25 Years at The Cove, Part I: The Place

By   •   December 2, 2013

Cove property in fall

The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove is a 1,200-acre Bible training and retreat center in Asheville, N.C., designed to encourage, refresh and empower believers who want to deepen their faith. The first seminars took place in the fall of 1988. This is the first of a three-part series celebrating 25 years of ministry at The Cove.

Mel Graham can still picture his father’s face just hours after he discovered a unique tract of land tucked away in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

“I remember Daddy telling me he was all excited that night when he got home,” Mel recalled. “He said, ‘You’ll never believe what we found from the airplane.'”

The Cove from the air
The Cove from the Air

It was the early 1970s and Melvin Graham, Mel’s father, had been scoping out property from a twin engine prop plane. The farmer and land developer was on his way home to Charlotte when he asked the pilot to fly over Asheville, N.C. Interstate 40 was still under construction in the western North Carolina mountains.

They were flying along the interstate, and he noticed the interchange we know now as exit 55,” Mel said. “It just dead-ended right into this mountain at the edge of a piece of property. My dad got the pilot to circle the plane around, and they saw that cove—that perfect little pocket of land.”

The next day, Melvin Graham climbed into his pickup truck and drove back to the spot to investigate.

The pristine, 1,500-acre property was available for purchase. It was one of just a handful of private lots in the entire country situated right off an interstate exit.

Melvin Graham immediately thought of his older brother, who, along with his wife, had been praying for a place where people could escape the demands of daily life and focus on God’s Word.

He knew he had found that place. It was time to call his brother, Billy.

Becoming The Cove

“It’s like you’re in a different world.”

“It’s beautiful—the view, the peace and quiet.”

“The whole atmosphere just has the peace of Jesus that passes all understanding.”

Those are some of the most recent depictions of The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, as described by visitors during the annual open house in May, 2013.

Cove anniversary bannerCelebrating its 25th anniversary this year,The Cove is now a 1,200-acre retreat center with five cabins, two inns (with 135 guest rooms), a 70,000-square-foot training center that includes a bookstore, auditorium and full-service dining room, an administration building and a chapel that doubles as a visitor’s center.

But the most cherished parts of The Cove are the ones where man has left the smallest footprint—the hiking trails, the trickling streams and the spectacular views of the mountain overlook.

“We’re very grateful for this piece of property,” said Will Graham, grandson of Billy Graham and son of BGEA president and CEO, Franklin Graham. Will is a third-generation evangelist and executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.

“Supposedly, there’s a cave on the property,” Will said. “I haven’t been able to find it yet. I’ve been on this land probably more than anybody else, and there are still things I haven’t seen.”

After the BGEA bought the property in 1972, it sat vacant for a decade. Will remembers roaming the mountainside as a child, exploring the woods and catching turtles.

At first, the BGEA didn’t quite know what to do with the land that would become The Cove.

Billy and Ruth Graham had a vision of using the space as a peaceful retreat—a place where Christians could dive into the Word of God and learn from the world’s best Bible teachers.

Most agreed it was a noble idea, but not everyone could see how it fit in with the ministry’s mission of evangelism.

“My granddaddy was taking a lot of flack for this piece of property,” Will said. “We just sat on it for a long time.”

As support for The Cove grew, a new ministry was born. Construction began during the mid 1980s, with the first seminar held in the fall of 1988. Since then, more than 800,000 people have visited The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove to study God’s Word and grow in their faith.

Foundation of Prayer

Before a single guest ever drove through the gates, Billy and Ruth Graham walked the property, praying.

Billy and Ruth Graham
Ruth and Billy Graham

“We’ve marked it off now, but they took some stones and kind of made a little prayer altar and just committed the property to the Lord,” said Scott Holmquist, who started working at The Cove in 1989 and served as executive director from 2005-2012. “Prayer was the absolute foundation of everything.”

