Creative Bulldozing, Snow Machines and Foreclosures: The Story of Sky Valley

The history of Sky Valley is a story of risk-taking and national economic cycles. This explains why Sky Valley developed in a totally different way than anyplace else in Rabun County or northeast Georgia, for that matter.

For one thing, Scots-Irish immigrants came to this part of Georgia in search of cheap farmland in the early 1800s, while a ski resort drew people to a remote and sparsely populated Sky Valley in the1970s. For another, Rabun County was a poor and insulated area throughout much of its history, but Sky Valley prospered and suffered with the turns of the national economy.

Two Real Estate Developers

Two developers laid out the different path traversed by Sky Valley. Rabun County native Larry McClure moved to a booming Atlanta in the 1960s to make his fortune in real estate. While there, he met Dr. Miles Mason, Jr. The two became partners in land development ventures.

McClure knew that land in his home county was inexpensive and available in large tracts. He also knew Rabun County was becoming attractive to people seeking summer homes in the mountains of north Georgia.

Acting on these investment-worthy considerations, McClure and Mason purchased the King estate in 1966, a large tract of land several miles east of Clayton, to develop it into a golf resort. Kingwood, as it was named, did well in the summer months, but golf in the southern Appalachians is not a winter sport. Between mid-November and April, Kingwood was virtually deserted, a situation less than conducive to the resort’s financial health. Something else was needed.

Frank Rickman Enters The Scene

Enter Frank Rickman, one of McClure’s boyhood friends, who was hired to oversee construction of Kingwood. Upon visiting the resort area of Blowing Rock, North Carolina, he told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine that “I looked up and saw a little old ski slope they had there. I ran back and told Larry that’s what he ought’a do. But me bein’ a bulldozer man and all, everybody said it wouldn’t work. Larry said, ‘You got the guts to spend my money in a cotton field trying to make snow?’ ”

But Rickman’s idea intrigued McClure and Mason. If skiing was realistic, they thought, it might be the cure for Kingwood’s low winter occupancy. Kingwood, however, lacked the proper terrain for a ski facility.

Mud Creek Valley

At McClure’s direction, Rickman scouted the county to find a site for a ski facility. His search eventually took him to remote Mud Creek Valley, just off Highway 246 between Dillard and Highlands, North Carolina. The area is nestled in the northwest slope of 4,700-foot Rabun Bald, the second highest mountain in Georgia.

Though impressed by the sheer beauty of the valley, McClure and Mason were skeptical about the practicality of skiing in Rabun County. To be certain, they hired a firm to undertake a feasibility study. The winds and general conditions on Rabun Bald and nearby Alex Mountain were evaluated. Most importantly, the firm determined that in any given winter, 80 to 120 days of 28-degree or lower temperatures could be expected in northern Rabun County. Based on these positive findings, the developers decided to move ahead.

Georgia’s First Ski Facility Opens in 1970

In 1968, McClure and Mason bought Square D Ranch, a 400-acre cattle operation in Mud Creek Valley. The base elevation of the land was 3,200 feet, with the property line extending up to 4,000 feet on Alex Mountain. Over time, the partners acquired an additional 2,000 acres in the valley.

The developers opened Georgia’s first skiing facility in 1970 as a limited experiment. The event was a rousing success. According to Sandra McClure, Larry’s wife, “The crowds of people there were so thick you couldn’t stir them with a stick.”

Mud Valley Becomes Sky Valley

Since Kingwood was too far away to host skiers, McClure and Mason decided to build a full-blown ski resort. Of course, Mud Creek Valley was not the most desirable name for an upscale resort from a marketing perspective. McClure credited former Governor Ernest Vandiver for naming the area Sky Valley. Vandiver allegedly said, “Sun Valley (Idaho) has the sun. You have the sky and a valley.”

With the decision to proceed, Frank Rickman took center stage. He was a colorful character. Rickman was fond of saying he was born in the Rabun County jail, where his father, Sheriff Luther Rickman, lived with his family. The Atlanta Weekly newspaper described him as “a bruising, brawling, bulldozer-driving, wild hog-hunting, tall tale-telling Old Mountain Boy.” He did not deny any of this.

Practitioner of Creative Bulldozing

Rickman also was widely known as a quality, intuitive builder of almost anything. A practitioner of what he called “creative bulldozing,” he demonstrated his skill by building a network of roads winding through the development. Without any detailed plan, Rickman simply “eyeballed” the roads into the valley’s steep mountainsides, making them fit naturally into the terrain. As he once said, “Anything I build or design is good only if, when I’m finished, you can’t tell I’ve done a thing.”

The entrance to Sky Valley was planned as a road off Highway 106 leading across a covered bridge. Rickman’s covered bridge was built, but the Georgia Department of Transportation vetoed the plan, since the entrance was on a curve in the highway with limited sight distance. The entrance to the resort became today’s Mud Creek Road. The covered bridge still can be seen just north of the overlook on Highway 106.

