- 1 Perennial Problems with “Land of the Sky” History
- 2 Recalcitrant Narratives
- 3 African American Life, Labor and History in Asheville
- 4 Currently Emerging Work
- 5 A summary word
- 6 References
Perennial Problems with “Land of the Sky” History
Since it first appeared in 1875, the “Land of the Sky” descriptor for Asheville has been perennially present, enticing and marketable. At the same time, however, it is important to realize that the phrase has also been shorthand for a certain version of Asheville’s history–partly true, partly romantic construction, and partly misleading in its treatment and/or omission of some important and easily documentable (if one takes the time) aspects of the city’s actual character and development.
From its opening page, one aim of this blog has been to shed new light on some of these problematic aspects of the popular and long familiar history of “Land of the Sky” Asheville. Among those that seem to me to need reconsideration and illumination are:
- Except for the drovers’ roads, the Buncombe Turnpike (1828), and the railroad (1880), Asheville has been inadequately contextualized within its larger western North Carolina and southern Appalachian setting.
Too much has been hung on the stories of a few wealthy and influential men who arrived in the city, built their outsized landmarks–partly as monuments to themselves, and then stayed for years to influence the city’s development. The map, landscape, and skyline bear permanent witness to their presence (e.g., Patton Avenue, Biltmore Avenue, Coxe Avenue, Pack Square, Grove Arcade, Grove Park Inn), but their impact as shapers of the city’s landscape, policy, growth and culture has received less than sufficient attention.
- Tourism has been a part of Asheville’s history virtually since the beginning. But it has been used to explain more of that history than is justifiable.
- Meanwhile, the city’s long-present industrial sector has too often been neglected, though incontrovertible evidence of it is (and long has been) easily available–as in this 1901 Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map of the industrial area along the French Broad River between Riverside and Southside Avenue (click map for enlargeable version):
This area included the Southern Railway passenger and freight depots, a planing mill, Asheville Ice & Coal Co., Asheville Milling Co., Asheville Cotton Mill (400 employees), the Ottalay Novelty Co., and numerous other production shops and warehouses.
- Working class people, blacks, Jews, and other minorities (as well as–especially–the
labor history embedded in many of their lives) have mostly been left out of familiar versions of the story.
- Except for the extravagant Battery Park Hotel (1886), the even more extravagant Vanderbilt mansion (1895) and the Grove Park Inn (1913), the rowdy boom of the 1920s and the calamitous bust of 1930 provide most of the drama.
- People in the surrounding mountains are much too frequently either cast condescendingly as pre-modern throwbacks, or romanticized as “our sturdy mountaineers”–whichever has seemed most useful at a particular moment.
In the late 1920s, the Chamber of Commerce’s Industrial Bureau brochure from which the image at left comes further assured potential industrial developers that among local “native-born” workers, “labor disturbances are practically unknown.” Here, they continued, “the seeds of discontent which radical forces might sow . . . find an exceedingly barren ground.” This just after the 1923 strike by Asheville Citizen-Times employees, and the memorable (and violent) 1913 strike by Asheville Street Railway operators
Clearly, some illumination and corrective work have long been needed. But here is the problem: as I and others have learned from working in other contexts, long accepted and recalcitrant notions and narratives are difficult to challenge. Local residents and officials, too many journalists, and (in the Asheville case especially) tourists tend–whatever the evidence, or lack of it–to believe whatever is congenial, whatever fits best with what else they believe or “know” or think “makes sense.” Public institutions buy into such narratives, commercial interests find them profitable, and historians themselves are not immune.
All one can do, it seems to me, is to bring forward new perspectives, lay them out carefully, present them appealingly, and hope for gradual modification of what “history” is believed to be. Fortunately, fresh perspectives on many aspects of history, life and culture in Asheville and western North Carolina are appearing almost constantly.
Here are a few examples, augmented by links to further detail. These are not meant to be comprehensive in any sense; my list includes only things I have found to be helpful for the blog at this juncture.
African American Life, Labor and History in Asheville
In the early days of Appalachian regional studies (the 1970s), even well-trained scholars acquiesced to the then standard notion that there had been few blacks (and nearly no slaves) in the (it was widely believed, WASP) Appalachian region. But that contention steadily eroded as scholars began actually to look closely at the documentary record.
Thirty years ago, historian John C. Inscoe completed his UNC PhD dissertation, “Slavery, Sectionalism, and Secession in Western North Carolina” (1985; published as Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina in 1989).
