These Hallowed Walls
The Zachary-Tolbert House’s rich history and preservation in Cashiers
By Kat Ford
According to the Cashiers Historical Society's "Historic Sites Survey, Phase One," the Zachary-Tolbert House (ZT House) was built by Mordecai Zachary around 1842 on Highway 107 South in Cashiers. No documentary evidence reveals why the then-20-year-old, unmarried Mordecai began the ten-year project of building the eight-room, two-story structure. Family tradition states he was a skilled carpenter and mason and might have built the house for summer residents from South Carolina. The house's Greek Revival style was scarce in the mountains.
It is "one of the few substantial, frame, extant antebellum structures surviving in Jackson County and is one of the few surviving Greek Revival dwellings west of Asheville," according to the site survey.
In his oral account found in the historical society’s publication "Faces & Places of the Cashiers Valley," Tolbert recalls what it was like visiting the house in his youth.
"We stayed in the big house, which had four bedrooms upstairs, and we did all our eating in the dining room and cooking in the kitchen area, in the building behind us here. We had no electricity, no plumbing and no running water. We had to tote fresh water, by buckets, from the spring back down here. We had a woodstove and always had to cut, and put, wood in the wood house. It was critical that you had cut dry wood from the end of one summer, for the next season. Hardwood so you could get a lot of good heat, and some pine for kindling. Mother called it 'indoor camping.'"
By the late 1990s, the house had yet to be remodeled, with no electricity or plumbing, making it an ideal preservation project.
In 1996, a few months before the official formation of the Cashiers Historical Society (CHS), Robert "Bubba" Tolbert asked Ann McKee Austin for help finding a new owner for his property on Highway 107 South in Cashiers, which had been owned by the Tolberts for almost a century. Austin contacted Tom and Wendy Dowden of Atlanta, charter members of Wade Hampton Golf Club, who had experience in historic house preservation.
"The idea of buying a historic house appealed to us since I had done something similar when, a few years earlier, I had donated my Tennessee homestead to the small historical society in my hometown," Tom Dowden reminisces.
The Dowdens purchased the building and five acres surrounding the homesite.
"We closed the sale in mid-1998 but soon learned that the hard part was yet to come. Our requirement for donating the house and a portion of the land surrounding the house was for the Cashiers Historical Society to raise sufficient funds in a fairly brief time frame to stabilize, assess and begin renovation of the structure. I took on the responsibility of 'reclaiming' the house from the vagaries of weather, overgrown rhododendron and two gigantic pine trees that threatened to fall on the house. We also drilled two wells to determine whether or not a water source was present on the property. Meanwhile, Ann and some newly-appointed board members began the important task of raising money for the extensive work that lay ahead. Thanks to Ann's leadership, and Eleanor Welling, the newly elected chair of the organization, the first $100,000 was raised, and the work began in earnest. At this point, Wendy and I donated the house and furnishings and a portion of land to CHS.”
Preservation architect Ellen Pratt Harris conducted an assessment to confirm the house was worthy of protection. Harris, Dowden and Jane Nardy completed a National Register nomination in 1998. Now, the Zachary-Tolbert House is one of five structures in Cashiers with the honor of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to archeological preservation, The George E. Crouch Foundation, chaired by Martha Crouch Black, targeted archeological surveys investigating questions, including the original location of the kitchen. Preservation of the ZT House was completed in 2001.
The Cashiers Historical Society owns and operates the Zachary Tolbert House. Trained guides conduct tours of the house and grounds.
Dowden states, "our original intention to buy and donate the ZT House was our belief that school children, and others, could understand the history of the area through interpretation of this old, unique house. That has turned out to be the case, with thousands of visitors over the past 25 years, and programs for children and adults alike that delve into the history and customs of the 19th century. All of this is brought alive by dedicated docents and others, like Sandi Rogers, who work tirelessly to uphold the mission of CHS."
To continue this mission, CHS relies on fundraising events such as its annual Cashiers Designer Showhouse, donations and grants. Current CHS board president Sadler Poe notes, "the hardest dollar for any charitable organization to raise is general operating funds, and that includes maintenance."
The cost of maintaining five buildings, four of which are historical and require special consideration in preservation methods, is substantial, especially in a subtropic mountain climate.
Like many plateau nonprofits, new donors, leaders and volunteers are needed for guests to continue enjoying the unstinting gifts of past benefactors. A torch must pass for history, culture, and nature to be enjoyed, continuing a community legacy of preserving for posterity.
The ZT House is open for tours from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday, mid-May through mid-October. Group tours can be scheduled in advance for any day of the week. Also available are special interest tours on a wide range of topics including plain-style furniture, the Civil War, and the graffiti on the walls of the house. There is no charge for the guided tours, although a $5 donation is encouraged. For more information, visit www.cashiershistoricalsociety.org/zachary-tolbert-house.