Accommodations Heritage/History Lifestyle

History: New Owners, a New Future for Burnsville’s NuWray Inn

Historic NuWray Inn. Photo courtesy of James Keith

By Lauren Stepp

It’s only 11 a.m., and James Keith has already found buried treasure in the walls of the NuWray Inn.

“I’ve spent the past two hours trying to preserve this,” Keith says as he dusts bits of gypsum board off his blue flannel shirt. Before him, in a darkened hallway, is a hand-painted mural. By the looks of the drooping willows and stately colonial mansion, the scene is set farther afield than Yancey County, maybe as far south as Savannah, Georgia. “It’s definitely not of the inn,” Keith says.

He should know. Last October, Keith and his wife Amanda purchased the cornerstone of Burnsville’s town square: the NuWray Inn. They now hope to restore the 16,500-square-foot hotel to its former glory. But this Herculean task requires wading through several decades of water damage, unsafe patch jobs and gauche wallpaper choices. It also requires unearthing 189 years of history.

Wallpaper inside NuWray Inn. Photo courtesy of James Keith

Built in 1833 by ginseng merchant Bacchus Smith, the inn first emerged as a trading post with eight rooms where travelers could get some shut-eye. Not long after, the grand dame was acquired by Milton Penland, a wealthy slave owner and secessionist who established the hostel as permanent lodging.

In 1870, Garrett Ray assumed ownership of what was then called the Ray Hotel. The inn remained in the family for four generations, taking on the name “NuWray” when Julia Ray married William Wray in 1912. The new moniker was a double entendre, says Keith. “If they were going to change the spelling of ‘Ray,’ they might as well change the spelling of ‘new,’” he says with a laugh.

Rife with charm, the hotel has attracted a host of visitors throughout its history. Thomas Wolfe spent an evening there in 1929 when he was a witness in a murder trial in Burnsville. Other guests include writer O. Henry, actor Christopher Reeve and President Jimmy Carter. Elvis Presley also sojourned at the NuWray Inn and, as legend has it, snuck down to the kitchen late one evening for a sumptuous peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Doors Inside NuW.ray Inn. Photo courtesy of James Keith

However, not all guests have been satisfied with the hotel’s provisions, namely essayist Charles Dudley Warner. In his 1887 text, On Horseback: A Tour in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, Warner swoons about the hotel’s picturesque setting, writing that it’s “more like a New England village than any hitherto seen.” But, he laments, “before the country can attract and retain travelers, its inhabitants must learn something about the preparation of food.”

Keith keeps a copy of Warner’s journal by his side both for laughs and inspiration. Though the inn has been dishing up vittles on and off since 1833, Keith knows his team can do better. This summer, he plans to open an on-site restaurant that elevates traditional Appalachian fare—like creamed chipped beef on toast, for instance—with locally sourced ingredients and surprising flavors.

Since the restaurant will be open well before the inn is complete, Keith hopes to offer patrons hard-hat tours of the ongoing restoration. That way, he says, Burnsville residents can witness the inn’s history first-hand.

“People have told us stories about how their grandparents were married here or how they used to sneak into the hotel as kids,” says Keith. “We know how important this place is for locals, so we’re trying to bring it back to a point of prominence and pride.”

The NuWray Inn is located at 102 Town Square, Burnsville. To learn more, visit NuWray.com.

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