Inscoe laid out the case for a revised history of slavery in the mountains: western North Carolina’s trade networks with plantation markets, lowland planters who spent summers in mountain resorts, and slave-holding highland professionals and businessmen accounted for the presence of slaves. Relations between slaveowners and non-slave owners, for example, were better than they were in more heavily slave-owning areas. Inscoe’s early work showed that there was no doubt of the importance of slavery in western North Carolina’s history. A decade later, Inscoe and historian Gordon B. McKinney published The Heart of Confederate Appalachia:Western North Carolina in the Civil War (2000), which finally laid to rest the myth that the Civil War stopped at the foot of the mountains.
Putting Buncombe County Slave Records Online
For only one county in the United States can one go on the website of the Register of Deeds and see digital images of all of the original slave deeds of the county (1776-1865). That county is Buncombe, whose uncommonly public-spirited Register of Deeds is Drew Reisinger. Reisinger conceived of and carried out the project with the assistance of local student volunteers. These deeds–available free to the public–offer unprecedented and unparalleled opportunities to researchers, who can now avoid the formerly widely agreed upon assertion that the Civil War in the mountains “didn’t amount to much,” since everyone “knows” there were “no slaves there.” As Reisinger’s public-spirited efforts are replicated in other counties, it will become clear that there were no western North Carolina (or Appalachian) counties in which there were not slaves.
Recovering and Documenting the South Asheville Cemetery
Further evidence of the importance of slaves and the slave system in Asheville has recently been unearthed (literally) and recovered by the South Asheville Cemetery Association, whose website (developed by thirteen Warren Wilson College students) telegraphs the cemetery’s history.
Originally situated on the property of Asheville slave owner William Wallis McDowell (1823-1893)the cemetery began as a burial ground for slaves. It later became the first public African American cemetery in western North Carolina. Some 2,000 slaves and other African Americans were buried there until 1943, when the the city
absorbed the area and divided it into the Kenilworth and Shiloh neighborhoods.
The cemetery fell into disrepair after its longtime caretaker (formerly enslaved George Avery) died in 1938, but began to be restored in the 1980s by St. Johns “A” Baptist Church
members. It came to public attention partly through oral history interviews (now in the UNCA Library). In recent years, thousands of volunteers have aided in an arduous and painstaking cemetery restoration effort (photographs here). Very recently, Warren Wilson College professors Jeff Keith (Global Studies), David Ellum (Environmental Studies), and Catherine Reid (Creative Writing) and their students have studied and documented the cemetery in its regional and local context, augmenting their analysis through GIS mapping (maps here).
As with the online Buncombe County slave deeds, this mere existence of the cemetery fundamentally challenges the long-held notion that neither western North Carolina nor Asheville has a significant history of slavery. As analysis goes forward, depth and nuance will be added to the story, especially since it has been known for decades now that every Appalachian county had slaves.
Toward a Long Overdue Companion for the Vance Monument
Not only written and spoken narratives, but also landscapes–and especially commemorative ones graced with monuments–can tell incomplete and/or misleading stories.
On a Tuesday morning in late March 2015, the Citizen-Times reported, city workers beginning to repair Asheville’s iconic Zebulon B. Vance Monument on Pack Square came upon a copper box placed beneath the cornerstone in December 1897. Inside were a few silver coins, a muster roll from Vance’s Confederate Army company, some newspapers, and other items. One of the newspapers was The Colored Enterprise, a black-owned newspaper some scholars and archivists had heard of. But no one had ever actually seen a copy.
If more than a single copy of this newspaper had been saved, far more about black history in Asheville would long have been known, and fewer degrading images (like the one below) of blacks in Asheville might (one hopes) might have been spread about.
Even even as plans were being laid and funds sought to repair the Vance monument, Asheville’s recently formed African American Heritage Commission was circulating a petition to erect a comparable monument on Pack Square to recognize “the achievements, sacrifices and histories of Western North Carolina’s African Americans.” “We are concerned,” it said, “that we . . . not continue to perpetuate the long-standing pattern of commemorating only parts of our shared history.”
