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David Dethero — He bloomed where he was planted

By Missy Schenck

David Dethero. Image provided.

David Lawrence Dethero came to Flat Rock in 1971 by way of a family friend, I’on Lowndes. (Editor’s note: Lowndes family members differ on I’On v. I’on, so don’t blame us.) He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, where I’on also resided and worked with the United States Forest Service. The two were members of St. Luke Episcopal Church and began chatting one day about places to live and opportunities to buy land in the mountains. I’on’s family had a long history with Flat Rock, North Carolina, and he recommended David give Flat Rock a try — so he did.

Upon his arrival, David stayed with I’on’s relative, Alice Lowndes Andrews, and her husband, Wick, in their guest cottage. From the beginning, the Lowndes family played an integral part in David’s Flat Rock life. Wick and Alice and their children, Betty and Wick, Jr., became extended family for him. He hadn’t planned on staying long, but he fell in love with the area and ended up renting the Andrews’ guest house for three years and going to work for the N.C. Forest Service at Holmes Educational State Forest. Alice and Wick were the perfect family to foster David’s introduction to Flat Rock. As two of the few year-round residents of the Village, they knew everything there was to know about Flat Rock, its history and its people.

Born to Harry Lawrence “Ike” Dethero and Ruth Rymer Dethero, David stems from the Rymer family of Dixie Foundry and Magic Chef fame. After graduating from McCallie School and The Citadel, David went to work for the family business under his uncle, Skeet Rymer. One day, unbeknownst to his uncle, David’s grandmother Rymer told him he was not to work for the family company. Naturally, this was a setback, but David knew he was a hard worker and there were other avenues on the horizon for him. He quit his job with Magic Chef and joined the Army, serving three years in Asmara, Eritrea, as a crypto officer and commander of a mobile communications team. His time in the service was followed by graduate school at Vanderbilt University, where he earned a master’s degree in English literature. Next he went on to work in the Trust Department of C&S National Bank in Atlanta until moving to Flat Rock.

Hurricane Gap

After three years of David living in her guest house, Alice Andrews told him, “It’s time for you to buy some land and have a house of your own.” David was not quite sure where to begin, but he knew Alex and Laurie Schenck owned a good bit of land in the Green River Valley. He decided to approach them about the possible purchase of some of their property. The Schencks were known for holding on to their land, but they showed David two possible sites. One parcel, located on the North and South Carolina state line, was 135 acres and had a water source. Once David set foot on it, he knew it was the piece of property for him. Alex Schenck immediately said no, but David persisted by responding, “If you sell me this land, I will love it and take care of it. You will never find a better steward for it.” With that, Laurie Schenck said, “Yes — we will sell you the land!” Alex responded, “We will?” “Without Laurie, I wouldn’t have gotten it,” remarked David.

For the first year of ownership, David walked the land, put in roads and installed electric lines. By 1976 his mountaintop cabin was complete, and he moved to the Green River Valley. “I was there three years, and my parents fell in love with the land and the spectacular views. You could see forever. My mother said she had to have a house up there, so my parents built their own cabin and put in a tennis court. They wanted a place for grandchildren to gather during the summer, and sharing this land with them was joyous,” said David.

David’s new property in the Green River Valley was in an area known as Hurricane Gap because of the wind direction during storms. It is from this name that David created Hurricane Gap Nursery on his land and developed it into a successful business. His introduction to native plants and propagation at Holmes State Forest and countless hours in his grandmother’s garden as a child provided him with a foundation for plants. Mentors like Bobby McDowell, manager of tree propagation at Holmes, contributed to David’s journey in becoming a plantsman.

The hallmark of David’s nursery was native azaleas. He told me that there are 16 varieties of native azaleas, and all but one can grow here in Western North Carolina. For many years David and a group of azalea enthusiasts, including fellow gardener and nursery owner Mickey Lively, would travel to Alabama and make the trek back up to North Carolina in search of native azalea seeds to propagate. His own backyard, private and public lands of Western North Carolina, was ripe for seed gathering, and David hiked thousands of miles collecting them. He also offered his native azaleas to residents. “I went up to his place on Hurricane Gap and dug up azaleas that are now planted all over Kenmure,” Mickey remembers of David’s generosity.

As the nursery continued to progress, David found he needed some help. He hired Gerry Hunt to work for him, and 35 years later, Gerry and David are still working together.

Historic Flat Rock

Shortly after his arrival in Flat Rock, David was recruited by Alex Schenck as a volunteer for Historic Flat Rock, a newly formed organization to preserve and protect the area. David recollects the following: “The first day, Alex had me drive around Flat Rock with him raising money door to door for Historic Flat Rock. It was baptism by fire. One of the first projects for Historic Flat Rock was to inventory the historic homes, buildings and landmarks for the purpose of nominating Flat Rock to the National Register of Historic Districts. Alex appointed Johnny Jones, John Wright and me to do the title searches for the 28 homes under consideration. This was one of my roles with C&S National Bank, so I knew the steps for searching a title. We were at the office of deeds for about an hour, and John Wright announced he quit — it was too much work!”

