Randy Johnson: One of Grandfather Mountain’s Mysteries, Unraveled

Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon, by Randy Johnson, book coverWith its prominent profile recognizable for miles around and featuring vistas among the most beloved in the Appalachians, North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain is many things to many people: an easily recognized landmark along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a popular tourist destination, a site of annual Highland Games, and an internationally recognized nature preserve. In this definitive book, Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon, Randy Johnson guides readers on a journey through the mountain’s history, from its geological beginnings millennia ago and the early days of exploration to its role in regional development and eventual establishment as a North Carolina state park. Along the way, he shows how Grandfather has changed, and has been changed by, the people of western North Carolina and beyond.

In today’s guest post, Johnson unravels one of the mysteries of the mountain: the tragic story of a young scientist who died there in 1931.

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Grandfather Mountain is one of the most beloved peaks in the Appalachians and when I set out to write Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon, my goal was to tell the mountain’s story through the eyes of generations of people who love Grandfather.

Portrait of Worth H. Weller

Worth Weller was a handsome, brilliant young man who let the prospect of discovering a new species of salamander lure him to tragedy in Grandfather Mountain’s virgin forest. Courtesy of Worth H. Weller.

In the late 1970s, when owner Hugh Morton closed the mountain’s trails after a hiker had died, I proposed a backcountry management program to make the trails safe and persuaded Morton to hire me to reopen the deteriorating paths. I often hiked the mountain alone as trail manager and one of the mysteries that frequently crossed my mind was the strange death of Worth Hamilton Weller.

The brilliant young herpetologist had already discovered his first unknown species of salamander and was a noted scientist by the age of 18.  He’d also fallen in love with Grandfather and ended up perishing on the mountain in 1931. Not much more was widely known about the tragic story.

I discovered some lesser-known sources of information but his story remained one of the mysteries that Grandfather had refused to reveal. I set out to dig deeper, located members of his family and helped them donate Weller’s high school journal and other artifacts to the Cincinnati Museum Center, where young Worth was actually the institution’s herpetologist.

Amazingly, the mystery really unraveled when I corresponded with and then interviewed Weller’s 97-year-old high school sweetheart Margaret “Maggie” Talbert. She painted an inspiring picture of the passionate young scientist and filled in details that literally permitted me to hypothesize where he’d died on the mountain.

photo of sixteen-year-old Maggie Talbert

In 1930, Margaret Talbert was a shy sixteen-year-old smitten with eighteen-year-old “Buzz” Weller. At first she wasn’t sure, but by 1931, the year Weller plunged off Grandfather, “Maggie” was his girlfriend. Decades later, Weller’s boyhood friend Karl Maslowski recalled, “Buzz was crazy for Maggie.” When I first interviewed Talbert in 2012, memories of her youthful love were so distant she was “grateful just to be able to talk about him. After all this time, you can’t imagine how much this means to me,” she confessed. “I can’t believe I’m still having wonderful things happen concerning Buzz.” Randy Johnson Collection.

In late June 1931, Weller left his Cincinnati home and visited Grandfather with museum chaperones and a group of young naturalists. As a massive storm approached, he left his campsite alone on a salamander search and never returned. Four days later, he was found dead at the base of a waterfall. Clutched in his hands was a pack containing his second unknown species of salamander. “It’s beautiful, the whole story, isn’t it,” Maggie Talbert told me. “If there’s such a thing as a beautiful death, he had one.”

Weller’s is one of many Grandfather stories I tell in the nonfiction book that I’m flattered to say former Our State editor Vicky Jarret said, “reads like a James Michener novel.”

Much more of Weller’s tale is told in the book, including his budding romance with Maggie Talbert. The young couple never had a life together and it was important to me that history record their story.

Maggie Talbert on her 101st birthday with a copy of Grandfather Mountain

Maggie Talbert on her 101st birthday with a copy of Grandfather Mountain. Photo by Ellie Lenarduzzi. Collection of Randy Johnson.

As the book neared publication, it became even more important that Maggie see it. A month or so ago, on her 101st birthday in May 2016, Maggie received one of the earliest copies and was able to see her and Worth together again. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

It is a writer’s privilege to tell untold tales. Luckily for this writer, the story of “our Grandfather’s” past is full of stirring incidents somehow overlooked.

Randy Johnson is an accomplished travel editor and writer. He founded Grandfather Mountain’s modern trail management program in 1978, was backcountry manager until 1990, and serves on Grandfather Mountain State Park’s Advisory Committee. His book, Grandfather Mountain: The History and Guide to an Appalachian Icon, is now available. See his author page on our website for upcoming events and video of recent appearances on NC Bookwatch and Charlotte Today