History & Nostalgia

The Historic James Wilburn Whitehead Home

By Carol Lowe Timblin

James Wilburn Whitehead could sit on the front porch of his home just outside Banner’s Elk (known today as the town of Banner Elk) and look out over the hundreds of acres that he owned. From the time he built his home in 1885 until he died in 1924, he had the pleasure of living and working on the large farm with his wife, Jennie, and their children. When he died at the age of 73, James was considered one of the richest men in the area.

James experienced significant changes and losses in his early years. Born in 1851 in Elk Mills, TN, he was the oldest of five children born to Daniel Whitehead and Lurany Holtsclaw Dugger. Daniel had come to the marriage with one child from a previous marriage, and Lurany Holtsclaw, the widow of Able Dugger, had four children. When James lost his mother at the age of six, his father soon remarried. At the age of 13 he was indentured to a family traveling by wagon train to Illinois. When he returned to Tennessee at age 20, he learned that his father had died and his stepmother had remarried. In 1872, he showed up in Banner’s Elk with a gun, two hogs, and a dog in tow.

By the time James was 30, he had obtained a land grant for 600 acres on Buckeye Creek on Beech Mountain and three years later purchased an additional 480 acres on Big Bottoms of Elk that had belonged to Delilah Baird, who was linked to his Holtzclaw kin. In addition to having a family connection to the land in Elk River Valley, James greatly admired George W. Dugger, his half-brother, and wanted to live near him. George and his family had moved to the area in 1856 and had laid claim to large tracts through land grants; Dugger also forged iron at the Cranberry Mines, owned by his father and uncle for several years.

Elk River Valley proved to be the ideal place for James to build his fortune. He trapped minks and muskrats in Elk River and hunted weasels, possums, raccoons, wolves, and bears in the deep forests. He raised cattle and sheep and let his hogs run wild on Beech Mountain. He grew oats, barley, buckwheat, cabbage, and potatoes on the farm and tapped the maple trees for syrup, sugar, and candy. In the early 1900s he leased large tracts of timber to the big lumber companies operating in the area. In 1891-1892, a turnpike road, connecting Valle Crucis to Elk Park, was built.

Known to be frugal with his money, James once invested in a Valle Crucis bank, which went bankrupt. He never trusted banks after that and stashed his money in canning jars that he hid in the hog lot on the farm. He hired Alfred Bedum Baird, the son of Delilah Baird and John Holtsclaw, to help with the work and even built a cabin for that family. According to a memorial written by a neighbor, “James was considered a shrewd businessman and always dressed in a suit…..His word was his bond….he was never known to owe any man a cent by note or otherwise.”

James married Martha Jane “Jennie” Hayes of Watauga County in 1885. They had five children. Addie J., the oldest, died at the age of three. Sally Louise, Thomas J., George Washington, and Mattie Virginia grew up and pursued their own interests. James succumbed to cancer in 1924, and Jennie died in 1956. Their son, George, and his wife, Mabel, continued to live on the farm, raising livestock and crops. In 1964, they sold their home and most of the land around it to the developer of Elk River Club. The sale took its toll on George. He died in 1972, as the last of his cabbage patches were bulldozed to make room for an airport. Mabel passed away in 1993 at the age of 95. Both are buried in the family cemetery below the Old Turnpike Road along with other family members. Alfred Baird, who lived on the land from the time of his birth in 1826 until his death in 1880, also rests in the cemetery, which contains 19 graves.

Elk River Club leased the farmhouse to various individuals before selling it for $5,000 in 1975 to Dennis Lehmann, a land planner for Carolina Caribbean Corporation. By that time, various tenants had almost destroyed the Whitehead house, leaving it with no plumbing, no electricity, and no heat, and much of the roof and wood rotten.

After 20 years of owning and extensively renovating the home, Lehmann decided to sell the historic property and posted a hand-lettered “4-SALE” sign out front. That’s when Cheryl Richardson came barreling down the road and slammed on her brakes to get a better view of the place. “When I saw the old farmhouse, I said, ‘This is it!’ My husband Edwin and I painted all the rooms and continued to work on the house for the next 26 years,” she recalls. “We furnished it with 19th-century East Coast antiques that we had stored over the years. During the time we lived here, I worked on getting the Old Turnpike Road declared a North Carolina Scenic Byway, which was granted in 2018. It is one of the few, if not the only, original 19th-century turnpikes in the state.”

In 2020, the Richardsons sold the farmhouse, including all the furnishings, to Dennis Lehmann’s son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Fabiana Lehmann, with the understanding they would preserve the historical integrity of the house and make necessary improvements. Since then, Paul, an experienced custom home builder, and Fabiana have worked continuously to update the home and ensure that it is structurally sound. Initially, that involved jacking up the house, removing stacked rock piers, adding new floor framing and insulation, and replacing some of the old 12-inch hand-hewn oak beams. One of them has been repurposed as a mantle over the fireplace in the dining room. They used small shovels to move the dirt out from underneath the house and replaced the sagging dining room floor from above. The house has been rewired and replumbed, and heating and air conditioning installed. New paint and wallpaper have given it a fresh, clean look. They also added a new master bath and kitchen, plus a new roof, sidewalks, steps, handrails, and wood ceilings. They replumbed the original spring box, buried utilities, and added driveway curbing and landscaping. Soon they will build a replica of the old barn that was demolished.

“I have many memories of growing up in the house in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” says Paul. “I remember waiting for the school bus down by the buckeye tree in the winter, squirrel hunting in the woods, getting caught riding my motorcycle at age 14 with no license or helmet, and riding hogs and ponies down by the barn.

“I always wanted to own the house,” he continues. “Now that my wife and I have completed the restoration, the house is finally comfortable, warm, and cozy year-round. It is such a unique, beautiful, historic home—it would be selfish to keep it all to ourselves. We want to share it with select families who want to make memories and who will appreciate its history and charm.”

Visitors who stay at the historic home may gather eggs and feed the goats and the horse in the barnyard. They can share stories around the fire pit, placed next to the corn and potato garden. And they can sit on the big front porch and take in the beauty of Elk River Valley and the surrounding mountains, just as James Wilburn Whitehead and his family did in their lifetimes.

The Whitehead home is now available for short-term rentals through Vacation Rentals By Owner, VRBO, Vrbo.com/2809030.

Return to Featured Content on the Home Page >>