Step back in time at Cataloochee Ranch this summer

Ranch hosts "Way Back When" dinners
Jun 09, 2014

Instead of hitting a restaurant or bar one recent Friday night, my fiance and I decided to do something a little different by visiting the past.

When Matthew and I pulled up to the main lodge at Cataloochee Ranch, we saw a tractor pulling a wagon full of people and we weren't quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. But after a cold beverage and a short chat with ___, we found ourselves sitting comfortably on the wagon, slowly being pulled to our destination in what the ranch family calls "The Bowl."

The folks at Cataloochee Ranch are celebrating the ranch's 80th anniversary this year, and they've gone to great lengths to recreate a primitive fishing camp that the ranch founders ran in the early 1930s to share with guests what it was like "Way Back When."

The early 1930's wasn't an easy time in American history. Most of the nation's population was poor and unemployed, thanks to the Great Depression.

But it was also the time when the Smoky Mountains National Park was being formed, which is where Tom Alexander, "Mr. Tom," came into the picture.

Tom was a forester who worked for an Asheville timber company and helped estimate the value of the 20,000 acres of land in the Three Forks Basin. That's where he discovered his love for the area and began guided fishing trips to an area in the basin where there was a lake that was described to have been the size of a football field and brimming with fish.

Famous Japanese-born photographer George Masa was great friends with Mr. Tom, and spent the entire summer of 1932 at the fish camp taking pictures and helping Tom measure hiking trails. Because of this friendship, the folks at Cataloochee Ranch have one of the largest private collections of Masa's photographs.

Those who attended the trips would head out to the remote Three Forks camp by foot or on horseback and would spend their days fishing and their nights around the camp fire, cooking their catch and sharing music and stories. It was only a few years later that Mr. Tom decided to go into the hospitality business and created the ranch.

The re-created fish camp is located in the basin of a nearby bowl shaped valley with 365 degrees of breathtaking mountain views, hence the nick name, "the bowl." Though it's not in the exact location where the camp sat originally, the folks at Cataloochee Ranch have achieved as close to an exact replica as possible, with sturdy birch trees holding up a tent above a long wooden table and benches.

No buildings, no pavement, no electronics, no 4G service. We sat under the tent and simply took in the evening air as potatoes were dropped directly into the campfire.

The chef cooked up the North Carolina trout on an old cast iron stove under the tent, and our stomachs grumbled at the smell of pan seared trout, cornbread muffins, creamy coleslaw and scratch made blackberry and rhubarb cobblers.

As the guests mingled over cold beer and wine, a gust of wind swept through bringing in a thunderstorm that blew rain sideways and collected on top of the tent. But instead of scattering, everyone was happy to huddle together and wait out the storm.

It only took about 20 minutes for the thunder and lightning to pass and everyone simply dried off their spot on the long wooden benches. While we eagerly awaited our meal, Judy Coker and Alice Aumen, both daughters of Mr. Tom, took us back to 1930 and told stories about the fish camp and growing up at what eventually became what Cataloochee Ranch is today.

It wasn't long before dinner was served on military surplus tin trays and shallow cups with mismatched cloth napkins. With full bellies, we were even treated to some authentic entertainment as Appalachian musician William Ritter picked away on the banjo and fiddle to tunes that could have easily been the same ones played around the campfire in the early 1930s.

The family who runs the ranch plans to hold at least two "Way Back When" dinners each month. As Aumen put it, this is the perfect way to "cherish the best part of the past and embrace the rest of the future."

The next dinner is Thursday, June 12. The cost is $31.95 per person, which includes food and beverage. (For guests at the ranch, the dinner is complimentary.) Reservations, which are required due to the limited space, can be made by calling the Ranch at 828.926.1401 or 800.868.1401. Guests will meet at the Ranch house at 5:30 pm, rain or shine, to board the wagon ride to the camp.

Other scheduled dinners include FridayJune 27; FridayJuly 11; FridayJuly 18; FridayAugust 1 and FridayAugust 15.

 

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