Glimpses into the Daily Lives of the Whisnants

Pack Square, 1910. Pack Memorial Public Library

Pack Square, 1910. Pack Memorial Public Library

My previous post conveyed as much as I have been able to discover about the “little house behind the big house” setting of the Whisnant family’s life on Asheville’s South French Broad Avenue during the second decade of the century.  This present post focuses on the life Asbury, Ella, and their three children (Azile, b. 1910; Bertha, b. 1913; and John, b. 1914) actually lived there.

Atlanta Constitution, April 29, 1913.

Atlanta Constitution, April 29, 1913.

Absent here are three episodes, each too complicated to add to this post: the Asheville Street Railway employees’ strike of 1913 (which Asbury voted for and participated in), the catastrophic flood of 1916 (which destroyed

Depot Street and Southern Railway Depot (L), Flood of 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library.

Depot Street and Southern Railway Depot (L), flood of 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library.

many streetcars and routes, but which the family escaped because they lived nearly 200 feet above the rivers), and the influenza pandemic of 1918, in which my father–then four years old–nearly died).  These will receive further attention in a coming post.

For now:

 Work and Coming Home

Asbury Whisnant and Henry Thompson with streetcar at Asheville's Southern Railway Depot, ca. 1905. Collection of Richard and Elaine Whisnant.. Image enhancement by Evan Whisnant.

Asbury Whisnant (L) and Henry Thompson (R) with streetcar at Asheville’s Southern Railway Depot, ca. 1905. Collection of Richard and Elaine Whisnant. Image enhancement by Evan Whisnant.

Thirty or so years ago when I interviewed my father, I asked him why the five-person family stayed in the small South French Broad house as long as they did (about fifteen years).  “One reason,” he said

Asbury's walk to the car barn (green pins). Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map, 1917.

Asbury’s walk to the car barn (green pins). Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map, 1917.  Large Waddell house at lower left. Click map for larger image.

was it was so close to where Daddy had to go to work. He could walk out of the back yard and across . . .  the big Waddell estate there, and be at the streetcar barn in five minutes, which was just across one more street.

And what was a normal work day like?  Nine hours and fifteen minutes, he recalled, and added that

[He] had to leave the house about 4:30 in the morning, because the streetcars were on the road by 5:30 or 6:00.  And he got off about 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon.  When he got home, there were a lot of things that had to be done.  There had to be wood cut for the wood stove.  There was always something that needed to be done around there.  And he rested and read the paper some, but I don’t remember him ever going to take a nap. 

Bertha’s memories focused on the children’s daily excitement about Asbury’s after-work return home:

Well, when we got home from school, the next highlight in all of our lives, was Daddy would come home.  And the old street railway car “barn,” they called it, was just one street over, so he came down the same way we came from school, and come down the little pathway into the yard.

All of us would run to meet him. And one of the first things we wanted after we met him was his lunchbox, to see if he had anything left from lunch.  Not that we were hungry, but it was kind of a big deal to see what Daddy had left from lunch. But he would hand one of us his lunchbox and then he would take our hand, and–we enjoyed our daddy a lot, and he loved his children, and then we would go on back to the house with him.  

Around the Table

After six or seven decades, some of the Whisnant children’s most remembered scenes from family life had to do with eating around the big kitchen table.  “The kitchen was a big room,” my dad recalled,

well, it was bigger, actually, than the room where we slept and lived.  And it had a little square sink in there with cold water.  There was no running hot water.  But it was a big room, and the eating table was in there.

And you always had meals together?

Yeah. We had a meal every time we were supposed to.  It wasn’t a matter of, you know, snacking or having a sandwich.  We had a meal.

“And my mother was a good, plain cook,” Bertha added,

Acme Regal Steel Range. Sears Roebuck catalog, 1903, p. 804

Acme Regal Steel Range. Sears Roebuck catalog, 1903, p. 804

She always had something sweet.  We called it sweetbread; probably it was some kind of gingerbread.  She made it with molasses.  And we always had fruit and vegetables and things like that.  I can remember Daddy going by the fish market, and getting a great big fish about this big and about so wide, and scraping it and cleaning out the inside and cutting it up in nice big pieces, and we had fish.  The family had fish every so often.

Unfortunately, no one recalled any supper-table conversations.  Does that mean there usually weren’t any?  And if so, did that mean in turn that talking around the table in some proto-democratic, genteel way was either not culturally customary, or not congruent with the marked status differences between parents and children at the time.  Or both?  Or something else entirely?

Unfortunately, I have no information on this point. But at a time when “children are to be seen and not heard” was a common proverb, it was likely a social and cultural norm questioned by few.

In any case, supper time seems to have been fairly quiet, and bedtime came early.  “That was even before the days of radio,” my father noted.  And his memory was correct: the first commercial station, Pittsburg’s KDKA, went on the air late in November 1920.  It had only 100 watts, but in those days of virtually no interference from other stations, 100 watts could push a signal a long way, especially at night.  “I remember when the man across the street had the first radio over there,” Dad said. But the Whisnants had none, so

You read the paper, and went to bed, and that was about it, and most of the time you were in bed by 8:00, or before, because Daddy had to get up by 4:00 a.m., and sometimes before.

