Newspapers within at least seventeen states from Oregon to Florida and California to Maine published this photograph—with the above caption but with no accompanying story—as early as June 30, 1949 in Bristol Tennessee, and throughout July but mostly during the four days approaching and including Independence Day.
In most cases the photograph appeared solo, but in other instances it was part of a full page spread with other photographs from the Associated Press.
In these stay-at-home days, cultural institutions are pursuing various avenues to stay engaged with their communities. One such effort launches today on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: #MuseumVacation. This virtual vacation tour springs from an idea by Eileen Hammond at UNC’s Ackland Museum. The tour works like this: you travel around the world on a virtual vacation, visiting locations via an image from a museum’s collection. A link will lead you to the next stop on the tour that features another image from a different cultural institution. The North Carolina Collection will be participating in this tour, and its tour stop is atop Grandfather Mountain using the above photograph. The North Carolina Collection will be extending this idea through July with a spinoff under the hashtag #VacationNC. We hope you’ll following along!
Why this image? Well, it is beautiful for one. Secondly, 2020 marks the tenth full operation year of the Grandfather Mountain backcountry becoming a state park, officially established in the spring of 2009 . . . and we like anniversaries at A View to Hugh. Thirdly, state parks reopened last weekend as part of North Carolina’s first phase of reopening, so you can actually go to the park. (Remember that Grandfather Mountain, the scenic tourist attraction which includes the Mile High Swinging Bridge, is a separate entity run by the Grandfather Mountain Foundation.)
Do you have a favorite Hugh Morton photograph that we can feature during the North Carolina Collection’s #VacationNC virtual summer vacation? If so, please let leave a comment!
It was one year ago today, Wednesday, February 21, 2018, that we received the sad news that America’s Pastor, Rev. William Franklin (Billy) Graham, Jr. had passed away at 7:46 that morning. On this first anniversary of his passing, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard remembers one of his record-breaking gatherings in his native Tar Heel state.
It was Saturday, November 19, 1949…a gathering of 57,500 football fans packed Duke Stadium in Durham for the 36th meeting between Duke and UNC. That game would go into the sports history books as one of the greatest in the Carolina – Duke series and the 57,500 fans made up the largest crowd in North Carolina history. That record would stand for almost thirteen years.
Then, on Sunday, August 5, 1962, a new record was set at Grandfather Mountain at the 38th annual “Singing on the Mountain.” Monday’s headline on the Greensboro Daily News read, “150,000 Hear Billy Graham.” Before the program began, Hugh Morton, the main promoter for the event, spoke with reporters and said that North Carolina Highway Patrolman Sgt. M. S. Parvin had estimated the crowd at 150,000 and added that “there was a traffic jam from Marion to Blowing Rock,” about 50 miles in length.
Normally, the annual all-day gospel sing and fellowship at MacRae Meadows is held in June, but in 1962 the date was changed to August in order to have Rev. Billy Graham as the featured speaker.
In the early morning hours of August 5th, threatening clouds gathered before the program began. About an hour before Dr. Graham was to speak, however, the program began with a gospel sing led by Cliff Barrows, music and program director of the Billy Graham evangelistic team. Gospel singer Joe Emerson, along with Lulu Belle and Scotty also performed. Master of Ceremonies Arthur Smith and his Crossroads Quartet also sang during the hour-long musical part of the program. A photographic memento was presented to 91-year-old Joe Hartley, founder and chairman of “Singing on the Mountain.” Then, as Dr. Graham stepped up to the platform that had been built around a large rock, a few rumbles of thunder could be heard. But the rain held off until later in the day after Graham had finished his sermon.
Dr. Graham was impressed by the size of the crowd saying it was the greatest crowd of its type he had ever seen, even exceeding the one he addressed at Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa; and he related a story of how Hugh Morton had taken him to the top of Grandfather Mountain to view the thousands who were camping out on the sides of the mountain as well as in the meadow below. Many of them had been there for days. He then talked about the excellent amplification system that carried his voice to all those gathered as well as the fifty-plus radio stations across the southeastern United States that broadcasted the service.
Graham began his message by saying, “I want you to stop what you are doing and listen. Many people have made long trips to this mountain today to hear the word of God, and we do not want anything to distract from the message.”
