Unlike any of the establishments mentioned above, a real boardinghouse had several distinctive features. It would often come into existence as an expansion of the proprietor's original home site; or, it was sometimes established in a renovated commercial structure of some sort.
Rooms would sometimes be let out for overnight guests. For the most part, however, a boardinghouse catered to those staying for at least a week. And it wasn’t unusual for them to stay either for an entire season or even on a permanent basis. Working-class guests were as common as vacationers. Long-term boarders were often adopted into the proprietor's extended family. Concern for his or her general welfare became a part of the socio-economic relationship.
Family style meals were the mainstay of a boardinghouse. Sometimes all three meals were served each day. Serving times for each meal were posted and the proprietor expected boarders to be on time. Most guests honored this system as a matter of courtesy. They also realized that those arriving late had less — or sometimes very little — to eat.
Some of the rooms had bath facilities. These cost more. Most guests shared a bath, which always seemed to be located “Just down there at the end of the hall.” A guest taking too much time or using up all of the hot water would hear about it from his fellow guests. If the habit persisted, the proprietor would weigh in.
There was always a common sitting, reading, and TV room used primarily during the winter or just before meals were served. When the weather was fine, there was also a front porch with rocking chairs.
In my experience, the last true boardinghouse in this region was the Swain Hotel located on Everett Street in Bryson City. From 1967 until 1996, it was owned and operated by Mildred and V.L. Cope. Swain County native Luke Hyde, an attorney, purchased and renovated the establishment, opening in 1997 as the Historic Calhoun Country Inn. Family style meals are still served, but the current operation is not a true boardinghouse in most regards. Although many of the guests return from season to season, none are of the long-term or permanent variety. Most are vacationers.
“Until 1966, the business was known as the Calhoun Hotel,” said Hyde. “It was operated by Granville Calhoun and his family. My mother, Alice Hyde, worked at the Calhoun Hotel for 30 years. That’s why I converted to the old name.
“As far as I know the Swain Hotel as operated by the Copes was the last true boardinghouse west of Morganton. I stayed in a lot of places when I was looking for a suitable location of my own, and it was the only one I encountered.
“I remember when mother was working at the Calhoun Hotel that the Simonds family would come and stay for the summer. He operated a real estate business and had a sign right there in the front yard. She operated a clothing store.”
I stayed in the Swain Hotel on two occasions in the early 1970s shortly before deciding to move to Bryson City. For some reason, memories of those visits — once by myself and once with my wife and three children — remain vivid.
Mrs. Cope, who orchestrated the meals, had jet-black hair, powder-white skin, and was something of a character. Her specialties were fried eggs and biscuits and gravy for breakfast; sliced cured ham, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce for dinner; and pork tenderloin or chops, baked sweet potatoes, and blackberry pie for supper. Fried chicken was reserved for Sunday dinners. Mr. Cope was one-armed but could perform any maintenance task with great dexterity.
All of our fellow guests were exceedingly cordial but not intrusive. Most were working-class and dressed accordingly for meals. One elderly couple dressed up for meals. They were permanent residents. He was the only man in the dining room with a coat and tie. Everyone got along. Everyone was exceedingly courteous about passing food and not taking too much. Personal matters, politics, and religion were not discussed. Weather was the primary topic at each meal, but hunting and fishing were well within bounds. Children were made over. The black-and-white TV in the sitting room was always turned off right after the evening news. All in all, the boardinghouse provided the context for a functional and agreeable lifestyle.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in a January 2004 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.