The actor and Aunt Polly

Published 1:08 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2024

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Some think it was pure chance that brought William Hooker Gillette to Tryon. The year was 1890 or 1893. I have seen both dates mentioned from reliable sources. 

What is known is that Gillette was on top of his game at the time. 

The son of a United States Senator, Gillette came from aristocratic New England roots. Early on he developed an interest in the stage and eventually became an acclaimed New York actor, best known for his strong dramatic roles. He would later famously depict Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character on Broadway. It was Gillette who first portrayed the famous sleuth with his deerstalker cap and curved Calabash pipe. Movie actor Basil Rathbone made both the cap and the pipe even more famous in several popular Sherlock Holmes films.

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Maybe it was his health that brought Gillette to the North Carolina mountains. And then perhaps he was following the lead of the Vanderbilts and so many other northerners of the late nineteenth century who discovered the mountains to be the perfect getaway. Nevertheless, when Gillette stepped off the train in Tryon, he knew he had found his haven. Later he would return and build a magnificent home he called Thousand Pines, but before doing that, there was another trip to Tryon that was nearly his last. I remember first reading this story over fifty years ago in a newspaper article written by Mrs. Jane Dusenberry, and it remains a favorite.

On his second journey to the small mountain village, he checked into the Oak Hall Hotel and after settling in decided to take a hike into the beautiful forest surrounding the town. He had traveled deep into the pine woods when he suddenly collapsed onto the forest floor. 

Unconscious for a time, when he awoke, he saw the shadow of a woman standing over him. She wore the garb of a mountain granny; a long dark dress and a large bonnet that fairly covered her face. He was unable to move, but the resourceful seventy-year-old mountaineer, seeing his condition, soon ran for help. She elicited the assistance of a couple of stout locals who picked the prostate actor up in their arms and carried him to the woman’s rustic cabin. There they put him to bed, and immediately the kind woman went to work assisting him. She introduced herself as Polly Carruth. 

Known to all as Aunt Polly, the genial country lady opened her heart and her home to the renowned actor. Gillette remained there for days, gradually regaining his strength. Aunt Polly was an accomplished herbal doctor, and it was through her herbal remedies combined with her hearty country cooking that Gillette soon found the strength to return to town. But in the meantime, these two vastly different individuals became fast friends. When Gillette later returned to Tryon to build his dream home, he constructed a small cabin near Aunt Polly which served as a temporary dwelling until Thousand Pines was completed. They ate their meals together and learned more about one another and the two completely different worlds from which they came. Also, as a tribute to the woman who saved his life, the far-famed celebrity named his newly christened yacht “Polly.” 

Gillette would eventually leave Tryon behind and rise to even greater heights of critical acclaim and stardom before dying at the age of 83 in 1937. But he never forgot the beautiful North Carolina town he had called home for a time, nor the little mountain woman who found him in the woods and saved his life.