In 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the ninth year of what would be called the “Cold War,” and Dr. Graham included his thoughts as part of his Grandfather Mountain sermon. “Today the cross of Christianity faces the hammer and sickle of communism.” But Dr. Graham said the only ideology in the world that has any possibility of stopping the spread of communism is dedicated Christianity. He added, “I am convinced that we may not have war but the whole world could conceivably become communist.” He then added: “The future of the world does not lie with communism. Time is not on their side. The future of the world lies with the kingdom of God. Time is on God’s side.”
When Dr. Graham had completed his presentation, many in the vast audience took time to ponder his message. Then, the thousands started the long journey down the mountain, creating what could likely be called the largest traffic jam in North Carolina history. All had been a part of a history-making event.
Earlier this month, Jack Hilliard wrote a post about the 1974 Singing on the Mountain and sent it to me for publication in time for this year’s Singing on Sunday, June 24. As I began proofing and fact checking the text and looking for images, some of the then-known details about a particular photograph weren’t falling in line, so I decide to do a bit of research to set the matter straight. What evolved is this parallel to Jack’s post. If you are arriving at this post first, it may be better to read his first (linked below).
As I discovered today, while preparing Jack Hilliard’s post about the 1974 Singing on the Mountain, that the above photograph by Hugh Morton was not made in June 1974 as was previously believed. Several newspapers published the photograph in their Sunday editions for June 23, 1974, the day of the Singing. One newspaper was the Greensboro Daily News as seen below. Notice the cropping compared to the full-frame negative above.
While researching Jack’s post, the logistics of Bob Hope traveling back and forth between Asheville and Linville wasn’t making much sense to me. So, I dug into newspapers.com to see if I could find any clues. Yep, another Morton Mystery arose: the same photograph published in The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, South Carolina had a much more explanatory caption:
Turns out Morton made the photograph a year earlier! Back to newspapers.com to solve this mystery!
According to The Asheville Citizens staff writer Jay Hensley in his June 13, 1973 article titled “Governor Meets King of Quips,” Hugh Morton arranged a golf match to be played on the back nine holes at Grandfather Golf and Country Club on June 12, 1973. Morton paired North Carolina Governor James Holshouser and comedian Bob Hope to play against Clifford Roberts and Robert Kletcke—respectively, the president and golf pro of Augusta National Golf Course.
As cropped in the newspaper, one gets the impression that Hope, Westmoreland, Holshouser, and one other person identified only by a hand holding a golf club made up a foursome before, during, or after playing a round. (As we see from the full image, that hand belongs to Roberts.)
What was the purpose behind the outing? Hensley’s article does not say directly, but he does report the background around it. Holshouser and Hope apparently had played a round of golf on some previous occasion with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Hope and his wife Dolores were guests of General Westmoreland at the country club, there for a “short visit.” Westmoreland wanted to offer his guests complete relaxation during their stay, but Hope enjoyed the outing nonetheless. Hope’s wife Dolores, Hugh Morton’s sister Agnes, and Raleigh attorney Camelia Trot played in a group after the men.
Again according to Hensley, Holshouser “broke off from a Tuesday meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board” being held in Hot Springs, Virginia. Linville is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Hot Springs, so it was quite a break off unless traveling by air.
Westmoreland was nursing an injured right arm, so he didn’t even play. Instead, he “restricted his activities to putting around the golf course.” A caption in a photograph published in the June 15 edition of the newspaper described the group, however, as a fivesome.
Here are two quips Hope offered during the round:
“Smile and they’ll think we are winning,” he said to Holshouser.
“I thought this course was named for me until I met you,” he told Clifford Roberts. Roberts was 79 year old at the time, Hope 70.
On June 24, 2018, the ninety-fourth “Singing on the Mountain” will take place at MacRae Meadows at the foot of Grandfather Mountain. This all-day gospel sing and fellowship goes back to 1925 when members of the Linville Methodist Church decided to have a Sunday picnic in this special western North Carolina location. One hundred and fifty people attended that first gathering. From that small beginning, the annual event has grown into the largest annual religious singing convention in the mountains of the South, and over the years many famous speakers and singers have participated.
