As purposeful as the New River that winds through her native Ashe County, Gayle Hamby Winston has coursed through an extraordinary life of uphill challenges and sudden turns. She is a business woman with a strong will to get things done and she can be stubborn and tough when striving to do what she believes is best. She is a staunch Democrat and a real people-person, a lover of fine food and wine and a fervent promoter of art and artists of all genres. While she cherishes the land and heritage of the High Country, she is also genuinely interested in the world and people who "aren't from here," and that makes her a gracious and welcoming hostess. I find her a fascinating contradiction of extremes.
“Why do I choose these kinds of things to do?” Gayle laments as she tells me stories about the work she has done over the years. She has produced plays on and off-Broadway, farmed herds of cattle, and opened and operated six North Carolina inns. Even now, in her eighties, at River House Inn and Restaurant on the New River in Grassy Creek, she continues to elevate inn-keeping to an art form.
“I wanted to go places and see the world,” she says about leaving Grassy Creek where she is a tenth-generation native. After graduating with an English degree from Bridgewater College in Virginia, she set out for New York City to become a journalist. “Those were the best years of my life, my twenties in New York. It seemed like a small town then, and everyone was so nice.”
She first interviewed with Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review of Literature, her favorite magazine. He didn’t need an intern but introduced her to James Linen, publisher at TIME Magazine who hired her for National Affairs. “At the time,” Gayle recalls, “all the writers were men and Republicans, and the researchers all women and Democrats.” She joined the Newspaper Guild of America and worked on the Negotiating Committee across the table from Mr. Linen.
One of her co-workers was Leslie Clark Stevens III (Steve) who had written a play, Bullfight, and coaxed her to help him produce it. “I had no knowledge of producing,” she says, “but I thought the law firm that represented Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller was a good place to begin. We created a limited partnership and rented the Theatre de Lys, then signed union contracts and started rehearsals.”
“We were scared to death on opening night,” says Gayle, “but we got wonderful reviews and the play was extended for seven weeks. Ed Sullivan came to see it and aired an eleven minute segment on his television show. I was hooked.”
“The next play was Champagne Complex, a three-character comedy starring Polly Bergen, John Dall and the incredible comedian, Donald Cook. It ran only three weeks on Broadway but has been performed hundreds of times in Summer Stock.
“After that, for The Lovers, we wanted Charles Boyer, a matinee idol of the 20s and 30s. At the time, he was in another play with Sophia Loren in Rome. I sent him a cable saying, 'I will be in Rome and would like to meet you to discuss a play.' He refused but I tried again after I got there. I called his room and said, ‘I have this script. Could I bring it up to your room?’ He said he didn’t have time, he had a press conference, just leave it at the desk, but I persisted and hand-delivered it. He invited me to dinner at Alfredo’s and again six nights in a row.
“He liked the script.” Gayle laughs. “But he was not available to do it.” She had earned a friend though, and years later, in Los Angeles when relatives came to visit, Boyer made an appearance.
“On New Year’s Eve 1957,” Gayle reminisces, “I turned down an invitation from Ted Kennedy for Ron (Winston), whom I’d just met!—my husband to be. He lived in California and when our phone bill reached $400 a month, we decided to marry. I moved to California and we lived in Laurel Canyon, a beautiful place. But we soon lost all our favorite possessions to a canyon fire—a giant Charles Schultz drawing of Snoopy on the wall, our marriage certificate, our Dansk dinnerware…
“Ron was at work and I was at home that day. It was 102 degrees outside, and I had drawn the draperies, so I knew nothing of the fire until I heard the sirens. When I looked, fire engines were right across the road. In shorts and sandals, I grabbed my car keys and ran, but it was already too late to get to the car. So I ran for it in the other direction over rocks and finally a wall, and from there, watched them spray water on the house while the fire dropped into the living room and spread.”
With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the young couple started over. Ron was directing Playhouse 90 and Gayle helped with camera blocking, so they rented an apartment in Beverly Hills. Soon, though, they longed to be back in New York, and moved east.
“We took a one room apartment on 67th Street, and I went to work as fund-raiser for Adlai Stevenson. Ron co-wrote and directed Ambush Bay, worked on episodes of The Twilight Zone and several feature films with Robert Wagner. One day as he was about to fly out to find a setting for a new film, he got caught in traffic near the L.A. airport and rushing to catch his plane, suffered a heart attack and died. He was only forty.
“At that time, we had the nicest apartment with a balcony near Lincoln Center, but I had already bought my Great-grandfather’s house on 42 acres of farmland back in Grassy Creek. They had been about to sell it and it seemed a shame to let it go. So, I moved to a smaller apartment in the city and spent a lot of time in Grassy Creek. By 1982, I was here almost full time, and my landlord gave me $35,000 to give up my apartment in New York.”
