More than 200 years ago, a miner named Meredith Ballou received a land grant of 10,000 acres in just-created Ashe County, North Carolina. The holding, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Virginia and the new state of Tennessee, included the spectacular bowl of Walnut Hill, overlooking the North Fork of the New River.
In 1824, Ballou put up the first dwelling on what is now the site of River House. His descendent, Uriah Ballou, built the original incarnation of River House in 1870. He raised a large family in that house and died there in 1932. One of Uriah’s sons, James Larkin Ballou—known simply as “Doc”—acquired the house and land and began the process of modernizing the property.
After a distinguished career as a surgeon, which took him from medical school in Philadelphia, to an Indian Reservation in Minnesota, to the U.S. Navy and, finally, to Portland, Oregon, Doc Ballou retired to his native North Carolina in 1942 and the ancestral home on the banks of the New River.
Doc began building the large cottage in 1943, and it was finished in 1944. At some point he built an elaborate underground water-supply system that furnished the main home and cottage with water from a spring in a far ridge of Walnut Hill. The system is still in place, though it’s no longer in use.
In 1953 Doc Ballou established the Ballou Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college-bound children in Ashe County.
He deeded the family home to the university in 1953 with the stipulation that it be held in trust until the deaths of his wife, Iona, and nephew, Lionel Ballou, who managed his uncle’s farm.
Doc Ballou died in 1966 followed two years later by Iona. After Lionel Ballou died in 1980, UNC-Chapel Hill put the home on the market.
Franklin Lovette of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Boone, North Carolina, bought the home in1981, but he died before ever moving in. His widow sold the house in 1984 to Duane and Ilsa Ruth Merritt, who ran it as a horse farm until 1988.
That’s when Gayle Winston, a native of Ashe County, bought the property—at least the 46 acres that were left. She set about acquiring additional property to expand River House holdings to 180 acres. She renovated the main house and many of the other buildings to create the historic River House Country Inn and Restaurant.
In 2009: Gayle Winston Honored with Order of Long Leaf Pine