Gladys Parks – Before the Parkway Came Through

As Sparta resident Gladys Church Parks recalls her almost 102 years, she does so with a dismissive wave of her hand as if to say they were nothing special. Yet her stories include accounts of her using teams of horses and oxen to harrow the rocky soil along the edge of the mountain escarpment now covered by Blue Ridge Parkway and the Fox Hunter’s Paradise overlook. She tells as a girl of catching a ride on the back of a milk truck to Galax where she shopped all day before riding back on the same truck with empty cans being returned to Alleghany dairies. Sadly, she describes her friendship with Elva Brannock whose Depression era murder was the source of local author, Stacy Hawks’ book, Dividing Ridge.

“My daddy, John Church, went west at an early age,” she said recently. “Out there, he spent time pruning apple trees and herding sheep. When he had earned enough, he came home and bought the family farm.” Gladys’ niece, Sandy Walker, filled in the details of the farm in Ennice. The family had held a deed that was handwritten in 1850 and signed by members of the Dickens’ family, Gladys’ mother’s family.

When asked about how the family fared during the Depression, she recalls that it was “rough.” “But,” she is quick to add, “We had plenty to eat. Dad grew all types of grains. We put up vegetables and butchered our own hogs and beef.”  During those days in the mid-1930s, Gladys has vivid memories of when the Parkway construction began near Cumberland Knob. “It was exciting to see the work they were doing.”

Gladys takes on a sad, dark tone when she discusses the murder of Elva Brannock. “Our farms bordered, and Elva was my best friend. We went to school that morning and Elva didn’t show up. Everyone spent days looking for her before her body was found near the school. Nothing like that had ever happened. It was awful. The church at Saddle Mountain was full for her funeral. That whole thing really got on me and after Elva was killed it seemed like I couldn’t learn anymore. I left school for good after that.”

As the conversation shifted to the 1940s and World War II, Glady became introspective. “It seemed like all the young men were off fighting the war. We had a battery powered radio. In the evenings we would gather around the radio to listen to news. Our neighbor didn’t have a radio and they had sons in the military. So, they would join us, hoping for a bit of news about their boys.” She went on to describe being issued ration stamps for items that became scarce because of the war. Again, she spoke with a sense of resolve and acceptance instead of expressing hardship and difficulty.

After the war, things began to change quickly in Alleghany County. In the early 1950s, Hanes opened a textile plant in Sparta and Gladys was one of the first workers hired. After she and her cohort were trained, Gladys’ sister, Ilene Church also went to work at the plant. Together they saved their money for a year and bought a new 1955 Ford. Gladys says proudly that she got her drivers’ license on the first try and teases that it took Ilene two tries to receive hers. This gave them much more independence and they no longer had to count on others for transportation into town. Finally, in 1956, electricity reached the family home and farm.

Like many during that period, Gladys moved away from Alleghany. She and her husband. Virgil, settled in Roanoke, Virginia. She spent those days “taking care of the children of working mothers.” When Virgil died in 1995, Gladys moved back home.

These days Gladys lives independently, still doing her own cooking, cleaning, and laundry. She received a pacemaker at age 99 and only takes one prescription medication. Ilene has spent much time with her as Gladys recovers from a broken hip. Their gentle teasing and laughter brighten Gladys’ apartment.

Gladys Parks has not only lived a long life, but one that is filled with milestones that seemed commonplace and inconsequential in the moment. Yet in hindsight, these events changed the direction of our community and region. Gladys will be 103 years-old on June 21, 2022.

Zdenko Peros – From Croatia to Alleghany County


Zdenko and Doreen Peros

On October 12, 1973, Zdenko Peros walked away from the only life he knew.  The 17 year-old Croatian was working on a cruise ship when it docked in New York.  The crew was given a six day visa that allowed them to leave the ship and explore the city.  With only the clothes he wore, a six day visa, his passport and $40 in his pocket, Zdenko made the decision to start a new life in America.

“There was no future for me in Croatia,” he recently said from a table in his restaurant in Roaring Gap.  “Croatia was still part of communist Yugoslavia, and when I returned I was facing mandatory military enlistment.  I couldn’t bring myself to serve the communist government.”

Adriatic seaZdenko’s family has lived in the coastal village of Zaton in eastern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea for 500 years.  His great-grandfather was governor in the 1930s and was a large landowner.  After World War II, the communists took control of the region and much of his family’s property was seized then converted to state use.  This history instilled a deep distrust of communism and led to Zdenko’s decision to walk away from that ship.

Given our current state of security and policies on immigration, Zdenko’s next days are difficult to imagine.

“The next day after leaving the ship, I went to an office where a nice lady asked how she could help me.  I told her I needed papers to work.  She said, ‘You’ll need a social security card’ and issued me one.  Then I went to a restaurant and told them I needed a job.  They put me to work washing dishes.”