School Days

Asheland Avenue (formerly Bailey Street) Graded School, built 1893. Became school for blacks after court case in 1938. Razed 1951. Courtesy of Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.

Asheland Avenue  Graded School, built 1893. Became school for blacks after court case in 1938. Razed 1951. Clipping from unidentified Asheville newspaper.  Courtesy of Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.  Click for larger image.

Bertha was the only one who mentioned anything about going to elementary school (at Asheland Avenue Graded School–only two blocks from their house), but a painful and embarrassing  incident from first grade had not faded:

My mother had given me a tomato and a biscuit and something for lunch, and rolled up a little salt in a piece of paper.  And in the school room they had a sand box for us to play in. And during the lunch period I had eaten my tomato and my bread, and I had my salt. Then this girl–Virginia, her name was–decided that I had some of the sand out of the box in my little piece of paper instead of salt, and she told the teacher that I had stolen sand out of the box.  The teacher even asked me about it, and it was very humiliating to me. 

In such instances, home was the refuge:

We usually got out of school in the early afternoon, and we enjoyed hopping, skipping, and jumping, running home and into the back yard, down the driveway.  And the first thing we wanted to know was, what is there to eat? 

Family Times

About family times–daily routines, church, picnics, visiting people–memories were a bit fuller. “My mother was a good talker,” my father recalled,

She was a good conversationalist.  But she wasn’t given to socializing a lot, you know, she was a homebody.  She loved her family and her garden, and we didn’t visit a lot.

This was certainly the dominant cultural norm for married women of the time, but to me a bit puzzling for Ella, knowing that she left professional work as a nurse in Western Regional Hospital at Morganton when she married in 1907.  For the rest of her life she wore her nurse’s watch on her dress, but it appears that when she took leave of the life it signified, she left it wholly and for good.

The rest of Ella’s life turned around her husband, children, housekeeping, and such small pleasures as came her way.  Sometimes, Azile (the eldest child) recalled,

Daddy would come home with a watermelon, and they would put it on the back porch on a shelf, and we had watermelon.  Or he would take us to a place called Riverside Park occasionally.

Riverside Park encircled by railroad tracks. Pack Memorial Public Library.

Riverside Park encircled by railroad tracks. Pack Memorial Public Library.

The Riverside Park recollection is a key to the historical moment.  Built by the Asheville Electric Company in 1904 partly to generate ridership on its streetcars, it was a major draw for Asheville families, with a lake, boats, ferris wheel, skating rink, movies, and other attractions. And as a street railway employee, Asbury presumably had a pass of some sort (or quiet understandings with other conductors) for fare. It was a bargain for the family when money was tight.

Streetcars in car barn, Riverside Park, July 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library

Streetcars in flooded car barn, Riverside Park, July 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library

Unfortunately the Park, built on the banks of the French Broad, washed away in the flood of 1916, destroying some streetcars in the process.

In any case, how much use the park was to the Whisnant family is not clear.  The flood swept down just shy of my father’s second birthday, and his sisters were only three and six years old.  Nevertheless, their memories of “merry-go-arounds and all kinds of entertainment” persisted through seventy years.

Were there family picnics?  They were infrequent, my father said, because “we had nowhere to go – no car, no nothing until 1922.”  That was only partly true: the city’s eleven-acre Aston Park (donated by philanthropist George Willis Pack and named for his friend and Asheville mayor E. J. Aston) was within easy walking distance, and the girls recalled walking there.

Were there books or magazines in the house?  Bertha said she didn’t remember any magazines, but

my dad in particular loved to read the newspaper.  And my mother read some, but I don’t think she read as much as Daddy did.  She read her Bible a lot.  I remember that Daddy had a couple of copies of the old Blueback Speller.

Webster "Blue Backed Speller," 1880 edition, copyright 1857 by Webster's children; 1908 ed. by G&C Merriam. Personal copy.

Webster “Blue Backed Speller,” 1880 edition, copyright 1857 by Webster’s children; 1908 ed. by G&C Merriam. Personal copy.

Noah Webster’s (popularly, “blueback”) speller appeared in the 1780s and continued under various titles into the twentieth century.  And it was not only a speller, but also a reader.  Depending upon which of the many editions one examines, one might find page after page of aphorisms, adages, parables, and admonitions of a social, ethical, and developmental sort:

When you are at school, make no noise, but keep your seat, and mind your book; for what you learn will do you good, when you grow to be a man.

Among my treasured possessions are two copies of the 1880/1908 edition of the speller Asbury acquired in his mid-fifties. Since his own brief school years had ended four decades earlier, it seems reasonable to assume that he remembered using the speller in school, and felt sentimental enough to buy, sign and date the copies.

From the evidence available to me, then, it seems that reading matter in the household was confined to the Bible, the blue backed speller, the newspaper, and perhaps the “McGuffey reader“–dating from the 1830s and ubiquitous in schools on into the twentieth century–though Asbury’s children did not specifically recall it.

