The Mast Farm Inn of Valle Crucis • David Yates
As you drive down the valley, you will notice small cabins dotting the hillsides. As the narrow river valley broadens into fertile meadows, you will see large, old homesteads and farms. You will pass a popular summer camp, Camp Broadstone, where I worked as a teenager. On the banks of the river, you will see River Run Farm, a thoroughbred farm that rivals the most beautiful of its kind in Kentucky.
Soon thereafter, you will arrive at one of the oldest and best-preserved pioneer homesteads in the South, now a cozy bed-and-breakfast inn nestled against the side of the mountain. After staying at this old inn, a writer for the New York Times said, “The Mast Farm Inn is about as close as you can get to defining the word homespun.”
Although the rambling green-and-white Victorian bed-and-breakfast now bustles with guests, I remember the old homestead as it was during my childhood in the 1970’s, an elaborate play-ground, abandoned and full of dark rooms with numbers on the doors, old trunks, and mysterious farm utensils. I spent days exploring the old buildings, swinging from the rope hanging in the top of the old barn, and searching the surrounding fields for arrowheads. My imagination was fueled by my grandmother’s stories of the characters who stayed in the inn when she worked here as a teenager during the early 1900’s, and of Joe Mast, the last of the family to live on the farm. Many of the rooms are now named after people at the inn almost a century ago, including my grandmother, “Miss Allie.”
In the late 1700’s, Joseph Mast walked all the way from Pennsylvania and settled on much of the land that is now Valle Crucis. Around 1810, his son David built the two-room log cabin which now sits facing the main house at the Mast Farm. Three generations of the family resided in this cabin. Like most of Valle Crucis residents, the Masts raised corn, grain, sheep, cattle, and food for the family.
The Masts built more farm buildings over the years, including the large barn across the road from the main house. Of necessity, the farm was designed to be self-sufficient and self-contained. By the early 1900’s, at least sixteen different buildings were part of the old mountain farmstead. Remarkably, thirteen remain today. Most of the buildings in the meadow were used for livestock, for the storage of hay and grain and for tobacco curing. The springhouse, smokehouse, icehouse, blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, and wash house were on the south side of the road adjacent to the cabin, tucked away from the wind. On the north side of the road, almost directly across from the small garage, a large harness shed once stood. A pen for hogs sat where the small pond behind the blacksmith shop is now located.
David’s son Andrew began building the main house around 1880. Andrew’s son, D. Finley Mast, completed it in 1896. A photo of the house in the early 1900’s shows a sign stating simply, “BROOKSHIDE FARM, D. FINLEY MAST, ONE HALF MILE TO POST OFFICE.” Originally, the main house consisted of only the part closest to the road – three stories high, with two rooms on each floor. Like most large homes with open flames for cooking, it had a detached kitchen.
The blacksmith shop, which also required an open fire, was located in a separate log structure. The building for curing meat was separate as well. Laundry was done in large cast-iron pots of boiling water in the wash house by the creek, safely away from the house.
In the early 1900’s, Finley and his wife, Josephine, began to make additions to the house and to operate it as an inn. Over a period of about twenty-five years, five different symmetrical additions were completed, ultimately comprising thirteen bedrooms – and one bathroom.
In the early 1900’s, when my grandmother was a child and railroads and improved roads brought visitors to nearby towns such as Blowing Rock, the farm, indeed the whole valley, became a haven for flatlanders escaping the heat and the hustle of city life. Guests came from as far north as Washington, D.C., and as far south as New Orleans and Florida to stay with Finley and Josephine Mast. After huge family-style dinners, the men generally sat on the porch smoking their pipes, while the women gathered inside. Well before automobiles sped around the curves of the road, playing children had to share the lawn with grazing horses. There was a well-worn patch across the meadow, where visitors walked to a wooden swinging footbridge crossing the Watauga River.
In her autobiography, Quiet Pilgrimage, Elizabeth Gray Vining wrote of traveling from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to the Mast Farm during summer in the early 1900’s:
“Though we went to Valle Crucis by car and found modern plumbing and electric lights in the old house, going there was like stepping back into another era – a time when the Jeffersonian ideal of America life prevailed. Almost everything that we ate was grown on the place. Every day there appeared on the long, white-clothed table at which we all sat: fried chicken, ham, homemade sausage, hot biscuits and spoon bread, home-churned butter, thick cream, cottage cheese, vegetables just out of the garden, ever-bearing strawberries, applesauce, peaches. Once I counted twenty different dishes….
