By Lauren Stepp
Appalachia is characterized by its isolation. Wild terrain and vegetation thwarted many a foreigner in the early 20th century, keeping global affairs out and timeworn traditions in. But as author Jacqueline Painter asserts in her 1992 text, The German Invasion of Western North Carolina, even Madison County’s secluded hollers felt the effects of World War I.
First came the drafting and rationing—”[they] did without sugar, coffee and spices,” writes Painter. Then came the German internment camp. Hosted at Mountain Park Hotel in Hot Springs, this prison held more than 2,000 civilians. Most prisoners came from German and Austrian commercial ships seized when Great Britain declared war in 1914. The US government called these individuals ‘enemy aliens.’
“In 1917, the nationally known Mountain Park Hotel and resort, visited by the well-to-do from all major US cities, was having financial problems as the new automobile age was emerging and mountain roads were not yet up to standard,” says historian Taylor Barnhill of Mars Hill. “Railroad routes were changing. The Mountain Park owners probably jumped at the chance to host the internees and be paid for more-than-full occupancy. Bottom line—the internment camp was an economic boon to the hotel and community.”
Today, a century later, Hot Springs plans to honor the camp’s centennial. Festivities run from Friday, September 15 to Sunday, September 17, and include film screenings, walking tours and live performances. Elmer Hall, event co-coordinator and owner of Sunnybank Inn, says the weekend calls attention to a historical marker that might otherwise be forgotten. Though, as Painter points out in her introduction, many government entities have all but bleached the internment camp from public accounts.
“I began research about a decade ago,” she writes. “In 1983 a reply to my inquiry came from National Records Service in Washington, D.C., saying that there were no records pertaining to camps or prisoners in the United States during World War I.”
Of course, lore is not easily silenced in the mountains. Hall likes to recount one narrative about a nameless German woman who took shelter at Sunnybank. Since Mountain Park only imprisoned men, this dame went freely about the town, interacting with Americans and attending church services. But she longed to be reunited with her husband, imprisoned in the camp and so, sent a note to her beau in a dog’s collar.
“One night, when it wasn’t a full moon, they met at the French Broad,” says Elmer. They then paddled to a German embassy in New Orleans, fled to Mexico and sailed back to Germany. Jane Gentry, the inn’s former owner, received a Christmas card from them years later.
Few prisoners were so lucky. Instead, they spent the war’s duration in Hot Springs, building stick-frame houses, holding Sunday concerts and raising small game. Since the camp employed guards and maintenance workers, it soon became essential to the local economy, says Elmer. It also changed agriculture, encouraging farmers to grow less tobacco and more food.
That casual existence ended with typhoid fever in August of 1918 and the armistice later that year. From there, internees moved to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, or traveled back home. Still, WWI’s effects would linger, says Elmer.
“We call WWI the ‘war to end all wars,’ but it did anything but that,” he continues. “It laid the groundwork for WWII. It toppled crowned heads—kings, queens, czars. It led to the Russian Revolution and obliterated the Ottoman Empire.” Closer to home, WWI forever changed the dynamic of an unsuspecting mountain town.
The centennial anniversary includes a series of free activities at the Hot Springs Library, Welcome Center, Spa Grounds and Dorland Presbyterian Church. For a full schedule, call 828.622.7206 or visit friendsofhotspringslibrary.org.