“The first thing I caught in my rabbit trap (we called it a rabbit gum) was a groundhog. My neighbor said, ‘If it’s young, they’re good.’ So when my friend Nancy called from New York and asked what I was doing, I said, ‘Cooking groundhog.’ She wanted to know how, and I told her, ‘like everybody does, with shallots and mushrooms and white wine.’”
As part-owner of the Troutdale Dining Room, she worked long hours and made little money, but she invested in another small farmhouse in Grassy Creek which she restored and rented. An electrical storm caused a fire which destroyed the house, and several outbuildings. “It was sad,” Gayle says, “just a little house way back in a hollow.” But this was not to be her last or most devastating fire.
"I was working at the restaurant and coming home at 1:00 a.m. and getting up at 6:00 a.m. and farming," she says. “A neighbor—just a kid—came down the road and said, ‘You need some cows.’ He had some, of course, so I bought five.
“Then he said, ‘You need a bull,’ and I bought one of those too, a Charolais that weighed 2600 pounds! The kid was scared of that bull and when he unloaded it from back of his truck, he jumped up on the truck out of its way and there I was.”
Gayle sighs, shakes her head and grins. “Within seven years, I had 350 head of cattle and 4 bulls. I fed them, doctored them, even castrated some, transported them and had two a year slaughtered for food. I grew hay and one year alone loaded a two ton truck of hay. Worse, a cow got sick one winter and the vet told me there was no point in her coming out. I had to borrow a shotgun to kill it and haul it off.”
All this by a girl who loved New York—its art, celebrities and fine dining.
“The only time I made any money on cattle,” Gayle admits, “was the last year, when I sold them all.” But the experience was filled with challenges she could take by the horns. “One time, while I was back in New York to visit, a neighbor came and took one of my cows, claiming it was number 65 in his herd. He refused to bring it back, so I took him to court.”
Gayle represented herself and determined that her cows had originated on the G-5 Ranch in Abingdon, Virginia. “My mother went with me to get a copy of their brand. It looked a lot like 65. The judge said, ‘Bring those cows to me.’ Well, there was a barber down from the courthouse and we got him to come and shave the cow so we could prove it was G-5, not 65. The courtroom was jam-packed and everybody was having fun. The judge wanted to go see the brand on the other cattle before ruling. He later told the opposing lawyer, ‘Your opponent just did a better job,” says Gayle, “but it was my cow!”
“I raised tobacco from seed, and one year, sold 24,000 pounds. I grew my own food and canned. I had lots of apple trees.” Comparing her life here with the city, Gayle says, “This is the best part of the world. Life here is so direct. I picked up sticks to make a fire and carried water from the spring, killed and canned my own food.”
Cartoonist Al Capp (L’il Abner) once asked Gayle when in New York, “Where are you from, Dog Patch?” She shot back, “No, but I am from Dog Creek.”
“I was still at the Dining Room and it was finally making money, but that’s when partnerships become difficult. One Friday night, I left work intending never to have anything to do with the restaurant business again. Then, someone asked me, ‘are you going to the auction of the Glendale Springs Inn?’”
Curious, Gayle discovered that the seller had divided the property into fourteen parcels. The inn would retain only the land it was sitting on. Indignant, she went to the auction.
“There were no bids,” she says. “So I asked if I could bid on the property as a whole which I did. This restored it to one parcel, and when a second bidder upped her by a thousand dollars, she thought she was done with it. Along came a friend, though, who asked her to bid again and promised to buy it from her if she got it. “I did,” she says, smiling, “and they didn’t. And I had to borrow all that money when interest rates were at twenty percent.”
While she had not meant to end up with the Glendale Springs Inn, she was inspired to buy another house in the Grassy Creek community and turn it into an inn of her own. The five bedroom house (c. 1900) had green chestnut stairways and black walnut woodwork, tile fireplaces, a widow’s walk and a porch with gingerbread trim. There were a couple of stone outbuildings, a small smokehouse and a cannery, and ninety-one acres of land.
“I had it jacked up,” she says, “and completely restored—plumbing and a new septic system. I furnished it, put in claw-foot bathtubs, and had all the linens ready in boxes.”
One day the renter, who had lived there throughout construction, came home and found the house burning. “It burned to the ground,” says Gayle, half-glancing at photographs. “I’m still not over it. All I got was $50,000 from insurance which went to the bank.”
This is how she came to run the Glendale Springs Inn. During those years, she grew asparagus and shitake mushrooms and kept hives for bees and collected honey. “So pretentious,” she says of herself, back in the restaurant business. “I posted an all-French menu in the window.”