To celebrate this year’s anniversary, I (unexpectedly!) teamed up with Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard to look back forty-four years to the Singing’s fiftieth celebration when Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash were featured guests along with a few other celebrities.
On their way to the fiftieth annual “Singing on the Mountain” at Grandfather Mountain, Johnny Cash and family staged a concert at Greensboro’s War Memorial Auditorium on Saturday night, June 22, 1974. According to the Greensboro Daily News, the show’s line-up comprised Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, the Cash daughters, and Carl Perkins, plus Johnny Cash’s backing band The Tennessee Three.
The Cash troupe then went on to Grandfather Mountain where it was cold, cloudy, and misty. The weather didn’t seem to keep anyone away: an estimated crowd of more than 60,000 turned out for the day, which began at 9:00 Sunday morning. By mid-morning the North Carolina Highway Patrol halted all traffic into the area from the Blue Ridge Parkway because attendees had taken all of the parking spaces within three miles of MacRea Meadows.
Another one of the featured guests for the 1974 Singing was Bob Hope. He, too, performed the previous evening as the debut performance for the new Asheville Civic Center. It was the silver anniversary of his performance at the Asheville City Center to a crowd of 1,500 on April 24, 1949. Joining Hope back then was “freckle-faced singer” Doris Day, who launched her film career the previous year; comedienne Irene Ryan, who appeared with Hope during his military tours and would become better known several years later for her role as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies; the tumblers Titan Duo, and a local performer, “Skeeter” Byrant (whose findagrave.com entry currently displays a photograph of her on stage with Hope). Hope was then on a fifteen-state, twenty-city tour. Twenty-five years later, Hope drew an audience of 6,000 for his 1974 performance.
Many Sunday morning newspapers on June 23 published a Hugh Morton photograph of Bob Hope, North Carolina Governor James Holshouser (a native of nearby Boone), and General William C. Westmoreland (a South Carolinian with a summer home near Asheville) including the Greensboro Daily News seen below. Before Jack submitted his text for this post, the date of that photograph was believed to be June 1974, some time close to the Singing. Preparing this post, however, led to a new yet unknown “Morton Mystery.” For the story behind that photograph, made a year earlier in June 1973, see a twin blog post to this one titled, “When Hope and Holshouser golfed at Grandfather.”
Hope stated that his 1974 appearance at the Singing fulfilled a promise he had made to servicemen from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia during his WWII troop entertainment days when he told them he would revisit their annual “homecoming in the hills” during peace time. As Hope walked off the temporary rock stage, the crowd shouted his theme song, “Thanks for the Memories.” Hope’s visit was also a reunion with Hugh Morton who had photographed Hope in the South Pacific during 1944 (and, as it turns out, in Linville at Grandfather Golf and Country Club in 1973).
Also on the musical bill was Arthur Smith and his Crossroads Quartet making their twenty-seventh appearance at Singing and on this day he brought along George Hamilton IV. (A Hugh Morton photograph of Hamilton performing with Smith exists, but the actual date is uncertain.)
At 1:00 p.m., North Carolina Governor Jim Holshouser delivered the key note address. His message was simple: “For fifty years now people have gathered here to sing and have fun but, maybe most of all, to experience that feeling of getting up here in the mountains and getting close to God.”
Then at 1:30, it was time for Johnny Cash, his wife June Carter Cash, and the Cash family singers with Mother Maybell Carter to take the stage. For two and a half hours they entertained and inspired the assembled crowd. “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison,” and “The Orange Blossom Special,” just to name a few tunes that had the crowd shouting for more. At one point, Johnny looked out over the huge crowd and marveled at how they stayed through the unfavorable weather. He then turned to guitarist Carl Perkins and said, “My kind of people.”
Later Cash talked a bit about the fiftieth anniversary of the gathering and then told the crowd that it was his wife’s birthday. The crowd went wild. And in the crowd was Hugh Morton’s wife Julia, who immediately started planning a birthday party.
Following the performance, Cash was interviewed and said: “I enjoyed this day more than any concert in years. First, because of such a cross section of America out there. All ages, all walks of life. It was good for me as an entertainer to give my time, especially to such an audience.”
