E.L. McKee and Gertrude Dills McKee

E.L. McKee, left, is shown with his wife, Gertrude Dills McKee. McKee was a prominent community leader and businessman.

The story of E.L. McKee’s contribution to Jackson County is inextricably linked to that of two other notables written about in recent weeks: his wife, Gertrude Dills McKee, North Carolina’s first woman state senator; and his frequent business associate, C.J. Harris.

“Of the individuals profiled so far for this series, Lyndon McKee is probably the one who most deserves an article because he’s often eclipsed in name recognition by Harris, Gertrude, and even his father-in-law, Dillsboro founder William Allen Dills,” says local historian George Frizzell. “In a way, he’s often mistakenly viewed in the role of a supporting actor, when in fact he may be stealing the scene. Unlike his father-in-law, his wife, or his better-known business associate, there are no towns named for him, no buildings nor institutions. Not even High Hampton, the resort he owned, bears his name. Still, his influence was undeniable.”

Ernest Lyndon McKee (Sept. 11, 1871-Oct. 6, 1952) was the son of Robert and Matilda McKee and grew up in Webster, the county seat until 1913. McKee’s first wife, Mattie Moody, died in 1912, and he married Gertrude Dills on Aug. 19, 1913.

According to “The History of Jackson County,” McKee was “second in entrepreneurial prominence” only to C.J. Harris and “got his start through industry and native ability.” McKee’s obituary, published in the Oct. 9, 1952, edition of the Sylva Herald adds more to his background. He was the youngest of seven children, and his formal education ended at age 14 when he went to work as a clerk in his father’s store. He also apprenticed himself to the telegrapher at the Sylva depot, and a year later, at age 15, was named telegrapher at the Cherokee depot, becoming the youngest railway agent/telegrapher in the Southern Railway system.

McKee and Oscar J. Coward formed a mercantile partnership in Sylva, with the business becoming the Sylva Supply Co. when C.J. Harris bought out Coward in 1902, according to “The History of Jackson County,” which also reports that McKee’s association with C.J. Harris opened additional opportunities. In 1906 the two helped found the Jackson County Bank and Harris named McKee superintendent of the C.J. Harris Tanning Co. in Sylva. When Armour Leather Co. bought the tannery in 1915, McKee became president of the local operation. Later McKee was named president of the Parsons Tanning Co., which included the Sylva operation plus two plants near Parsons, West Virginia.

By the 1920s, McKee had become a well known figure in the leather industry, and he represented that industry on the Wages and Hours Commission in Washington, D.C., during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. A prominent Democrat, he was active in local politics, serving as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Executive Committee.

Joan Wright Ferguson, author of “Gertrude Dills McKee: A Biographical Study,” (M.A. thesis, Western Carolina University, 1988) offers insight into McKee’s preferred role. “Although Lyndon served terms as alderman and mayor of Sylva, his primary interest was not elective office; instead he enjoyed being behind the scenes, running the party machinery, first as a precinct organizer and then as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Executive Committee. This latter position he held for 20 years from 1928 to 1948 – the same period which encompassed Gertrude’s entry into the political arena and her terms as state senator. Because he was so much older than she, and because he was already well established when they married, he never felt threatened or dominated by her activities and ambitions. Rather, he took pleasure in her successful role in the public sphere and helped her wherever he could.”

McKee and Harris partnered in a number of enterprises in addition to the tannery and paper company, and they erected Jackson County’s Courthouse in 1913, the same year Sylva became county seat.

What is perhaps McKee’s most important and lasting contribution to Jackson County, his leadership in the emergence of the tourism industry, is tied to High Hampton Inn, the premier resort he developed in the southern end of the county almost a century ago.

“High Hampton was Lyndon’s pet project,” writes Ferguson, adding that McKee fell in love with the property in 1922 when he first drove by it. When the 2,300-acre property came on the market a year later, McKee headed a group of local investors who purchased it to develop into a resort. According to Ferguson, the purchase was regarded as an example of McKee’s “canny business acumen” and of “wide-awake citizens recognizing the value of natural assets.” A golf course was laid out, though only 11 holes were initially built, and McKee added electric lights and other modern conveniences. The inn opened in 1924, offering golf, tennis, swimming, horseback riding and a children’s park with a playground.

The first inn was destroyed by fire in May 1932, with the Jackson County Journal reporting that McKee and his partners had suffered a monetary loss of approximately $75,000. The Sept. 22, 1932, issue of the Journal reported that McKee had bought out his partners and would build a new inn at a cost of $30,000, with construction slated to begin on Oct. 15 of that year.

