Marla Hardee Milling photo
There’s a peculiar force of gravity at Mystery Hill in Blowing Rock, N.C., where Wayne Underwood has found his calling.
Wayne Underwood’s wife, Sharon, jokes that he gets so carried away telling stories that she has to kick him a bit under the front counter to remind him they have work to do. He’s supposedly retired, but that doesn’t stop him from showing up seven days a week at Mystery Hill, a peculiar tourist destination near Blowing Rock, N.C.
“I’ve never considered this a job,” he said. “I enjoy being personable with people. The best thing we do is entertain and treat people like people.”
Mystery Hill draws an abundance of visitors every year—those who are curious about its strange gravitational pull and historical exhibits, along with repeat visitors who enjoy the family-friendly atmosphere and Underwood’s tales about Mystery Hill, which his parents bought in 1958 and first opened as a fish-camp style restaurant. Underwood had started working at another restaurant his parents owned when he was just five years old—his dad would slip coins under the placemats for Underwood to find when he cleared the tables. When the family bought the Mystery Hill property in 1958, Underwood was 10, and he earned the task of pasting bumper stickers on the back of visitors’ cars.
However, it wasn’t until a visit from the property’s former owners that the Underwoods learned about Mystery Hill’s mysterious past. Owners Mr. and Mrs. Hudson had read an article in a 1948 issue of Life magazine featuring The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, Calif.—a site with an out-of-the-ordinary gravitational pull. The Hudsons had noticed that something similar had been happening at their own farm. Mrs. Hudson would get dizzy while walking through a certain part of the apple orchard, and fallen apples wouldn’t stay on the level path, instead they would roll away.
The Hudsons traveled to California to see The Mystery Spot for themselves. It sparked their imagination and they returned home with a plan for the mysterious location on their own property.
“Mr. Hudson said, ‘We’re going to build a house on that spot, and if it works, we’ll have an attraction, and if it doesn’t, we’ll have a place to put all the apples.’ They opened in 1949,” Underwood said.
Underwood’s storytelling is an attraction of its own. He is never at a loss for words, as stories roll effortlessly from his tongue. Even though his cell phone rings constantly, he has a certain grace for answering calls and diving back into his story at hand, without losing his train of thought.
Underwood also has stories about his deep Christian faith. He claims a direct communication with God that has left him surprised at times. One day, Underwood said he was listening to a religious program on TV and the message turned to plowing as a metaphor for being closer to God. The speaker said as long as one has one’s hands on the plow, God can’t help. Underwood recognized his own grip on the plow, and he prayed for help in letting go, yet he didn’t expect what came next.
“I was lying on the bed, and the bed wiggled,” said Underwood. “Then I heard water running, and then the bed wiggled again. I called out to see if Sharon had come home, but the Lord said, ‘No it’s me.’”
Underwood said, at that moment, he received divine guidance, claiming God took him on a mental journey throughout Mystery Hill and answered questions that were on his mind. Since then, he learned to listen to that inner voice and to act when he receives inspired ideas.
One of Underwood’s favorite stories to tell lays out the miraculous events surrounding how he came to own the Dougherty House. Blanford B. Dougherty founded Appalachian State University, and his family lived in the home through the mid 1900s. As the years went by, the house deteriorated and the university decided to torch it.
Meanwhile, the restaurant Underwood’s family ran at Mystery Hill had been torn down. He had been pondering what to put in its place and dreamed of adding a farmhouse where he and his family could display their antiques collection.
The answer came in the middle of one night.
“At 3 a.m. the Lord woke me up and said, ‘You can get the Dougherty House and move it out here,’” said Underwood.
He woke up Sharon, excited with this new plan, and she said, “If you still remember this in the morning, we’ll talk about it.”
Underwood didn’t have any problem remembering, but he quickly found he faced a mountain of obstacles that would have discouraged most people from even trying. John Thomas, the Chancellor at the university told him the house would be burned in two weeks, and he held firm on that decision. And even if it were possible, non-profit status would be required, first, along with a hefty amount of money to pay to move the structure. But Underwood had already applied for non-profit status for Mystery Hill before the idea of the Dougherty House even entered his mind.
“At 9 a.m. the next morning, I went to ASU and laid down the non-profit status paperwork,” he said.
He also had raised the needed $150,000 by 4 p.m. College officials looked at him in disbelief and said, “John Thomas said you were going to be trouble.”
Underwood also needed approval from the state Department of Transportation in Raleigh because the agency officially owned the home, but college officials pressed DOT officials to not agree to it, Underwood said.
Underwood went back to praying, and he heard, “Go talk to Bobby Shore.”
Though he didn’t know why, he already knew what to do: pay attention and take action. When he went to see Shore, he noticed a DOT car in the drive. Shore said, “You know Tommy Klein don’t you?” Klein was the person at the DOT in charge of deciding whether to release the Dougherty House.
Underwood unrolled the blueprints he had with him and detailed how he would restore the home and create an Appalachian Heritage Museum. Klein wrestled with his decision, Underwood said.
Soon thereafter, Klein and his wife made the drive up to Mystery Hill. Klein pulled up, got out of the car and said, “Wayne, give me a check for $10. They told me I couldn’t give you the house, but they never said I couldn’t sell it to you.”
The Dougherty House and the Appalachian Heritage Museum became one more of many attractions at Mystery Hill—including a Hall of Mystery, the Mystery House, a Native American artifacts museum and an inexplicable platform that denies physics. All, one could say, are works of inspiration and the people willing to follow it.
“When the Lord gives you a vision, he also gives you a provision to carry it out,” said Underwood.