The birthday party on the deck at the Morton’s home on Grandfather Mountain Lake proved to be a fun evening with all the Cash family, the band, and many of Morton’s friends like Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks. Ten years later, Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash recalled the Grandfather Mountain party as one of the happiest outings the Johnny Cash family ever had. According to Morton, “Johnny Cash became enthralled by hummingbirds coming to the deck feeder. Rarely have the tiny birds been so bold, flying within inches of Cash’s head as he sat on the deck railing.” Cash also seemed to enjoy the bear habitat at Grandfather Mountain. Morton made five exposures of him feeding the bears.
One of Hugh Morton’s often reproduced pictures is the one showing Johnny Cash holding the United States flag and in 1988 Morton told the story behind the famous image.
“As Johnny Cash and I were walking across the Swinging Bridge, he asked, ‘How many flags does the wind destroy each year at Grandfather Mountain?’ When I told him several, he said, ‘I do a recitation of a poem I wrote called That Ragged Old Flag, and I’d love to have the most ragged Grandfather Mountain flag you’ve got.’ Cash has it, and we are mighty pleased he asked.”
Morton used the famous photograph as the title page to the “people” section of his 2006 book, Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer.
A quick pic made from Hugh Morton’s executive planner for Sunday, June 23, 1974:
There are no entries for Saturday; “Cash party” is written in a darker pencil than “Sing on Mtn” and “Bob Hope” so Morton probably wrote it at a different time.
As mentioned in the above story, Bob Hope was the debut performance at the brand new Asheville Civic Center on June 22, the evening before the 1974 Singing. What was that venue’s second act? The Johnny Cash Band on Monday, June 24.
It’s been 99 years since a comparable solar event of this 2017 magnitude occurred across the United States and it won’t happen again until April 8, 2024. Hugh Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a quick look at this current phenomenon and looks back to 1951 when Hugh Morton photographed an event similar to the one we’re celebrating this month.
On Monday, August 21, 2017, all of North America will be treated to an eclipse of the sun. About 200 million people live within a day’s drive of the path of totality where you can see one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights: a total solar eclipse, a path on our planet where a person may experience the moon completely covering the sun such that the sun’s tenuous atmosphere, the corona, will be visible. This will be the first total solar eclipse to cross the entire continental United States since June 8, 1918. The path will cover 8,600 miles from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Observers outside this path will see a partial solar eclipse where the moon will cover only part of the sun’s disk.
The path of totality is a relatively thin ribbon—a little over 70 miles wide (actually 71.5 miles in North Carolina), and will cross the United States from west to east at 1,500 miles per hour. The first point of contact will be at Lincoln Beach, Oregon at 9:05 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Totality begins there at 10:16 a.m. PDT. Over the next hour and a half, it will cross through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. The total eclipse will be visible in nine North Carolina counties: Cherokee, Graham, Swain, Clay, Haywood, Henderson, Macon, Jackson, and Transylvania. Most everywhere else in the state will experience a partial eclipse of 90 percent or more. The spectacular show will begin in North Carolina at 2:33 pm Eastern Daylight Time.
The path of totality will pass across the western portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as the Brevard, Franklin and Murphy areas of North Carolina. Andrews will see the sun fully eclipsed by the moon for the longest of any city in the Tar Heel state: two minutes and thirty-nine seconds. The total eclipse will end near Charleston, South Carolina at 2:48 p.m. EDT. From there the lunar shadow leaves the United States at 4:09 EDT. Its longest duration will be near Hopkinsville, Kentucky where the sun will be completely covered for two minutes and forty seconds.
This once-in-a lifetime-event would be perfect for photographer Hugh Morton, and he would bring some firsthand solar eclipse experience to the event. Morton, who over the years had taken thousands of football photographs of his beloved UNC Tar Heels, was not on hand in Chapel Hill on September 1, 1951 when Head Football Coach Carl Snavely’s team first took the practice field to open the ’51 season. Instead, Morton was atop Linville Peak at Grandfather Mountain. On that day, an annular solar eclipse was to be visible just at sunrise in a 30,000 square mile area of Virginia and North Carolina. (An annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon’s apparent diameter is smaller than the sun’s blocking most of the Sun’s light causing the Sun to look like a small ring.)