In retrospect, my final interview question about family times now seems obvious and formulaic: What was Christmas like?  Did you have a Christmas tree?

Because of some earlier work I had done concerning Christmas in Asheville at the turn of the century, I knew that both “old Christmas”–a two-week period that ended on January 6, and the one-day “new Christmas” on December 25, were being observed.  But by 1910 (newspapers confirm again), cultural modernization had dispensed with old Christmas in favor of new.

So, yes, Bertha recalled right away, we had our Christmas tree:

Whisnant family's first automobile, a 1923 Dodge Touring Car, bought during their final year on South French Broad Avenue

Whisnant family’s first automobile, a 1923 Dodge Touring Car, bought during their final year on South French Broad Avenue

After we got a car [in 1922]Daddy would go out in the country around Asheville and find a little Christmas tree, cut it down

John Whisnant and 1923 Dodge touring car, ca. 1927, 60 Brownwood Avenue

John Whisnant and 1923 Dodge touring car, 60 Brownwood Avenue, ca. 1927

 and put it up, and they would decorate it.  He would take us with him lots of times.  

And I remember we had a big barrel of old clothes in the closet, and our #1 doll was a rag doll–made out of some kind of material with the faces painted on ‘em, you know.  And sometimes they had something resembling hair.  And Mama said, “You better have your doll, or Santa Claus won’t bring you another one.”  I can remember hiding our dolls so we could get new ones. 

The Neighborhood and Children’s Play

What about economic or social differences in the neighborhood, I wondered.  Bertha mentioned some “railroad people . . . across the street” who

seemed to have more than the rest of the neighborhood.  But the majority were working people, and the majority of those were railroad people.  Seems like the man next door to us was associated with the sheriff’s department.  Another was in the insurance business, but their children would come up in the yard and play with us.

1910 mss census page for South French Broad Avenue [Asbury Whisnant] from No. 44 up to Patton Avenue

1910 mss census page for South French Broad Avenue (including the Whisnant family at No. 44) from No. 102 up to Patton Avenue.  Click to enlarge.

As I have noted before, Asheville’s population quadrupled from 1880 to 1890 (2,600 to over 10,000), rose more than another 40% by 1900, and reached nearly 19,000 by 1910.

Signs of modernization were everywhere, plentiful jobs were drawing workers in great numbers from many quarters, and available housing  was in short supply. Already in 1897, Eggleston and McIlwaine’s handbook on Asheville listed seventy boarding houses.

What did such changes look like on the ground–on South French Broad for example? Even a small sample (10 houses) from the 1910 census helps:

As one moved from No. 102 at the Philip Street corner, up South French Broad, past No. 44 where the Whisnants lived, and toward Patton Avenue, the area turned out to be a socioeconomcally diverse mini-diaspora:

  • No. 102: a brick mason and his wife and their 32 year-old daughter (a stenographer); all born in North Carolina
  • No. 88: a carpenter, his wife, their 34 year-old son (a county employee), the mother-in-law, and two boarders (one an insurance agent and the other a streetcar conductor); all born in North Carolina
  • No. 84 [64?]: a Lutheran minister (probably at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, on the corner of South French Broad and Philip Street), his wife (both born in VA), and three children (7, 5, 4; two born in Missouri and the youngest in North Carolina).  .
  • No. 44: Whisnant family
  • No. 40: a broker, his wife and four children (7 to 29 years old; the oldest a clerk), and a 47 year-old male roomer (no occupation); all from Tennessee
  • No. 36: a young Virginia lawyer, his Pennsylvania-born wife, their three children (7, 5, and 4, all born in North Carolina), and a brother-in-law born in Michigan
  • No. 32: a painting contractor, his wife (both Ohio-born) and their 32 year-old Kentucky-born daughter (unmarried and unemployed)
  • No. 22: a tannery foreman, his wife (both from Sweden, husband in the U.S. for 15 years), their two young children (one born in New York and the other in North Carolina), and another Swedish-born tannery foreman (in the U.S. nearly 30 years) and his wife
  • No. 16: a 58 year-old man and his wife, both from Massachusetts (“a Capitalist,” he said he was) who shared a house with a female cook (white; NC-born) and a NC-born marble and tombstone dealer and his Connecticut-born wife
  • No. 10: a young farmer and his wife from West Virginia

So within these ten houses, eleven states were listed as birthplaces, and there were twenty-three living children (roughly two per family).  Another factor, the racial demography of the area, was mixed and changing.

The 1904-05 city directory showed no blacks anywhere on French Broad Avenue, but there were two on Grove Street just south of Philip, and fourteen on Bailey Street (as what became Asheland Avenue was then called) between Nos. 340 and 414.  The 1910 directory showed Asheland Avenue to be racially mixed from No. 238 to 326.  On Grove Street, blacks were living in five houses (Nos. 99-117 in the block below Philip Street), and in four houses (between Nos. 470 and 516) at the southern end of South French Broad.  By 1922, the Whisnants’ final full year on, blacks were living in houses up to No. 426.

