Our History

Sunnybank dates from 1840 and is a rare example of Italianate Victorian architecture. It was the home of ballad singers Jane Gentry and Maude Long in the early 1900s. The building has served as a private home, a boarding house, hiker hostel, and retreat center.

The Sunnybank Inn, at the corner of Walnut and Bridge Streets in Hot Springs, dates back to 1840. It was originally two smaller structures, a farmhouse and outbuilding. When Charles D. Merritt acquired the land in 1875, he combined the two existing buildings into the Italianate Victorian form which stands today.

In 1894 Sunnybank was acquired by a Rhode Island businessman, Mr. Frances R. Shaw. The Shaw family vacationed and entertained at Sunnybank throughout the summer seasons during the village’s zenith as a fashionable Victorian Spa.

As the popularity of health resorts wained at the turn of the century, Hot Springs as a resort town began to decline. Sunnybank changed from lavish summer home to a boardinghouse for travelers.

During World War I the Mountain Park Hotel, a large resort hotel which had been built next to the mineral springs, was leased to the government as an internment camp for 2,700 German naval officers captured at the beginning of the war. Some of their wives were allowed to stay at local boarding houses - including Sunnybank. Town legend has it that the only successful escape from the hotel/prison was planned by a German hausfrau from her room here at the inn. The wife, naval officer, and their dog made good their escape, traveled to Mexico, and eventually back to Germany.

Sometime after 1912, the Gentry family took over the Sunnybank boardinghouse and it remained in their family for over half a century. During this time Sunnybank became associated with the now combined Dorland-Bell Institute, a Presbyterian school for Appalachian girls. Many of the Dorland-Bell teachers boarded at Sunnybank.

The Mountain Park Hotel, 1902. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jane Gentry.

Mrs. Jane Gentry and her daughter, Mrs. Maude Gentry Long, were musicians and folklorists of national note. They taught music and shared mountain food, song, and tales with hundreds of students, borders, and travelers who passed through Hot Springs. The most famous visitor was Cecil Sharpe, the English folklorist and noted authority on ancient ballads. While touring the mountain areas collecting hundreds of songs, he stopped at Sunnybank in 1916 and collected over 64 ballads from Mrs. Gentry for his famous volume, English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians

Mrs. Maude Gentry Long, an alumna of Dorland-Bell, presided over Sunnybank in the succeeding generation and carried on the Gentry tradition of fine music and warm mountain hospitality. In the 1940s and 50s, Maude recorded a large repertoire of ballads (as well as The Jack Tales by Richard Chase) at Sunnybank for the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

Earl Shaffer, first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. He stayed in Room 4 at Sunnybank in 1948.

Since Earl Schaffer’s visit here in 1948, thousands of Appalachian Trail hikers have found shelter at Sunnybank Inn. Elmer Hall bought Sunnybank from the third Gentry generation, Mrs. Jane Douglas Gentry in 1978. He has continued the tradition of fine food and mountain hospitality.

In 1980, the Sunnybank Inn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior in recognition of its significant role in American history, architecture, and culture. In 1989, the state of North Carolina erected a historical marker in recognition of Jane Gentry’s unique contribution to the tradition of balladry in the southern Appalachian mountains. The Sunnybank Inn, having witnessed and shaped part of Hot Springs’ 19th century glory, now shares a glimpse of that past with the passing traveler who comes seeking rest, relaxation, and hospitality in the midst of the mountain wilderness.

Elmer on the porch of Sunnybank.