“Hidden away beneath Tryon’s red clay must have been hidden, always, some form of lodestone which drew hither people with marked characteristics… people with personalities raised to the Nth degree.”
Helen Ashley Carver – Reminiscences – Melrose Ave in Mid-1890s
“Tryon was actually built on Pittsburgh drug and whiskey money”, notes Robert Lange, owner of The Wilcox on Melrose and referred to by many as an unofficial, albeit unwitting, town historian. “Tryon has a unique character among southern towns and has a way of making people feel remarkably comfortable. My inn is simply an extension of that spirit.”
At the encouragement of an 1830’s seminary classmate, Rev. Leland McAboy and his son-in-law, Lemuel Wilcox, travelled to the area in August 1869 from Pittsburg in search of a healthier climate. By the end of the month, the young Wilcox purchased nearly 4,000 acres from the wealthy Columbus Mills, who had been unceremoniously chased out of the county, for fear of his life, just before the end of the war.
Wilcox quickly got to work surveying the land, working with the railroad on a route from Spartanburg to Asheville through his newly acquired land. At the same time, his father-in-law converted Mills’ plantation home into a health resort, turning his evangelizing from the Gospel to the healthful benefits of the Thermal Belt by spreading that word throughout the northern states. Before long the area was a magnet for successful northerners, many of whom built winter homes on land acquired from Wilcox. “These were generally well-educated and successful individuals, who brought with them a more open and creative mindset. This was quite different from how small southern towns typically evolved during the late 19th century,” Lange notes.
Lange also found himself an accidental innkeeper with The Wilcox on Melrose when a large inn next door, which originally opened in 1925 as the Melrose Lodge, burned down in September, 2018, without insurance. “Suddenly there was no inn right in downtown Tryon.” With a large house and only Lange and his Jack Russell, Cooper, residing there, he decided to convert the rooms to accommodate visitors.
“I had been hosting many artists coming through Tryon to perform at the Tryon Fine Arts Center across the street, so it was a natural evolution.” Indeed, Lange has been a host of sorts his entire life, “my parents hosted foreign students throughout my youth, I grew up making people feel at home.” Having hosted TFAC performers such as George Winston, Freddy Cole, and Sierra Hull was natural to Lange, who gives all his guests VIP treatment.
The Wilcox on Melrose strives to ensure guests a relaxing and stress-free stay. “’Ridiculously accommodating’ is how one guest described my approach to innkeeping. Almost every one of my guests has noted the positive, relaxing energy, both in Tryon in general and the inn in particular. One guest commented that his favorite part of visiting the area was just sitting on the front porch.”
Built sometime before 1888, the home was totally renovated in 2013. The bones, floors, siding, and spirit are all original, but the underlying infrastructure is all modern, “It’s like having a brand new 130-year-old home!”
Based on several clues uncovered during his research, Lange believes part of the home was once a cabin where the “Town of Tryon City” was originally designed by Lemuel Wilcox. “I actually found his original 1877 map, which had long been forgotten by history. His design is remarkably close to how Tryon has evolved over the decades.”
With only a few rooms available, being flexible to his guests’ needs is easy. “If I have guests that need to be out at the Tryon International Equestrian Center by 6:30am and I’ll have breakfast ready for them before they leave. Others want to sleep in and I don’t see them before 10 for breakfast. I don’t feel that I’m living up to my reputation unless I’m doing at least one special and unique thing for each and every guest.”
Lange has gone to great lengths to ensure his guest’s comfort, “I’m constantly assessing everything from the handmade soaps and the plush towels to the linen/cotton blend sheets. My focus is on quality and informality.”
In addition to a full, cooked breakfast, The Wilcox on Melrose provides complimentary open bar for its guests.
Tryon, with its parks, amphitheaters, and nearby vineyards, is a charming place for intimate wedding ceremonies. Referring to the town mascot, Morris the horse, Lange noted, “We refer to it as getting hitched in a one horse town!”
The Pittsburg drug and whiskey connection? “Lemuel Wilcox’s uncle was Joseph Fleming, who had built a hugely successful pharmacy business in Pennsylvania. It was the Fleming family members who provided Wilcox the financing necessary for the purchase of the land which extended from Tryon Mountain to Hogback Mountain in Greenville County,” says Lange.
The Fleming family had expanded into buying whiskey in bulk from small distilleries, blending them, and putting their own label on the bottles. “I have no doubt that some ‘Dark Corner’ whiskey from Wilcox’s land made it into those bottles.”