Bavarian-Style Ski Lodge With Blue Ridge Flair

Rickman then turned his attention to building the resort’s ski lodge. The Atlanta Weekly reported that the Bavarian-style lodge was constructed in the “Frank Rickman style—that is, with the macho touch of rural ruggedness—all without printed plans or blueprints.”

Rickman strived for originality in the 22,000-square-foot lodge and incorporated design ideas as they occurred to him. He achieved an Alpine flavor with steep gables, each 40-feet high. But inside, the lodge became distinctively Blue Ridge with its large fireplace, hand-carved woodwork and a huge center post cut from what Rickman said was the second largest pine in Georgia. He had to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to take the enormous tree down.

Skiers Flock To Sky Valley Resort

Once the resort was up and running by 1972, skiers flocked to Sky Valley. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine reported, “Triumph Spitfires and Corvettes with ski racks and chic ecology decals on the rear; family sedans with candy-smeared back windows; mud-splattered three-quarter ton trucks with stereo tape decks in the cabs and skis rattling around in hay straw and manure in the beds: they all wind their way through the snowy woodlands of north Georgia…” to Sky Valley Resort.

Among the resort’s employees were six Austrian ski instructors, who were hired as much for their musical and yodeling abilities as for their skiing. They taught shushing during the day and entertained guests in the lodge at night with singing and dancing.

Snowmaking Machines

Sky Valley Resort would have been a short-lived venture if it had depended on natural snowfall.  The 80 to 120 days of 28-degree weather that had been predicted in the feasibility study never materialized. During one winter, skiing was possible for only 35 days.

Snowmaking machines were purchased to lengthen the ski season. When the temperature was 28 degrees or lower, the machines ran around the clock to keep three feet of snow on the slopes from mid-December to mid-March.

But even with a three-month season, the developers knew the ski resort, by itself, would never be a profitable enterprise. To remedy the problem, a first-class golf course was built to make Sky Valley a year-round resort. However, selling residential lots, condominiums and time-shares was intended to be the resort’s most lucrative venture.

Perfect Economic Storm In 1975

McClure and Mason were pleased with the resort’s financial progress until 1975. That was the year when a perfect storm sank the U.S. economy into a steep recession. Interest rates rose to an astonishing 20%. Compounding the situation was a shortage of crude oil orchestrated by the OPEC cartel. Gas prices skyrocketed. The impact on Sky Valley was severe and immediate. Skiers and golfers ceased visiting the resort, and people canceled plans to buy vacation home sites.

Although the resort’s financial woes were ongoing, Sky Valley was incorporated as a municipality in 1978, becoming Georgia’s newest as well as highest city. Larry McClure was elected the town’s first mayor; his wife was named City Voter Registrar. The affairs of the town of Sky Valley continued to be controlled by the resort’s developers.

Resort Files For Bankruptcy

The impact of Sky Valley’s deteriorating financial condition on McClure forced him to sell controlling interest to his partner in 1984. Mason and his sons tried to keep the resort afloat, but bank lenders foreclosed on the ski resort, golf course and related facilities. Mason filed for bankruptcy in 1987. The resort continued to operate under bankruptcy protection, but the banks eventually put the resort’s properties up for sale at auction.

The city of Sky Valley lacked the resources to fund the recovery of the ailing community. To raise money to repair roads and a failing water system, voters approved a $1.7 million bond issue in 1987. Voters also agreed to levy a property tax, the proceeds of which were earmarked for paying off the bond issuance.

Skiing Discontinued

The investment group that acquired the resort from the banks discontinued skiing at Sky Valley in 2004 to save money. The resort then went through several subsequent rounds of new investors and owners.

But the resort’s financial difficulties were not at an end. The Great Recession of 2007-2008 wreaked havoc on Sky Valley. Tourism plummeted. Lending banks again foreclosed on the golf course, which remained in limbo for three years under bank ownership.

Golf Course Acquired By Local Residents

A group of local residents took matters into their own hands. Since no bank was willing to finance a golf course, the group developed a plan to raise the money for acquiring the course by selling 100 shares of stock in Sky Valley, Inc. for $10,000 a share. The stock issuance sold out, and the golf course was purchased from the banks in 2012. Sky Valley finally was freed from bank lenders.

Sky Valley has prospered since the buyout. The town is recognized today as a first-class golf resort. It also is a vibrant community of upscale summer homes. The town has come a long way from the time when it was developed on a Mud Creek Valley cattle ranch. And the legacy of Frank Rickman, the bruising, brawling impresario of the bulldozer, lives on in Sky Valley’s mountain roads and old ski lodge.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia magazine in September 2022.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.