BLOWING ROCK — Spencer Robbins, 93, a luminary in High Country tourism and real estate development like few others except his brothers, died Friday, Nov. 13, at Watauga Medical Center.
Robbins, with brothers Grover Jr., and Harry, was a central figure in the development of Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, in addition to leading to the real estate and private membership developments at Hound Ears, south of Boone, and Elk River, near Banner Elk.
Spencer was the youngest of the three brothers in a family that first made its mark in developing attractions Tweetsie Railroad, a “Wild West” adventure for kids of all ages, and the scenic Blowing Rock attraction, with unparalleled views of Grandfather Mountain across the Johns River Gorge.
Besides the family attraction businesses, Spencer and his wife, Grace, operated the Chuckwagon Restaurant in Blowing Rock, located where the ABC store now sits on Valley Boulevard.
Like a lot of seasonal, tourism-centric businesses when the winters were harsher, Spencer and Grace Robbins only operated the Chuckwagon Restaurant from late spring to early autumn.
In 2014, Jason Reagan, former editor of the Watauga Democrat, was working as director of communications for the Hound Ears Club, which was celebrating its 50-year anniversary since being founded by the Robbins brothers. In an article distributed to various media outlets, Reagan reported that by 1960, “Spencer was ready for a new adventure.”
Spencer told Reagan in an interview for the 50-year anniversary of Hound Ears that, “we began living in Southern Pines for the winter.”
It was a decision that set into motion a series of life experiences that, in the end, would have a profound effect on the High Country and beyond.
Needing a job during the winter months, Robbins started working for Warren Bell, co-owner of Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, serving as Bell’s assistant.
“My experience at Pine Needles led us to build Hound Ears Club. We thought a lodge and golf course in the mountains would do well in the summer. We didn’t plan to build all of those condos and houses – they just happened over time,” he said to Reagan in the interview.
In his article on Hound Ears, Reagan quoted golf writer Bill Hensley as saying, “Grover was the idea person, Harry was the frontman and Spencer did all the work.”
Robbins’ influence in tourism went beyond the High Country, too.
According to Reagan’s 2014 story, “In 1964, Grover asked Spencer to use his problem-solving skills to fix some issues with one of their newer attractions — three-year-old Rebel Railroad in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Spencer and family moved to Gatlinburg and helped transform the attraction into a success — so successful in fact that, in 1976, the Robbins family sold it to Jack and Pete Herschend of Branson, Mo., who then sold it in 1986 to a certain country music star who renamed the park Dollywood.”
Spencer’s brother, Grover, passed away in 1970, and management of Hound Ears fell to Harry and Spencer. Reagan’s story added that one of Spencer’s greatest joys while working at Hound Ears was meeting many of the famous people who visited and stayed there, from radio icon Paul Harvey to baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle to actress Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher (of “Star Wars” fame).
The Robbins brothers’ development ambitions did not stop with Hound Ears. A 2008 article appearing in BusinessNC magazine reported that in 1982, the Robbins brothers bought 2,700 acres in Banner Elk, wanting “to build a nice development and golf course.”
Spencer told BusinessNC that “I had been trading cars with Arnold Palmer for years at his Cadillac dealership in Charlotte and he kept saying he wanted to fly up and look at the property. We were hoping he’d design our golf course.”
After two or three missed appointments with Palmer, Spencer recalled that he and his brother “one morning were having breakfast. We decided, what the heck, we’d call Jack Nicklaus.”
After visiting the High Country and staying at Hound Ears, Nicklaus proposed to design what would become the Elk River Club golf course.
“While I’m sure Arnold would have designed us a great golf course,” Spencer Robbins told BusinessNC in 2008, “it couldn’t have worked out any better.”
BusinessNC describes Elk River as encompassing 1,250 acres, 300 residences, a private jetport and a Jack Nicklaus designed “signature” golf course.
In addition to leading the development of the Elk River Club, which became the first Jack Nicklaus-designed “signature” golf course in North Carolina, Spencer also had a hand with his brothers in yet another High Country attraction, the Land of Oz atop Beech Mountain.
From MGM (producers of “The Wizard of Oz” movie starring Judy Garland), the Robbins bought many if not most of the film’s costumes and key set pieces for their attraction. They even crafted a deal with Debbie Reynolds to not compete with them at the items’ auction: Land of Oz would have them in the summer months and Reynolds’ museum in the Los Angeles area could exhibit them in the winter months. With 20,000 people reportedly attending the Land of Oz on opening day, part of the Robbins deal with Reynolds included her appearance to “cut the ribbon” on the new High Country attraction.
Although a serious businessman, Robbins also had a keen sense of humor.
In a 2014 article written for the Hound Ears “Golden Anniversary,” Hensley, former North Carolina director of travel and tourism said, “An often-sassy Dorothy Smith, a London native, handled reservations and event planning for the plush 24-room lodge. Her life was made more interesting by the tricks that Harry and Spencer played on her. After she bought a car from one of the employees and bragged on what good condition it was in, the playful brothers told her ‘we didn’t know it could be fixed after the wreck,’ which sent her into a frenzy. And then Spencer poured a quart of oil on the pavement under the front of the car and showed her how much the engine was leaking. She hit the panic button!”
From The Blowing Rock and Tweetsie Railroad, to Hound Ears, Linville Land Harbor, Elk River Club, Beech Mountain, and more, Spencer Robbins made a difference in the High Country, both in terms of economic impact as well as his philanthropy and community service.