But this brought yet another lucky twist of fate. A man named Mark Woods who had created the Shakespeare Festival in Winston-Salem happened by the Inn while camping with friends. “When he saw the menu,” Gayle says, grinning, “he said, what is this place in the middle of nowhere?” Mark returned often and Gayle loved his idea for a playwright’s project where writers and actors could come together for intensive work on new material.
Then, in 1983 when she learned that a large swath of natural riverside property which had once belonged to Dr. James Larkin Ballou, a physician, inventor and environmentalist, was about to be chopped into half acre lots by out-of-state developers, Gayle immediately thought of the playwright’s project. Again, she bought the property but the dollars failed to match plans for the playwrights, so Gayle developed the whole property as River House Country Inn and Restaurant.
She saw to it that ‘Doc’ Ballou’s former home and land continue to be part of a healing place, and he would likely be pleased with Gayle’s vision. Even his former medical office and farm outbuildings have been preserved and converted to interesting guestrooms. Her talent, a fastidious attention to every sensory detail, is a healing art in itself.
Sitting on the porch of the Inn in a peeling white rocker, his Pinot Gris almost gone, a guest listens to classical piano and the rush of the New River. Candles are lit beside him on a concrete pedestal where he sets his glass near flowers and mixed nuts. Behind him, one of the cooks pinches basil from a plant in the herb garden at porch’s end and slips back into the kitchen through the patio and the bar. Across from him, a woman smiles. It is six-thirty, and Gayle has come out, dressed for dinner, her white hair put up. As she reaches out to greet the couple, the woman says, “The minute I turned off the bridge onto the gravel road along the river, my breathing slowed and I began to relax.”
They choose Black Tiger Shrimp as appetizer, Duck Breast for the main course and Fig Tatin for dessert, but don’t miss the gray heron swooping down into the river for something equally delectable. This time, Gayle has created an easy-going, elegant place, both comfortable and unpretentious and guests feel rich here, in every way.
It is a find that astonishes travelers who happen upon it in a remote corner of North Carolina. The inn, decorated with antiques and art, stuffed with books, and planted with flowers and an herb garden is welcoming, and the hearth is homey but complete with a bar, a fine wine list, and a talented chef Gayle. Guests come back for her gourmet breakfasts, her maple-currant bread pudding and elegant wedding cakes among dozens of other specialties.
When asked if she has more ideas, Gayle exudes, “Oh yes. If I can just live long enough! I want to turn the old dairy barn into a grand place for barn dances, conferences and performances. The old milk parlor should be a bar. It still has an overhead trolley for silage,” she adds. “And above that, in the old granary, I’d like to have a yoga studio for classes, a massage room, and a sauna.” Quickly, she goes on. “In the silo—isn’t it magnificent?—I think there should be a spiral staircase inside with books lining the wall all the way up. I would raise the roof and put in glass for a view from the top.” Her enthusiasm builds as she speaks. “And the tobacco barn will be four new rooms with a common space, you know, Tobacco Barn, No Smoking.”
Since the birth of River House, Gayle has created and sustained weekly Summer Sunday Salons featuring musicians, writers, and actors and the annual "Winefest on the New" featuring North Carolina wines and wineries. Weddings beneath the extraordinary Sycamore tree at river's edge have become another specialty.
Gayle is so like that elegant, towering Sycamore. River House, the haven she has created is a treasured find, but for me and many others, knowing Gayle, a person of such stature and form is the ultimate good fortune. She is the reason people come. The places she creates are merely an expression of who she is.
In 2009, with guests arriving from all over the US and the British Isles, Gayle celebrated her 80th birthday. Friends created a musical event performed by friends and attended by friends so numerous that it was held at the Ashe Civic Center. Soon after, Governor Beverly Perdue awarded her the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor, for her life of service.
When Representative Cully Tarleton presented the award in a ceremony at the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce in West Jefferson, he said, "Gayle Winston is the personification of a true renaissance woman. Her involvement and leadership in the hospitality industry, travel and tourism and the arts has benefited citizens all across North Carolina. If ever anyone has earned this prestigious award, it's Gayle."
What is Gayle proudest of? Because conservation of Ashe County lands has been her life-long passion and she has successfully protected nearly eighty acres of her land through the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, she jokes, "I like to tell my banker that my suitors, today, are not after my body, they're after my land.” On a more serious note, she is proudest of the friendships she has accumulated over the years, from all over the globe. She says, “I have the best friends of anybody!” And of course we know she’s not finished yet.
2012 Diana Renfro
biographical sketch previously published in Mountain Memoirs, An Ashe County Anthology edited by