For entertainment, the Whisnant children did what most other neighborhood children (all white in their immediate neighborhood) likely did:

We jumped rope, we played hopscotch, played with our doggies, and in the summer we made outdoor playhouses.  And we built little tents out of either flour sacks or tow sacks. Mama had taught us to sew, and we made doll clothes, made our little doll houses.  We didn’t have an awful lot of toys.  We had to make do with what we had.

It also appears that the three Whisnant children encountered little of the neighborhood’s diversity directly or frequently.  We “had to play mostly in our own yard,” they agreed.  My father provided no details, but his sisters did:

 A lot of the children in the neighborhood played on the street and the sidewalks, but we were confined pretty much to our own little back yard.  But we always found something, you know, to do outside.  We did all the outdoor things that we could with what we had. 

Even after they got older,

and the other children played on the sidewalks a lot, we didn’t get to go down very often. . . .  Later, though, as we got skates and things like that, they let us go down and skate occasionally.  

So why might the Whisnant children have been kept more closely at home than other neighborhood children?  I will return to this presently, but for the moment my surmise is that having older parents had something to do with it (see previous post: Mid-Course Correction: Ella Goes to (Mid-Course) Asheville, 1907).  Their last child was born when Asbury was forty-two and Ella was forty-five.  By the time they moved from South French Broad to West Asheville, they were in their early fifties and their older daughter was thirteen.

If my older parents hunch is useful, it might follow that some aspects of married life predisposed Asbury and Ella to keep their children close to home.  That possibility and the related one of their ideas  on child-raising (from wherever derived) were certainly on my mind when I did these interviews.

I was in my mid-forties then; my father had just turned seventy, and his sisters were a bit older.  Having my own teenage children was expanding my awareness of how family structure and culture inculcate and perpetuate beliefs, habits, behaviors, and relational patterns across generations.  A decade later, as a part-time MSW student and clinician-in-training while I was teaching at UNC, I encountered the “family systems”rubric for some of this, but at the time I was just feeling my way along.

And one thing I felt was that some patterns and behaviors I had long been aware of in my father and his sisters might be rooted in their family of origin.  Hypochondria was the most evident, but also some anxiety and anger.  The good news was that, whatever the symptoms, they were all bright, strong, purposeful, capable, hard-working people.  But the other was there as well, and I had puzzled about it for years.

So I asked my father and his sisters a few questions I hoped might be illuminating.  And what results did my puzzled questioning produce?Some had to do with married life, and others child raising–especially concerning keeping the children close to home.

Married Life

Had I had any direct evidence about what ideas and norms about marriage Ella and Asbury shared, and where they encountered them, I might have framed my questions more skillfully. But lacking that, I plunged ahead.

What do you remember about how your mother and father interacted with each other, I asked.  “It was entirely different from now,” my Dad recalled, offering a small précis of the then ubiquitous separate spheres arrangement:

Mother never worked; she of course stayed at home and raised the children and kept the house.  I think Mother accepted Daddy’s judgment as far as financial things were concerned, so about that there never was a problem.  I never heard an argument of any kind in my entire life that I remember.

Bertha agreed: “I never heard them talk crossly one to the other,” she said.

They seemed to be very compatible, and don’t remember them complaining about having or not having anything, and it seemed to be a harmonious relationship.  I don’t remember antagonism of any kind, or their conversations about any decisions that were made. 

Do you remember that they talked together a lot, or not?

I remember them talking together, but I wouldn’t say a lot, or not a lot. I can hear my father now saying, “Eller (he called her Eller), so and so,” but I can’t remember what so and so was.  And they seemed to be devoted to one another, but I don’t remember a lot of demonstration of it, so far as showing affection one to the other.  Or even kidding around one with the other.

Azile, as the oldest of the three, had somewhat more nuanced memories:

I never heard my mother and my daddy have what I call a “stomp down” argument.  I never heard them have a fuss, a real fuss.  Now I heard them when they were differing in opinions and their way of thinking, but Daddy would say, “Why, Eller, you knew so and so.”  And Mama would be trying to tell him something else that was different from the way he was thinking.  It would be a kind of slightly [indecipherable] argument, but my mother was a very self-effacing person. 

But you asked me was there any show of affection.  I would say that there was.  As I look back on it, I would say there was a deep undercurrent of love and understanding and tolerance and patience.  And a desire to be helpful, and maintain the home, on each of their parts.  But I don’t think I remember Daddy or Mama hugging and kissing or anything like that.

But he was there when she needed him, and my mom was right there to accept the responsibility of whatever the day might bring. She got up at 4 o’clock and fixed his breakfast, every morning.  I think there was a mature understanding between them. 

So Asbury and Ella emerge from their children’s memories as a devoted, reliable and responsible older couple, living their married life without any of the dysfunctions sometimes evident in marriages (abuse, drinking, affairs, serious incompatibility or conflict), treating each other considerately, and maintaining a stable home.  But also–in line with the gender boundaries and role expectations of the time–staying within their separate spheres, and rarely if ever displaying overt verbal or physical affection for each other.