The conversation around the table was good. There were keen minds, aware of questions of the day, people who had traveled, people interested in folklore and the changing customs of the mountain life.”
The Masts were known far and wide for their hospitality and their food. My grandmother remembered how visitors arrived in buggies and later in cars on Sunday afternoons. The reason was butter-milk, which Josephine Mast served outside on long tables by the springhouse.
In those days, the loom house on the property housed up to a half-dozen looms. My grandmother, Josephine Mast, and other local women were master craftswomen by today’s standards. They learned to make clothing, quilts, and anything else that could be used on the farm. My grandmother could knit, crochet, and make rare lace and quilt patterns passed down from her European ancestors. Josephine Mast was a master weaver famous for her skill and generosity. As Elizabeth Gray Vining wrote,
“Aunt Josie was a remarkable woman in any time or place. A slender, vigorous, gray-haired little figure filled with energy and warmth, she ran her part of the farm – the vegetable garden, the dairy and the house, with its dozen or so paying guests – with almost careless competence. She mothered the people of the countryside, who were forever coming to her with their troubles, which ranged from ailments (which she treated with herb remedies) and hunger (which she fed with baskets of food) to questions about the directions of their lives or the resolution of family conflicts. In her spare time she relaxed by going into the loom house and weaving several inches of bedspread, rug, or bag.”
When President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, Jessie, was to be married, Josephine gathered neighbors to help weave spreads and rugs for Jessie’s room in the White House. According to newspaper reports of the time, the president’s family was so impressed by the work that it redecorated the room around the weavings. Some of Josephine’s weavings are now in the Smithsonian.
Finley and Josephine Mast had two sons. Joe, the son who stayed on the farm, was blind by the time he was a young adult. According to my grandmother, Joe attached strings between the buildings in order to find his way around the farm. Later, with typical mountain ingenuity, he abandoned the strings and created his own personal method of getting from place to place on the farm. My father remembers Joe, on hands and knees, pulling grass from hand-made trails between the farm buildings. He used these trials, always plucked free of grass, as guides. Joe overcame his handicap and was able to chop wood and perform other tasks seemingly impossible without the benefit of sight.
He and his wife, Edna, continued to run the house as a successful inn until the 1950’s. The main house often was so full that Joe slept upstairs in the loom house to make room for guests. Generation of visitors returned to the gracious house.
After Edna died and Joe became ill, Edna’s maid Nell, my family, and other neighbors helped take care of Joe. My father often stayed with Joe as he grew old and unable to fend for himself. As his health continued to decline, he moved out of the old house in 1964. He died in 1969. Joe and Edna had no children, and no one in the family stepped forward to carry on the tradition of hospitality.
Elizabeth Gray Vining visited Valle Crucis again in 1968 and wrote “The house was closed and wore a dejected, unlived-in look. Bedraggled white curtains in the windows suggested that someone had gone out and shut the door on it, just as it was, when the old people died. The spring house and woodshed were empty, the washhouse crumbling, the loom house filled with old wheelbarrows and rusty tools; a half-finished bedspread on the loom was gray with age and dust and festooned with cobwebs. At some time a flood must have changed the course of the brook and the forget-me-nots were gone. Up on the hill, well-fenced, well cared for, in contrast, was the family burial ground.”
“The numerous buildings that make up the Mast Farm, each expressive of it function, represent vividly the wide variety of operations necessary to a self-sustaining farm complex. The weaving house is particularly interesting, both because…”it is an example of log construction which reached its finest development in North Carolina,” and because it was the original dwelling around which the farm grew up. With this building as a nucleus, the farm illustrates the progression of an enterprising pioneer family from this rude early house on a small homestead to a larger, more comfortable house, the seat of much larger land holdings. This complex includes one of the most complete and best preserved groups of nineteenth-century farm buildings in western North Carolina.”
