Franklin shines as mountain gem
By Bryan Mims Sunrise over dowtown Franklin’s Main Street illuminates its bustling storefronts. Photo by Bob Scott
Franklin, with a population of about 4,000, is where ruby red rock complements deep forest green and kilts clash with cargo shorts. It’s where Florida discovers altitude, Atlanta finds solitude, and the Cherokee find something sacred. It’s where sore feet and aching backs get the cold beer treatment.
On its 2,190-mile meander from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail comes within 11 miles of Franklin, close enough for hikers to hop aboard a shuttle and foray into civilization for a night (and maybe a nightcap). At 110 miles north of the trail’s most southern starting point at Georgia’s Springer Mountain, Franklin is ideally positioned for thru-hikers to stock up and cool down.
Franklin is designated as an Appalachian Trail Community, meaning that it puts its best foot forward for those who prefer to experience the mountains on foot. The town’s logo features a stick-holding hiker, perched on a precipice overlooking a waterfall, and a tree emblazoned with the white “AT” trail marker.
Along Main Street, Outdoor 76 is the long-haul hiker’s interstate travel plaza, where boxes of boots and sandals climb the walls like ivy and a “Class of 2019” banner is so graffitied with signatures of AT hikers, there’s barely space to scrawl another name. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that between 2 million and 3 million people hike a portion of the trail every year, with 3,735 attempting a northbound thru hike in 2017, up from 1,460 in 2010.
“The town has really embraced outdoor recreation and embraced the Appalachian Trail,” says owner Cory McCall, a 37-year-old Franklin native who opened Outdoor 76 in 2010 with his partner, Rob Gasbarro, a South Florida native. They also have stores in Clayton, Ga., and Cherokee. McCall named the store for its original street address: 76 E. Main St.
In the back of the store is a taproom called the Rock House Lodge, with a range of regionally brewed browns, pales and porters. Locals and wayfarers fresh off the trail sidle up to the bar. “The craft beer industry is very much in sync with the outdoor industry,” he says. “When you come off the trail, what is the first thing you would want? Most of the time, it’s a beer.”
Another option, the Lazy Hiker Brewing Co., opened in 2015 inside Franklin’s former town hall and firehouse. “We’re only a short hike off the trail,” its website teases.
With about 50% of Macon County blanketed by the Nantahala National Forest, wilderness provides the infrastructure for the local economy. The Cullasaja River runs through Macon County, making a photogenic splash with Bridal Veil Falls, the ironically named Dry Falls and the perfectly named swimming hole of Bust Your Butt Falls. “The beauty of the resources here is that it’s not something that has to be built. It’s already here,” McCall says.
Nature is big business, and Franklin has long been reeling in a chunk of the $28 billion in annual consumer spending for outdoor recreation in North Carolina, cited by the Outdoor Industry Association.
But the town also has a techie streak. Macon County’s largest private employer is Drake Enterprises, founded by Franklin native Phil Drake. His company has spawned 18 businesses, including the nation’s fourth-largest tax preparation software company, and more than 800 employees from North Carolina to New Hampshire. Drake Enterprises also teamed up with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to create Sylva-based Balsam West FiberNet LLC, which developed a 256-mile fiber ring across western North Carolina to provide better internet service.
Franklin is a literal gem of a place. Downtown has two museums showcasing the area’s precious stones — the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum (located in the old jail) and Ruby City Gems — along with a collection of nearby small gem mines. The nickname “Gem Capital of the World” has always put a shine on Franklin’s image. In 1867, a farmer hit some strange rocks while plowing his field. They turned out to be corundum, an extremely hard mineral that contains rubies and sapphires.
The mineral was mined in the late 19th century for use as industrial abrasives such as sandpaper and grinding wheels. When a red corundum crystal — a ruby — was found along Cedar Creek, Tiffany & Co. of New York and other jewelry miners were shovel-ready to dig out the source. But they never found the motherlode and abandoned the search in the early 20th century, leaving holes in the ground for generations of rockhounds.
Franklin was organized in 1828 as the seat of government for the newly carved-out Macon County. European settlers acquired these lands from the Cherokee Indians in 1819. Inside the town limits, along the banks of the Little Tennessee River, rises the Nikwasi Mound, a sacred earthen mound believed to be 1,000 years old. The Cherokees lost control of the site in the early 19th century, but this year, Franklin’s town council voted to deed control to the Nikwasi Initiative, a nonprofit owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“There’s a lot of history in western North Carolina that people don’t think about,” says Stacy Guffey, who is a member of Mountain Partners, a group working to create a 60-mile Cherokee cultural corridor linking the tribe’s historical sites. “When you think about the Cherokee in North Carolina, you think about the removal in the 1830s — the Trail of Tears,” he says, referring to the forced relocation of the tribe to Oklahoma. “But, it turns out, the tribes had a complicated system of trade. People were trading from Nikwasi here out to the coast and all the way to the desert Southwest.”
On a state map, it looks remote — Franklin is more than 300 miles west of Raleigh, only slightly shorter than the drive down U.S. 441 to the Florida state line. But it’s only two hours from metro Atlanta and Greenville, S.C., enticing city folks to seek second homes.
In 1980, Floridian Pat Wanner noticed a magazine ad for house rentals in the mountains near Franklin. After a few years of renting vacation homes, she and her husband bought a house in 1986 and have lived in the city full time since 1999. “We don’t have malls,” she says. “But that’s part of the beauty.” She’s hanging out with her granddaughter, Brooke, at the Crabtree General Store & Coffee Vault.
Around Father’s Day each year, bagpipes and a pageantry of plaid go on parade for the Taste of Scotland & Celtic Festival, a tartan tribute to the area’s Scottish heritage. Franklin lays claim to the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center — “the only Scottish tartans museum in the United States and technically the world,” says curator Daniel Williamson, who’s dressed in a kilt. The museum opened in Highlands in 1988 and moved to Franklin in 1994. It features more than 600 samples of tartans — those classic plaids associated with Scotland — and kilts dating back to 1800.
Franklin looks good in tartans, cargo shorts and jewelry. It feels good after a long walk in the woods and tastes good with a glass of amber. It’s where business and wilderness nurture one another and the mountains beckon. Always, they beckon.