How did this last factor affect parenting, if it did?  And what glimpses into parenting did the siblings offer after so many years?

Parenting: “That’s All There Was to It”

The parenting that was done at 44 South French Broad (however much Asbury and Ella’s families of origin had to do with it) occurred within a framework much altered from what they themselves had known and experienced: city instead of country, renters instead of owners, ten hours a day of wage labor for Asbury instead of farming on the homeplace, children expected to go to school rather than to work beside parents on the farm, neighbors living in diverse social and economic circumstances, and an urban environment that was changing almost daily.

Within those new parameters, much of the parenting appears to have been both unexceptional and unproblematic, as the norms of the time prescribed: clear separation of parent/child status and roles, “seen but not heard,” do as you are told, corporal punishment as a matter of course, and the church as a weekly source of admonition and direction.

So every Sunday morning, Azile recalled,

First Baptist Church, ca. 1899. H. Taylor Rogers, Rogers' Asheville. D. H. Ramsey Library, UNCA.

First Baptist Church, ca. 1899. H. Taylor Rogers, Rogers’ Asheville. D. H. Ramsey Library, UNCA.

Mama took us to church.  We walked up the Waddells’ driveway to Grove Street, out to Patton Avenue and to First Baptist Church.    

“I can remember Mama helping us,” Bertha added,

we’d put on our best clothes, and we’d walk from French Broad Avenue over to Spruce Street, to Sunday school and church. Went to the First Baptist Church over there. Mama had to carry her keys on a little metal ring, and I remember she was holding my hand, and that key ring would hurt me, and I didn’t want her to hold my hand so tightly. But she held my hand and we walked to church, Azile and John and I.

But why this particular church, when another one was closer by?

We lived within a block another church, a pretty little Lutheran brick church [Emanuel (Evangelical) Lutheran], down on the corner [of Philip Street and South French Broad] and I couldn’t understand why we went so far to church, when the Lutheran church bell would wake us up every Sunday morning. But we enjoyed church, and looked forward to it.

Ella probably insisted upon the longer walk mainly because she and Asbury had been raised in the Baptist and Methodist churches.  But a bit of toting up in the 1916 city directory also suggests that Emanuel [evangelical] Lutheran was an ecclesiastical outlier.  There were twenty-one white (the only ones they would have considered at the time, no doubt) Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.  Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists had one each.  and  but that ecclesiastical fact was not persuasive to young children.  That your mother’s ring of keys hurt your hand on a long walk was.

But the ring of keys was also a minor matter compared to the parents’ insistence (mentioned briefly above) that the children play almost all the time in their own yard.

Do you think, I asked directly, that your parents controlled you more than other parents did in the neighborhood?  “In one sense, yes,” Bertha agreed, offering a poignant example:

We lived close to a park [Aston Park] that had swings and sliding boards, and a swimming pool, and in the summer they had band concerts.  And in the summer they would take us to the park occasionally, but we weren’t allowed to go down there alone like the other children did.  So our interaction with the neighboring children in the park wasn’t an everyday thing.  I remember that we were confined to the premises a lot, when other children did go down to the park and play.

Clear enough.  Was this the most disconcerting part of being confined?  “It also seemed,” Bertha said, that

it robbed you of a lot of opportunities that you did have and couldn’t take advantage of.  We wanted to go down to the park more.  I always wished we had learned to swim,  and things like that, because there was a pool down there.  

Beyond the fact of being confined to their own yard, another question arose out of my hypothesis that parents who expressed little overt affection between themselves might have mirrored that in their interactions with their children.  Not so.  “Yes, yes, yes!,” Bertha said when I asked about parent/child affection,

I sat on my daddy’s lap lots of times.  My mother had a little old fashioned rocking chair with no arms to it, and she would gather us around her lots of times, you know, in her lap, or around on the floor, around the chair.  She would sing to us; she had a lovely voice.  And she sang a lot of the old hymns to us. She would hug us, and I don’t remember my mother ever punishing me or John or Azile, either.  And she always was an encouraging person; she seemed to be at peace with herself.  

Reading this after so many years, and looking again at the 1916 family photograph (unfortunately no family album remains that I know of), I see in both Asbury and Ella– as I had not seen before–the peacefulness Bertha referred to,  the physical tenderness and bright, pleased, proud eyes:

Asbury, Ella, John [L], Bertha [C], and Azile [R] about 1916.

Asbury, Ella, John [L], Bertha [C], and Azile [R] about 1916.

 At times there was also physical punishment, but Bertha and my father remembered it as occasional and last-resortish.  “She could look at us real straight, ” Bertha said,

and we knew whether it was a rebuke, or “let’s don’t have any more of this,” or something like that.

My father recalled corporal punishment as an ever-available backup procedure in the children’s lives:

Well, they had a switch right there in the house all the time, and I remember one time I got it with a corn stalk out in the garden, by Mother.  Most of the time, Mother did the punishing, since Daddy wasn’t there. I think it was an accepted part of the way that children were reared then.  That punishment was necessary, and you did it, and that was it.

