Back when summers in Charleston meant malaria and inescapable heat, Saluda North Carolina was a refuge. In the late 1800’s, it had over thirty boarding houses where families spent the season. Visitors often arrived via the East Coast’s steepest mainline railway which crested there. Today, Interstate 26 follows that route into the suddenly cooler air and continues to attract artists, vacationers and people with respiratory ailments. Saluda welcomes them with small town charm and history. The entire main street is a registered National Historic District filled with beautifully restored buildings housing art galleries, cafes and small businesses. Salamander Gifts is one of them. Home to over one hundred artists, this lively shop is just one of many that showcase the cosmopolitan talents of North Carolina artisans. Nearby are the gourmet offerings of the Purple Onion Café and the Wildflour Bake Shop where accomplished chefs and bakers provide sophisticated meals in casual settings. There are also the more down-home local diners like the Saluda Grade Café where a hearty breakfast will set you back just a few bucks. Many of the businesses are owned by escapees from the rat race, folks who have reinvented themselves. Here people still stop on the streets to chat, have pot luck dinners in the park and gather in the picnic shelter for weekly sing-a-longs. As I strolled around, a hearty rendition of “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain” drifted from the park. An all-ages ensemble was playing accordion, guitar, and dulcimer. A wooden dancing toy tapped a lively rhythm as neighbors laughed and sang together. This is the wholesome small town America that still exists just up the highway.
Joni and Rich Rauschenbach are part of the town’s resurgence. Traumatized and looking for change while living in post-911 New York, the Rauschenbach’s heard about a huge dilapidated inn in Saluda. Built in 1881 as a boarding house and a short walk to town, the inn had passed through several owners and fallen into disrepair. “There was no way in the world we were going to buy that place,” Joni recounts. “A year later, we were the new owners”. Rich had been a Harvard-educated computer expert working on Wall Street and Joni had a career in the wine industry. They were expecting their first child and yearned for a better way of life to raise a family. He envisioned a new career as a small town firefighter. But first they had to become instant renovation experts. To begin with they tore out walls and got rid of ratty rugs and furniture. “We’d hire contractors and plumbers who would work one day and never come back. So we’d have to do it ourselves. After the first bill came from the tile guy, we decided that we had to learn to do tile work.” Working in sections, sometimes around guests who had been coming for years, the inn was reborn as a 7,200 square foot gem that can accommodate up to 32 guests. One previous owner, local dentist Steve Michel, was “amazed”. Each room is uniquely and tastefully decorated with handmade quilts, claw foot bathtubs and antiques. A well stocked catering kitchen and an assortment of sitting rooms and porches provide space to spread out. Outside there are lawn games and sculptures. Downstairs Joni discovered a basement that looked “like they’d been having séances down there.” Now it’s a local gathering spot where fine wine, cheeses and chocolate are served around a fireplace. Recently she also opened the town’s only wine shop on Main Street. The inn caters not only to vacationers but is ideal for family reunions and retreats. The best deal is to rent the whole place with all 18 bedrooms for a week which comes out to about $150 per room for the entire week. Nightly rates are also offered.
The cool Carolina Foothills surround Saluda and offer a variety of outdoor adventures including hiking, picnicking and antiquing. The nearby Green River Game Lands offer more than 10,000 acres and sixteen miles of trails. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a short drive away and there is tubing and kayaking on the Green River just outside of town. Historically it was only the wealthy that could spend some of the hot summer months in Saluda. Now it is an opportunity for everyone.
Originally published Island Eye News