By Erich Reinhard
Swannanoa Valley contains many places that speak to its mountain heritage. From post-World War I tea house to doctor’s office, liquor store to visitor’s center, the building that today houses the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce (COC) has had an interesting past.
Independent spirits have thrived in the spot that opened as a small tea house in 1918. The McGraw Tea Room also served as the home of its proprietor, Mrs. Claudia McGraw, whose talent for apron making would reshape her life and career after the café closed. The popular tea room would occasionally close to the public on Sunday afternoons for a family dinner. “It was just such a small town then, with no cars whipping by,” says Charlotte Arrendell, McGraw’s niece.
Soon the famous “Apron Lady” moved her family next door into what is now the Black Mountain Bistro. Many travelers remember the big brick sign promoting the “Apron of the Month” in front of the house.
“I helped her fold aprons that were already done,” Arrendell says. “They were too pretty to wear, but wonderful to keep.”
The building’s future occupants would draw upon a similar self-reliance to that of the McGraws. It was converted to a physician’s office in the 1920s.
After graduating from Princeton in 1927, Samuel Cooley moved to WNC to teach English, math and agriculture at Asheville Farm School (now Warren Wilson College). While teaching, he noticed a more pressing concern: the local residents’ health.
“There was a real need for doctors in this area,” says Craig Cooley, his son. “So he went back up to Columbia to get a medicine degree. By the time he graduated, he had a wife and I was a year old.”
When the first doctor retired, Dr. Samuel Cooley started his practice in that same building in 1937. Understanding how hard it was traveling in a rural zone, he also offered medical advice outside the office at Black Mountain College.
Following service in WWII, Dr. Cooley and his associate, Dr. Miller, built an X-ray machine and dark room along the western edge of the building. His children enjoyed watching the procedures, including blood analysis and fi lm development. “It was pretty unique at this end of the county to have one of those [labs] in private practice,” Craig Cooley says, “and to carry out all their testing in their own laboratory.” While his brother became a doctor like their father, Craig worked as an environmental chemist for Eastman Kodak Company in upstate New York.
Samuel Cooley passed away in 1958. Dr. Miller maintained his practice for a few years before moving it to Asheville, and the building entered its first vacancy. It next opened its doors as the local ABC store, and in the 1980s, as the Chamber Visitor Center.
Former COC executive director Andy Andrews oversaw the purchase and reconstruction of the building from the Town with funds secured from donations and the state. Bob McMurray, executive director for the past 22 years, has witnessed many changes to the town as well as the COC. Membership has grown to 350 members and more than 40 volunteers who welcome more than 30,000 visitors each year. The 100-year-old building, with a newly remodeled interior and new red metal roof, serves a vital role in the community.
Visitors love “The Little Town That Rocks,” from its historic Visitor Center to the decorated rocking chairs all over town where they can shop and rock or just enjoy the beautiful mountain views. With an abundance of great places to eat, lots of arts and crafts and unique shops, greenways and hiking trails, there is something for everyone in Black Mountain and the Swannanoa Valley.
The Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce is located at 201 East State Street in Black Mountain. To learn more, call 828.669.2300 or visit exploreblackmountain.com.