Grandfather Mountain, at 5,964-feet, was the highest point in the United States in the center of that 95-mile-wide annular eclipse path, a perfect spot for Morton and his camera. Back then, the road did not extend to the top of the mountain, so Morton and about 225 hardy souls made the rugged hike to the top in the early-morning darkness, where they joined about 75 overnight campers. In the predawn hours, low hanging clouds gathered close to the horizon along with a slight wind. The clouds continued to hang around as the 5:51 sunrise time approached.
Then, six minutes after sunrise, at 5:57, the clouds broke revealing the moon already in position to make its trek across the sun’s surface. Bailey’s Beads—little flashes of light shining through the rugged valleys and canyons on the moon—became clearly visible. Scientists at the scene called the view “excellent,” even though those thin, light clouds drifted back by from time to time. Most of the spectators remained until the moon had cleared the sun by 6:20.
Atop nearby towering 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell, some 200 people viewed the spectacle through a thin layer of high clouds. In Asheville, haze obscured the view for many. Across the state in Greensboro, folks greeted the first eclipse of this magnitude in 50 years with the moon hiding 96% of the sun’s light.
A cloudy overcast sky spoiled the show for many of the Eastern states. The eclipse would have been visible over virtually all of the United States east of the Mississippi River had it not been for the clouds. Pittsburgh, Boston, and Atlanta reported overcast and clouds that, according to the United Press “eclipsed the eclipse.” The same weather conditions were reported in New York, but early risers there were able to see the show on their TV sets. WOR-TV had set up a television camera with an 80-inch reflector lens in North Bergen, New Jersey. The lens penetrated the overcast.
Sixty-six years after Morton made his 1951 eclipse images, Grandfather Mountain will once again celebrate the current solar spectacle of Monday, August 21st with a solar eclipse party. Postscript by Stephen
You may be wondering why there is no mention here of the solar eclipses from the 1970 total eclipse and the 1984 annular eclipse, both of which traversed sizable portions of North Carolina. There is no listing for either in the Morton collection finding aid, so it took a little exploring to determine the likely reasons. (Note: the two links in this paragraph lead to Google cached webpages depicting maps of the eclipse path. Just about all Google searches on the NASA website for eclipses other than 2017 annoyingly take you to the NASA webpage for the 2017 eclipse. There’s no guarantee on how long these links will function properly.)
There are no specific clues about Morton’s whereabouts during the 1970 total eclipse, which made landfall in the United States southeast of Tallahassee near Perry, Florida. While much of Florida was cloud-covered, here in North Carolina both Fayetteville and Greenville reported perfect viewing conditions . . . as did Virginia Beach, Virginia. The path of totality only skimmed by Wilmington. The collection does not have one of Morton’s “executive planners” for 1970, and so we have another “Morton Mystery.”
Regarding the 30 May 1984 eclipse in North Carolina: the weather was clear in the Piedmont but not in the east. Morton’s appointment book places him in Wilmington for a movie shoot and he noted “Heavy Rain – Southpoint, Orton” without mention of eclipse. An Epilogue
The U.S. Postal Service is issuing the Total Solar Eclipse Forever stamp to commemorate the August 21st event. The image changes when you touch it by transforming into an image of the moon from the heat of your finger.
The 61st annual “Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans” takes place in Linville’s MacRae Meadows from July 7th through July 10th, 2016. This spectacular happening has become one of the most popular and colorful events of its type in all of North America. As we celebrate once again this mountain event, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks at the first “gathering and games” back in 1956.
. . . there is the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of the Scottish Clans, which must be seen to be believed. Powerful men wearing skirts compete in tossing telephone poles about. Who can explain such a thing? It is Scottish.
—CBS News legend and Hugh Morton’s friend, Charles Kuralt, June 7, 1996
Sunday, August 19, 1956 was a special day at MacRae Meadows in the shadows of Grandfather Mountain. On that day, the first Highland Games ever held in the South were staged to the delight of about 10,000 spectators according to The Asheville Citizen issue of August 20th.
Many months of planning and preparation had gone into the event and according to the 1976 Souvenir Programme and Review booklet, the idea for a gathering began to take shape when Mrs. J. W. Morton (Agnes MacRae) read an article about Scottish gatherings in other areas and began talking about the idea for a gathering at Grandfather Mountain. One of the people she contacted, in 1955, was Donald F. McDonald of Charlotte.