What led to the cornstalk episode?

Well, Mother was a great gardener, and she loved to be outside all the time. I don’t remember exactly what the issue was, but she told me to do something, and I told her I wasn’t going to do it. She said, “Yes you will.  When I tell you to do something, that means do it, period, and that’s all there is to it.” 

Coping With Illness

If one peruses a glossary of common 18th and 19th century medical terms (aguecatarrhchin coughconsumption, erysipelas, grippelockjaw, pleurisy, quinsy, St. Vitus Dance, thrush, and scores of others), it is easy to understand why parents of a sick child in the early 20th century might be anxious and confused.  What was the illness?  What was causing it?  What did doctors know about it?  What medicines, if any, might be of help?

Between 1910 and 1924, Asbury and Ella always had at least one child ten years old or younger, and the mortality rate for five to nine year-olds, though declining rapidly, was still around 250 per 100,000.  And two Whisnant children had chronic bronchial asthma.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my father nearly died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, but that is the a subject for my next post.  Here I focus on asthma.

No doubt the parents’ first question was, Why? Bronchial asthma is now known to be caused by genetic, environmental and other factors.  The genetic predisposition passed down to my own generation, but the environmental factors (house dust and dust mites, insect allergens, mold, pollen, coal-fired heater smoke, animal dander) were worse in living spaces a hundred years ago.

“I remember being sick a lot,” Bertha said,

and I remember having to be out of school a lot, and I was in bed a lot.  And I think that was one reason our parents kept us so close to home.  They were trying to protect our health, you know.  They probably were fearful that we would do something that would send us into an attack of the asthma or something.  I’m sure that our health was a great fear to them, because I continued to have asthma up through high school.

The Lenoir Topic, August 9, 1877, p. 3.

The Lenoir Topic, August 9, 1877, p. 3.

So what approaches to asthma treatment were most available at the time?  The winner, hands down, was patent medicines.  When Ella herself was only eight years old, an Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral ad in the Lenoir Topic promised relief from asthma and other bronchial maladies.

Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral was one of one of literally thousands of  compounds offered to the public by a vast and unregulated patent medicine industry, including many for children:

Children's patent medicine catalog, ca. 1885. Hadley Museum and Library.

Children’s patent medicine catalog, ca. 1885. Hadley Museum and Library.

Space is not available here for much of the patent medicine story, but it has been examined and illustrated in wondrous detail both in print and online.

Wikipedia’s entry on patent medicine is richly documented, detailed and illustrated, and the Hagley Museum and Library’s History of Patent Medicine exhibit offers documents on producers, vintage containers, print ads, catalogs, almanacs, traveling medicine shows, even cookbooks.



Kickapoo Indian traveling medicine show, Wilmington DE, 1892. Hagley Museum and Library

Kickapoo Indian traveling medicine show, Wilmington
DE, 1892. Hagley Museum and Library.  For a documentary film on these shows, see Patent Medicine Shows in America.  YouTube Documentary Channel’s History of Patent Medicine takes a broader historical look.

1903. Hagley Museum and Library

1903. Hagley Museum and Library

Nearly forty years after the Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral ad appeared  (when Ella’s own two asthmatic children were infants), asthma treatment advertisements in Asheville directories and newspapers included Dr. Biggs’s

Asheville Citizen-Times, October 8, 1915, p. 3.

Asheville Citizen-Times, October 8, 1915, p. 3.

(no doubt expensive) sanitarium and “a New Method that cures Asthma” and other bronchial conditions.  Its warnings against competing treatments (inhalers, douches, opium preparations, and “patent smokes”) suggested that the state of the art was not high.

No matter how small or remote, no town or city was outside this advertising loop.  Such nostrums promised relief or cures for whatever ailed you: Miona for dyspepsia, “Dodson’s Liver Tone,” Warner’s Diabetes Remedy; an eczema cure,  Peruna (a cure-all), and Lydia E.



Pinkham’s Herb Medicine, introduced in the 1870s and still available (online!) at Wal-Mart.

And  as almost any random historical sample will show, patent medicines–for all their prating about natural ingredients (every root you have ever heard of), what was in the bottle or powder or pill was laced with cocaine, morphine, cannabis, or alcohol (to get your legal and respectable buzz on).

Having had a decade or so experience as a nurse (see previous post), however, Ella Whisnant was unlikely to have been a gullible patent medicine buyer.

Pasteur in laboratory, Albert Edelfelt, 1885. Wikipedia.

Pasteur in laboratory, Albert Edelfelt, 1885. Wikipedia.

In fact, two overlapping medical/cultural changes from the period make it seem likely that Ella may have had access to another choice.  One change was the advent of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 (after a 27-year effort), which began to regulate patent medicines.  The other was the rise of the germ theory of disease, whose early forms reached a long way back, but which became much more salient and refined after the work of Louis Pasteur and others in the mid-19th century.

