Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
There is a constant, bustling stream of tourists walking the streets of Blowing Rock, North Carolina, on this October day.
In and around this long-time resort town, the autumn leaves are just beginning to turn, especially on the historic and beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, which is just a couple of miles away.
Sitting at 4,000 feet above sea level, on the rim of Johns River Gorge, Blowing Rock has been a beloved destination for well over a century. On this afternoon, as with every day, many of the tourists who are exploring the small downtown area are walking into the High Country Candles shop.
Open since 1994 and owned and run by Larry and Cyndi Ziegler, all the candles are made by the husband and wife team. Their son, Luke, recently joined the lineup as well, realizing his own talents with wax and creating his exclusive mushroom candle designs.
All of the candles are made in-store, providing the constant influx of curious guests a chance to walk in and see these gorgeous candles carved right in front of them. Making finely crafted, unique candles is a matter of science, equipment, oils, lotions, and potions, and a mastery of layers and colors. It is a fascinating process, and that is not lost on young and old alike who witness it.
Throughout this autumn day, folks in their twenties and thirties walk into the old and quaint building that houses the High Country Candle shop and let Larry and Cyndi know that they had been in the store when they were kids. They have longstanding memories of being fascinated by the candle-making technique. One young man has made a point of bringing in his girlfriend to show her the newly-made creations and to introduce her to the Zieglers. As he stands there smiling, he is thrilled that the candle-making process is still as fascinating to him as it was 15 years earlier. Another young lady walks in minutes later and relates nearly the same story.
Thirty years ago, however, the Zieglers would probably not have believed that candle making would be in their future, much less turn into an entrepreneurial journey that would see them struggle, yet ultimately persevere in a new business endeavor.
Larry and Cyndi are from Miami, Florida, which is a long way from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. Once married, they were just trying to find their way in the world. Little did they know that there was a talent hidden in them, a creative gift would one day involve the heating, forming, dipping, coloring, and carving of wax into beautifully-adorned and one-of-a-kind candles. That unexpected artistic revelation appeared in the form of friends who needed a favor.
On this sunny day, Cyndi Ziegler sits with me on a stone wall beside Main Street in Blowing Rock and tells the story of High Country Candles.
“In Miami I was a teacher who taught high school English to seniors, which meant that every night when I came home I was grading multiple papers,” says Ziegler. “I loved it. But, I wanted to stay home with my little girl, who was about a year and a half old, and I was pregnant with my second child. It was one of the few times in my life when I said, ‘I can’t do it all.’ I just knew that I couldn’t do it, and I wanted to stay home for a few years. When I quit teaching, that cut our income in half. My husband taught school for a while, but we decided to move to Atlanta, of all places, and stay with my family there. Larry was pursuing another job, so we moved out of our apartment and we had six weeks until we would get another place. During those six weeks, however, that company told us that the job had fallen through. We were stuck. But then, he began a job loading trucks back in Miami.”
Back now in Florida, while Larry worked at night on the loading dock, Cyndi reunited with a friend who had candle making in her family background.
“My friend asked me to help her make candles in her garage,” says Ziegler. “It was in the middle of the summer, in a garage in south Florida, with no air conditioning. We were both pregnant at the time, and it was just crazy. Larry came in to help us one day, and that is when he realized that he was good with his hands. He did not know that he had any artistic ability at all until that day. He got really good at making candles right away. For a couple of years, we would help our friends sell candles at the mall every Christmas. Then, we helped her sister’s candle business for about four years in Savannah, Georgia.”
That is when the next step in the High Country Candles story happened, as bit by bit, the Zieglers were unknowingly making their way to a part of the world that they had never heard of—as in, the North Carolina mountains. But, there were some stops in between that proved to be fateful.
“We ended up running a temporary candle store that we set up at a mall in Greenville, South Carolina,” says Cyndi Ziegler. “That was how we were going to raise our start-up money to create our business. Before that, however, when we still worked for our friend in Savannah down by the riverfront for those four years, Larry was already good at making candles, and we wanted to start our own business. But we thought it would be rude to start a business and compete in the same area as our friends, so we worked the mall in Greenville, about three hours away.”
Life in Savannah was a far cry from the big city that was Miami. The relatively small-town feel in this part of coastal Georgia made it easy for the Zieglers to make friends.