Speaking at the kickoff event for the petition drive, UNCA History Professor Darin Waters observed trenchantly that “There are Confederate monuments all over the state . . . always in places of power.” Many dated back to a post-1898 effort “to create monuments to a white supremacist past.” In the wake of the tragic massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC in mid-June 2015, the iconography (monumental and otherwise) of the south’s Confederate past is being scrutinized with newly-opened eyes–in Asheville and all across the south. (For a long and thoughtful reflection on this train of events, see Rob Neufeld’s April 4, 2015 article in the Citizen-Times.)
A Pioneering Doctoral Dissertation
Waters (whose family has been in Henderson County since the 1850s), was no stranger to the difficulties of correcting cherished but untenable narratives of the past. There long had been, he knew, a myth “that there were no African Americans in Western North Carolina.” A few years earlier, when it came time to choose his dissertation topic in History at UNC Chapel Hill, Waters recalled, “some academics told [me] there was little history of African Americans in the area to study at all.” He was able to focus on blacks in Asheville only “after fighting my dissertation committee for the right to do that.”
Waters’s dissertation, which follows the story of blacks in Asheville for the next hundred years, is an essential source for anyone to wants to understand African-American history, life and culture in Western North Carolina, and especially in Asheville.
Currently Emerging Work
Fortunately, excellent new work continues to emerge constantly, as both scholarly and public awareness of and attention to the history of blacks in Asheville gains force. A Conference on African-Americans in Western North Carolina in October 2014 drew a large audience and excellent presentations on slavery, emancipation, the civil rights movement, and other topics.
the Ku Klux Klan in Asheville in the 1920s. Young rolls the story out piece by irrefutable piece: the enthusiastic crowd of 800 who attended its organizational meeting in late 1921, the role of First Christian Church as the seedbed of Klan activity, key leaders anti-Semite Laurence Froneberger and money-man Nathaniel (Gus) Reynolds (step-father of future U.S. Senator Bob Reynolds), their crusade to “raise hell in Asheville” about racial issues their use of false and slanderous charges against Asheville photographer George Masa, Fronenberger and Reynolds’s embezzlement from the KKK, and its national meeting in Asheville in 1923. The national meeting drew speakers from six southeastern states, the midwest and southwest, and Wyoming and Oregon; they railed against blacks, Jews and Catholics while extolling the “chivalric, patriotic and ennobling principles” of the Klan.
Music, Dance and Culture
Another Look at Dance History in Appalachia
For years, dancer, dance caller and multi-instrumentalist Phil Jamison (also longtime professor of mathematics and music at Warren Wilson College), has been working on a book on dance in the Appalachian region. Early on in the process, he became convinced that the usual narrative on the topic would not stand scrutiny: strictly “old-timey” fiddle tunes and some version of English country dance, brought “across the waters” by settlers who steadfastly held onto–and passed on face-to-face amongst themselves–their owncultural roots and forms, guarding them against influences from “outside.”
Over his years of work, Jamison learned, and documented meticulously, a more complicated and compelling narrative: of multiple sources (racially, culturally, geographically, artistically, technically) for dance; wide-ranging borrowings and adaptations; eager receptivity to new forms and styles; and dynamic innovation and creativity. Jamison’s recent book, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (2015) conclusively challenges much of what has been written before about dance in the region.
New (Local) Light on an Old Song
At another scale, Warren Wilson College professors Kevin Kehrberg and Jeff Keith have under way a sophisticated and meticulous analysis of a single well-known and many times recorded (as early as 1922 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford) song, “Swannanoa Tunnel.” A local variant of a work-song that has carried numerous titles (“John Henry,” “Roll On, Buddy,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Take This Hammer,” “Ash[e]ville Junction”), it was performed and recorded later by many other singers (e.g., Artus Moser, Hoyt Axton, Bryan Sutton; see recent SingOut! article).
The western North Carolina version of the song, “Swanannoa Tunnel,” emerged from the building of the 1800+ ft. Western North Carolina Railroad tunnel that finally brought the railroad into Asheville in 1880–at the cost of the lives of several hundred black convict laborers.
Heretofore, “Swannanoa Tunnel” has been analyzed primarily in musical terms, but Keith and Kehrberg’s approach is more broadly historical and cultural. They explore the song’s reflection of the convict lease system, its message of racial injustice, the gradual conversion of a powerful work song into a pleasant “folk ballad,” and the historical airbrushing of the tunnel of death into mere landscape.
