By Dave Russell
Riverwood Shops, where a 400-year-old oak tree, creativity and history meet in Dillsboro, faces changes as mainstay Oaks Gallery closes after a 31-year run.
Gallery owners Bob and Susan Leveille, who have operated various businesses on the 1.1 acre Riverwood Shops site for 45 years, are moving on to new things.
“The whole property is up for sale,” Susan Leveille said. “But there’s not anybody lined up as a buyer that I am aware of right now.”
The decision for when to sell and to whom isn’t Susan Leveille’s to make alone. She owns Riverwood Shops with her two sisters, Mary Elvington and Ruth McConnell.
“When they decided they wanted to sell, I was not happy with that,” Leveille said. “But with time, you realize maybe it would be nice to have a little bit of free time in your life.”
Letting go hasn’t been easy, she said.
“It was my original intention to just stay and perhaps a new buyer would be interested in us staying, but the business atmosphere has not been the greatest in Dillsboro in recent years,” she said.
The decision by Great Smoky Mountain Railroad to move its headquarters to Bryson City in 2008 and the economic downturn that same year have had lasting effects, she said.
Bobby Pace, owner of stained glass studio Riverwood Menagerie, is retiring and moving out. The Well House, a deli-style restaurant in the lower level of the building, could remain, Leveille said. Riverwood Pottery, featuring work from Brant and Karen Barnes and their daughter, Zan, is also on the site.
William Dills built the initial Riverwood structure as his first home sometime in the late 1870s, Leveille said.
“We think it was just a three or four room house,” she said.
He lived there for a few years before moving across town to build the Jarrett House, known as the Beulah Springs Hotel at the time. Portions of his home are still part of Riverwood Shops. The well he dug is in the corner of the Well House.
Dills sold the house to local entrepreneur C.J. Harris in the mid-1880s.
“Harris added on and added on and added on to the house,” she said. “His last addition was in 1920, when he added the three story section at the west end of the house.”
His two nieces later inherited the property and sold it to Leveille’s parents in 1957.
Leveille’s father, Ralph Morgan, had learned the trade of hammered pewter, a soft metal made mostly of tin, copper and antimony.
He bought the former Harris site to start a craft center where the two men he had trained, could carry on the pewter work. With the pewter as the feature, his wife, Ruth Morgan, operated a crafts shop out of the same building.
“My dad believed if people could see something being made by hand and could meet the artist, that it would encourage them to place value in handmade items,” Leveille said. “I think he was right on.”
The Leveilles began their first business at the site in 1974. The Cheddar Box featured imported and domestic cheeses, “fancy foods,” and coffee, she said. At the time, grocery stores didn’t have individual delis and only offered American processed cheeses, she said.
In 1975 the couple started selling deli sandwiches, which were wildly popular and led to the construction of the Well House in 1977, Leveille said.
Bob Leveille dug out the kitchen area with a shovel and pick himself, she said.
Susan Leveille moved into a space upstairs and started Riverwood Handweaving that same year.
By June 1988, however, she had transformed it into a gallery showcasing a greater range of crafts, and Oaks Gallery was born.
In spite of its rich history, the building is not eligible to be on the National Register Of Historic Places.
“I tried, but they said there had been too many changes made to the building,” Leveille said. “I would love to see if it could be on the register as a craft center in Western North Carolina.”
One potential buyer was a nightmare scenario for Susan Leveille.
“One person looked at it and their idea was to bulldoze it all down, including the trees, and build condos or apartments,” she said. “That is not my vision. I think the house of Dills and Harris is an important part of Jackson County history.”
She’d like to see a buyer who will keep the house – and the oak tree – intact.
“I think Dillsboro would be helped if it stayed retail,” Leveille said. “It could be a coffee shop or a bookstore. I’d like to see someone do something creative. That’s what the whole spirit of this place has been about since my parents started it in 1957. I will miss the customers and am very glad for the opportunity to have shared beautiful crafts with locals and visitors who come to the area.”
Riverwood Pottery might also move on when the property sells, potter Brant Barnes said.
“I’m 70 years old, it’s time to retire anyway,” he said.
Riverwood Shops and Oaks Gallery will be open during Dillsboro Lights and Luminaries Dec. 6, 7, 13 and 14.