Elmer Hall is not an immediately accessible man. He’s not brusque, as those who’ve only spoken with him by phone sometimes say. But neither is he the garrulous grandpa kind of host one might expect, given the many stories of his kindnesses, his gentleness and, most particularly, his hospitality.
Now in his 68th year, Hall stands at the door of the Sunnybank Inn and Retreat on a clouding, midsummer afternoon, greeting a group of first-time overnight guests. Since 1978, he’s owned and operated the inn as a refuge for Appalachian Trail hikers and a second home to select others.
Sunnybank (more commonly known simply as “Elmer’s”) has “a grand history,” Hall notes in a gentle voice whose soft cadence reveals his Piedmont roots. “It’s probably the oldest surviving house in the town of Hot Springs,” built in the 1840s when the little mountain town (about an hour north of Asheville, by modern conveyance) consisted of just the natural thermal springs and a few farms. Around 1912, the Gentry family bought the house; matriarch Jane Gentry — piano teacher, folk-music historian, weaver — was an inspiration for the movie Songcatcher.
Hall has altered the rambling, two-story structure as little as possible in crafting a home not just for himself but for those who — for an evening, a weekend, a welcome respite — seek sanctuary here.
The making of an innkeeper
“Simple” is a word that tends to meander through conversations with Elmer Hall, who’s spent the better part of his adult life striving to be a simpler man.
Born April 25, 1937, in Elon College, N.C., to a textile weaver (who later worked his way up the management ladder) and a homemaker, Hall attended High Point College, then Northwestern University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in religious studies.
“I entered the Peace Corps after college,” says Elmer, “and worked in inner-city Singapore as a high-school teacher. I spent a lot of time and made a lot of friends with practicing Buddhists and Taoists. That’s now been a part of my life for a long time; it continues to influence me a lot in terms of trying to lead as simple a life as one can and to take as little away from the larger environment and the planet and other people as you can to meet your needs and be happy.”
After the Peace Corps, Elmer returned to North Carolina — to Duke, where he attended graduate school and subsequently taught religion and was a university chaplain. Then, in the early ’70s, he and some friends opened Somethyme, which he says was the state’s first vegetarian restaurant. It was, says Hall, “an attempt to combine right work and simple living and good food … an experiment, and worker-run. And I think we did that pretty well; we did it for about five years.
“But I found I was working, like, 70 hours a week. After a while, I just had to take a break. So I did something I’d wanted to do since I’d been a Boy Scout: I decided to hike the [Appalachian] Trail.”
In the course of that adventure, Hall spent several days at Sunnybank, getting to know both the Gentry family and the little town. After that, he says, “I finished most of the Trail and went back to Durham, and within a month or so I had this sense that this was not where I was supposed to be for the rest of my life.
“I decided I wanted to move to the mountains to try and develop some kind of life’s work that would have integrity about it. It would be simple, and it would be my own.”
The plan, he says, was to “come up here and be a hippie farmer, which everyone was trying to be in the early ’70s. … I came up and joined a little commune outside of town in Spring Creek — three or four people, and we started realizing we were going to starve to death, because you can’t make a living off the land up here; at least we couldn’t.
“In 1978, the Gentry family decided to sell Sunnybank to someone who would carry on their tradition of good food and hospitality. I jumped at the offer, and this is now my 28th year here.”
Elmer Hall is a cook, not a chef — preparing simple, wholesome, vegetarian food that nurtures body, mind and spirit.