The Cove is still a place of prayer. The entire property is set up to be conducive to quiet reflection and time with God.

Whether it’s the wooden deck overlooking the valley, a cozy chair by the fireplace or a wooded trail leading up the mountain, it would be difficult to visit The Cove and not discover a quiet place to be still and know that God is there.

There are no televisions at The Cove—a purposeful omission to encourage visitors who are constantly “on” to hit the “off” button on life’s distractions. Of course, there are still occasional interruptions, but at The Cove, they’re more likely to come straight from nature than from the latest technology.

Turkeys, Bears, Bobcats and…Cows?

One of the great delights of a visit to The Cove is a wildlife spotting.

“I’ve seen as many as 16 deer at one time,” Scott Holmquist said. “I’ve seen bears many times. Rattlesnakes. Bobcats.”

For Will Graham, the most common wildlife encounters tend to involve turkeys. The big birds are all over The Cove.

Turkeys: A Common Sight at The Cove

“We’ve got a mirror out here,” Will said. “The turkeys will see themselves in the mirror and swell up. They’re all fluffy, and then they walk past it and look back, all confused—what happened to the turkey? I’ve actually videotaped that.

“And then we had two of them that were just like the Billy Goats Gruff. ‘You can’t cross this bridge.’ These two turkeys sat there and would chase you and your car.”

While stories involving turkeys, bears and bobcats are plenty, the most unusual situation involved a herd of animals you wouldn’t expect to find roaming the mountains.

“There was a livestock truck on the interstate that was involved in an accident,” Holmquist recalled. “And some cows got loose. So you’ve got these cows on the interstate. You don’t want a car to hit a cow. So they herded them into The Cove.

“They were just everywhere,” Holmquist laughed. “Up in the woods. So we contacted the farmer and he said, ‘You’ve gotta figure it out.’ Well, he did eventually come back and get his cows. But for a while there, we had roaming cows at The Cove.

“And we did not have extra hamburger that week. We just let him get his cows.”

Complementing Nature

Cows notwithstanding, The Cove has always been a place where man and nature coexist. The wood and stone buildings are beautiful without being flashy. They blend in with their surroundings, complementing the wooded mountainside.

Chatlos Memorial Chapel

The Grahams were insistent on keeping the natural beauty of the property intact. They used a crane to build the chapel, in order to avoid cutting down trees. They also used “recycled” pews inside the building instead of ordering new ones. The pews are from the Royal School for the Blind, founded in London in 1799. The pulpit, from the Church of England, is believed to be more than 400 years old. Ruth Graham had a knack for hunting down antiques and re-purposing them.

The steeple, however, was built to order, and Mrs. Graham had a very specific vision for it (a story for the next part of this series).

‘It’s No Accident’

Melvin Graham
Melvin Graham

The Cove first opened in 1988, but it wasn’t until 1993 that the BGEA officially had it dedicated. It was a rainy day in May, and the property had undergone a transformation. But the new buildings didn’t take away from the beauty Melvin Graham had noticed 20 years earlier when he spotted “that perfect little pocket of land.”

“Fast forward to today, and Daddy has changed addresses on us,” Mel Graham talked about The Cove’s discoverer.
“He’s in heaven, and I’m serving on the BGEA board. I get up to The Cove several times a year. Every time I pull through the gates I think of how God just used Daddy in a unique way to play a small role in finding that property—in a most unique manner.”

What was once an empty plot with a gravel road and a chain link fence is now a place where thousands take refuge from the dizzying pace of life and connect—in some cases, for the first time—with God’s peace.

When Mel sees The Cove, he sees Billy and Ruth Graham’s vision playing out on the side of the mountain, and he knows God arranged it all.

“To share the Gospel with countless thousands over these decades, it’s remarkable,” Mel said. “And it’s no accident. When Daddy found that piece of property, it was what God intended.”

Cove training center

To find out more about the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, click here.

To read the second installment of this three-part series, click here.