“We had a friend named Chuck who ran a restaurant downtown by the river, and Larry ate there every Friday because Chuck made the best jambalaya,” Cyndi says. “Because of that, they became friends, and one day Chuck said, ‘What is on your mind? I can tell that something is on your mind.’ Larry said, ‘I want to start my own candle business, but you cannot get a business loan for raw product.’ And that is true, because if your business fails, they can’t reclaim raw product like plain old wax that you have yet to turn into something valuable. That was challenging. So, Chuck says to Larry, ‘How much would you need?’ The amount was about $8,000 or so. The next day, Chuck calls Larry and says, ‘Hey, come on down and eat lunch with me again.’
“Larry walks in and Chuck hands him a check and says, ‘Here you go. I have watched what you have done with this business for the last four years and I believe in you.’”
The restaurant owner shook Larry’s hand and told him to go and create a store for the Christmas season, pay him back, and then teach him how to make candles somewhere down the road. So, off to the mall in Greenville they went, with Larry building the kiosk by hand out of wood. The plan was for Larry to make the candles in a room in their place in Savannah and take care of the kids while Cyndi went to Greenville to sell their goods at the mall; she could stay with family who lived in the area. Before the season had ended, the Zieglers’ candle products were a hit, and they sold out all of their stock.
In Greenville an encounter with a stranger led the Zieglers to another unexpected yet inspired fork in the road, and they took it.
“We met a man in Greenville who was older and very wealthy,” continues Cyndi. “He used to come by and watch me make candles all of the time, and one day he says, ‘You should go to Blowing Rock.’ I had never heard of Blowing Rock before, but he would say, ‘Oh, you got to go there. That would be a perfect place for you.’ I originally thought it would be like one of those old folk retirement villages or something. But, after we sold out our candles by Christmastime, we grabbed our kids and came here to Blowing Rock, only so we could see some snow. It was after Christmas Day and we stayed at the Cliff Dwellers Inn.”
The Zieglers got the full wintertime treatment when they arrived in the middle of a wind and ice storm. And, because Christmas was in the recent rear view mirror, most of the shops were closed down and few people were on the streets. (Blowing Rock residents will no doubt sympathize.)
“The wind was blowing through the door and we were tucking the kids’ underwear into all of the door cracks,” recalls Cyndi. “We came to downtown Blowing Rock and everybody was closed, except for a store that was open that had a sign on the door that said, ‘For Lease.’ She was the only business open, and she talked to us for a while about retail life in Blowing Rock. She was so nice—we became friends later on, and she passed away not long ago. On that day, she said, ‘Look, you guys have three kids. I’m going to tell you, I don’t think this is a good idea. I don’t think you are going to make it.’ Back then, the season did not start until June, and she didn’t think we would make money until then.”
The next day, the Zieglers called the landlord and discovered there was a lady who was running a boutique, that was tired of it, and wanted out. So the Zieglers bought it, which included the lease, plus an air conditioner and a ceiling fan. The store space was in the famous Martin House, which used to be a resort many decades ago. They then took their mall kiosk apart and used the wood to build shelves in their new store.
“Before we moved up here from Savannah, we met a man who had stacks of glass shelves for sale and he says, ‘You can have all of them for $20, but you have to take it all at once,’” says Cyndi. “Larry was sleeping on a mattress in the store while he remodeled it. We officially opened up on March 17, and we had five candles on the shelves. It was a pretty day and we thought maybe someone would come to town and buy some candles, and we sold a few things that day and made $100. Once we had moved here, we would drop the kids off at school, come in early, and begin to make candles. People would come in, and soon we were selling enough product to buy groceries and then eventually to pay our rent. It was really hard for the first couple of years, but the people here were so good to us. People are different when they shop in a resort town than when they shop at a mall—they appreciate little mom-and-pop businesses who make things with their hands.”
Soon, Larry and Cyndi realized that folks really do like to see candles made and carved in person. They also branched out to make pillar candles and wonderful jar candles that contain three layers of unique fragrances, including one that features a clover and aloe mix, followed by lemongrass, and then their Stormy Night scent. The layered jar candles that are popular now came about through countless trials and experimental combinations of colors, oils, waxes, and scents made in their basement. Research and development on a small scale is still the way of the High Country Candle shop.