Class and Culture: The Rhododendron Queens
Virtually every extensive discussion of Asheville history since 1929 has at least mentioned the Rhododendron Festival, started the year before. But I had until recently encountered no careful or extended analysis of it. At the 2015 Society of Appalachian Historians meeting, University of Tennessee Ph.D. student Matthew Blaylock remedied that lack in his paper, “Rhododendron Queens: Elite Women and the Creation of Class in Western North Carolina.”
Asheville had had a “Gala Week” festival since 1892, but this one was a much bigger deal, inaugurated just short of the top of the wild roller coaster ride to the top of the speculative, bond-funded development boom (and crash) of the late 1920s. Blaylock lays out the details: Organized by civic and business elites and the Junior League, the 1931 event drew 50,000 visitors from as far away as Chicago. Al Capp’s then-new Dogpatch Appalachia was out; a magical, rhododendron-bedecked “mystical kingdom,” set in a “gay, delightful,” hillbilly-cleansed region and an “every bit as good as yours, thank you very much” city–proud of its own Vanderbilt-built, tapestry-hung Biltmore House–were in.
The whole agenda and its splashy iconography were embodied in the (always high-born) Rhododendron Queen, “based on two prevailing national symbols of elite womanhood,” Blaylock observes: “the British aristocratic lady and the southern belle or debutante.”
Daisy Mae had new duds, and Mammy Yokum was nowhere to be seen at the round of fancy teas, balls, parades and pageant events (the 1935 version of the latter supplied with “small Nubian slaves” bearing southern gifts of cotton, oranges, peaches, [and] sugar cane).” But nary a stalk of tobacco or corn in sight.
Forty seven National Broadcasting system stations broadcast from the “magical kingdom” in 1935, Blaylock notes. But it was too late, it turned out: the city had already gone belly up in 1930–beyond rescuing by rhododendron queens in their magical kingdom. Then war came, and the rhododendron wilted in 1942.
Urbanization and Modernization
Splendid though the results of the now half-century old Appalachian studies enterprise are, that enterprise has been somewhat slower than it should have to move beyond its early focus on the central Appalachian coalfields focus (useful though it was at the outset). Serious historical, political, and cultural analysis of the region’s urban areas has lagged behind, as it still does to some degree.
If one looks for serious new work on major Appalachian cities, one finds relatively little–especially compared to cities outside the region. There are shelves full of books focused on the Civil War (especially around Chattanooga), visitor guides, cookbooks, compendiums of postcards, coffee table picture books, and the like. A few exceptions are two substantial histories of Knoxville (McDonald and Wheeler 1983 and Wheeler 2005), Dotson’s on Roanoke (2008), and Nan Chase’s on Asheville (2007).
The role of tobacco in Asheville’s growth and development as a key urban center–especially before 1900–has never figured importantly in the city’s written history. But at a recent meeting of the Society of Appalachian Historians, historian Stephen Nash examined the interwoven histories of the push to grow and market tobacco in the 1870s, and that of the troubled Western North Carolina Railroad.Asheville boosters hoped that tobacco might help catapult the city into the post-Civil War “New South” by linking it more broadly to markets beyond the mountains.
Completing the Western North Carolina Railroad across the mountain to Asheville (it finally reached Old Fort in 1869) was key to the New South agenda, but the WNCRR had been on and off the rails so many times that hope was slim. Tobacco shortly proved to be a winner, however: “tobacco fever” spread through mountain counties; production soon rose to a million pounds/year; tobacco factories multiplied in Asheville. And at long last, the first WNCRR locomotive finally chugged into town on October 3, 1880 and started hauling the tobacco out.
Environmental and Social History: One Example
Everyone knows, and virtually every book about Asheville mentions, the disastrous flood of July 1916. A week of torrential rains drove rivers far above flood stage and flooded farmers’ fields. Upstream dams broke. Bridges washed away. Raging waters destroyed
countless homes, as well as factories and businesses along the riverfront. Power and communications stayed out for days, and travel ranged from impossible to perilous. Dozens of people died, and there was massive economic loss. Even the popular and highly developed Riverside Park was swept down the river.
Fortunately the center of the city lay high above the river, but the industrial area along its banks was devastated, and remained so for years. Meanwhile, the ‘twenties boom that lay just around the bend acted as a new torrent that swept most memories of the flood away. It was, after all (it seems to have been generally agreed), an unforeseeable “act of God”–like the “freshets” of earlier years (1876 in particular, early Buncombe County historian Foster Sondley noted) that one could only accept and strive to move beyond.
