A One-Minute History of Asheville and “The Land of the Sky”


Live and Invest in the Land of the Sky, 1920s. D. H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC Asheville

Chartered 1797; turkey and hog drives on drovers’ roads, and early trade; early “stands” and inns; Buncombe Turnpike opens (1828); hotels and inns proliferate. Civil War comes to Buncombe. Expansion and modernization boom of 187os and 80s: electric lights arrive (1870s), telegraph (1877), telephones (1885); long-delayed Swannanoa Tunnel punches through (1879), railroad reaches city (1880), streetcars roll (1889). Sanitariums and health-seekers arrive. Monied movers and shakers (Grove, Vanderbilt, Pack, Coxe) arrive at turn of century; elegant hotels and grand iconic buildings go up (Vanderbilt mansion 1895, Guastavino‘s Basilica 1905, Grove Park Inn 1913); rapid population and (especially) tourism growth; great flood of 1916. Frenzied financial and development boom of the 1920s: elite subdivisions; buildings by Smith and Ellington. Disastrous bank failures of 1930, bond defaults, and a nod to Thomas Wolfe.  The long slide of the late 1950s, and Asheville in the doldrums for years; bonds paid off 1976. Latest (1980s)  renaissance brings brew pubs, waves of new immigrants, new music, and new eateries.

This many times told and widely agreed-upon story is all true, and all of it is important.  But it is far from the whole story.  African Americans (enslaved and free) figure little in most accounts, for example, though they were there from the beginning (very first settler brought an enslaved woman; blacks were 20% of the population in 1900).  Working-class life in general–black or white–mentioned rarely until recently, and usually passed over only anecdotally when it is.

The full and complicated history of Asheville must be (and is slowly being) written by many hands.  And that history must include, as it is still only beginning to, the lives of those who had neither money nor position nor power, and whose lot it was to work out and live their lives, raise their children and find meaning, within the framework made by those whose wills and wishes mattered and had force, and who named the Asheville they shaped “The Land of the Sky.”

What Will Be Going on Here

This blog endeavors in a small way to help revise the oft-told, romantic, elite-class-bounded story of Asheville by laying upon it an alternative narrative about my (mostly) working-class  grandparents and parents.  My hope is that this focus will enable me to tell important aspects of the Asheville story yet again, but tell them in a usefully different way.  In current parlance, what I will present here might  properly be called a story of a few of the Land of the Sky’s other 99%.

I will focus especially on the boundaries these good, hard-working people had to negotiate (rural/urban, gender, working class/professional, racial, cultural, generational, et al.) and learn to live across/work through with limited resources, tools and perspectives.

Thinking about such boundaries, many questions thrust themselves upon me: How did they negotiate these boundaries — in their personal lives, their relationships, their social groups?  What resources did they have, or not have, that were or might have been helpful?  What were their perspectives (on gender, or religious belief and practice, or child-raising, or work), and how and from where did those perspectives come to them? How serviceable did they prove to be?

My intention is to explore some of the illuminating junctions between this family

Asbury and Ella Whisnant with children, ca. 1916

Asbury and Ella Whisnant with children, ca. 1916

narrative and the city and regional one.  My grandfather Whisnant was born just before the “Land of the Sky” phrase appeared; he came to Asheville in 1900 to drive the new streetcars, and his new wife Ella followed him in 1907.  My father was born in Asheville in 1914 and nearly died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918.

My Rudisill grandparents arrived (also from down the mountain) in 1920,  bringing their adopted daughter Mary Neal, who was born in the year of the great flood.  Pierce Rudisill found construction work in booming Asheville, but

Pierce and Virginia Rudisill, ca. 1916

after the boom it was sporadic, unreliable, and never paid much.

My parents graduated from high school just after the crash of of 1930, married young, and raised their children in the Enka Village–built for employees of a giant Dutch rayon company that came to Buncombe County in 1928. And all of the children left Asheville just before the great slide started at the end of the 1950s.

Rear (L to R): John, , Richard, and Mary Nea. Front (L to R): David, John, Jr., and Norman. Enka Lake Club, ca. 1952.

Rear (L to R): John, , Richard, and Mary Nea. Front (L to R): David, John, Jr., and Norman. Enka Lake Club, ca. 1952.

Where will the materials and observations come from? On what basis do I presume to engage these questions? Partly from having grown up as the child and grandchild of these people. Partly from interviews I conducted with my mother, father, and my father’s sisters before they died. Partly from having read and thought about such questions as I negotiated similar boundaries (sometimes well, sometimes not) in my own life.  Partly from having done a lot of focused research on Asheville, western North Carolina, the larger southern mountain region, and the particular circumstances of the lives I am trying to write about.  Partly from having spent years researching, writing and teaching about historical, cultural, and social change.