Washing dishes led to his promotion to salad man which led to him becoming a line cook. The chef took an interest in Zdenko and helped develop his culinary skills.  Along this time, Zdenko and Doreen were married.  While they were away on their honeymoon, he received a call from the restaurant telling him that his mentor, the lead chef, had died unexpectedly.  They asked if Zdenko and Doreen could cut their honeymoon short and return to the restaurant.  At 21, the newly married Zdenko became the head chef of a New Jersey restaurant.  He laughs as he thinks of those days.  “I had to grow up very fast.”

In 1980, after working in restaurants in New York and New Jersey with noted Italian and French chefs, Zdenko and Doreen moved south to Morehead City.  They renovated an old house and opened an Italian restaurant.  They named it Nikola’s after Zdenko’s grandfather and their oldest son.  They built up and managed the restaurant for 23 years until they grew weary of hurricanes and the always present humidity.  Doreen found a vacant restaurant for sale in Alleghany County and they drove up to take a look at the building and area.

Zdenko’s father was a game warden back in Croatia.  Zdenko grew up going out on patrol with his father. His father instilled a deep love of the outdoors, and specifically for hunting and fishing.  As they drove through Alleghany County on that first trip, they saw deer and turkeys to hunt, and streams to fish.  Zdenko told Doreen, “This is the place.”

They bought the restaurant and inn at High Meadows.  Both required much work to get the facilities ready to meet their high standards.  In 2014, to help with the hotel, the Travel Channel’s makeover show, Hotel Impossible came in to film a segment.


Woven throughout a conversation with Zdenko and Doreen is the topic of family.  They began their family when they were young and their sons grew up in the restaurant business.  Oldest son, Nikola, is a teacher in Iceland, and owns a restaurant and bed and breakfast.  Sons Tony and Petar are both chefs at Roaring Gap Country Club.  They all set aside Sundays and holidays to gather at the restaurant for a private family meal.  And for two months each year, Zdenko and Doreen return to Croatia where they reconnect with their extended family.


Zdenko and Doreen’s home in Croatia

The importance of family carries over to their approach to business.  “We want to have a family atmosphere to our restaurant,” explain Doreen.  “We have nice table clothes and cloth napkins because we want our ‘family’ to feel respected and appreciated.  That can give our place a formal feel, but we welcome families with children and there is no dress code.”  She goes on to describe how regular customers sometimes go missing from their tables and are found in the kitchen with the gregarious Zdenko who is entertaining them with hunting and fishing tales, or with stories of Croatia.  She adds, “We invite everyone in our community to come have a meal and get to know us.”

When Zdenko recalls the story of him “jumping ship” in 1973, he points out that it was Columbus Day.  We celebrate that day as one of exploration and discovery.  For Zdenko Peros, that path of discovery lead from Croatia to New York City; to family and business owner; to citizenship in 1986; and ultimately to Alleghany County.  Zdenko describes settling here as finding, “a little piece of Heaven on earth.”


More information about the High Meadows Inn and Nikola’s can be found here or by calling 336-363-2221 (Inn) or 336-363-6060 (Restaurant).

Their menu can be found on line here.

They can also be found on Facebook at High Meadows Inn and Nikolas Restaurant.


Superintendent Mark Woods – Blue Ridge Parkway

Mark Woods’ love of the outdoors was kindled through scouting.  A native of South Carolina, Woods worked his way through the program attaining its highest level of achievement – Eagle Scout.  His educational path led him from Newberry College to Lander University to Texas A&M and finally to the University of California – Davis.  His work place journey was just as geographically varied with time spent in national parks in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and the Virgin Islands.  He also had a stint with the South Carolina State Park system.  Married, he is the father of three and grandfather to two.  He and his wife, Ginny, live in Lake Junaluska, NC.

The Boy Scout Code of Honor continues to serve him well in his role as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  When he assumed this position 2½ years ago, he inherited a 10 year, $450 million backlog of deferred maintenance.  The Parkway’s current maintenance budget of $7 million can do little to chip away at this perpetual maintenance issue.  He addresses these and other challenges with a strong sense of duty and commitment.

Superintendent Woods recently spoke to approximately 60 citizens and elected officials in Sparta about the current state of the Parkway.  In spite of the challenges he faces, he spoke in optimistic terms of the future of this linear park.

A part of the national park system, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited park site in the United States with over 15 million visitors in 2015.  Snaking along 469 miles that winds through 29 counties in two states, the Parkway is anchored to the north by the Shenandoah National Park and at the southern end by the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  The Parkway is designed for visitors to “Ride and while, and stop a while.”  900 vistas and overlooks combined with over 300 miles of hiking trails make those stops worthwhile.

