Sunday drive leads family to new career and historic discoveries

The beautiful fall photo of the Rocky Fork watershed area near Sams Gap. Photo by Harold Ross, Jr.

By Bill Derby, Publisher

Johnson City natives, Valda and Chuck Holyfield, decided to take a day off from work to enjoy a Sunday drive into our region’s beautiful mountains and explore the Rocky Fork area near Flag Pond, just past Erwin. That was over 16 years ago.

Little did they know this quick excursion would change their lives for the future after working seven days a week for 38 years in their business, Holyfield Florists, on Oakland Ave. The location is now a Latino church.

Flag Pond, TN is just off the old Johnson City to Asheville Highway. Before I-26 was built the winding mountain road was the traditional way to drive to Myrtle Beach or other vacation spots. The twisting highway and sharp curves were known for their ability to make anyone car sick. The old highway passed through beautiful mountain scenery with many local homes built on steep mountainsides.

Reaching the highway’s very top was known as Sams Gap and North Carolina state line. It was a relief for all drivers and downhill all the way into Asheville from that point.

Chuck and my parents were close friends when we were youngsters and vacationed together traveling over that old highway many times. Little did I know the history of Flag Pond and Sam’s Gap area until I received a phone call a few weeks ago reconnecting with Chuck and Valda since their retirement.

I have also known that the Sams family had a history in the Flag Pond area but was fascinated by Chuck’s knowledge and the exciting stories he was telling me. I thought it would make an interesting story for our readers.

The Sams family who lived in Johnson City still owns property in the Flag Pond area. The new Rocky Fork State Park adds another dimension to the area and its early history.

On Chuck and Valda’s drive to Rocky Fork that fateful day, traffic on the old Asheville highway was almost nonexistent with only an occasional local driving by. They both noticed a man walking beside the highway and stopped to see if he would like a ride and to say hello. He happily accepted their offer and introduced himself as Billy Ernest English and struck up a conversation. He quickly invited them down to his cabin in the woods.

The 112-year-old English family home.

Chuck said, “Mr. English was a local gentleman who had lived nearby all his life. We drove down a very narrow unpaved road to Mr. English’s modest home. He began to tell us the history of his old home place which was 112 years old and the number of generations who had lived there.”

Valda added, “As we talked we could hear the trickle of the nearby Sams Creek and both Chuck and I had such a feeling of peace, as well as a little feeling of adventure as we heard Mr. English share his history.”

Chuck told me, “While we were talking Mr. English shared a huge surprise that he was going to sell this old property along with a number of acres of mountain forests surrounding his old home. Since Valda and I had been considering retiring, we instantly decided we would be interested in buying his property. We both felt it was meant to be.”

Valda and Chuck continued, “We bought the property but didn’t have any plans for it and were still working at our florist business. After work and on weekends we came up and started to clean up the property. It was a massive job. We also started to renovate the old home to have a place to live.

“We started spending every night up here and fell in love with the mountains. After about two years of hard work we then decided to close our business, sell our home and move up here and retire to live in this beautiful place,” they said.

Valda laughed and said, “When we bought the property our friends wanted to know what we were doing and came up for a visit. One of our banking friends said. ‘Well Chuck, you bought a real fixer upper.’”

Chuck and Valda showed me old photos of the home place with one showing the original family standing in front of the cabin. Mr. English was a small boy standing in the back.

Chuck said, “He told us his family was dirt poor when he was growing up and later when Mr. English started his own family living in the same house, six people lived there. He had three daughters who eventually went to college and all became professional women. After we settled in to our new mountain home all three would stop by to visit with us. They also thanked us for saving their old home place. Mr. English would also stop by to see how we were renovating the old cabin in the woods.

“One day he came by and asked me if I would be interested in buying some more of his property nearby. I told him, ‘Mr. English, I can’t afford more property. He then told me to pay him what I could afford each month but didn’t tell me how much it would cost. We decided to go ahead and buy it and payed a little each month. We did it on a handshake. About five years later I handed him a payment and he said, ‘That’s it. It’s yours!’ That’s the way these mountain folk did business. It’s a level of trust passed down through the generations,’” Chuck finished.

Chuck and Valda’s old friend Mr. English passed away about five years ago but his legacy is still felt around in the old buildings and forests.

Just across Sams Creek the new mountaineer couple envisioned building a new home in a beautiful wooded area. They researched a type of log cabin a company manufactured in nearby Campobello, South Carolina and after much research and study decided to build. The company manager told them he could build a nice log cabin home and would be in five separate units. When completed and put together it would be a six bedroom home with five bathrooms.

Chuck and Valda’s log home in five sections. The home was put in place in one day.

Chuck and Valda both told me that helping their parents had always been a part of their life. Helen, Chuck’s mother had lived with them for 25 years. When they told her she could stay in Johnson City or live with them in the woods near Flag Pond, she instantly told them, “I’m moving to Flag Pond.” Valda’s aunt, from Richmond, VA, was also invited to live with them in the mountains. Their new log home main floor became both lady’s exclusive living area along with their two dogs. Chuck and Valda lived in the beautiful downstairs overlooking the mountain stream.

Valda said, “We loved having them with us. It was a blessing to hear them share both family histories and what had been passed down. Many people today don’t get that chance. Both women loved being up here together. The ladies enjoyed their final years watching the wildlife, hearing the sounds of the creek and spending time together as family.” 

After their log home was completed a new adventure awaited. Chuck’s neighbor who owned Nature’s Cabins a mile or so from the Appalachian Trial rented six cabins to trail hikers to spend the night or rent for a few days. He advertised his cabins on Airbnb and suggested Chuck and Valda could do the same for their extra cabin and a bunkhouse Chuck had just renovated for friends and guests.

They decided to give it a try and listed their extra cabins on the Airbnb site and also with VBRO with photos. Their new business was named “Holyfield Hideaway.”

Valda and Chuck Holyfield in their Flag Pond mountain home.

Chuck explained, “Our first renters were four Chapel Hill college boys. We didn’t know what to expect. The young men were fantastic and loved being in our beautiful woods.

“That was in 2015 and today we have added two more small cabins and are in the Airbnb and VBRO business and love being hosts. You would not believe the wonderful people who stay with us. Many return year after year. We have had people stay from all over the world. We even had five Chinese men who spoke no English stay with us. One of their sons translated for them. They were amazed at our starry night sky and stared for hours looking at our stars,” Chuck added.

Chuck and Valda discovered more about their property each year and absorbed generations of history from their local neighbors. Little did they know an ancient Indian and buffalo trail went right through their property created by thousands of buffalo migrating each season for cooler or warmer weather each winter or summer. The old trail would eventually become a wagon road connecting East TN to North Carolina.

Additional historical surprises from the Sams’ family history also includes the infamous underground railroad for escaped African slaves on their way to freedom. Next week’s story will be a fascinating account. Don’t miss it.


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