A Short History of Wildacres
The Wildacres story begins in the 1920's when Thomas Dixon of Shelby, NC, acquired over 1,000 acres of wooded land on Pompey's Knob in McDowell County. Dixon was a lawyer, preacher, legislator, playwright, novelist, and actor. Dixon attended Wake Forest University where he received many awards. He was well known nationally as a preacher and public speaker and made three fortunes during his lifetime.
Dixon wrote many novels, the most famous being The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots. The Clansman was made into the memorable movie, "The Birth of a Nation", a very controversial depiction of the South during reconstruction. Dixon used the proceeds from the movie to launch Wildacres, where he hoped to create a cultural resort the likes of which the country had never seen. It would serve as a haven for authors, artists, musicians, actors, the greatest minds of the day.
As his enthusiasm for the project grew, Dixon built two large lodges equipped with electricity and running water and began selling lots. By 1929 the country was entering the Great Depression and Dixon lost everything, including Wildacres.
The title to the property was ultimately acquired by a bank in Texas which announced an auction to dispose of it in 1936. A real estate salesman in Charlotte named Jinks Harrell informed I.D. Blumenthal, founder of Radiator Specialty Company, of the availability of the acreage in the Blue Ridge Mountains and suggested an offer of $6,500. Mr. Blumenthal felt little interest, but when he attended an interfaith conference in nearby Asheville, he decided to make a side trip to learn what was being auctioned.
What he found stirred him, understandably. Besides the two lodges, there were several buildings, but the luxuriant foliage of the forest and the grandeur of the views were irresistible. He contacted the agent and verified the suggested very low price he might offer.
On the day of the auction in Austin, the Blumenthal bid was indeed the only bid. The bank held a note for $190,000 and the judge deemed the offer questionable. Accordingly, a clerk of the court was dispatched to look over the property to decide if the bid was adequate. I.D. met the clerk in Asheville on a sunny day and drove him to Wildacres. As they wound their way up the mountain road, they ran into fog which grew more dense as they approached Wildacres. When they reached the top, the fog blanket obscured everything from sight, as often happens in the mountains.
I.D. loved to tell the story of that day. It went like this: " I led him through the boarded-up buildings with a flashlight. Even outside, you couldn't see your hand before your face. Upstairs and down, from one lodge to the other took about twenty minutes. It was eerie, and the poor man soon had enough. He asked me if I was going to try to buy this God-forsaken place. I told him that when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the mountain was covered with a cloud. If it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for me."
Several days later, the offer of $6,500 was accepted. Wildacres belonged to I.D. Blumenthal. He regarded it as a miracle. At first he didn't know what he wanted to do with it, but he was truly religious, and he believed God had bestowed this gift upon him for a purpose. He never felt that his wealth should be used for himself.
I.D. and his brother Herman restored Wildacres to an operable condition after years of neglect and abandonment. After a few summers of use by visitors as a hotel, Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, began using the facility for its summer residency program until 1946.
In 1946, the Blumenthals began to invite a series of groups, each to spend a week through the summer months. Most of the groups were religious, some of them interfaith gatherings. It was good to savor the irony of the contrast between Dixon's admiration of the Ku Klux Klan and the new commitment to the brotherhood of all people. In 1972, Wildacres became a public charity dedicated to the betterment of human relations.