Gaston & Catawba

A heaping helping of history at Inn of the Patriots

Two patriots. Two journeys.

Threads of Americana I recently connected with in Grover – a small town in Cleveland County on the S.C. line.

In a nearby cemetery is the grave of Lt. Col. Frederick Hambright, a patriot commander at the Battle of Kings Mountain in the Revolutionary War.

In a two-story house built by Hambright's great-great-grandson is a new business – the Inn of the Patriots Bed & Breakfast and Presidential Culinary Museum, which opened in April.

The proprietor, 21-year Navy veteran Martin Mongiello (pronounced Mon-jello), was executive chef at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, from 1993 to 1996.

When I found out about this guy from a Cleveland County Tourism news release, I knew I had to meet him.

So I headed south on Interstate 85 to the former mill town named after President Grover Cleveland.

You might think the Inn of the Patriots is off the beaten track. But the way Mongiello sees it, he's in the middle of a vibrant region filled with interesting things to do.

He's offering a quiet, laid-back base of operations for exploring the greater area – from the nearby Kings Mountain National Military Park and Outlet Mall in Gaffney, S.C., to the Biltmore House in Asheville and Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont.

American history is the B&B's theme, with a focus on Frederick Hambright. Mongiello feels a strong connection with the colonel.

Hambright was 11 when he left Germany and landed in Philadelphia. Later, he moved to North Carolina and farmed along the South Fork River in Lincoln County.

On Oct. 7, 1780, Hambright fought the Loyalists at Kings Mountain, shouting commands to his Catawba Valley troops in a thick German accent.

Three musket balls whizzed through his hat. A fourth ball ripped into his leg. Hambright was treated at a nearby farmhouse by a woman he later married. They spent the rest of their lives a few miles from present-day Grover.

The Inn of the Patriots is in a house built in 1879 by Dr. Alfred Hambright, assistant surgeon to Confederate generals A.P. Hill and T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Bill Clinton's favorite food

Mongiello,42, grew up in Philadelphia in an Italian-German household. He described it as “spaghetti, meatballs, ravioli and people yelling at the tops of their lungs.”

His mom was a great cook. He wanted to be a cook someday. At 14, he started working in restaurants – washing dishes, sweeping, doing odd jobs.

From the pancake grill to the meat grill, Mongiello worked his way up the culinary ladder.

Then he joined the Navy. His first assignment: cooking aboard a nuclear sub based out of Charleston.

Submariners take their food very seriously, he learned. When chow time rolls around, the cook had better deliver.

Many of the crew members on that first sub were from down South. Mongiello had to learn how to satisfy their taste buds.

He branched out, buying gourmet cookbooks. Mongiello told me he tested the gourmet fare with officers and as a result landed private catering jobs at their homes.

His reputation grew, and he interviewed for a three-year tour of duty with the Camp David cooking staff. The interview process started during the presidential term of George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton was in the White House when his security clearance came through.

Mongiello worked at Camp David but said he was often drafted to help at White House state dinners.

First lady Hillary Clinton's expectations for heart-healthy fare pushed Mongiello to try new things.

“The Clintons would say they wanted a birthday cake for that evening with no oil, fat, lard, butter, eggs or white flour,” he said.

“I was learning to cook all over again. I learned no-fat cooking.”

According to Mongiello, Bill Clinton's favorite food was bananas; Hillary was crazy about mangoes.

Melding personal and local history

In 2004, Mongiello left the Navy. He joined a New York-based marketing company as a traveling troubleshooter and consultant for hotels and resorts.

A job at a country club took him to Jackson, Tenn. While attending church there, he met Stormy LeAnn Neal, 36, of Kings Mountain. She was a Navy veteran who was working for an electrical contracting company.

Mongiello said he proposed to Neal on his knees, in front of her family, at Rodi Med-American Grill in Gastonia. They married in April at the inn.

So there it is, tucked away on a shady residential street in Grover: the Inn of the Patriots, complete with a spa and salon and vegetable garden. The presidential culinary collection has mugs, cups and glasses and photos of Mongiello with Bill and Hillary Clinton, among other notables. (He gives free museum tours on Saturdays.)

The innkeeper is tapping into his own past while mining local history and culture. And he's serving it up in new ways. Col. Frederick Hambright would be proud.