Written by Dasha Morgan | Photos by Ellen Gwin
To breathe in the amazing beauty of North Carolina’s High Country, you need to find a comfortable place to rest your head, a place where you can truly unwind, take in the surrounding vistas, smell the wildflowers with the sourwood blossoms. You need to find a place that allows you to relax and give yourself time to explore. The Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis is just such a place.
It combines the charm of the 18th century with many luxuries of the present day. Tucked away near the Watauga River this historic farmhouse has been turned into a small inn to have been painstakingly kept up including many repairs and has a fresh up-to-date appearance. Although you are stepping back in time, you find many present day luxuries. Danielle Deschamps, who purchased the inn with her family in 2006, has brought a European touch that brings to mind “a fine boutique hotel. ” She and her chef, Andrew Long, offer their guests a respite from an undoubtedly hectic daily life. They pay close attention to every detail. They want their guests to feel pampered and welcome.
After you park your car near the stream filled with buttercups and walk on a path near lilac rhododendrons, you will see plaques on the wraparound porch, which tell you that this inn has received many awards: Historic Hotels of America, a Select Registry Inn, and the National Registry of Historic Places. Off in the distance you see a conglomeration of original log cabins, where guests often stay for more privacy or with their children. The Woodwork Shop has post and beam construction and a loft for a sleeping area. Then, there is the Loom House, which was built in 1812 by David Mast, the cozy Blacksmith Shop, the larger Granary, and other historic cottages, as well as newer additions. The historic cabins look out to the lawn and are near a small pond on the hill, where guests are allowed to fish. All are located close to the main house.
On the way to your room, you notice that the Inn’s past lives on today. There are small postcards on the wall of towns in the area (Saluda, Blowing Rock) from earlier days and lovely hand sewn quilts hanging over the bannister. The Inn’s guest rooms are named for those who lived there years ago, when John Mast and his family purchased the land: Cousin Sarah’s Room, Nell’s Room, Joe Mast’s Room, and Miss Allie’s Room. In 2010 Danielle’s sister, Sandra Deschamps Siano, updated the decor and combined the Inn’s past with today’s needs for comfort and a touch of contemporary. She blended the past and present seamlessly in the decor. The farmhouse roof line makes for some interesting spaces with opportunities for window seating and reading nooks. Some rooms have a wood stove or fireplace. The color and room decor is light and airy but is combined with antiques—cherry four poster beds, iron beds, dressers, and elongated soaking claw footed tubs. The comforts of home are there too. You will find a tub of ice with refreshing mountain water to quench your thirst as soon as you arrive, thick down comforters tossed across the bed, a CD player in an old-timey radio on the nightstand, long draping curtains, luxurious cotton robes in the closet, a hair dryer in the bathroom, and plenty of heat or air conditioning. You are here to unwind and relax. Now is the time to take a walk or just sit and relax with a good magazine (How about a Capital at Play?) or your favorite author. The Inn is asking you to “unplug” your electronics for a few days and be their guest.
The Mast Family Farm History
There is a long history behind the Mast Farm Inn. According to the Valle Crucis Conference Center website, “In 1750, John Mast, age 10, arrived in Pennsylvania from Switzerland with his father and mother. At age 20 he walked the wagon trail, settling in Randolph County. In 1780, his son, Joseph, and his wife set out with their children for higher ground. They were able to purchase fertile land along the Watauga River where the Mast Farm Inn stands today. By 1795 records show that he owned 490 acres and by 1815 he owned 1,390 acres. The legend exists that the industrious Joseph traded his rifle, his dog, and a pair of ‘leggins’ for over 1,000 acres of rich bottomland along the river.”
Around 1810, his son David built the two-room log cabin which now sits facing the main house at the Mast Farm.
Three generations of the family resided in this cabin. Like most of Valle Crucis residents, the Masts raised corn, grain, sheep, cattle, and food for the family. Over the years the house has been added onto and expanded. “The Mast family were known far and wide for their hospitality and food.” The family resided on the property until 1968 when Joe Mast died, and there were no heirs. In 1972 the United States Department of Interior evaluated the property at the request of the Mast family. [quote float=”right”]“The legend exists that the industrious Joseph traded his rifle, his dog, and a pair of ‘leggins’ for over 1,000 acres of rich bottomland along the river.”[/quote]The farm was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. As it was in serious disrepair, the family put the house up for sale. The Paul Lackey family bought the property from Joe’s heirs in 1980. After beginning some renovations, the Lackeys sold it to Francis and Sibyl Pressley in 1984. Francis and Sibyl rescued the old homestead. A year’s worth of meticulous work resulted in the facility you see today and earned them the Gertrude S. Carraway Award of Merit from the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina.
