Horace Holden remembers the deal like it was yesterday.
He set out from Atlanta with a few blank checks in his pocket and a portable typewriter on the back seat of his car. He checked in to his favorite room in the 14-unit Tote ‘n’ Tarry motel, a mom-and-pop on the banks of the Nantahala River that catered to paddlers, and waited for an innocuous moment to strike up a conversation with the owner, Vincent Gassaway.
“I didn’t want him to think I was very interested,” Holden recalled. “I said, ‘How did your summer go?’ and he said, ‘Not too well.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve never thought of selling this place have you?’ And he said, ‘Well I’ve thought about it.’”
A few minutes later, Holden went back to his room, typed up a contract and wrote a $1,000 check as earnest money to buy Gassaway’s motel, gas station and 40 acres on the river.
Forty year later, as Holden toured the grounds of the Nantahala Outdoor Center flashing his signature charismatic smile to the throngs of tourists and seasonal employees already swarming the place in these early days of summer, it’s easy to see how Holden transformed the isolated gorge into a bustling outfitter’s campus and one of the most successful river operations in the country.
He’ll claim the recipe for success lay with the Nantahala itself. But in fact, it was Holden’s own infectious idealism that carried the vision forward.
Holden had been staging paddling races on the Nantahala River since 1969. By 1971, the race was attracting hundreds of paddlers eager for competition venues in the growing sport of whitewater.
“The third year I said ‘Let’s call it the Southeastern championship,’” Holden recalled. “They said ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Why not? It’s the Southeast.’”
If Holden can think it up, he’s apt to try it.
Years later, Holden learned that Gassaway had bragged about the deal to the owner of a filling station up the road.
“Finally, I found somebody who was fool enough to buy the place,” Gassaway allegedly said of Holden.
Holden simply had a hunch — a hunch something here would work. What exactly, he wasn’t quite sure, but something.
At the time, Holden ran a summer camp in Georgia, and originally envisioned the Nantahala as a great outpost for his camp. Or maybe as a whitewater teaching center and paddling clinics for canoe clubs.
For good measure, Holden figured he could always serve up guided raft trips to help cover the annual mortgage.
But Holden, who was dedicated to running his summer camp, realized he needed a partner. He turned to his childhood friend, Payson Kennedy. The two had attended church together as boys.
“He was honest as the day was long,” Holden said, when asked why he picked Kennedy. Plus, Holden thought, Kennedy worked at Georgia Tech and had his summers off, giving Kennedy flexibility to oversee the yet-to-be-determined venture on the Nantahala.
“I asked him ‘Would you like to start a little canoeing operation?’” Holden recounted.
Kennedy was already looking for a lifestyle change and was about to go work for Outward Bound wilderness school when Holden approached him. Kennedy sold his house to raise money to become a co-founder of NOC along with Holden. The two would ultimately remain the majority stockholders for 40 years.
When asked about how he knew it would work, Holden says he didn’t.
“You can’t know. You can never know,” Holden said.
Somehow, though, it seems like he did.