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From the Publisher’s Desk – Historic building receives new life

By Keith Whitson

It’s always been that way and it’s worked fine. Are there situations or things you are around so much that you can’t step back and look at them objectively? Many times over the years I have fallen into that category. I don’t stop to think of making something different or better, whether it is moving furniture at home, the design of this newspaper, my hair style or any other random thing.

Often we get stumped with the knowledge of what direction to go. Therefore, we put off the effort rather than to risk making a mistake. After all, it has been that way for years.

Sometimes it is easier to see need for change when it comes through someone else’s vision or advice to us. In  those moments, I usually look back and wonder why I didn’t see it that way before. I must say that it excites me to see some changes taking place locally – changes through some of our younger residents to benefit all of us. One such change is The Bramble, which I recall in its former days as A.R. Brown.

I remember, as a young boy, coming to Erwin with my mom. We lived on Spivey and didn’t have to go beyond town to find everything we needed. A.R. Brown’s store was fascinating to a this young boy. There were three entrances, Gay Street, Union Street and Main Street. The building had a large entrance off of Gay Street, with nice display windows and two large double doors.

Upon entering, the high ceilings and multiple displays caught my eye. There was clothing, groceries, numerous sizes of bolts, screws and handyman items,  a second floor beauty salon and more. I remember walking across the wooden floors and weaving my way from side to side in amazement.

One of my favorite sections was a display stand with assorted record albums. I was just starting to take an interest in music I heard on the radio and TV shows. Some of my early purchases included two recordings from the Archie’s, the Partridge Family and one of the Doobie Brothers.

After the store closed, it went through several owners who tried to find a marketable and fitting business direction for the old building. Working on Gay Street, I passed the outside facade daily and was saddened by its decline. With a desire to restore the beauty of the old building and a dream of a business to meet the needs of Erwin residents, Kristin Anders and Jamie Rice, co-owners of The Bramble, decided to give new life to the landmark.

After months and months of messy and tedious work, the building is being appreciated now by a younger generation, as well as being revisited by those who remember it in its day. Rice will tell you, they didn’t skimp on detail. What they do, they do right.

Since completion, the building has been the location for many celebrations and meetings. I have attended several of those. Saturday night was one of the best. The Bramble put together a Farm-to-Table event to support local farmers by using locally grown produce.

Upon entering the venue, guests were told to help themselves to iced tea, water, or coffee and to try a sample of grilled peach gazpacho shooters. We were shown to our seats, where tables were adorned in white spreads with brown paper runners. Atop those were small baskets turned on their sides, spilling out a display of tomatoes, cucumbers and greenery. Tea candles and soft lighting throughout brought sparkle to the white china and silverware.

The main farms participating were Scott’s Farms, Jones & Church, and Bruce Saldana. Not only were the food items mostly local, but the chefs were as well.

Chefs Rachelle Hyder and her husband, Jay Shurtz, created the menu for the event. The two previously worked for Four Seasons Resort in Vail, Colo. Rachelle was invited to, and prepared, food for the Olympics in Vancouver and Beijing. She is originally from Erwin and chose to come back, bringing her knowledge to Unicoi County High School as the culinary arts teacher.

How lucky we are to have these talents locally and her skills being taught to local students. The food was some of the best I’ve had in awhile with very unique and creative combinations to offer a great dining experience.

We were introduced to a decorative buffet-style service of corn and tomato salad, watermelon salad and candied bacon deviled eggs. The  main entree consisted of London broil, chimichurri and horseradish sauces, sauteed zucchini and yellow squash ribbons, roasted carrots and mushroom barley risotto. Dessert offerings were buttermilk panna cotta, blueberry compote and rosemary lemon cornmeal shortbread.

The night was made even better with music by Evan Kinney and his Dixieland Squirrel Skinners, a four member band playing foot-stomping folksongs. With a mix of fiddle, banjo, guitar and harmonica, the group provided a sweet harmony of sound throughout the night.

I commend The Bramble on bringing beauty and life back to the A.R. Brown building and for bringing new life to Erwin. Residents and business owners like these are taking the past and making it viable again in the present and future.