President John F. Kennedy asked, “How do you like the green beret?”
And Gen. William Yarborough, with all eyes watching, replied, “Fine, sir. We’ve wanted them for a long time.”
This defining moment in the history of the Special Forces was made at McKellar’s Pond in 1961. Almost 50 years later, the pond and lodge near its banks remains a beloved spot on Fort Bragg. McKellar’s Lodge has hosted everyone from presidents to simple picnickers. It includes a restaurant, rod and gun club and five picnic areas. It’s been an important part of military life for generations, but the lodge is open to civilians, too.
McKellar’s began as a simple log cabin built in the 1920s when the sprawling military post we know today was still called Camp Bragg. Named after a Confederate soldier, Capt. John McKellar, the lodge was a place where officers could come and rest their horses. It was a home to hunters and fishers. And it was the place where a one-star general named William P. Yarborough assembled his men and had them wearing the controversial green berets when President Kennedy came to visit. Though the Army banned the berets, Yarborough had convinced the president that Special Forces soldiers deserved recognition as an elite fighting force.
Years later, Yarborough told the Fayetteville Observer, “I felt that if the president was with me, who could stand against me? But I was repeatedly, in sometimes veiled terms, warned about the fact that someday I would have to come back to the Army, and I would be held to account for the excesses that I had presided over here.”
Of course, we now know the rest of the story: decades later, the Army adopted the beret as its standard headgear.
As for McKellar’s Lodge, when the original building burned, it was replaced with a prefabricated building in the early 1970s. Crews tore it down in 1999 and replaced it with a new lodge costing almost $2 million. That was 2001.
The lodge is much bigger these days. It can seat banquets with room for large hail and farewells, promotion celebrations, weddings, even family reunions and birthday parties. But the lodge still manages to maintain that rustic feel. It’s surrounded by pine forests on the northwestern side of Fort Bragg. Step inside, and you are greeted by exposed wooden beams and paneled walls. Straight ahead, the large dining hall has hardwood floors and wooden chairs covered in red and green plaid. It’s immediately apparent that a lot of good eating and finger licking goes on here, with the possibility of formal Southern etiquette being tossed aside for the temporary enjoyment of barbecued meat drenched in your favorite sauce. Let’s put it this way: you’ll need one of those massive rolls of paper towels sitting on each table.
“We have the best barbecue in North Carolina,” says Manager Mike Garrity, who is also a former soldier. “We have several different kinds of barbecue, including the locally-popular eastern North Carolina barbecue.”
In fact, the busiest day at the lodge is Thursday when the restaurant serves pulled pork and beef brisket cooked on a state-of-the-art smoker. Angela Yates and Bill Latham are Thursday regulars.
“It’s always packed,” Latham said over a plate of barbecue with a Mason jar mug of sweet tea.
Latham and Yates ate here when it was a rustic one-room lodge, and they still like it, years later. They are both civil-service employees. Latham teases Yates that she’s the post “mom” in her role as a supervisor to Fort Bragg’s family readiness groups. He works with computers on all parts of the post, fitness centers to offices. “What they don’t throw out of airplanes,” he says, “I take care of.”
Lunch at McKellar’s is a respite from the workday. The lodge restaurant, Lil Skeeters, also offers five different buffets each week. Even so, it’s no small feat feeding hungry soldiers. But soldiers like Capt. Rick Fisher said it’s enough food for two meals. “I like that you can eat as much as you want and don’t have to eat dinner,” he said.
Spc. Bryan Hammond was introduced to McKellar’s by another soldier when he first enlisted and he returns as often as he can. “I love the food, I like everything,” he said.
In the evenings, the Z-shaped bar is a popular gathering spot among regulars who gather around the toasty fire inside the impressive stone fireplace stretching from floor to ceiling. It’s a place where sports fans can play pool or board games while watching the big game, but don’t be surprised if you catch a casual farewell ceremony or welcome home celebration. On Tuesday nights, snacks are free with a beverage.
Fireside is nice, but the view outside is even better. A patio overlooks the lake, and in the fall, when the leaves change color, it’s a breathtaking sight. Couples have even held their weddings here. Lovers of the great outdoors should also check out the rod and gun club and picnic areas dotted with pine trees. Just ask and the staff will be glad to provide a picnic lunch.