I'd heard rumors about the folks who lived in the Spanish bungalow.
An older woman wrote for silent movies. Her reclusive daughter painted self-portraits in the nude.
So I'd heard.
Growing up in Shelby, I knew the house on West Warren Street was called El Nido because a sign out front said so. A grown-up explained that meant “The Nest” in Spanish.
The way the story went, a young mountain doctor and his wife began a journey in the early 1920s, hoping it would lead to a new life in California. For some reason, they settled in Shelby and built the Spanish bungalow as a monument to the lost dream.
I was an adult when I finally got to visit the home. In the early 1980s, I interviewed Ray Gibbs, who'd lived there alone since her mother, Maude, died in 1969.
Ray Gibbs only let me see the front part of the house. I remember bulky, Spanish-style furniture, thick floor tile and a feeling I'd seen the room before in an old movie.
My conversation with Gibbs was about historic preservation. She was pleasant and kind and happy to chat with an admirer of El Nido. It was obvious she loved the house.
We never met again. Gibbs died in 2007 at 92. And it was then, as she had set forth in her will, that El Nido passed into the hands of Preservation North Carolina. The house and all her stuff.
The stuff – tons of it – has been thoroughly inventoried. The El Nido story has been enlarged.
I've talked to the folks who spent months reading Ray Gibbs' letters and diaries written when she was young.
And I've seen the fascinating “El Nido Art and Artifacts” exhibit at the Cleveland County Arts Museum in Shelby.
The collection includes photos of the young Asheville man who dated Ray Gibbs in the 1930s. According to her letters, which aren't available in the exhibit, the couple might have married if Gibbs' strong-willed mother hadn't objected.
As far as I know, the paintings in the exhibit form Gibbs' only public art show. She painted flowers and landscapes and a few female nudes. The nudes aren't self-portraits; they're more like images of Roman goddesses.
No movie scripts have turned up yet. But in boxes stored in Preservation North Carolina's southwest office in Shelby, I found a typewritten manuscript with “Ray” scribbled on the front. It's a passionate anti-war fantasy set during World War I.
Ray Gibbs was no more a mystery than any of us. She was talented, interesting and private.
I'm glad she hung onto a property that embodied her parents' dreams and stirred the imaginations of countless others. And I'm thankful she was generous enough to give her beloved El Nido to an organization that will look after it.