The farm was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. At that time, the loom house still contained several working looms, but the main house and many of the outbuildings were in serious disrepair. The family put the farm up for sale.
The Paul Lackey family bought the property from Joe’s heirs in 1980. After beginning some renovations, the Lackeys sold it to Francis and Sibyl Pressley in 1984. Francis and Sibyl rescued the old homestead. They first renovated and moved into the loom house, then began the painstaking process of renovating the main house according to the strict historic guidelines for National Register properties. They opened the main house to guests in 1985 and later renovated the granary, the blacksmith shop, and the woodworking shop.
A year’s worth of meticulous work resulted in the facility you see today and earned them the Gertrude S. Carraway Award of Merit from the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina. Likewise, their hospitality landed the inn in the prestigious Innkeepers’ Register, a publication containing inns known for their hospitality, service, and historical or other special interest.
The Pressleys served family-style meals and grew much of their produce on the farm. Much like the Masts in years gone by, they borrowed recipes from neighbors and friends.
Francis and Sibyl Pressley retired as innkeepers in 1996 and sold the inn to the Schoenfeldt family, which plans to carry the Masts’ tradition of hospitality into another century. If you get a chance to stay in this grand old inn, you will find that it is operated much the same way the Masts ran it almost a century ago. The rooms are furnished with period antiques. Guests eat freshly prepared meals around big tables, exchange stories with their fellow travelers, sit on the porch, and take walks around the farm. Fortunately, they no longer have to share a single bathroom with a houseful of guests. Progress does have its advantages, even in Valle Crucis.
Valle Crucis, North Carolina
For More Information
GoodReads • http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2939937-valle-crucis
Amazon • http://amzn.com/089587203X
Editorial Note: The history above was written in 1997 and updated in 2004. On February 1st 2006, eight members of The Deschamps, Russo & Siano Family relocated together to The Valle Crucis community. They converged to Valle Crucis after having lived in Paris, London, Switzerland, Manhattan, Pétionville, Laboule, Coconut Grove & North Carolina, as they they had purchased The Mast Farm Inn from Wanda Hinshaw and Lyle Schoenfeldt, and The Taylor House Inn, also in Valle Crucis. The Deschamps have owned, since 1996, what used to be a historic girl’s camp (Camp Glenlaurel) on The Blue Ridge Parkway at Gooch Gap in Little Switzerland. After twice-yearly visits and vacations in the area they decided to move here full-time. A very common occurrence with visitors to the region. To see why one needs only visit a few times.
On February 1st they took over ownership and management of the Inn and In April 2006 they began in-depth restorations-renovations of the inns and properties.
The new innkeepers of The Mast Farm Inn became sisters Sandra Deschamps Siano and Danielle Deschamps Stabler. Sandra & Danielle are of French-Italian-US heritage, were educated in Paris, Villars-sur-Ollon in Switzerland, London, Pétionville, Manhattan and Miami, and speak 4 languages.
They receive help and support from Sandra’s husband Gaetano Siano, who manages Accounting & IT, Marie-Henriette Deschamps, their executive-chef mother who also takes care of Administration, Food & Beverage, their publisher father, Henri Deschamps, who attends to building, restoration, business & organizational development, and last, but by no means least, from Sandra’s sons Nicolas & Alex Siano, all of three and seven, managers of "odes to joy" and general glee. In September 2011, Danielle, The Innkeeper-Chef, was married to Ken Stabler, of South Carolina who is now also one of the Innkeepers and the facilities manager. Yes the nephew of "The Crimson Tide Oakland Raiders Ken Stabler". Since end of 2011, Sandra has been devoting more time to being an almost full-time Mom and helps primarily in the the building, renovations, restoration & decoration. This family of 10 represents a whopping 2% of the population of Valle Crucis.
Marie-Henriette’s Brother Bernard Russo and his wife Tessa Siegel Russo, own and manage The Taylor House Inn, also in Valle Crucis about half a mile from The Mast Farm Inn.
They all share a strong commitment towards the Inns, the Community, the Heritage, Legacy, Traditions and Values which have made The Mast Farm Inn, The Taylor House, Valle Crucis and the Western North Carolina High Country, a little bit of heaven.