McDonald had attended Scotland’s famous Braemar Gathering in 1954 and suggested that highland games would attract more visitors than just a reunion of individual clans. Morton and McDonald planned for a one-day event, based on the Braemar Gathering with performances of Scottish songs and dances along with athletic events including foot races, wresting, the high jump, and the shot put. Even today, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of Scottish Clans is often called “America’s Braemar.”
The festivities started that morning in 1956 at 11 o’clock with a church service conducted by Mr. MacDonald. Honored guests were introduced next. Two bands were present: the Washington, D. C., St. Andrew’s Society Pipe Band under the direction of Pipe Major Gene Castleberry, and “The Fighting Scots” Brass from Scotland County High School in Laurinburg, N. C.
The highland dance competition was held on a large platform as was the piping competition. Major Castleberry won the professional bag piping competition, and William Firestone of Cumberland, Virginia took home the novice piping honors.
The field activities took place in both the East and the West Meadows. A racing path was marked off in the same area where an oval track would be built in 1958. The track and field competition included a 60-yard and a 100-yard dash, a 2-mile cross-country race, pole vaulting, and a tug o’ war.
One of the highlights of the day was the caber toss (sometimes called “turning the caber,” which requires the athlete to flip a telephone pole-sized tree trunk end-over-end for distance and accuracy). Ronald Patterson, a student from Appalachian State Teachers College (today’s Appalachian State University), won the competition. He tossed the 200-hundred pound caber 36 feet, 10 inches. Patterson also won the shot put contest. Other track-and-field winners included Leslie Taylor of Charlotte, high-jump; Clyde Autin of Boone, cross-country; Paul Arrington of Charlotte, broad-jump; and Vance Houston of Charlotte, 60-yard dash.
The Asheville newspaper described the Highland dance competition winner as “an Asheville lassie, little red-haired Margaret Fletcher.” She also received the trophy as the best all around dancer. (An interesting side note here: little Margaret Fletcher’s older sister, Maria, was crowned Miss North Carolina in the summer of 1961 and went on to become North Carolina’s only Miss America that September).
Lads, Lassies Twirl Tartans, Roll R’s —The Greensboro Daily News, August 20, 1956
The continuing success of the highland games at Grandfather is due in large measure to the beautiful setting. Agnes MacRae Morton’s father, Hugh MacRae, developed the town of Linville at the foot of Grandfather Mountain in Avery County. The rugged terrain is similar to the landscape of some areas of Scotland. Morton volunteered the use of MacRae Meadows and the Morton family has continued to support the gathering and games for over sixty years with Agnes Morton’s son, Hugh MacRae Morton, taking a significant role in the promotion of the events with his magnificent photographic and public relations skills prior to his death a little more than one month before the 2006 games. For the 1956 event, Morton was able to land a magazine cover image for The State showing Donald MacDonald, Chieftain of the ’56 games, beside Angus MacKinnon MacBryde of the Isle of Mull, Scotland. The August 11th issue promoted the upcoming games on the 19th.
The gathering and games, now held annually the second full weekend in July, regularly attract more than 30,000 and have made not just the event, but the entire region synonymous with Scottish heritage. Hugh Morton, in his 2003 book, Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, says “the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games are considered one of the best Scottish-heritage events in the world . . .” And Harris Prevost, who as News Director for the 1984 games, proclaimed in a news release: “Some people may attend highland games but the people who come to Grandfather live them!”
During Memorial Day weekend 2016, two great auto racing events took time to remember and honor troops: the Indianapolis 500 at Speedway, Indiana, which ran its 100th race, and the Coca-Cola 600 at Concord, North Carolina, which ran its 57th race. The latter, held at Charlotte Motor Speedway ran its first event on June 19, 1960 and was called “The World 600.” Fifteen days before that first run, on June 4th, another racing event in North Carolina ran its 8th annual event at Grandfather Mountain. Usually when one thinks of events at Grandfather Mountain, the Highland Games and Singing on the Mountain immediately come to mind. But during the 1950s and early 1960s, there was another event that drew considerable attention. Today, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a look back at the Grandfather Mountain Sports Car Hill Climb.