Thanks to Asheville city directories, Sanborn fire maps, and related data, I know (for example) exactly what kind of house (now long gone) my grandfather Asbury Whisnant first rented on South French Broad Avenue when he married in 1907 and started his family.  I know something about how it was for Pierce Rudisill (my mother’s sweet and gentle adoptive father) to try to make a living and a life as a cement finisher and construction laborer in 1920s and 1930s Asheville.


American Enka Corporation on Hominy Creek in Buncombe County. Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

I have learned a good bit about what sort of plant and employee village a Dutch rayon company built on Hominy Creek in 1927, and how it was for my father to work there as a self-trained engineer for 27 years before he found a letter on his desk one day after lunch, saying that as of 5:00 p.m. his services would no longer be needed.

John K. Whisnant at his desk, American Enka Corporation, ca. 1945

John K. Whisnant at his desk, American Enka Corporation, ca. 1945

And in recent years, along with many others, I have learned to search and access the vast numbers of documents and images that are now available in digital form.  In the years since I typed my graduate papers and dissertation, these resources have transformed the work historians do, and enabled previously undreamed of ways of presenting them.

Naming the Blog

The name I have chosen for this blog, as some will certainly recognize, is from a line of “Swannanoa Tunnel,” an old song (one of several remakes of the familiar “Nine-Pound Convict railroad laborHammer”) collected by Cecil Sharp and Maude Karpeles in western North Carolina in 1916: “Asheville junction, Swannanoa Tunnel, / All caved in, baby, all caved in.” The WNC Railroad tunnel through Swannanoa Mountain, opened in 1879, had taken 20 years to build by hand labor and cost 300 convict laborers their lives (see many WNCRR images). It opened Asheville to the greatest of its development booms.

Swannanoa Tunnel, Ridgecrest, N.C. (1820 feet long, 123 feet under ground), ca. 1912,,. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill’

“Asheville Junction” will function as a metaphor for the junction between my family and Asheville, and for the many historical junctions that built the city: two rivers (the Swannanoa and the French Broad, 19th century drovers’ roads and turnpikes, capital and population streams that flowed into (and mixed within) Asheville, cultural currents, architectural styles, interstate highways.  The fabled Swannanoa tunnel evokes the repeated cave-ins Asheville suffered (especially the disastrous one in 1930), and how they affected the havenots as well as the haves (who are generally the only ones considered).

What this Blog Is, and Is Not

A word about what this blog is, and is not.  It is centered at the intersection of personal, social and cultural history; of family and community; of public-private ambition and the striving of individuals.  It is not genealogy or “family history” in the sense that those terms are generally used.  It is not my (or anyone’s) memoir.  I will rarely be present in it, except that the observations, reflections and interpretations are mine, as is the voice that tells the story.

I offer the blog not only as hopefully interesting and useful history, but also to honor these good people who lived their lives with all the energy, vision, integrity, generosity and grace they could muster, and whose experience and voices live on within me, every day.

Epilogue: Serendipity Nine Weeks Out

After publishing this Asheville Junction homepage on March 30, 2014, I began working on the posts that follow it.  Today, reading Douglas Swaim’s Cabins and Castles: The History of Architecture in Buncombe County (1981), I came across this brief statement (from a 1977 National Register of Historic Places nomination) about George Vanderbilt’s projected Biltmore Village (as it came to be called): It was to be “a picturesque European village, architecturally diverse yet harmonious in scale, texture and proportion.”  As a site for his village, Vanderbilt bought (“lock, stock, and barrel,” as local people might have said) “the entire village of Best.”  Serving briefly as the Asheville terminus of the Western North Carolina Railroad, Best was also known as Asheville Junction.  I am glad to have found this unanticipated conjunction of names.

Collaboration Welcome

Readers who know (or know of) things that might be related, or places/histories that are in someway(s) analogous, are cordially invited to clue me in.  Readers who encounter egregious (or even minor) errors are implored to inform me.


Lou Harshaw, Asheville: Mountain Majesty (2007); Martha Norburn Mead, Asheville in the Land of the Sky (1942).  Nan Chase’s Asheville: A History (2007) offers a much more comprehensive treatment than most. Douglas Swaim, Cabins and Castles: The History of Architecture in Buncombe County (1981).