In the ring, Andre the Giant stood 7-foot-4 and weighed 500 pounds – a behemoth in a black unitard, a body-slamming champion who earned millions grappling with Gorilla Monsoon, Hulk Hogan and Big John Studd.
But when bones broke and bruises flared, the French-born wrestler fled to a peaceful spot free of gawkers and autograph seekers: his ranch in Ellerbe, just 90 miles southwest of Raleigh.
For the last decade of his life, Andre Roussimoff tooled around rural Richmond County on a Honda three-wheeler, raising Texas longhorns and partying in the woods with his muscle-bound friends. When he died in 1993, those same wrestlers gathered to spread his ashes on the farm, where Hogan himself gave a tearful eulogy.
Now this obscure piece of North Carolina history is up for auction after being in the hands of a string of owners for two decades. Auctioneers hope to attract bidders for the 46-acre estate who want a chance to mingle with the spirit of the man who wore size 26 shoes.
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You won’t find an oak tree growing through the middle of the house anymore, as it did in Andre’s time. The recliner custom-built for a giant is long gone. But to locals who knew Andre, the land is forever connected with the sweet-natured colossus who lived there.
“Andre could be a regular person at that house,” said Jackie Mcauley, his longtime ranchmate in Ellerbe. “He liked the rural nature of it. He liked the peace and quiet. He would get up in the morning and drive down to the Dixie Burger and have coffee.”
Born with a form of pituitary gigantism, Andre had grown to 6-foot-7 as a teenager. In 1981, the world knew no greater wrestling star. Sports Illustrated gave him one of its longest-ever profiles, the first wrestler to appear on its cover. He posed for a picture with Muhammad Ali, the boxer’s hand looking tiny in Andre’s paw.
He brought his outsized reputation to North Carolina, being well-known for a drinking regimen that typically ran to a case of beer and several bottles of wine per day.
“He invited me out and we had a few beers,” remembered fellow wrestler Ivan Koloff, The Russian Bear, now an ordained minister in Greenville. “He had those high doors because of his height. Tried to keep up drinking with Andre. No contest there.”
But people enjoyed him in Ellerbe. He appeared at Lions Club events, a child holding each of his fingers. He bought an oversized chain-saw to use on his land, tipping the hardware store nearly $100.
He’d come to North Carolina at the suggestion of wrestler friends around Charlotte, including Dino Bravo, and he brought his fellow wrestler-referee-confidante Frenchy Bernard to help him with livestock and improving his English. Mcauley, then Frenchy’s wife, recalled Andre riding his three-wheeler with their Rhodesian ridgebacks running alongside, taking them to swim in his pond each day.
“He’d call that walking the dogs,” she said.
At 3,500 square feet, the three-story house features a rock fireplace, jacuzzi and dome skylight. The auctioneer has described it as Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, and many visitors have said it reminds them of a castle. But Mcauley said she never felt comfortable there. She recalled Andre having to turn his feet sideways to make it up a narrow staircase.
The land to be auctioned includes a pair of streams, a barbecue house and a workshop. It will be divided into two tracts for the auction. Another portion of Andre’s original land sold shortly after his death, including the ranch where his ashes were spread.
News of the auction brought memories to old friend Darol Dickenson, who supplied Andre with longhorns and spent many nights on the Ellerbe ranch. He recalled their bizarre connection in his self-published autobiography “Fillet of Horn II,” in which he recalls becoming a rancher guru to the animal-loving wrestler.
“He would get out there on that little three-wheeler and feed the cattle,” Dickinson said. “That was his relaxation.”
By Dickinson’s memory, Andre the Giant would watch movies in his custom recliner until dawn and then fill his house with thunderous snoring. When his wrestler friends were in town, they would roast a pig, drink themselves wobbly and then attempt to brand Andre’s cattle.
“You can’t have a bunch of drunk WWF wrestlers branding your calves,” Dickinson said. “I told Andre, ‘Those are the worst brands I have ever seen in my life. They look like a bird’s nest.’”
Dickinson was also present for the funeral in 1993, when Andre’s 17 pounds of ashes were spread by Frenchy Bernard on horseback.
It’s a shame, said Koloff the ex-wrestler, that the property can’t be preserved as historical property. To Koloff, who wrestled him and lost despite being on the side with a three-man advantage, Andre was history. The ground in Ellerbe still bears his deep footprints.