Today as a Boutique Inn
The Mast Farm is now being run as a small luxury inn by the Deschamps family and their chef, Andrew Long, and his wife, Megan. According to Danielle Deschamps, to operate an inn successfully it has to be a labor of love. Every day of the week is totally taken up with making sure everything at the Inn is running smoothly and, more importantly, the guests are happy. There are lots of challenges every day and very little “down time.” Something is always needing one’s attention. This was for all intents and purposes Danielle’s first full-time job. She and her sister grew up in Haiti, although she herself was actually born in Florida. Over the years she has spent a lot of time in Europe, Switzerland, and France, and attended University in England. Her father, Henri, was a publisher in Haiti, and her mother, Marie, had a jewelry store there. In 1996 her parents bought a home on 26 acres in Little Switzerland and would use it when visiting Western North Carolina. In 2006 when the opportunity arose to buy the Mast Farm Inn, the whole family decided they would all move to this area, including an aunt and uncle. It is customary apparently for families in Haiti “to stick together.”
Everyone pitched in to make this a success. Fortunately the Mast Farm Inn had been well maintained over the years by previous owners and lots of attractive antique furnishings. Nevertheless it was quite a transition to live in the mountains of North Carolina, after a full life in the Caribbean and Europe. Danielle and her Mom prepared the meals—breakfast and dinner; Henri, her father, managed the website, social media, and packages; and her sister managed guest services while revamping the inn with a new look. According to Danielle “This has been a steep learning curve for all of us, with lots of sweat and tears over the last nine years. Bit by bit we made necessary changes and improvements. In addition, we have had to make a number of major investments in the inn like new air conditioning, new water heaters, opening a patio area, and putting in raised garden beds across the street to grow fresh organic produce.” In 2010 they redecorated seven guest rooms and began to redecorate the neighboring cabins one at a time. Most of their profit is often reinvested in the inn.
May through October is the Inn’s most active season, when many special events are held. MusicFest in Sugar Grove (a celebration of Appalachian music), The Highland Games on Grandfather Mountain, The Woolly Worm Festival (an arts and crafts fair in Banner Elk), and The Blood, Sweat and Gears Race (a 100-mile bike ride) all attract visitors to the area. People come to the Inn with many different plans of activity—fishermen, hikers, horseback riders, whitewater rafters, kayakers, mountain climbers, musicians, artists, photographers, writers, gardeners, and sightseers. Many are there trying to get away from the heat and humidity of the lowlands or the big city. They want a change of pace, a place to unwind and relax. There is so much to see and do in Blowing Rock, Boone, Banner Elk, Grandfather Mountain, and Linville. Just driving along the winding mountain roads which follow the rambling streams and rivers, seeing wildflowers in bloom, and the weathered old barns with horses, goats, and pigs in the field nearby is a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of a city. In the fall, of course, the leaves are changing color, which also brings visitors (the leaf people) to the mountains. Thanksgiving is traditionally a festive holiday to celebrate with friends and family. The inn is usually packed to the fullest. Numerous groups of fifteen to seventeen people arrive for a long weekend and a delicious four-course feast, served from noon until seven in the evening.
After that the pace of life slows down considerably. During the winter months skiers, who come to the High Country (Sugar and Beech Mountains), do like to be pampered at the Mast Farm Inn after their strenuous day of exercise. Fortunately the state sees that the roads in the area are cleared quickly of ice and snow, which allows people to travel easily. However, compared to the summer, winter can be leaner financial times for the Deschamps. The rates are of course reduced, but if it hasn’t snowed yet people are less inclined to come to the mountains. As Danielle says, “With such an incredible staff of helpers, I am very reluctant to cut back in the slower months. We try just to hunker down and make it through somehow. You can well imagine that it costs a lot to heat this inn all winter.”
Gourmet Dining at the Simplicity Restaurant
Meals at the Simplicity Restaurant at the Inn are moments to be savored and will undoubtedly be remembered. Simplicity believes in serving healthy organic ingredients artfully presented on the plate to guests at their individual tables. Even a breakfast waffle is served with a dollop of whipped cream and a few blueberries on top. Over two years ago, Andrew and Megan Long, joined the Inn team as partners—Andrew as the chef and Megan as the groundskeeper. It has been a wonderful fit. Megan can let her husband know what herbs or vegetables she has growing in the Inn’s 98 raised beds across the street. Andrew has the knowledge and expertise to turn these into a gourmet feast. In addition, the New River Organic Growers Co-op helps supply the Inn with local farm produce. The Co-op brings together the produce of 65 farms in the area and bridges the gap between the restaurants and the farmers. The restaurant gives them an order on Tuesday, and the fresh produce from the region is received by Thursday.
