Mill Pond in Banner Elk

Small town charm can be a key attribute in encouraging an increasing tourism rate. The town of Banner Elk is the epitome of a town with a small population but booming tourism. Banner Elk is located in the mountains of western North Carolina in Avery County. It contains approximately 995 people as of the year 2000, including the students attending Lees-McRae College which is located in Banner Elk (Town). The mission of Banner Elk is to preserve its heritage to “support the development of community infrastructures, recreational opportunities, and the viability of the business community” (Town). It is important for Banner Elk to maximize tourism in order for such a small town to survive. Due to its increased dependence on tourism, Banner Elk has undergone little change since its founding in 1848 and strives to preserve its heritage to make it an attractive tourist destination.

The first settlers of Banner Elk were the Cherokee Indians who used the Elk River Valley area for hunting. The first white settlers, Delilah Baird and John Holtsclaw, arrived in Banner Elk in 1825. Their first child, Alfred B. Baird, was the first white child born on Banner Elk soil. When the Banner family came to North Carolina from Wales, Martin L. Banner created the first permanent settlement in Banner Elk in 1848. From there, the Banner family grew. Others who settled in Banner Elk around the same time were the Moody, Dugger, Abrams, Von Canon, Keller, Smith, Lineback, and Foster families (Town).

During the early years of Banner Elk, the settlers supported themselves through agriculture. The people of Banner Elk grew a lot of vegetables, including cabbage and beans. Trade was an important part to the lives of the settlers, as well. The settlers of Banner Elk often traded animal furs and raised cattle (Town). Today, the town continues to be dependent upon farming. Christmas trees are one of the biggest cash crops in this area. Banner Elk is even known as the “Christmas tree capital of the world” (Banner). Small, locally owned businesses are also important to the town (Town). However, Banner Elk, by far, is most dependent on tourism. The town of Banner Elk even built the Banner Elk Hotel in 1892 to adjust to the growing tourism rate (Town).

There are many outdoor activities, in and around Banner Elk, that attract tourists and the weather is suitable for anyone who wants to visit. There is a common saying that circulates throughout Lees-McRae College that says, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” (Rogers). Visitors to the town can go shopping, golfing, hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and tubing. Also, there is rock climbing, horseback riding, and sailing. Another hugely popular activity to do while visiting Banner Elk is snow skiing and snowboarding. There are three ski resorts in close proximity to Banner Elk, including Beech Mountain, Sugar Mountain, and Hawk’s Nest. Other tourist attractions, Grandfather Mountain and Tweetsie Railroad are nearby, as well (Town). Banner Elk has not changed since its founding in 1848 in terms of retaining its culture to attract tourists. However, it has changed in the sense that it has created other outdoor activities, such as skiing and whitewater rafting, which make it an even more popular and desired tourist destination.

The people of Banner Elk preserve the history and legends of the town in order to boost cultural tourism. There are many legends that are remembered today concerning Banner Elk and Avery County. The two most famous describe the time before the white settlers came to Banner Elk. These legends were passed down from generation to generation in the families of the first white settlers. Both of these legends explain the origin of how the Old Fields of Toe got its name. One talks about the conflict between two rival chiefs. The daughter of one of the chiefs, Estetoe, fell in love with the son of the other. However, the daughter and son were not allowed to marry. This caused a huge war between the two rival tribes in this area. One version of this story ends with Estetoe bringing about peace between the two tribes so that she and her lover were allowed to wed (History). Another version suggests that Estetoe was engaged to a man within her tribe but her father forbid the marriage. As a result, Estetoe drowned herself in the river. The Indians then named the area after her. However, the name of the fields was later shortened to Toe by the whites because it was easier for them to pronounce (Dugger, 121). These legends encourage tourists to visit, because people hear these stories and then visit Banner Elk in order to experience all of the Native American culture in this area, including, cultural arts and crafts, gem mining, a gem shop with minerals and Native American artifacts, and more (Town).

