EcoClub and eco-retreats worldwide, visit their web site at www.ecoclub.com. For more information on the ecotourism industry and the International Ecotourism Society, visit www.ecotourism.org.