“Some places have a life about them. A spirit that is intangible, yet deeply felt. A sense of ‘being’ so real it causes one to pause and wonder. For many, Wildacres is such a place. In the rustling of the leaves, in the songs of the birds, on a gentle breeze it finds voice. And for those inclined to listen, Wildacres has many stories to tell.” – Becky Story
Many organizations come to Wildacres to develop or add to their own stories. Musicians, artists and writers find the breathtaking scenery a perfect backdrop for creative expression. Gem and mineral societies hone their skills in the lapidary workshops, while potters practice their craft in the clay studio. Groups concerned with the natural sciences find Wildacres ideal for meetings and conduct workshops on the grounds themselves as well as in the mountains that surround Wildacres. Universities and hospitals offer professional development opportunities. Our goal at Wildacres is to offer a space where community groups and organizations can come together, find peace and connect to each other, their missions and visions and to the greater world around us. In these times, those connections are more important than ever.
At this tremendous crossroads in our society, we are called back to our mission of “the betterment of human relations”. By today’s standards, that phrase may seem outdated and altruistic. And it is, without examination. That’s exactly the point. Wildacres seeks to be a place of examination, reflection and truth for groups that opt to hold retreats here. Wildacres seeks to be a place that inspires us all to connect to each other and contribute to creating a better community, society and world. In doing that, we can no longer hide or shy away from the reality and truths of our current society and the inequities that people are experiencing. We recognize that those inequities are tied to our nation’s history in the same way that all our lives are tied to history.
Wildacres is no different. Realizing our mission to support and inspire better human relations requires us to acknowledge that our own story is rooted in a painful history.
The Wildacres story began in the 1920’s when Thomas Dixon of Shelby, NC, acquired over 1,000 acres of wooded land on Pompey’s Knob in McDowell County. Dixon was a lawyer, preacher, legislator, playwright, novelist, and actor who had attended Wake Forest University and received many awards. He was well known nationally as a preacher and public speaker and wrote many novels, the most famous being The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots. The Clansman was made into the movie, “The Birth of a Nation” which, even then, was seen as a very harmful and racist depiction of the South and formerly enslaved Black people during reconstruction. While many White Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, lauded the movie as brilliant, Black Americans found it hurtful and inaccurate. It proved to be dangerous as well, being instrumental in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan’s powerful reign of terrorism that casts a deadly shadow even today.
After the movie, Dixon’s life took a downward turn, and he began to look for a new purpose and focus. During this period he came back to the Blue Ridge mountains. Dixon was influenced by his mountain surroundings and decided to use the proceeds from the movie to launch Wildacres, where he hoped to create a cultural haven for artisans, musicians, writers, and philosophers to live and work on their craft. As his enthusiasm for the project grew, Dixon built two large lodges equipped with electricity and running water and began selling lots on the property. However, by 1929 the country was entering the Great Depression and Dixon lost everything, including Wildacres.
A Texas bank ultimately acquired the property and in 1936 announced plans to auction it off. A real estate salesman in Charlotte, by the name of Jinks Harrell, heard about the auction and told his friend, I.D. Blumenthal, founder of Radiator Specialty Company, about it. Blumenthal wasn’t particularly interested in the property, but when he attended an interfaith conference in nearby Black Mountain he decided to visit. What he found at Wildacres stirred him. Beyond the two lodges and other buildings already in place, the luxuriant foliage of the surrounding forest and the grandeur of the mountain views were irresistible. That’s when Blumenthal decided to place a bid of $6,500 on the property based on the advice of Harrell.
By the day of the auction, Blumenthal’s was the only bid. Since the bank held a note for $192,000 the auction judge deemed the amount offered questionable. A clerk of the court was dispatched to look over the property to decide if the bid was adequate. I.D. met the clerk in Asheville on a sunny day and drove him to Wildacres. I.D. loved to tell the story of what happened that day as they wound their way further into the Blue Ridge and watched as a cloud settled around the mountain; a phenomenon familiar to those who live in the mountains.
“I led him through the boarded-up buildings with a flashlight. Even outside, you couldn’t see your hand before your face. Upstairs and down, from one lodge to the other took about twenty minutes. It was eerie, and the poor man soon had enough. He asked me if I was going to try to buy this God-forsaken place. I told him that when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the mountain was covered with a cloud. If it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for me.” The clerk was eager to leave the mountain and as they headed down the mountain the cloud lifted to show the lovely day. Upon his return to Texas the clerk recommended the bid be accepted.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
I.D. Blumenthal regarded it as a miracle. While he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with the property, he believed God had bestowed this gift upon him for a purpose. He never felt that his wealth should be used solely for himself. I.D. and his brother, Herman, restored Wildacres to an operable condition after years of neglect and abandonment. For a few summers, it served as a hotel. In the early 1940’s, the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, began using the facility for its summer residency program. After WWII, I.D. and Madolyn along with Herman and Anita talked about what the highest and best use for Wildacres could be. After many conversations, in 1946, they decided to open the retreat to a wider range of groups with varied programming. The goal was to offer individuals an opportunity to step away from their normal routines and focus on their interests and learning without outside distractions. In 1972, Wildacres became a public charity dedicated to the betterment of human relations. Since then, we have hosted numerous other nonprofit groups for retreats and conferences.
Today Wildacres invites groups to deepen their programs and curriculum to examine their roles and impact on our society, and contribute to more connection, justice and equity. We have also expanded our invitation to more groups who explicitly seek a commitment to social justice and equity. We are all connected; to each other, to our past and to this land. We are all responsible for the betterment of those relations.