Woolly Worm at Woolly Worm Festival 2010

Other popular, cultural festivities that take place at or near Banner Elk include the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of the Clans, the Woolly Worm Festival, and the Apple Orchard Festival. The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games and Gathering of the Clans is a large gathering of people of Scottish heritage. It is a week-long festival of contests, music, and food (Town). The Woolly Worm Festival is an annual festival in October in downtown Banner Elk. Over 20,000 visitors come to this festival to celebrate the woolly worm. It is local legend that the woolly worm’s markings can be used to predict winter weather for that year. The major activity at this festival is the woolly worm race. Thousands of woolly worms are entered in this race and the worms race up 3 feet of nylon string. The winning worm is then used to predict the winter weather by looking at the markings of the worm (The 2011 Festival). Finally, the Apple Orchard Festival takes place in Valle Crucis, not far from Banner Elk (Town). Thousands visit this festival to participate in activities and learn about the mountain culture. All of these festivals attract thousands of tourists each year, because people are highly interested in the culture and the folklore that surround small towns in this area, such as Banner Elk. These festivals highlight the culture and, therefore, help to attract many tourists.

Lees McRae College attracts many students and tourists to Banner Elk. By the end of the 1800’s, the Presbyterian Church was established in Banner Elk. One pastor of the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Edgar Tufts got a few students together and began to educate them, known as the Class of 1900. Tufts believed that it was necessary, because there was not enough education in Banner Elk during this time. The Class of 1900 was the first class. However, Tufts believed there still was room for more education to take place, especially for the girls in the area. Tufts hired Elizabeth A. McRae to teach the girls. Then he proceeded to name the institute after her and a benefactor by the name of Mrs. S.P. Lees. That is how the Lees-McRae Institute got its name. Originally, the boys and girls were taught separately, but after the buildings for the boys were destroyed in a fire, the schools became coeducational in 1927. In. 1931, Lees-McRae Institute became Lees-McRae College, a junior college. Then, in 1990, Lees-McRae College finally received senior college status (Lees-McRae).

Overall, there have been few changes to Lees-McRae College since then. Today, Lees-McRae College is a small, private, four year college. It is a liberal arts college and continues to be associated with the Presbyterian Church. There are over 900 students enrolled and the school offers around 22 majors and several minors (Lees-McRae). Lees-McRae College, although fairly new to senior college status, is very important to the success of tourism in a small town such as Banner Elk. Since, Lees-McRae College is a liberal arts college, the performing arts center is very important to the school and a very big tourist attraction. “We may not have all the bells and whistles, but we always have the heart,” said Dr. Janet Speer (Rogers). Speer started the performing arts program and is also the founder of the Lees-McRae summer theatre program. During the summer theatre program, the theatre turns into a professional theatre. There are several performances, including ones directed by students of Lees-McRae each year and are open to anyone. Despite the fact that the theater was originally built as a lecture hall by faculty and students and lacks money and equipment, the program is still hugely successful (Rogers). Both the performing arts program and summer theatre program bring in tourists who want to experience both professional theatre and theatre inspired and executed by students at Lees-McRae College.

Banner Elk, being a small town, is highly dependent on tourism revenue. In order to increase tourism, Banner Elk has worked to maintain and promote the culture and history of the town during its 163 year existence. By focusing on tourist friendly-events including festivals, outdoor activities, and performances at Lees-McRae College, the town has enhanced its reputation and built its path to success.



The 2011 Festival is the 33rd Annual Festival. The Woolly Worm Festival, October 20, 2010. Web. 28, March, 2011.

Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce. History. Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce. Web. 28, March, 2011.

Dugger, Shepard Monroe. The Balsam Groves of Grandfather Mountain. Banner Elk: S.M. Dugger, 1892. Web.     3, March, 2011.

History of Avery County. Avery County Museum. Web. 3, March, 2011.

Lees-McRae College. “College History.” Lees-McRae College. Web. 26, February, 2011.

Rogers, Michael. Personal Interview. 28, March, 2011.

Town of Banner Elk, NC. About the Town. Town of Banner Elk, NC. Web. 23, February, 2011.

About Me

Kathryn Trogdon is a freshman at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is majoring in Journalism and minoring in History.

One Response to “Banner Elk: Survival of a Small Town”

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