University City

This quiet family enclave sits at heart of a bustling area

Most University City residents know well the annual October Mallard Creek Barbecue, a prized Charlotte institution.

The event brings out thousands of barbecue fans, and more local politicians gathered in one place anywhere this side of Raleigh.

What many may not know is that the main ingredient of that colossal undertaking originates from a hidden gem tucked away just across Ridge Road from the massive Highland Creek subdivision, on the farm and retreat complex of the Oehler (pronounced ale-er) family.

The current patriarch of the Mallard Creek family, J.W. Oehler, was the first general chairman of the annual barbecue, run by Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church.

He and sons Donnie and Craven have been chairmen and/or head meat cookers for virtually all of the event's 82-year history.

The family's ties to this area run deep. Several members have been associated for decades with the recently closed Mallard Creek Volunteer Fire Department.

Donnie Oehler is president and still actively involved with the North Mecklenburg Farmers Association, a group that has waned with the rapid shrinking of the area's rural, agricultural footprint.

The Oehler family complex, just across the Ridge Road entrance to Highland Creek, is a working farm of about 100 acres, in addition to being the home of a large retreat center, and the family also leases land nearby, where brothers Donnie and Craven still run cattle.

It also houses barbecue pits, a key ingredient of the annual event.

The retreat is a surprisingly serene spot of rural tranquility just a few hundred yards from the ever-increasing congestion of traffic and housing in the Ridge Road area.

"Many people living right across the street don't have any idea we are here," said Todd Oehler, a fourth-generation member of the clan who also runs Oehler Backhoe Services.

Entering on the gravel road and passing one of the family homes (many of the Oehlers still live here, with several houses scattered about the grounds), visitors see a sparkling green pond with a small pier and fishing dock, with a large barn and a small chapel for weddings behind and a fenced-in area to the side, with goats, donkeys and various fowl, including a few peacocks that freely roam the grounds.

The barn, which serves as the main covered area for dances, bingo games or whatever other events clients may request, is surrounded by softball and volleyball areas, a horseshoe pit and a large open field suitable for about any outdoor activity, including oft-requested hayrides.

The facilities and full barbecue catering can be rented by any group - visit - and the family members can cite a long list of well-known corporate clients' activities in addition to the many family reunions and wedding receptions held on their grounds.

Events with as many as 2,500 people have taken place on the site.

The family has seen more weddings in recent years in the quaint wooden chapel.

"People want to get married but be close to nature, and this is a place they can do that," said Todd Oehler.

He took a gentle poke at the generation gap with his explanation of the chapel, saying, "Dad is old school; he doesn't think people should be getting married in a barn."

The farm will stay as it is for the foreseeable future, as Donnie Oehler wants to have his grandchildren learn their roots with hands-on experience "instead of them sitting in front of a computer all day."

"We want to keep it country as long as we can," says Donnie Oehler. "As long as I'm alive, it'll never be sold, let's put it that way."