In the last few years, Andrew changed the daily menu, going from being a four-course set menu to one that also offers a choice of items. The restaurant can be described as sophisticated with a meticulous level of care and personal service. For example à la carte, you may find New York strip from Apple Brandy Farms (corn-fed beef locally raised and processed in North Carolina), crispy duck breast with fig and balsamic, and sea scallops with pine nuts and bacon. It should be mentioned that the often-ordered pan seared sea scallops, being out of season, will soon be replaced with a gourmet frog legs dish—the legs, possibly brought in from Alabama until a local frog legs supplier can be found. For dessert, the “house flavor” for their homemade ice cream is caramel, although there are many other seasonal dessert choices available. It should be mentioned that “Simplicity at The Mast Farm Inn” was awarded 4th Place for 2010 and 2nd Place for 2011 with “The Best Dish in North Carolina 2010 Award.”
To better understand his style of cooking, Andrew grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He worked at numerous restaurants and grills throughout high school and college, taking a wide variety of jobs. There were a lot of spicy seafood dishes, like jambalayas and gumbos, served. What he enjoyed most then about his job, however, was the camaraderie and atmosphere of the kitchen—the teamwork, not so much the actual cooking. His passion for food came later after being mentored by some very passionate and talented chefs. He studied hotel, restaurant, and tourism administration at the University of New Orleans. Then later he went to Charleston, South Carolina, to Johnson & Wales University (now in Charlotte). While working with a fitness camp for over 300 teenagers, he met Megan, who was the director. After several moves and a brief detour back in Charleston, South Carolina he eventually took a job in Blowing Rock at the Storie Street Grille. Overall you might say Andrew’s cooking is “rooted” in the French tradition. Now after living in the North Carolina mountains for several years, his perspective has changed. He loves to incorporate historic Appalachian cooking into the menu.
A New Chapter
The Deschamps and Longs have recently invested in a new restaurant, Over Yonder. Lunch, which is not offered at the Inn, is now served just down the street or “Over Yonder,” (indoor and outdoor, weather permitting). The space was once the well known restaurant 1861 Farmhouse and Winery, directly across from the original Mast General Store. (See Capital at Play, April 2014, or go online at www.capitalatplay.com.) Over Yonder is open from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm and features Appalachian dishes, such as fresh local mountain trout, Watauga soup beans, buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, shrimp and grits, and fried chicken. Chef Long plans to offer a “seriously amazing” cheeseburger. As he says, “Details matter in cooking as they do in all things, and it’s the details that make a great burger. The ‘Valle’ cheeseburger features dry aged pastured beef, local hoop cheese, house made pickles and mayo, and fresh cut ribbon fries tossed in pork fat, rosemary, and sea salt.” A delicious peach cobbler is also being offered for dessert, with buttermilk and sorghum molasses ice cream. The overall setting with both indoor and outdoor seating will be relaxed and more casual than the Simplicity Restaurant at the inn itself.
Weddings and special events play a big part in the overall inn’s profitability. Anniversaries, graduations, and birthdays are often reasons for booking the whole inn. Some companies will rent all the rooms for a business retreat, or others arrange to have a family reunion in the mountain. In any one season with destination weddings so popular, there may be as many as 30 to 40 weddings to arrange ahead of time. Danielle has to be on the phone constantly and keep an accurate calendar. A wedding party usually occupies the whole inn and many times the eight historic and two new cottages with an under-the-stars heated hot tub. The nostalgic and romantic setting allows for some amazing photography, which will be seen for years to come. For the wedding and bachelor cakes, Marie Deschamps, Danielle’s mom, is a popular choice. After coming to Valle Crucis, she became a pastry chef par excellence. She makes many of the bride’s wedding cakes. In addition, she shares her delicious cookies with the inn’s guests (a small packet is left in each room). Danielle organizes and prepares every aspect of the gathering. It is very time consuming and every little detail must be attended to carefully. Nothing must fall through the cracks. Fortunately, she has top quality people to call upon for many of the various needs. Sometimes she says it gets “a bit insane with everything going on, but I just try to stay focused and turn to my staff for help. Thank goodness for a wonderful staff. Let’s not romanticize this, running an inn is a 24-hour a day job. We have very little free time.”