Scientifically-formulated drugs emerged from that work.  Epinephrine (adrenalin) was first used to treat asthma around 1905.  That Ella and Asbury knew about epinephrine and started administering it to their children early in their lives seems likely.  I recall both my father and his sister Bertha using it continuously throughout their lives, and–following the family vector–his giving me many a “shot of adrenalin” to relieve my own asthma.

Living in the City and Longing for “the Country”

In this and several prior posts, I have made much of the importance of the urban setting of the Whisnant family’s life.  But it is also true that the parents’ roots lay in several mostly rural down-mountain counties (Burke, Rutherford, and McDowell).

Those roots kept a strong hold upon them (especially upon Asbury, it appears) through the decades after they started and raised a family in Asheville, and they passed their attachment on to their children.  They were by no means unique in doing so.  American vernacular language, literature, music and art hold vast evidence of the city/country dialectic of allegiance, attitudes, styles, and relationships: the old someplace, the old folks at home, the remembered rural landscapes, the old country church, the longing to return.

When I asked Bertha how much visiting her family did with other families in their South French Broad neighborhood, she mentioned only one they visited frequently:

They lived way down on French Broad from us, and they came from the same area in Rutherford County that Daddy had.  This man [John L. Hunt, as she recalled] and his wife had two sons.  They came up and visited a lot, and we’d go down and visit them.  

The 1910 city directory includes no John L. Hunt, but confirms that John T. Hunt and his wife Sarah were living at 235 Grove Street (several blocks below the grand Waddell house at 55).  By 1912 they had moved to 302 South French Broad.

One yearns for details of these family visits, but I did not think to inquire further about them. But Bertha’s recollection of the two families’ shared connection to “the same area”  is suggestive. For Asbury, that area would have been either Golden Valley Township or Cane Creek in Rutherford County.  For Ella it would have been Lower Creek Township in nearby Burke County.

Through the years, in any case, Ella and Asbury tried to incorporate as much of “down in the country” into their city life as possible  How did they do that?  Fortunately, all three children remembered a lot about it.

Model 30 Cadillac Touring Car, Model 30 (1912). Wikimedia Commons. First car with electric lighting and starting. Cruised at 40-45 mph with 30 h.p., 4-cylinder engine. Cost $1,890 (=$47,250 in 2015 dollars). Mr. Waddell owned two of them. Wikimedia Commons.

Model 30 Cadillac Touring Car, Model 30 (1912). Wikimedia Commons. First car with electric lighting and starting. Cruised at 40-45 mph with 30 h.p., 4-cylinder engine. Cost $1,890 (=$47,250 in 2015 dollars). Wikimedia Commons.

The large Waddell lot offered one on-site possibility.  Bertha remembered that at one end of the big garage where the Waddells’ two fancy chauffeur-driven Cadillac touring cars were stored:

my daddy had built a little dog house.  He loved to hunt and he had two bird dogs that he raised.  He’d breed them and raise the puppies  and sell them or give them away.  And we always had the choice of them for a while as our pets, you know.  From each litter we’d each one have us a puppy.  And we cared a lot about them and enjoyed them a lot.

Asbury had hunted nearly all of his life, and he kept it up long after he moved to Asheville.  Sometime around the time he came, he bought two 12-gauge Parker Brothers shotguns, one with a 32 in. barrel for small game, and the other with a 28 in. barrel (for birds).  They cost about $90.00 each (nearly $2600 in 1915 dollars)–a sum that, at his starting hourly rate as a streetcar conductor (maybe fifteen cents per hour), he had to work about two months (per gun) to pay.  Not surprisingly, he kept them meticulously cleaned and oiled until the end of his life.

Parker hammerless shotgun, 12 ga., Damascus steel barrels, walnut stock. Sears Roebuck catalog (1898), p. 352.

Parker hammerless shotgun, 12 ga., Damascus steel barrels, walnut stock. Sears Roebuck catalog (1898), p. 352.

“Daddy always loved to quail hunt,” my father told me,

and of course there was no way to do that except to go on the train down to his farm.  And I’ve seen him take two bird dogs, and put ‘em on a leash, put muzzles on them, which was the railroad’s rules, and take his suitcase in one hand, and his gun under his arm, and walk I guess it would be a mile and a half to the Southern Railway station, and get on the train, and go to a little town called Nebo, below Marion.  And then he would hire somebody in a buggy to take him nearly twelve miles down to the farm. 

At other times, the whole family went.  “The one thing I remember we all did together – maybe once a year,” Bertha said,

was when we would go visit my mother’s people in Lenoir, or Daddy’s people down on Cane Creek.   And we would get the train, and it was something we really looked forward to.  We loved the train ride, and Mama would always pack a lunch.  And on those old trains at the end of the car there was a great big long seat in the back, and then another seat you could turn one way or the other, and we used to love to get in that section of the train. And we loved the ride and looking out the windows, and watching the things move. We thought the world was moving instead of us, you know.