The multi-scented jar candles became so desired at High Country Candles that the store began a program whereby if someone brings back the cleaned jar, they can get it refilled with one third of the price taken off the tag.
A few years ago, Larry took a class at nearby Appalachian State University on pottery making, and that sparked yet another artistic endeavor that he has excelled at since then. Now, his distinctive pottery lines the shelves next to the rest of the hand-made items, and his work is proving to be an excellent addition to the product line.
In the Martin House building, High Country Candles shares the multi-use edifice with several other shops, such as a quilt maker, a sustainable coffee importer and brewer, a book author, and more. All of the proprietors are friends, and the atmosphere is delightful.
Business was going good for the High Country Candle shop—and then 2008 happened. The Great Recession affected many aspects of the economy, especially tourism, and that had a negative affect on stores that depended on tourism. Eleven years ago, the Zieglers had to scramble to stay afloat.
“Back at that time, people could barely afford the gas to get up to the mountains, and if they did, they would get an ice cream and wander around and not buy anything,” says Cyndi. “So, my husband started doing handyman work because he is good at his hands and can do tile and sheet rock and things like that. I ran the shop while he did that other work, and if it wasn’t for our loyal customers, we would not have made it. People would come up and say, ‘We planned to do our Christmas shopping with you this year because we don’t want your business to go under.’ It was really rough as we almost lost our house a couple of times. But we eventually got back on track by 2011.”
Being able to develop a loyal customer base of the nature that High Country Candle experiences is not a given. The Zieglers have a knack for treating people right, which should be part of the business model of any retail operation, but is, sadly, not always the case in retail.
“Our customers are why I come to work every day,” she explains. “People are great, and everybody has a story. One of the things that is challenging when you are in retail is to not just look at people as dollar signs. Yes, I am proud of my products and I want people to buy my things and everything that goes with that, but I don’t want people to walk in our store and all we think is, ‘I hope you buy something.’ Then, you look at them differently. It was a challenge at first, and I asked God to help me not think of people in that way.”
One day, a woman walked into the High Country Candle shop and seemed out of sorts, yet she was approached with the usual hospitality.
“It was the dead of winter in February when this lady walked in, and I’m making a candle, and she hangs out for a few minutes to watch,” says Ziegler. “The lady said, ‘Do you mind if I hang out here for a while, because it is so peaceful?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So, we are talking with each other and she tells me that her name is Grace. I said, ‘Oh, I love that name.’ She said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because of what it means. In Hebrew, that word means ‘loving kindness’. In Greek, in the New Testament, the word means something different, as in, ‘God has grace for everyone.’”
Cyndi remembers catching herself and then adding, “But if you do not believe in God, I don’t want to talk about this because I feel it would be pushy.” The lady responded in a way that was spontaneous and simple, yet startling, revealing a perceived truth that was well-worn inside her mind and heart: “I used to believe in God, but I have been so bad.”
“I said, ‘Oh honey, this is why you have to remember what your name means because you are loved no matter what,’” says Ziegler, tears forming in her eyes at the memory. “So, we talked for a little while, and I suggested that she read some passages in the Bible, so as to see and learn about how God feels about her. She said, ‘Can I make a phone call in the other room, as it is kind of private.’ She then hugged me and said, ‘Thank you,’ and left.
“About five months later, she walks back into my store with her sister and she introduces me. She says, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, ‘Yes. Your name is Grace and we talked for about two hours.’ As her sister walks into the other room to buy a candle, she comes back over to me alone and says, ‘The day I walked in your store was the day I had planned to take my life.’”
Cyndi is wary about telling that story because the purpose of the High Country Candle shop is not to proselytize, but instead be a positive force for good, create quality hand-made products, and simply treat people of all walks of life with respect and good intentions. But on that day, the situation called for positivity.
“This is the way I am wired,” she confides. “We love our customers and we care about their worth and their value as people. That is how I feel about my store. Larry is usually very quiet, although when he is up there making candles, you would never know it because he has to be talkative then. But he is the kind of man where, if we are at a gas station somewhere and he sees someone who is in need, he’ll just go over and put gas in their tank. We are different. My gift is words, and he is behind the scenes doing good things.”
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