After McKee’s death, High Hampton was managed by his two sons with Gertrude, William Dills McKee and Ernest Lyndon McKee Jr., who died in 1961 of hepatitis. It was then owned by W.D. McKee and his late brother’s three children – Ann McKee Austin, and Lyndon and William McKee. According to Austin, she and her brothers in 1984 negotiated with their uncle for 900 undeveloped acres on High Hampton’s southern end (now Wade Hampton Golf Club), leaving W.D. McKee and his son, Will, in control of High Hampton. The historic inn remained in the McKee family until November 2017, when it was purchased by Arlington Family Offices, a wealth management company. High Hampton is currently closed during its redevelopment by Daniel Communities of Birmingham, Ala.; it is projected to reopen next year.

In contrast to his business partner Harris, McKee was an early advocate of the proposed Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Journal reported in its Nov. 11, 1924, edition that McKee had been named county chairman in the drive to raise North Carolina’s $500,000 contribution to purchase the land needed to establish the park; Jackson County’s quota was $20,000.

When The Journal wrote of McKee’s appointment as highway commissioner for the 10th district, comprising Jackson and 13 other counties, on Jan. 21, 1932, the paper quoted McKee as saying that “revival of interest in tourist business incident to establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (had) made it imperative that (the) state give consideration to the highways in the mountains as rapidly as money (was) available for their construction and improvement.” McKee was key to the completion of Rt. 106/107, now N.C. 107, and still Jackson County’s main north-south highway.

“Often, McKee just seems likable,” Frizzell said. “By then a successful businessman with a secretary, there is something genuine in his comment to W.D. Sylva/Selvey in his Oct. 27, 1924, letter of reply when he states, ‘You will excuse this letter as am writing it myself rather than dictating to my stenographer as felt rather write you myself.’ An October 1952 editorial in the Waynesville Mountaineer concerning his death discussed his personality as much as his ‘civic, political and business’ interests, as in the comment, ‘Mr. McKee made a success of his work because he loved, and understood people.’”

In the letter to Selvey, written on Sylva Tanning Co. stationery, McKee affirms Selvey’s role in the town’s name: “I know all about the history of Sylva that you speak of and that it was named after you. Some say it was named Sylva meaning Sylvan (woods) However, I knew that suggestion of the name came from your name as you were at (the) Hamptons at the time.”

McKee then describes the town and lists some of his own accomplishments, including the construction of the Courthouse. The letter goes on to describe the county’s roads, obviously a subject of pride for McKee.

McKee’s granddaughter, Ann Austin, has a few memories of McKee, but says she knows more about her grandfather from family stories. Both her grandparents had a sense of humor, she said, often directing that humor at each other.

Once, when her Grandmother Gertrude was preparing to leave on a trip, she kept dawdling, finally asking “Will you miss me, Lyndon?” To which her husband replied, “How can I miss you if you won’t leave?”

Austin says she’s also been told a story about herself as a toddler. She was holding a book and turning the pages, and her grandmother said something to the effect that their granddaughter must be very smart – she was already reading. To which her grandfather replied: “Even a monkey can turn pages.”

In summary, it’s clear that Lyndon McKee played a crucial role in local economic and political history.

“Like several of his contemporaries, Lyndon McKee cast a broad net,” Frizzell says. “There is always the easy sentence that would summarize his achievements by noting his business acumen, political participation, and civic involvements. For instance, as the R.D.W. Connor multi-volume ‘North Carolina, Rebuilding an Ancient Commonwealth,’ stated in 1928, McKee possessed ‘sagacity, foresight and financial skill.’ Still, what’s fascinating is that he managed to excel in so many of his pursuits and yet not seem to be in overt competition with his family or associates. He was very supportive of Gertrude’s political career, even as she garnered the headlines. Despite their different political allegiances, he maintained longstanding business partnerships with Harris. And, he seemed to invariably be the one appointed by an organization to be the lead person for projects, such as raising the money for the proposed national park.

“As with others included this series, McKee accurately predicted opportunities. He recognized that Jackson County in the early 20th century was on the cusp of new developments and moved to seize upon the potentials, such as the prospects presented by paper manufacturing, the advantages of an improved infrastructure in the form of highways that would benefit industry and tourism, and the need for telephone lines in the county (perhaps a response to his days as a telegraph operator). McKee took an active interest in connecting the Cashiers area with the rest of the county, as in highways, telephone lines, and the tourist opportunities of High Hampton.”

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.