On a June day in 1953, nine months after Hugh Morton and his team at Grandfather Mountain dedicated the Mile High Swinging Bridge, a small group of sports car enthusiasts from the Greensboro-Burlington-Winston chapter of the Sports Car Club of North Carolina gathered on the road at the foot of the historic mountain. They, along with Morton, wanted to see how fast they could climb the winding two-and-a half-mile road with an elevation increase of 1,000 feet during a race to the top against the clock. An average tourist driver would take about ten minutes to maneuver the 28-turn trip to the Swinging Bridge, but these sports cars, with their tremendous horsepower, could do it much faster. On that June day a Jaguar made the run in 4 minutes, 55 seconds—and the idea for a “hill climb” caught on. A new event would be added to the Grandfather Mountain summer calendar.
In late May, 1954, Hugh Morton sent out the following press release:
Two events you’re likely to enjoy take place at Grandfather Mountain the weekend of June 5-6. . . The mile-high kite flying contest was the idea of Fox-Movietone News and has met with such enthusiasm that now it promises to be a show of great proportions . . . . A sports car race is something that was tried with great success last year at Grandfather on a relatively small scale . . . this year the Greensboro-Burlington-Winston chapter of the Sports Car Club of North Carolina will be joined by MG and Jaguar fanciers from the Charlotte area and all over for a really big affair. The Grandfather Mountain road gains elevation in a hurry and has one or two curves, so it’s a natural for the sports car folks. Mystery-thriller writer Mickey Spillane, who sells by the millions those books your wife won’t let you read, is scheduled for pace-setter in the race.
On Saturday night, June 5, 1954, Spillane made the 400-mile trip from Myrtle Beach in time for the first run up the mountain, scheduled for 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. Thirty-four drivers competed, and a crowd estimated at 1,000 cheered them on. At the end of the day Maurice Poole, Jr., from Greensboro, was the overall winner driving a Riley touring car in a record time of 3 minutes, 55 seconds.
A year later, the third annual Grandfather Mountain Hill Climb was staged on June 3rd and 4th, 1955—third annual if you count that unofficial run in 1953. This time sixty drivers were on hand with more than twenty-five of them driving Jaguars. ’54 winner Maurice Poole was the man to beat on this day, but he had changed his winning Riley for a ’55 modified Jag. When the dust had settled on Sunday afternoon, a Chevrolet-powered V8 MG driven by Jimmy Kaperoms had set a new record of 3 minutes, 33 seconds.
In the June ’56 hill climb, Winston-Salem’s Ed Welch, driving a Mercury-powered Bob Davis Special set yet another record over the crushed-gravel course, climbing the hill with a time of 3:25.3. Welch, having won three class races at Grandfather over the years, was awarded the Dennis Strong Memorial Trophy, which was named for one of the founders of the Grandfather Mountain race. Strong was killed in 1953 during a sports car race in Greensboro.
Almost 100 drivers registered for the 1957 hill climb, and Hugh Morton brought in his old friend from Morganton, golfer Billy Joe Patton to make the trophy presentations. Helping Patton was “Queen of the Hill Climb” Betty Jean Goodwin from Spartanburg, South Carolina, a Wake Forest coed. The ’57 winner was once again Ed Welch and again he set a record of 3:23.1 to the delight of the more than 3,000 spectators.
A unique situation occurred at the 1958 hill climb: the new winning driver drove the defending champion’s old car. When Billy Joe Patton, along with 1958 Queen Judy Kincaid, presented the winning trophy to Phil Styles of Burnsville, he stood beside that same Mercury-powered Davis Special that Ed Welch had driven in ’57. Styles continued the tradition by setting a record run of 3:19.9.
The first weekend in June of 1959 proved to be a busy time at Grandfather Mountain. The Carolina Golf Writers Association held a tournament at the Linville Country Club and that was followed by a second tournament sponsored by the Carolinas Golf Association pros—and fifty drivers ran the Grandfather Mountain Hill Climb, now in its sixth year. The late arrival of the radio car delayed the start of the race, and overcast skies and windy conditions prevented a record run, but 5,000 spectators saw Phil Styles of Burnsville power his Davis Special to a winning time of 3:28 to receive the Julian Morton Cup by Queen Norma Jean McMillan.