But encouraging visitors to explore beyond the Parkway boundary is also part of its design. Superintendent Woods described the Parkway as a “carefully landscaped window from which to view southern Appalachia.”  He said the goal is to, “whet the appetite of visitors for further exploration into adjoining communities.”  He identified nurturing and strengthening the connections between the Parkway and local communities as a top priority of Parkway staff.

Woods listed a number of upcoming projects that will directly impact the Alleghany County section of the Parkway.  The wood shakes on the Bringer Cabin are scheduled to be replaced.  Maintenance crews will be removing hazard trees and clearing overgrown vistas.  Potholes between mile markers 216 and 228 are scheduled to be repaired.  And picnic areas will be enhanced with new tables where needed.


Perhaps the most exciting news was his announcement of a $100,000 donation that will be used to mitigate the mold issue at the Bluff Coffee Shop.  The coffee shop was closed in 2011 and has since developed a serious mold problem.  Renovation of shop and camp store cannot take place until this problem is resolved.  It is hoped that this work can begin soon.  He emphasized that reopening the coffee shop is one of his personal priorities.

A similar problem exists with the Bluff Lodge.  The current plan is to focus first on the coffee shop and then assess the lodge.

coffee shop

from National Park Planner

Moving forward, Woods listed three goals for the Parkway.  First, he and his staff are committed to providing a high level of public service.  While they have suffered the loss of staff positions in recent years, volunteers contributed over 100,000 hours of labor annually.  He pointed out that it is sometimes difficult to strike a balance between competing values, using grass mowing as an example.  He said he gets many requests for more manicured look to the Parkway through frequent mowing.  He said he also get requests for less mowing to enhance wild flowers along the drive.  Striking a balance with issues such as these are always challenging.

Second, he plans to continue strengthening the working relationships with local communities. Along the length of the Parkway, visitors spent $952 million in local communities.  He pointed out that the Parkway is a tremendous economic driver for towns and counties along this 469 mile corridor.  By working cooperatively, this economic benefit can be enhanced and grown.

And finally, he is committed to enacting short and long term strategies for taking care of the Parkway.  Over 200 miles of the Parkway have not been paved in 20 years.  The harsh environment of the higher elevations creates continual maintenance issues on both the roadway and structures.  The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation has proven to be a great advocate and partner in taking these strategies forward.  Maybe most important is for the Parkway to begin preparing for the next generation of visitors and stewards.  To do this he and his staff will focus on engagement and education.  Officals are taking the long view on how to best protect the resources while promoting the economic connection to local communities.

Mark Woods speaks with passion about the Blue Ridge Parkway and its unique ecosystem.  Those principles gleaned from the scout code are evident and sincere.  Perhaps most apparent is his view that the Parkway an integral part of communities such as Alleghany County that lay along the spine of the southern Appalachian mountains.


For more information about Alleghany County’s role in the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway, click here

To watch the presentation in its entirety, click here



Ranger Jackie Sloop – Brinegar Cabin Day

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.  Ecclesiates 4:12b NIV

Jackie Sloop

Jackie Sloop

As the local food movement gains momentum and dreams of self-sufficiency percolates in the back of many minds, Jackie Sloop casts a realistic view of what it meant to be self-sufficient 125 years ago while raising a family along what is now the Blue Ridge Parkway.  As she worked the treadle with her foot and fingered flax fiber through a spinning wheel, she explained to visitors that subsistence farming was much like any other small business venture.  It required considerable planning, lots of hard work by all members of the family, and offered very little leisure time.  She said that Caroline Brinegar, wife of Martin, likely considered spinning yarn as near a leisurely activity as came along.

photo by Gary Boyd

Jackie’s path to Brinegar Cabin is as winding as the Parkway itself.  From Caldwell County, she went off to college and received a degree in interior design.  As children came along she was a stay-at-home mom.  While devoting herself to her family, her outside interests circled around three seemingly different topical areas: natural science, arts, and history.  For 25 years she devoted those interests as a board member and seamstress at Fort Defiance, the home of General William Lenoir who fought with the Overmountain Men at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Home spun yarns

Home spun yarns

Then life made a series of twists and turns for Jackie. In 1988, she desired to broaden the view her children had of life and the country so they struck out on a 10½ week RV trip.  They focused their stops on national parks.  Some time later she moved to the Winston Salem area and put her degree to work with Village Interiors in Clemmons.  Another curve led her to Rose Furniture where she worked in design sales.

Then as many do at midlife, Jackie took stock of her life and considered what she wanted to do in the upcoming years.  The thought of opening a bed and breakfast in the mountains appealed to her.  But, under the surface the love of natural science, art and history continued to bubble.  A job with the National Park Service (NPS) seemed the perfect path to spin all of her interests into one strand.  Jackie volunteered with the NPS for while and then in her mid-50s she was hired as a seasonal ranger assigned to the Doughton Park.  Her focal area was the Brinegar Cabin.