In Alex’s personal diary entry of July 23, 1972, he states, “David Dethero has completed much of the work and research required for nominating Flat Rock structures and homes for the National Register of Historic Districts.” In 1973, Flat Rock was named a National Historic District by the Department of Interior. It is the largest historic area in North Carolina to earn this designation.

Searching titles was just the beginning for David and Historic Flat Rock. For the last 50 years, he has given countless hours to the organization as a board member, officer and tireless volunteer. As a resident of Flat Rock for five decades, David is fully invested in protecting its historic uniqueness. His years of experience and knowledge make him a valuable resource of Flat Rock history. Longtime friend Miss Em Whaley Whipple said this about David: “I have so much admiration for David and what he has given to the Flat Rock community and its historic significance. From the moment he arrived in Flat Rock, he got it.”

St. John in the Wilderness

Betty Andrews Lee, Penny Peterson, and Laurie Schenck, a threesome of best friends and fellow gardeners, immediately adopted David after he arrived in Flat Rock. In the early 2000s, David and Laurie initiated a master plan to restore St. John’s historic churchyard, including the graveyards. Drayton Hastie of Magnolia Gardens in Charleston gifted $25,000 toward refurbishing the church grounds, and the congregation matched Mr. Hastie’s gift for a total of $50,000 for the project. This was just the beginning of an ongoing effort to maintain the historic churchyard and its terraced grounds. “During the project, the churchyard committee felt left out, so they put the two of us on the committee. I’m still on it. They told me I have to stay on until I die because I know where all the bodies are!” remarked David.

On the wooded, northeast sloop of the church grounds are graves of servants who journeyed with the summer residents to the mountains and worshiped at St. John in the Wilderness. About 100 graves are estimated to be in this burial ground wherein slaves and freedmen were interred from 1836 to 1881. A sizable number of their children are buried in this area, too, which is encircled by a low, stacked stoned wall created by Gerry Hunt, David’s right-hand man. David, Laurie and Gerry transformed this area into a significant part of the churchyard. In 2004, David was presented with the Minnette C. Duffy Landscape Preservation Award by the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina for his work in the churchyard.

Two of David's renovation projects: St. John's churchyard and Edney House. Images courtesy of the author.

Edney House

In 1995, David bought the historic Edney House in Flat Rock and completely restored it with the help of Martha and Wick Andrews, the son and daughter-in-law of Alice and Wick. A one-story Craftsman bungalow, it was built by J. Fonsie Edney in 1924. According to the National Register of Historic Places, “The house features an exterior brick chimney on the façade, side gable bays and an engaged full-width porch, which is supported by square wood posts and has a simple wood balustrade. The property is extensively landscaped with boxwoods lining the circular driveway on the east side and an alley of hydrangeas along the driveway on the north side of the house. A small formal garden is located on the west side of the house.” The majority of the five-acre parcel to the rear of the cottage remains in its natural state and is enhanced by two small creeks and many of David’s beloved native azaleas. The property has a Preservation Agreement on it with Historic Flat Rock, Inc.

Politics and friendships

Several years ago when the Historic Village of Flat Rock was threatened by development and the widening of roads, David felt called to the cause. Running for political office was the furthest thing from his mind, but protecting the village was important to him. His experience and knowledge of Flat Rock exceeded that of most residents. For these very reasons, he ran for the Flat Rock Village Council in 2019 and won the District 3 seat. “I have an excellent insight into those who reside in our beautiful village. There are full-time and seasonal residents, some of whom have been here for five and six generations. There are new members of our community as well, and I intend to represent them all,” said David.

“Serving on the Village Council opened a new door for David,” adds Martha Andrews. “At a time when we are losing so many of our old friends, David is meeting and making a lot of new ones. He is the perfect community servant.”

Left, David and Miss Em Whipple; right, David and Betty Andrews Lee. Images provided.

When I began writing this article about David, I realized that this kind and humble man is a true community hero. He arrived in Flat Rock a half a century ago and took root. It was home from the start. Now he is an integral part of the fabric of the area. Miss Em Whaley Whipple, who met David in 1982 while visiting her grandmother in Flat Rock, says, “Each summer when I come to Flat Rock, David is one of the first people I contact.” Martha Andrews, whose husband, Wick Jr., has now passed away, says, “David is my best friend. I talk to him about everything.”

In this fourth quarter of his life, David’s impact continues to be significant, and he never tires of blessing others with his many talents. A lifetime plantsman and village advocate, David Dethero bloomed where he was planted, and Flat Rock is all the better because of him.

Missy Craver Izard was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. She resides in Flat Rock, North Carolina, with her husband, Sandy Schenck, where their family runs a summer camp.


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