The 1960 race was interrupted by showers, but the 4,000 spectators didn’t seem to mind as they cheered Austin-Healey driver J. T. Putney from Asheville as the overall winner. Hill Climb Queen Jane Joyner from Raleigh, and UNC football legend Charlie Justice presented the Julian Morton Cup to Putney.
The Grandfather Mountain Hill Climb became the oldest sports car event in the south with the 1961 event as drivers from six states competed. The estimated crowd of 6,000 saw a whopping 17.8 seconds clipped off Phil Styles’s 1958 record. Orlando, Florida driver Bill Stuckworth set the new mark of 3:02.1 driving a Siata-Corvette.
The 1962 Grandfather Mountain Hill Climb was originally scheduled for June 9-10, but on May, 11, 1962, Hugh Morton made an important announcement. “We have been pleased with the sponsorship of the sports car hill climb at Grandfather Mountain for the past eight years, and are quite relieved that in those years we have not had an accident in which either driver or spectator was seriously injured. We have decided to quit the event while we are ahead.
“As the Grandfather Mountain climb became more popular, it became increasingly difficult to run it without having spectators too close to the road while the sports cars were racing against the clock at high speeds and spectators were climbing to precarious places to watch the event. . . . Our principal concern has always been that a thoughtless spectator could be seriously hurt, since we could not control spectator behavior along the two and a half mile road leading to the parking area near the Mile High Swinging Bridge.”
In early June, the Sports Car Club of America announced the scheduling of a four-hour endurance race for June 10, 1962 in Columbia, South Carolina to replace the Grandfather Mountain event.
Twenty four years later, in the spring of 1985, Morton was approached by a group of sports car drivers from the Chimney Rock Hill Climb, wanting him to revisit the climb at Grandfather. Although he knew it would be a challenge, Morton wanted to help the guys so he set up a modified course and scheduled an early June race date. The new course would be one-mile in length from the parking lot at the habitat area to the parking lot at the Mile High Swinging Bridge. It would have a vertical rise of 600 feet, and feature thirteen turns that sportswriter John Davison described as ranging from fast sweepers to first gear “creepers.”
Race day dawned wet and foggy, but Mike Green, driving a “Chap-Mazda Special” was able to post a winning time of 1:13.982 on the short course. As Morton suspected, the day was far from a success. Grandfather Mountain’s Harris Prevost, Vice President of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, described that race day situation:
“Obviously, we could not have anyone else on the summit road when they were racing. Thus, everywhere there was a chance a car could pull out on the road, we had to have someone there to keep them where they were . . . people at the two picnic areas, Black Rock Parking Lot, Nature Museum and Top, all had to stay in place until all the cars made their run. This did not sit well with our guests, to say the least. . . . Being told to wait 30-45 minutes did not work.”
Before the race day ended, discussions were already underway about the future of the race. It was agreed to move the 1986 event to a September time when normal Grandfather traffic would be less. The September time was a goodwill gesture but it didn’t work much better, plus the number of spectators had dwindled to just a few friends of drivers. So, the event was once again discontinued and those Chimney Rock drivers moved to Beech Mountain where they started a new event.
In 2014, Arcadia Publishers of Charleston, South Carolina published a Grandfather Mountain book as part of their “Images of America” series. On the front cover, the editors chose an action photograph of the Bob Davis Special at one of the 1950s climb to the top. (The image was taken by Hugh Morton photographic contemporary Sebastian Sommer).
The Morton collection finding aid lists more than 300 photographs of the Grandfather Mountain Sports Car Hill Climb, 17 of which are viewable online. Correction: 20 February 2018
The misspelling of John Davison’s name has been corrected. It is misspelled as “John Davidson” in the September 1985 issue of Auto-X Magazine, page 36, which is the source for the misspelling.
Photographs by Hugh Morton: an Uncommon Retrospective is currently installed at the Charlotte Museum of History though September 30th. I will be there this Saturday, the 19th, for my exhibition talk titled “Hugh Morton’s Rise to his Photographic Peak.” at 1:00. If you are in the neighborhood, please visit the museum and say hello!