photo by Rimas Zailskas
It’s not surprising that legendary poet Carl Sandburg chose Flat Rock as his home: the long tree-lined driveways that hint of grand houses just beyond sight, the “rosy-fingered dawn,” coming over the mountains and “the night stars for companions,” as he put it, are undeniably poetic. Whenever she was far away from home, Sandburg’s wife Paula said “its wild sweet way would always come back to me… in the scent of wild blackberries… the feel of wet morning grass on bare feet…”
The Sandburgs weren’t the first to discover Flat Rock’s charms. As far back as the turn of the 19th century, the “Little Charleston of the Mountains” was a sought-after retreat for the first families of the Low Country. For generations, they built genteel country estates here, amused themselves in the outdoors, and entertained their guests in gracious style. Stories from the time read like Southern historical romance novels: in houses with poetic names like Enchantment and Many Pines, there were white-gloved dinners and rounds of house parties and dances all summer long. Rebel soldiers were garrisoned in the local inn during the war and in the Victorian era, it became popular among the old families to gift a marrying daughter with a country ‘cottage’ of her own.
In the 20th century, the area became home to summer camps, second homes, and religious retreat centers, allowing a broader spectrum of people to take part in the good life that Flat Rock has to offer. When you talk to Flat Rock residents and visitors today, chances are you’ll find they’ve got a history with this place: memories of endless summer days spent splashing in mountain lakes at camp or playing at Grandma’s country house keep them coming back, seeking to recapture some of that perfect moment in time.
While a great deal of Flat Rock’s past has been preserved, it doesn’t mean time has stood still here. You can still attend services at St. John in the Wilderness—a focal point in the community since 1836—or take in a performance at the Flat Rock Playhouse, where locals and seasonal visitors have been entertained since 1937. But now you can also find a latte, see a movie, or hear live music without having to drive to Hendersonville.
The town’s only general store closed in the 1980s after nearly 100 years, leaving a real void in the community. But after sitting empty for several years, it was revived by Starr and Virginia Teel, Alabama natives with local camp connections. “The space had great character,” says Virginia Teel. “People really wanted to see it come back to life.”
Virginia opened The Wrinkled Egg—a home and gift store—in 1990, and later, its offshoot Chicken Little, which caters to campers and their families. The shops now sit at the center of what’s called “Little Rainbow Row” (both a description of the brightly painted stores on the strip and a nod to Charleston’s Rainbow Row), also home to the Flat Rock Village Bakery, Hand in Hand Gallery, Bessie’s Cottage Antiques, and Starr Teel’s Hubba Hubba Smokehouse barbeque restaurant. There’s a tailgate market behind the row on Thursday afternoons May through October and music on Saturday nights in the summer. “It really is the center of community life here,” says Teel.
A visit to the Row on a warm afternoon in the summer or fall may well still inspire poetic description. The tempting aroma of the Smokehouse wood fire scents the air as diners relax behind the Bakery eating thin-crust pizza and sipping coffee beverages under the shade of the magnolias which come up through the deck. Parked next to the cars with kayaks strapped to their roofs, there’s a Model T with a tag that expired in 1914 and the Wrinkled Egg’s signature red 1940s pick-up truck. Just down the road, the Ladies Aid Society—formed over 100 years ago—sells donated books (with proceeds given to local charities) at the all-volunteer-run Book Exchange in the old Post Office, which dates to the 1840s. The pace isn’t exactly languid, but no one is in a hurry either. There seems to be the perfect balance between not enough and too much to do. There’s time to browse the local galleries and still get in a bike ride or a show in the evening; time to chat with friends up for the weekend or hike the trail on Glassy Mountain—all of the good things Flat Rock has to offer.
For a community that relies on the comings and goings of tourists and seasonal residents, it’s surprisingly tight-knit. “Flat Rock is a family,” says David Brannock who opened the Flat Rock Wine Shoppe in 2005 and expanded it opening The Back Room, a casual dining restaurant and live music venue in 2008. “No one is in competition here. Everyone helps each other out.” Retirees and camp counselors, locals and second-home owners, one thing they all have in common is shared loved of the glorious surroundings, says Virginia Teel. Natural beauty is Flat’s Rock’s most valuable asset and there’s plenty of it to go around.
“We didn’t just buy 245 acres when we bought Connemara,” Sandburg was overheard saying when they first moved to Flat Rock. “We bought a million acres of sky, too.”