Upland Chronicles: Buckhorn Inn marks 75th anniversary

Aug. 31, 2013 @ 11:52 PM

Walter Bebb, a practicing physician in Downer’s Grove, Illinois and his wife, Edith had a great love for plants. This interest led them on botany field trip to the Smoky Mountains several years before the national park was established. They loved the plant diversity and the people of the area so much that they wanted to retire in the beautiful mountains, at an age when they could both enjoy them together. 

Availing themselves of his parents’ assistance, Walter and Edith’s son, Douglas Bebb, and his wife, Audrey Hogan Bebb, purchased a twenty-five-acre site on which to build and develop Buckhorn Inn.   Hubert Bebb, Douglas’ architect- brother sent down designs for the Inn. The designs featured imposing columns which created a colonial architectural style similar to Mount Vernon.  

They chose a beautiful site that captured a majestic view of Mount LeConte as well as Brushy Mountain and Winnesoka Knob. Utilizing local craftsmen the Bebbs built the main lodge and cottages 1 and 2 in 1937-38 and opened for business in August, 1938.

In early summer of 1940, Walter and Edith built and moved into a retirement home on land adjoining the Inn property. While Edith painted and wove, Walter gardened and continued to give some medical advice to neighbors when needed.

Inspired by his parents, Douglas had an interest in nature and believed in the renewal of one’s spirit. His botanical explorations on his property led him to discover a scented white dogwood tree that he named Fragrant Cloud. He applied for a patent and it was taken for distribution by Jackson and Perkins.

Douglas planted over 3,000 hemlocks and white pines on the cleared farmland, carefully sculpting the woodland environment so no other man-made structure was visible from the Inn. Using his Chicago Art Institute training, he carved bulkheads for highway signs to advertise the Inn. Two of his sculptures still grace the Inn’s stairwell.

To provide the best eggs for his guests’ breakfast, Douglas raised his own chickens. Every year he gathered vegetables from his bountiful garden and prepared all the meat dishes served at the Inn.

He taught himself auto mechanics, modifying an old Model A to run on a light switch and ferried items back and forth across the property. He felled his own trees for firewood and milled his own lumber.

The cocktail hour became an honored tradition at the Buckhorn Inn. In the early years of the operation of the Inn, the state of Tennessee was entirely dry; guests would bring their own libations with them. Those who knew him well would throw in an extra bottle of Jim Beam for Bebb.

A discriminating innkeeper, Douglas relied on word- of-mouth for advertising. During the hot summer months the inn was never full because it didn’t have air conditioning. During the spring and fall seasons, however it was usually filled to capacity.

In the early 1950s the Buckhorn Inn was featured in a well-known touring book, “Ford Times,” created by the Ford Motor Company to encourage driving vacations. Illustrated by Corydon Bell, the article stated:  “This hostelry is located on a hill dramatically facing the main ridge of the Smoky Mountains. You’re an easy car’s ride from many beauty spots. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served…..”    The entry also featured Douglas’ recipe for Corn Pudding.

With no television or radios to entertain, the guests would gather on the porch or in the living room for long evenings of conversation, reading, card playing or a game of skittles or cribbage.

Sadly, Douglas lost his wife Audrey to cancer in January, 1950.  He married June Edmondson Harvill, a widow from Maryville, in 1951 and she and her four children came to live at Buckhorn Inn. Douglas and June had two children, Tina and Ellen.

Douglas and June operated the Inn until June passed away in 1978 and Douglas sold Buckhorn Inn to Robert Young, his wife Dr. Rachael Patterson Young, and Robert’s brother Lindsey Young. The Young’s motivation in buying the property was to preserve an important part of the area’s history.   After Douglas passed away in 1984, the Young family purchased the Bebb home as well.

The Young family decorated the Inn elegantly with antique furniture and colorful English chintz window coverings and bedspreads. Many of the antique pieces came from the Young family. They also converted the water tower to a bedroom, modernized the kitchen, updated the Bebb house, and revitalized the physical plant in general.

In 1998 Lee and John Mellor became the third owners of the Inn and began a major renovation project. All of the guest rooms were refurbished and the Tower was completely remodeled. All four existing cottages were renovated and three new cottages were constructed and opened for business on New Year’s Eve, 1999. A labyrinth was created in one of the big meadows.

An addition on the west side of the lodge was completed in 2001, providing three new rooms, a guest sitting room, and a conference center. In 2004, a library, private dining room, guest suite, housekeeping quarters, and a maintenance workshop were added. In the same year a new guest house, Webb Mountain House, was incorporated into the Inn. 

Buckhorn House Events Center was completed in 2008 and the grounds have been improved in recent years to include Callaway Garden, St. Cornelia’s Garden and the Hill Garden. 

Lee Mellor presented her husband, John, with two mute swans as a Christmas gift in 2008. The birds were flown down from Chicago on a goods transport plane. Their tongue-in-cheek names are Teller (male) and Pentu (female). They successfully reared one offspring, a male named Ziggy. 

The Mellors donated Ziggy to the Memphis Arboretum for their Japanese Lake when he was about a year old. His parents instilled in him a love of flying, so he was sent by plane. Teller and Pentu have become a beloved feature at the Inn.

Although many improvements and amenities have been added over the past seventy-five years, they still cut their own firewood and rely mostly on word-of-mouth for advertising. Three families have lovingly operated the Buckhorn Inn, striving to maintain the beauty of the Inn and to preserve and advance the Bebb’s ideal of providing travelers a respite from every-day life and an opportunity to renew their spirits in the tranquility of nature’s bounty. 

Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com