Canton: A Reinvented Mill Town
This mountain gem is worth a stop off I-40By Gordon Byrd | Photos by Haywood County Tourism Development Association
The great Southern forest lies like a thick blanket across the mountaintops surrounding Canton, just west of Asheville. Clouds are born in the rising mist from its vernal surroundings and slowly amble along the I-40 corridor. The sun reaches over ridges to the sleepy town late in the morning, where it finds the streets awake with new, small boutiques opening their doors and the curious visitor strolling along.
“This ain’t just another paper town …” sings Buddy Melton from the band Balsam Range about Canton, portions of which are served by Haywood EMC. Canton is, indeed, more than the mill that came to town in the early 1900s, and its revitalization is attracting investors and tourists to the all-but-typical mountain retreat.
One iconic destination is the Southern Porch Restaurant in the Imperial Hotel (southern-porch.com). Families play music trivia bingo during the weekdays, and musicians perform on the front porch of the retro-fitted restaurant.
At one point, the hotel and the paper mill were the only buildings in town with indoor plumbing and electrical lights. As time rolled on, additions to the building led to many of its original architectural features being removed or covered up. A storefront façade brought the walls out to the street, crowding out the sidewalk and essentially erasing the old building from view.
That is how Pat Smathers, the former mayor of Canton, found and bought the building with a few partners in the 1990s.
“This was cutting edge architecture 60 or 70 years ago.” Pat Smathers says as he leisurely reclines on the Southern Porch’s open-air seating.
Smathers made it a mission to restore the hotel to its former glory. After decades of decline, partly due to Interstate 40 routing traffic away from town, Canton was beginning to grow again. Today, the hotel’s open porch and recessed entrance welcomes pedestrian traffic from the street once more. This is reminiscent of Canton’s distant past and looks forward to its future.
As the downtown district of Canton and surrounding townships make a resurgence to welcome a new generation of families moving in, as well as a growing number of tourists visiting the mountains each year, establishments have evolved to serve a community in flux.
The historic Colonial Theatre (828-235-2760) hosts stage productions, weddings and film festivals. Within walking distance of the downtown center and throwing distance from the Pigeon River, BearWaters Brewing Co. (bearwatersbrewing.com) brings a lively and family-friendly environment with river tubing trips, local food and pet-welcome spaces.
The great outdoors
The area is rich with hiking options, from a casual stroll along the Pigeon River Scenic Walking Trail, accessible from Canton Recreational Park (77 Penland Street, 828-646-3411), to strenuous, though epic, hikes in the nearby Shining Rock Wilderness Area. Part of the Pisgah National Forest, the wilderness area is home to Cold Mountain, made famous by Charles Frazier’s novel of the same name (visitncsmokies.com).
Ten Acre Garden (tenacregarden.com) is a century farm that hosts dinners and seasonal events, including a Sunflower Stroll in early July and a Sunflower Maze in early August.
Like the giant oaks in its surrounding woods, Canton reinvents itself as each new season rolls through the quiet valley. Visit cantonnc.com for the latest happenings in and around town.
About the AuthorGordon Byrd is a veteran who works for UNC Pembroke. He tries to keep things interesting with a little homebuilding, some writing, triathlons and a lot of time with his family and church.
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