During the Great Depression, local people could not imagine that prosperity would ever come to the mountains again. Hard times were surely here to stay. At least, that’s the way it seemed to most folks.
However, Uncle Mont Jones, the Zirconia, NC, postmaster, had a different world view. He foresaw an economy so prosperous that U.S. Highway 25 would no longer be sufficient. In those days, north-bound traffic from Greenville, South Carolina, came through Tuxedo and Zirconia.
It continued to Flat Rock and downtown Hendersonville on the way to Asheville. Uncle Mont predicted a time when thousands of daily vehicles would overwhelm the existing two-lane highway.
He told people he’d been figuring how the government could possibly manage to get a big, wide highway through the small, Tuxedo community. The only way he could see it happening would be to bring the new road from the east.
That meant it would pave over the area locally known as Frog Level and continue across the forested mountain above Tuxedo to South Carolina.
Then traffic from Atlanta could be connected through Greenville into Asheville, toward Tennessee to the north and west, and into Winston-Salem, Durham, and Raleigh to the east.
Such an idea was so ludicrous that folks laughed in his face.
They tried to point out that after the summer residents left, only an occasional car or truck used the two-lane highway. Most country people walked everywhere they went and couldn’t afford to drive, even if they’d bought a car before the Great Depression.
In this era of “Hoover Buggies” country folk sometimes hitched mules to their Model-A Fords. This made a statement about their opinion of the economy — and provided a creative and quite comfortable mode of transportation.
But Uncle Mont was undeterred by their derision, their laughter, or their guffaws. He admitted the new road probably wouldn’t happen during his lifetime, but said, “Mark my words, the widest highway anybody’s ever seen will come from the east and go right through Frog Level.”
He was correct on all counts. After World War II, the economy did recover with unheard-of prosperity. Although Uncle Mont passed away in 1952, his ideas were on target.
Today, traffic swarms the wide I-26 connecting highway — that came from the east. Thousands of cars and trucks from Atlanta and Greenville travel a new road on the mountain above Tuxedo. Then, they cross tall bridges constructed over the area formerly known as Frog Level.
Transport trucks, tourist cars, as well as local vehicles, drive on four lanes to Asheville, toward Tennessee to the north and west, and into Winston-Salem, Durham, and Raleigh to the east.
The Frog Level tourist shops on two-lane U.S. Highway 25 have given way to an astounding level of growth. And Uncle Mont knew it before anyone else.
Even he might consider 21st century highway expansion amazing. Construction is now under way to widen I-26 between Hendersonville and Asheville to six lanes.
Projected for completion in 2024, the years-long project will ease the almost daily traffic backups experienced by trucks, commuters, and tourists.
Times have certainly changed from the days of the Great Depression when only a few vehicles used the two-lane U.S. Highway 25.
It is likely Uncle Mont determined the exact route for the I-26 connector, not only because he was a really smart person, but because he’d picked blackberries on those mountains as a child. In the late 1800s, folks lived on farms, and he would have spent time in the forests hunting and gathering wild foods.
Uncle Mont understood the lay of the land in the Zirconia and Tuxedo communities and could logically comprehend where a future road might be constructed.
Having served as the local postmaster since 1909, he regularly received mail bags that had been processed in places like Atlanta and Greensboro. So, he understood the wide connecting network of railroads and highways in other cities and states.
He could envision a time when Henderson County would eventually link up with some of those roads. While other folks’ imaginations had been immobilized by the very real fears of the Great Depression, his vision for the future never wavered.
Think about old-time visionaries you may have known, who also foresaw great changes that eventually came to pass.
Frog Level, the area Uncle Mont predicted would be acquisitioned for the new road, was a real place. In fact, there was a plausible reason for the comical nickname. A gurgling creek flowed beside U.S. Highway 25 through the narrow valley between Tuxedo and Zirconia.
When numerous frogs hopped onto the pavement, pickup trucks and “tourister” cars smashed scores of them: Squish! Splat! Crunch! So, the locals jokingly called the area Frog Level.
The humorous, unofficial name became so commonly accepted that older Henderson County residents still remember it.
Despite the unsavory label, Frog Level was quite a charming place, especially when it blossomed with tourist businesses every summer. During my childhood, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, beach travelers returning to northern states like Michigan and Ohio preferred the well-known U.S. Highway 25.
Before interstate highways, that two-lane road was one of the best routes from the south to the north, and local entrepreneurs looked forward to busy summers.
Competing shops on both sides of the highway displayed multi-colored chenille bedspreads on long clotheslines. Red, yellow, purple, orange, blue or pink flower patterns were interwoven with bright-green leaf designs.
Summer breezes floating down the valley danced and frolicked with the bedspreads, charming tourists as they drove around the Lake Summit curve.
They admired long outside tables loaded with fresh peaches, watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, squash, and green peppers.
Displays of Native American dolls and bow-and-arrow sets were enticing to children — especially when one enterprising shop owner (wearing bright feathered regalia) war-whooped through the parking lot and posed for “Indian” pictures.
For snacks, each shop featured glass-bottled Coca-Colas, Lance peanuts, R.C. Colas, moon pies and candy bars. Dozens of triangular-shaped felt pennants, emblazoned with red or blue Great Smoky Mountains logos, brightened the pine-paneled shop walls.
Out front, multi-colored pinwheels on sticks whirled in the wind with the bedspreads, enhancing the roadside appeal. In this cacophony of sight, sound, and color, dozens of cement chickens, ducks, and deer stood at attention facing the highway.
Yard art was popular, but if tourists didn’t want to overload their cars, they could opt for scenic postcards or “genuine” corncob pipes.
Unfortunately, Frog Level’s color tourist shops disappeared when the I-26 connecting artery came through the valley. Admittedly, I enjoy driving on the new highway, but I always imagine dozens of flowery, old-fashioned chenille bedspreads blowing in the breezes — when I venture off the modern freeway onto the old-two-lane road.
Those locally owned fruit stands were flamboyant, unique to the area, and were limited only to the imagination of the proprietors (who sometimes dressed as Indian chiefs). To appeal to homefolks, they did a brisk business selling watermelons, cantaloupes, and peaches. Locals enjoyed stopping for a Coke, visiting, and sharing the latest tall tales. Before interstate highways with look-alike franchises at every exit, these individual roadside stores flourished.
Owners competed to display the latest varieties of souvenirs, the largest selection of cement statuary animals, and the longest clotheslines of chenille bedspreads in loud, bright colors to attract vacationers’ attention.
Think about tourist shops you may have enjoyed on road trips years ago and recall unique, eye-catching items exhibited for sale beside those two-lane highways.
Janie Mae Jones McKinely's new book, "The Legacy of Bear Mountain, Volume 2," (340 pages) is available in Hendersonville at the Historic Court House Gift Shop, The Curb Market, Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society, M. A. Pace General Store (Saluda) and at Amazon.com. Over three years of her Back in the Day newspaper columns are included, along with new stories of Granny’s life on Bear Mountain.