It was a year that most remember well. America’s young President Kennedy was shot, Elvis’ hit song Viva Las Vegas, and Elbert and Georgia Gwyn bought the small BRB&L Railroad Coach Car known as the Times Square Diner.
There wasn’t much to it in those days – just a small meeting place at the intersection of 194 and 19E where the towns of Elk Park, Banner Elk and Newland come to meet. The railroad coach car (once part of the Tweetsie Railroad) had replaced the original building that burned in the late 1930’s. The railroad was long gone by the 1960’s and Elk Park was like many small towns in those days, full of wonderful mountain folks who knew each other and felt part of a real community. Just a small sandwich / fountain shop, Times Square was purchased by Elbert and Georgia Gwyn, a couple who recognized that times were going to only get better for this growing area. They secured a loan ath the Carter County Bank to buy the place and the 3 acre parcel of land surrounding it.
It wasn’t long after the purchase that the Gwyn’s realized there was a little more to the “town gathering place”. It had become a bit of a hand out for teenagers looking for a fight and general mayhem. It took several months to clear up the trouble and make Times Square the family place that the Gwyn’s envisioned. Elbert was well suited for the task as he was still working for the North Carolina State Department of Corrections (he would later retire in the 1970’s and focus primarily on the Diner).
The menu was “scratch” all the way! Georgia even mixed the hamburger fresh by hand every day. She would use fresh eggs, salt, and pepper and add in her own breadcrumbs to the freshest ground beef she could find in the area. This meant checking with a couple of meat markets in the area, but anyone who knew Georgia, knew that she was a perfectionist about things (she ironed Elbert’s boxer shorts if that tells you anything!) The fresh hamburger mix would then be pressed into balls by hand and placed one at a time, on a vintage hand press you might find in an out of the way antique store. ( If anyone knows the whereabouts of the hamburger press, the Gwyn’s first grandchild has dibs on it). For breakfast, the biscuits were prepared by hand each morning with gravy made from bacon drippings.
Pizza was even on the menu for a time and all the soda was stored in floor, steel cases behind the main counter. Bottle of Coke, (the small ones) came first, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper – all lined up & organized just so. The far right corner of the coach car was ice cream shop. Cones and homemade shakes were an integral part of the Diner experience.
There was a little bit of a problem after a while – the small coach car couldn’t seat everyone who wanted to eat. With only a bar for about 6 and table seating for about 20, expansion became necessary. There had been an addition in the 60’s to the back area of the restaurant where Elbert sold furniture to locals. The inventory was primarily dining tables and chairs. But this area was not big enough or appropriate to become part of the restaurant, so an expansion was planned.
By the early 1970’s, the eating area was larger and the kitchen had gained in size as well. The furniture shop was converted to a Women’s Fabric Outlet. Georgia bought beautiful bolts of quilting and dress fabrics for the local women as she continued to oversee the food ordering and preparation. Elbert oversaw the general operations of the restaurant and finally retired from his service with the Department of Corrections. It was a busy, demanding time for them, but was really beginning to pay off financially.
There was probably a lot of temptation for Elbert and Georgia to enjoy the gains, but a bigger house perhaps, purchase nicer things, even travel. And this is what truly set them apart from most people we know today. The Gwyn’s were determined to build something solid and strong for their family. With three children, they wanted to ensure a good future and a family business that would mean something one day. They made tremendous sacrifices for this. They wanted to grow the business and invested the profits made back into the business and other opportunities that Elbert had his eye on. A commercial piece of property was purchase in Blowing Rock, a gas station bought in Elk Park and finally – The idea that put Times Square permanently on the map, the addition of an Inn just behind the diner. The tourist trade had really started to grow and there was a great opportunity not only to provide a meal to Blue Ridge Parkway guests or weary Grandfather Mountain hikers, but a good night’s lodging as well.
As one can imagine, home life for the Gwyn’s took a back seat to the Diner. Running a restaurant is much like a 24 hour a day job and now that tourists would be stopping in at all hours to rent a room at the Inn, Elbert and Georgia decided that it was time to leave their small home in downtown Elk Park and move closer to the business. So they move into the Inn. What started as a temporary move to handle thing on – size, turned into a couple of years living in Room 5. Their youngest daughter who still lived with them, lived in Room 6. After a couple of year’s the strain was really growing, so the Gwyn’s built a family home between the Diner and the Inn. Georgia loved flowers and gardening, she was very talented in needlepoint, but she had to focus on the business and often the hobbies she loved to a backseat.
And so this continued for nearly forty years. The Gwyn’s loved the community and no one enjoyed seeing customers come in everyday as much as they. In their lifetime, Elbert and Georgia built some of the most incredible friendships one can imagine. They were the best parents one could ask for and made sure that their three children would have something many years later that would carry them through. They were beloved and loving grandparents – at times like second parents more than anything else.
One can imagine the love and the dedication to the family and community. As Keith Allen Vance would later write in a letter after Georgia’s death, ” Many lives merged together when the Times Square opened.” For anyone who ever came in for directions and had Georgia tell them, you can’t get there from here” or caused any trouble and had Elbert tell them “this is a family restaurant now and we don’t need any of that”, all are welcomed back anytime to eat and remember.
“Great remodel, pleasant wait staff, and amazing country fried chicken and gravy. Well done. Just go! Husband had the build your own hamburger and the owner/manager walked by and thanked everyone for coming.”
“Ate lunch there and the burgers are awesome! Highly recommend them and the prices are reasonable.”
“Table of 4 and we all loved our lunch! I must taste that bacon and French toast next time, looked awesome! Yum!!!! “