Graham County was one of the last areas of the Carolinas to be settled by Europeans. As late as 1838, there was not a single road in the county. When, in 1836, President Andrew Jackson ordered the removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” a number of Indians fled into the Snowbird Mountains. Hundreds of their descendants still live in Graham County.
Logging, the TVA, and National Forest
Lumbermen followed subsistence farmers into the area, and during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first three of the twentieth, millions of board feet of lumber were sent down the Tennessee River and overland on narrow gauge railways. In the 1930s, the federal government incorporated much of the county into the Nantahala National Forest and the TVA dam system. Lake Santeetlah had already been created by Alcoa in 1928.
Thunderbird Mountain Resort Area
The father of the resort community was Kenneth S. Keyes, Sr. (1896-1995), a native of Detroit, who became a successful real estate dealer in Miami, heading over fifty corporations that operated hotels, office buildings and other realty enterprises in Florida, New York, and Canada. In 1957 he served as president of the National Association of Realtors and was also a founder of the Presbyterian Church of America.
In 1947, Keyes exchanged with the Forest Service some of his land for the area that is now the town of Lake Santeetlah. For undetermined reasons he called the property “Thunderbird Estates.” Apparently Keyes hoped to build a large hotel complex in the area immediately above our cottage, now known as Chalet Village, and that area was graded in preparation for building. Nevertheless, although he hired a Miami architectural firm to draw up the plans, Keyes never built, and in 1958, he sold the undeveloped property to another Florida land developer who transferred it again in 1961. During the 1960s a lodge, motel, and more than 150 homes were built in on the peninsula, though most of the homes were rudimentary by 21st century standards.
After the last developer filed for bankruptcy, three insurance companies in succession purchased Thunderbird Mountain as a tax write-off. In order to gain some control over the roads and water system, Thunderbird residents incorporated as the town of Lake Santeetlah in 1988.
Thunderbird Mountain Cottage
Our cottage was built for family friends, Edward E. Thompson (1920-2011) and his wife, Evelyn Senseman Thompson (1918-2013). (Mr. Thompson created an epoxy method for plating miniature resistors.) The Thompsons were wise enough to buy the property after the development’s first bankruptcy and installed a well in 1976 in order to avoid the periodic water shortages that occurred when the original water system began to fall into disrepair. In 1979, George and John Matzko purchased the cottage from the Thompsons. In 1994, George sold his interest to John and Rachel.
The cottage itself was prefabbed in the 1960s by Deltec Homes in Asheville and modified on site.
Hurricane Opal struck the Smokies on October 5, 1995, and trees at higher elevations in the Smoky Mountains National Park sustained significant damage. Two large trees fell on our property; one of them missed the cottage roof by six feet and blocked the driveway for several months.
November 2016 Wildfires
One of the November 2016 wildfires that ravaged western Carolina and eastern Tennessee got within 4000 feet of the cottage, but despite some significant impact to nearby Nantahala National Forest, the cottage was not damaged nor its view of Lake Santeetlah degraded.