Though he’s often overshadowed by his more famous daughter, the man who founded Dillsboro and gave the town its name played a key role in early Jackson County.
Not only did William Allen Dills once own most of the property in present-day Dillsboro, he built two local landmarks that still stand: his first home, now the Riverwood shops, and the Jarrett House, which he originally named the Mount Beulah Hotel after his youngest daughter.
Elected to the N.C. House of Representatives in 1889, Dills introduced that year’s bill that resulted in Dillsboro’s charter.
“What I like about Dills is his civic-minded nature and service to the community (e.g. postmaster, politician, interest in education) in addition to his activities in founding and promoting the town of Dillsboro,” said local historian George Frizzell. “Dills had the foresight to realize the potential of the railway being constructed and took advantage of the opportunity to establish a viable site along the rail line for commerce.”
According to “The History of Jackson County,” development around what would become Dillsboro began with the arrival of the railroad in the early 1880s. The village was initially called Depot, New Webster or Webster Station. The nearby Tunnel Post Office, named for the railroad’s Cowee Tunnel, was established on Aug. 16, 1882, with Dills as the postmaster, a job he held until the Tunnel Post Office was discontinued in 1888 when the Dillsboro Post Office was established. Dills was also Dillsboro’s first postmaster. He built his first home on the hill between Scotts Creek and the Tuckaseigee River around 1876 and planted the large oak trees that now tower over Riverwood. That house was the first residence to be constructed in Dillsboro and was the birthplace of Dills’ second daughter Gertrude, who married early industrialist E.L. McKee and was North Carolina’s first woman state senator. The Dills’ home, which served as Dillsboro’s first post office, was also the only place travelers could find lodging in Dillsboro, and N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance was once a guest there.
Dills later built his permanent home adjacent to the hotel that became the Jarrett House. The town’s name, Dillsboro, was suggested by A.B. Andrews, a developer of the WNC Railroad, for whom the town of Andrews is named.
“Dills selected a location on his farm, and laid off lots and streets in preparation for the establishment of a town. With the inauguration of rail service, a railway boxcar served as the first depot; a small permanent depot was constructed later,” writes J.D. McRorie in “The History of Jackson County.”
Old county family
Born about 2 miles south of present-day Dillsboro, Dills was descended from some of the area’s oldest settlers. His grandfather, Bartlett Dills, moved from Rutherford County to a “place near Webster in Haywood County, between 1819 and 1821,” according to Volume I of “Jackson County Heritage.” (Jackson County was formed in 1851 from Haywood and Macon counties; Macon was created from Haywood in 1828). William Allen Dills was the sixth child of Bartlett Dills’ son Philip, and his wife, Mary “Polly” Buchanan Dills. There is some discrepancy regarding his actual birth and death years, according to Frizzell. Most accounts indicate he was born in 1842, such as his headstone in Parris Cemetery, but census records point to 1843. “Concerning the year of his death, his headstone says November 1900. However, the 1900 federal census, enumerated June 21, 1900, lists Alice as a widow already,” Frizzell said. “Gertrude’s age is given as 14, which would be technically correct as she was born June 8, 1885, and so not yet 15. Also, if I have the right ‘Mr. Dills,’ two articles in newspapers indicate that he died in 1899. One paper noted in its Nov. 29, 1899, issue that Walter Moore sent a message that Dills had ‘died last Saturday,’ which in backtracking is Nov. 25.” A book authored by Dills’ daughter also lists his death year as 1899.
Dills served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and was captured by Union forces and sent to prison in Missouri. According to a listing in “Jackson County Heritage” written by one of his granddaughters, Alice Dills Weaver Turner, Dills completed his studies in mathematics and taught himself surveying while he was in prison. He remained in Missouri for a time and taught school before returning to Jackson County, marrying Alice Enloe in 1876. They had three daughters, Minnie Dills Gray, who wrote “The History of Dillsboro”; Gertrude; and Beulah Dills Weaver.
A more colorful account
Dills’ daughter Minnie gives a more colorful account of how Dillsboro came to be in her “History of Dillsboro,” writing that Dillsboro began with “a romance between a boy and a girl.” According to Gray’s account, her 17-year-old father spent one night at the Oconaluftee (spelled Ocona Lufta in Gray’s book) River home of Wesley Enloe shortly after he enlisted in the Confederate Army. While there, he saw their baby daughter Alice in her cradle. Upon his return to North Carolina, he was appointed district surveyor for Jackson County and returned to Oconaluftee on a survey. “Stopping again at the Enloe home, he found that Alice had grown into a lovely young woman,” Gray writes. “A courtship ensued and the little girl whom he saw in a cradle 17 years earlier became William Allen Dills’ bride.”
Dills played a leading role in Dillsboro throughout the years leading up to its 1889 designation as a town. He organized the first Sunday school, which was held in a waiting room of the depot until construction of the Church-Academy, built on a lot donated by Dills. That building, later known as the Masonic Lodge, was located on Haywood Street across from the Greystone Building; it was torn down around 1971. He sold his Mt. Beulah Hotel in 1894 to R. Frank Jarrett and his sons, who renamed it Jarrett Springs after a sulphur spring at the rear of the hotel that bubbled up into a soapstone basin. At this writing, that hotel, now the Jarrett House, is once again for sale.
“Today, Dills is known primarily as the founder of the town. However, it strikes me that to some extent after his death, he has been in the shadow of his daughter Gertrude and also to that of C.J. Harris. Gertrude’s fame from the 1920s until her death in 1948 were of statewide significance, and her sense of civic responsibility, respect for education, and devotion to work was, no doubt, based upon the example of her parents. While Harris was probably ‘the’ prominent resident of Dillsboro in the late 1800s-early 1900s due to his business pursuits, political career, and philanthropy, it is a testimony to Dills’ foresight that Dillsboro became the transit point for kaolin from the Harris Clay Mines and the center of other of Harris’ enterprises such as the Dillsboro & Sylva Electric Company,” Frizzell said.
According to Minnie Dills Gray, her father “died at a time when his leadership was most needed.” Though she does not elaborate, it appears that she was referring to Dillsboro’s decline in growth around 1902 after C.J. Harris relocated his tannery to Sylva.
After listing all the businesses in town at the time of her father’s death, Gray closes her book with this sentence. “Fate did not decree that this growth should long continue, but being extremely proud of the town’s pioneers, their leadership and achievements, the writer is convinced this town will soon see history repeat itself.”
And time has proved her correct. The little town that William Allen Dills founded more than a century ago is now a popular tourist destination once again.
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.