Episode of ‘Lassie’ filmed in Pisgah

Story written by Cradle of Forestry Heritage Site volunteer caretaker Bob Beanblossom and published in Blue Ridge Now. Click here for the original post.

Based upon a 1938 short story, which was later adapted into a full-length novel, by English-American author Eric Knight, “Lassie” became the subject of several movies and a popular television series which ran from 1954 through 1973 — making it the fourth longest-running series in television history.

The television show is best remembered when Lassie was owned by the fictional Martin family, with Paul (actor Hugh Reilly), Ruth (June Lockhart) and Timmy (Jon Provost). But when Provost decided to leave the show in 1964, the script was rewritten and Lassie came to be “owned” by a U.S. Forest Service ranger when the Martin family moved to Australia.

In May of 1966 an episode of the show was filmed in Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina. Scenes were shot at Sliding Rock and the Black Forest Lodge, then located on Rock House Creek near Brevard.

Lassie was accompanied by actor Bob Bray, who portrayed Forest Ranger Corey Stuart in the series. The plot revolved around Lassie, a young mountain girl – Maggie Paggett played by actress Hilary Thompson— and her pet fox, Riddle.

When Maggie’s neighbor, Leroy Haskins, turns his fox hounds loose on Riddle, Lassie saves the day by taking on Riddle’s scent and leading his hounds in an opposite direction, and near the end Leroy and Lassie go over a waterfall. According to the actor who played Leroy Haskins, David Drake, Lassie did not actually make the plunge over Sliding Rock because Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie’s owner and trainer, would never permit Lassie to perform such a shot herself. After all, he was a star! Instead another dog was used as a stunt double.

The scenes shot on the Pisgah were part of a seven-part series titled “The Voyager.” The series was written in support of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Discover America Program.” The first episode takes place in Ocala National Forest in Florida where Ranger Stuart is completing a project to develop trees that were to be used as “tidal wave breaks” and prevent erosion.

The newly developed trees were to be shipped to Hawaii; but as they were being loaded on a freighter, a hurricane separates Lassie and Ranger Stuart. As the hurricane eye passes over, Lassie becomes confused and boards the wrong freighter, one that is headed for the Virginia coast.

The remainder of the adventure revolves around Lassie’s travels while searching for and being united with her master and includes the stop in Pisgah National Forest. The episode aired Nov. 6, 1966.

Despite rainy weather which plagued the filming, numerous Transylvania County residents turned out to get a look at the famous dog. Producers and directors of the show also revealed that they were delighted to have such a large audience on hand and disclosed that Lassie was a real ham and performed best when she was before a large crowd.

On the final day of filming, scenes were also shot at the Biltmore Estate. Keith Argow, currently the president of the Woodlands Owners of America in Washington, D.C., was an assistant district ranger on the Pisgah District at the time and served as the Forest Service liaison with the show during filming.

“I remember the incident very well,” Argow reminisced. “I spent quite a bit of time with the team and hoped to find them some sunshine!” Argow also remembers the rainy weather delaying the departure of the TV cast and crew from the Asheville airport; and he hosted a cast party at his home in Brevard for them.

In 1968 Bob Bray left the series. He was written out of the script and Forest Ranger Cory Stuart was last seen in “The Holocaust,” a two-part episode in 1968, where he suffers serious injuries that required extensive treatments sustained while fighting a forest fire. He left the show and never was to act again.

A copy of a portion of the episode can be viewed about 43 minutes into the following link, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra7aGiIUCos.

Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, retired from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources after a 42-year career with that agency. A freelance writer, he and his wife are the volunteer caretakers at the Cradle of Forestry in America. He can be reached at r.beanblossom1862@outlook.com.