Well, maybe. But a graduate student at Appalachian State University, Anthony Sadler, is running the flood’s history through a much finer screen (OK, a strained metaphor, but I like it) and producing a more complete, analytical and nuanced reading of this environmental event than has previously been available.
In “River of Sorrow in the Land of the Sky: Flood in Asheville, 1916,” Sadler argues that the flood “was not an immutable act of nature,” but rather must be understood within a framework of “class, race, and the rise of industrial capitalism.”
Within such a framework, what other factors besides the conjunction of two “Act of God” hurricanes in a certain geophysical area, Sadler asks, figure in the disaster and its outcomes? Clearly, some long-term fissures (race and class for example) within the social and cultural structure complicated the challenges of flood relief. Who was to get aid? Who was to organize and provide it? How equitably was it distributed? Were racial issues exacerbated by the flood? How was were tourism and other industries impacted?
Sadler’s skill in raising and engaging these questions sets his work above anything done before on the flood.
Digital History Approaches
As the brief discussion above of Buncombe County’s recently digitized slave deeds suggests, new work on Asheville, Buncombe County, and the surrounding area is coming out of new technologies as well as new historical perspectives and analytical methods. The South Asheville [Slave] Cemetery’s history is already being analyzed partly with GIS techniques, and to those may soon be added ground penetrating radar to locate more graves than have been located thus far. Cross-matching digitized slave deeds with other records and on-site analysis will likely also enrich the narrative.
Additionally, online digital resources are providing both scholars and the public with far more accurate and nuanced interpretations of even long-investigated histories. The public historian Anne Mitchell Whisnant (full disclosure: my wife) and colleagues in the UNC Library have built the web site Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway. A repository of thousands of images, planning maps, construction drawings, newspapers, and other print materials covering the history of this Appalachian national park, the site also incorporates a “geobrowse” feature that allows everything to be searched by location.
Many of the maps, moreover, are “georeferenced”–aligned with their locations in space and overlaid on present-day maps– a technique that permits dynamic exploration of the layers of Parkway history, vanished or obliterated landscapes, and alternative outcomes.
The availability of such tools and techniques invites exploration of historical “roads not taken”: stories like those Anne’s fall 2013 UNC-Chapel Hill students examined in The Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway, a digital exhibit about Parkway plans made but not implemented. These stories remind us that the unfolding of history is not inevitable, but rather made of millions of decision points, when other outcomes could easily have come about.
A summary word
Asheville is now nearly 220 years old. Many people, at manyjunctures and for many reasons, have worked to tell its history. Some parts of it have been told well, some less well, some not at all. And in any case, no narrative history can be entirely stable. New sources come to light, and long trusted ones are called into question; perspectives and emphases change; audiences reconfigure over time; and writers have other unavoidable demands on their time.
So any narrative, or piece of one, can be no more than (as a colleague used to say) a stone in a wall built by many hands. Hence the work mentioned in this post (together with the post itself) should be considered a collection of small stones–some filling gaps among earlier ones, and others carrying the wall where it has not been before.
Asheville Citizen-Times, “City Unearths Time Capsule Beneath Vance Monument” (March 31, 2015); James S. Bissett, ” The Asheville Citizen Strike: An Example of the Ineffectiveness of Appalachian Labor” Appalachian Journal 11 (July 1984): 403-409; Matthew Blaylock, “Rhododendron Queens: Elite Women and the Creation of Class in Western North Carolina,” Society of Appalachian Historians, 2015; Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (1981); Archie Green, Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal Mining Songs (1972); John C. Inscoe, Mountain Masters, Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989); John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (2000); Phil Jamison, Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance (2015); Jeff Keith, Presentation on South Asheville Cemetery, Appalachian Studies Association, March 2015; Jeff Keith, “Using Google Earth to Document Slave History,” National Public Radio Interview, June 19, 2015; Kevin Kehrberg and Jeff Keith, Presentation on “Swannanoa Tunnel,” Appalachian Studies Association, March 2015; Stephen Nash, “The Beginning of a ‘New’ Mountain South: Western North Carolina in the 1870s,” Society for Appalachian Historians, 2015; Anthony Sadler, “River of Sorrow in the Land of the Sky: Flood in Asheville, 1916,” Society of Appalachian Historians” (2015); Robert A. Topkins, “William Wallis McDowell” in NCPedia (1991; via Encyclopedia of North Carolina Biography); Darin Waters, “Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900″ (UNC Ph.D. diss., 2011); Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (2006).