Jackie explains the mechanics of spinning to Brinegar Cabin visitors

Jackie explains the mechanics of spinning to Brinegar Cabin visitors

While Jackie came to the cabin knowing how to weave and make baskets, she had to learn to spin yarn.  As she works the spinning wheel in the cabin, children often ask Jackie if she lives in the cabin.  Jackie leans in as to share secret – “No, I play here,” she says with a smile.

Jackie considers herself a cultural ambassador for southern Appalachia.  While many have a romanticized view of all mountain folks living in small log cabins, Jackie points out that in the early 1900s there were actually three distinct cultures along the ridgeline that became the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Roaring Gap had grown into a community of summer getaways for affluent textile executives escaping the heat of the Piedmont.  The clapboard home of the Woodruffs near Laurel Springs is representative of the larger working farms found across Alleghany County.  And finally, the Brinegars’ home place exemplifies the small subsistence farms scattered throughout the mountains.

A key point that Jackie makes is that there is no single attribute or family dynamic that describes Alleghany County.  Families like the Woodruffs and Doughtons in Laurel Springs, the Brinegers along the edge of the escarpment, and the Hanes, Reynolds and Chathams of Roaring Gap all contributed to the tapestry that make the county Absolutely Alleghany.


On September 26, 2015 Ranger Jackie Sloop and others will host Brinegar Day at the cabin.  There will be cultural demonstrations, storytelling, and recognition of the Brinegar family for allowing us to share in their family’s history.

The Northern Highlands Chapter of Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway almost didn’t make it through Alleghany County.  Original plans called for a route that would have taken the scenic highway through Tennessee and on into Virginia.  Laurel Springs’ native, Congressman Robert Lee “Bob” Doughton lobbied for a North Carolina path for the Parkway.  According to the documentary, A Long and Winding Road, a deal was struck that brokered Doughton’s support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act in exchange for the Parkway to pass through North Carolina.  There may be many political or social arguments made for or against that deal and the resulting legislation.  Those arguments aside, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a gem for Alleghany County that continues to shine brightly due to the diligent work of an enthusiastic group of volunteers.

The Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway are dedicated to the preservation and stewardship of the Parkway’s natural and cultural resources.  Along the 469 mile linear national park, several local groups operate under the umbrella of the larger friends group.

Northern HIghlands Chapter 4/11/15

Northern HIghlands Chapter 4/11/15

The Northern Highlands Chapter is responsible for the section of Parkway from the North Carolina/Virginia line to Deep Gap, roughly 50 or so miles.  In addition to organized group activities such as the recent cleanup at Doughton Park, individuals adopt overlooks, trails, cemeteries, etc.  Last year this chapter contributed 5500 volunteer hours.

Within this group are individuals from varied backgrounds.  Alleghany County natives Ronald and Debby Edwards contribute many hours to their adopted overlooks – Wildcat Rocks and Alligator Backs.  In addition to routine maintenance, both are chainsaw certified with the national park service which allows them to help remove fallen trees and limbs.

Robert Edwards

Ronald Edwards

Debby Edwards

Debby Edwards

In contrast, husband and wife, Dennis Tremble and Nancy Kish, were drawn to Alleghany later in life, in part by the Parkway.  Along with two other couples, they have resumed gardening at Brinegar Cabin.  There they cultivate an authentic, subsistence garden that utilizes heirloom plants.  They also plant flax which when harvested is spun into yarn.  They can be found most Tuesdays working the garden throughout the summer months.

Mack and Frankie Pittman

Mack and Frankie Pittman

All these individuals donate their time and efforts out of a love for the Parkway.  However, the impact of their maintenance and educational work extends well beyond an emotional connection.  According to a 7/30/14 article published in the Alleghany News, the Blue Ridge Parkway had over 12 million visitors in 2013 who spent $782,926,000 in local communities across those 469 miles.  Having clean, safe overlooks and other facilities encourage those visitors to stop and spend time in those communities.  While blowing leaves, cleaning ditches and gardening may not seem like economic development work, in reality it is that very thing.

When “Farmer Bob” Doughton struck that deal with FDR during the height of the Great Depression, he may have had a variety of motivations.  The nation was locked in the throes of the Great Depression and the project put many local men to work.  Some may point to the Social Security Act as New Deal policies that changed how the government positively or negatively interacts with our personal lives depending on one’s perspective.  But, the one thing on which most will agree is that the Blue Ridge Parkway is a great asset to Alleghany County.  And while they often go unnoticed, the Northern Highlands Chapter of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway is committed to ensuring that this asset is well maintained and ready for visitors.

Photos courtesy of the Northern Highlands Chapter of the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway


If you would like to know more about you can volunteer with the Northern Highlands Chapter contact Joyce Speas at 336-601-6118 or by email at