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MERLE WALTERS: GRAHAM COUNTY'S RESTAURATEUR
By Marshall Mcclung
If you were to find yourself needing to know anything about the restaurant business, a person you would definitely need to talk to would be Merle Walters, the operator of Joyce Kilmer Restaurant in Robbinsville. That "fancy sounding word "restaurateur in the title of this story simply means one who operates a restaurant. The word comes from the French word "restaurare". The usage of this word dates as far back as 1796.
Merle got into the restaurant business at an early age. After spending most of her childhood years on Lower Tuskegee, her parents Roy Garland and Glenna Holder Garland built her a restaurant in Robbinsville when she was around sixteen years old. The restaurant stood near the site where Phillips Feed Store was located on North Main Street. The building seated around fifty customers and was called Merle's Restaurant. The restaurant had four employees including Mary Millsaps.
Merle operated the restaurant for about five years, then closed it and opened a "dime store11 in its place. She operated this store for about two years, but really didn't care much for operating it. She closed the store, and served as a dining room manager for Fontana village for seven years. Merle also operated Merle's Grill located beside the Chic Theater which was located across from the Graham County Courthouse on North Main Street.
Merle also had a hand in operating the Stiles Hotel which was located on Circle Street in Robbinsville. The building was three stories tall and had apartments located in it. Many of the boarders who stayed there were workers helping construct Fontana Dam.
Merle's parents moved to Tennessee and for about four years, she operated the Niles Ferry Restaurant located near Maryville.
The original Joyce Kilmer Restaurant stood on the hill behind the present structure and was part of a business establishment called Joyce Kilmer Inn. The facility had a fine dining room and several cabins. This was the result of a business venture called Cheoah Enterprises and involved L.W. Wilson and Jack Veach who were associated with Bemis Lumber Company, Ed Ingram, Sr. who operated a pharmacy on the corner of Court Street, J.D. Warrick who was a principal in the Robbinsville School system, and M.J. Lymon. The business was probably built around 1938-1939. Leonard Farley remembers working at the business with George Slaughter and recalls seeing tourist buses stop there three times a week on their run from Chattanooga to Knoxville during 1948-1949.
The original Joyce Kilmer Restaurant was operated by Will Cooper and Bertha and Marie Duvall. Bertha Duvall died in March 1965, and the restaurant closed for a few months. Merle reopened the restaurant and has been at the present location for the past thirty-one years.
Operating a restaurant is not any easy task, and those allergic to long hours and hard work need not try it. Merle puts in an average of sixteen hours a day, six days a week, with her day starting at 3:00 A.M. She does all the cooking including homemade desserts. In addition, she grows a one acre garden which provides fresh vegetables for the restaurant.
The future of Joyce Kilmer Restaurant is questionable. The lease expired at the end of 1996, and will not be renewed. The owner reportedly stated he may have the restaurant torn down.
Merle is not ready to get out of the restaurant business just yet. She is hoping to relocate in the Arthur Millsaps building on North Main Street just across from the Graham County Courthouse. All her customers and friends sure hope she continues as she has become something of a legend in the restaurant business.
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These pages are from the people of Graham County, North Carolina.
For additional information on Graham County Adventures
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This page is maintained by Tom Livingston, Robbinsville, North Carolina