At the end of the train ride, Azile remembered,

Daddy would have to hire what he called a hack to take us out from the depot to where his brothers lived, which was quite a few miles.  One time we went down there and he hired a man with an automobile to take us.  And the automobile overheated, and wouldn’t run.  And it just happened that we had stopped in front of Uncle Doc’s house, and I think they were going to put water in it, so we ate our supper there.  But we couldn’t get the car to start, so we had to spend the night there. 

The family trips to Lower Creek or Cane Creek, it turns out, were multipurpose trips: partly for hunting, partly a whole-family outing, but also partly because for some years Asbury was building a house on his farm.

Part of the time, my father told me,

he was working on the house, and he would go down there and work on the house, and hunt some.  They would take off a week.  In fact I’ve got his little record book of his time that he worked, number of hours and minutes every day.  And there are notations in there, “went to the farm,” or “stayed at the farm.”

For Bertha it was “the whole family doing together that we all seemed to enjoy” along with the hunting and the work on the house:

Once we went down and spent a month or two – one whole summer on the farm property. We stayed with his brothers who lived close by. And one of them had one son, and the other brother had two girls and two boys.  We enjoyed visiting with them. And we enjoyed the farm and the animals and the different atmosphere.  We looked forward to it.

Asbury Whisnant to R. P. Enesley, Cliffside NC, November 25, 1915

Asbury Whisnant to R. P. Enesley, Cliffside NC, November 25, 1915.  Click for larger, readable image.

My father wasn’t sure when Asbury started building, or how many years he was in building it.  A letter from Asbury’s father in May 1915 appears to say that his lumber has been rough sawn, is dry, and will be taken to the mill.  By around Thanksgiving of that year, he was ready to hire someone for a week of work on the house.  The letter is artfully composed and written in a graceful hand.

This is all the evidence available to me concerning the building of the house, except for a brief remark in my interview with my father seventy years later.  “When I was about 3 or 4 years old–about 1918,”  he recalled, “it seems like it was really finished except for some inside work, trimming out and things like that.”

House built by Asbury on Cane Creek, ca. 1910-1920. Details (painting, full foundation) altered by renovation still under way at time of photo (by David E. Whisnant, May 2007)

House built by Asbury on Cane Creek. Details (painting, porch railing, full foundation) altered by renovation under way at time of photo (by David E. Whisnant, May 2007)

Do you think he actually never intended to stay in Asheville?, I asked my father.  Yes, he said,

He intended to finish that house and to go back there and live.  That was his intention for years and years and years–long after the children were born.  He wanted to go back and live on Cane Creek.  And I don’t know what changed that.  I guess that the family itself changed it, in that we got in school.

There was never any resentment on anybody’s part about the plan to go back.  I think Mama accepted that, too–that they would go back there and live.  And at least until we were up in our teens, I heard him say that he wanted to go back and retire there.  Even years later, after he quit the streetcars,  he wanted to go back there and retire.  But that never happened, ‘cause he was way up in his 70s then.

At least until Asbury died in 1955, the house was still in the family.  His younger brother Charlie lived there, and we visited him many times when we would go–as still young boys–to hunt with our father and grandfather.

Hunting on Cane Creek: John Whisnant and sons (L to R) Richard, Norman, David and John, Jr., ca. 1948

Hunting on Cane Creek: John Whisnant and sons (L to R) Richard, Norman, David and John, Jr;, ca. 1947.  Richard and David holding Asbury’s Parker Brothers shotguns.

One final “down in the country” connection I recall being told about in my teen years: Asbury always tried to make one of the family trips “down in the country” come at “‘lassy-

Molasses vat on Whisnant farm, Cane Creek, McDowell County, May 2007. Photo by David E. Whisnant

Molasses vat on Whisnant farm, Cane Creek, McDowell County, May 2007. Photograph by David E. Whisnant

makin’ time,” when the remaining Cane Creek Whisnants would harvest the cane they grew, start the mill and fire up the evaporator, skim and strain the boiling syrup, and pour it into half-gallon or gallon buckets.

A number of buckets would be loaded into the car (by then a ’31 Chrysler sedan) and taken to Asheville.  A bucket or two they kept at home for baking Ella’s sweetbread, and to mix with butter for Asbury’s breakfast biscuits.  The rest he would take on his bus runs, setting a few cans each day up by his driver’s seat to sell to bus riders who had asked him to bring them some molasses from down on the farm.

To conclude, an excellent documentary (made in 2000 by my distant cousin Donnie Barnes) about the final ‘lassy-makin’ by the Whisnants on Cane Creek:



Asheville city directories, 1896-1926; Peter Bangma, “Burke County,” NCpedia (2006); J. D. Eggleston and J. S. McIlwaine, Asheville and Vicinity: A Handbook (1897); Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, Kelsie B. Harder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs; Robert Blair Vocci, “McDowell County,” NCPedia (2006); Jay Mazzocchi, “Rutherford County,” NCpedia (2006); David E. Whisnant, Recorded interviews with Azile, Bertha, and John Whisnant, 1984-1986; YouTube Documentary Channel, History of Patent Medicines; Hagley Museum and Library, History of Patent Medicine,

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