- 1 Asbury’s, Ella’s–and Asheville’s–Mid-Course Moment
- 2 To Have a Family–or Not?
- 3 How Much Money Could They Count On?: Land, Timber and “The Whisnant Bros.”
- 4 Problems at the State Hospital at Morganton
- 5 Off the New Track and Back on the Old: Some Implications of Ella’s Choice
- 6 References
A previous post explored Ella Austin’s and Asbury Whisnant’s lives during the post-Civil War years–before they both took jobs at the State Hospital at Morganton around 1894. Another focused on the State Hospital at Morganton’s development before and during the years they both worked there. A third focused on Asbury’s moving to Asheville to take a job with the street railway in 1900.
This present post explores Ella’s move to Asheville in 1907 and the beginning of their lives together:
- Why did she decide to go?
- Why might 1907–after she had been at the hospital for a decade or longer–have seemed to be the right moment?
- What kind of transition was the move for her at age thirty-eight?
- What resources were they likely to have?
Unfortunately, lacking any diaries, journals, letters, employment records–or even a random postcard such as any historian would be delighted to find, I have to be content with examining several structural factors, drawing what seem to be likely inferences from them.
Asbury’s, Ella’s–and Asheville’s–Mid-Course Moment
In 1907, Asheville was about halfway along in its roughly fifty-year trajectory from post-Civil War recovery (say, 1875 or so) to its 1930 bust. Much of its modernizing infrastructure was in place, things were moving along fairly smoothly, the frenzied decade of the twenties still lay in the future, and the 1930 collapse was still nearly twenty-five years away.
The city’s swing upward seemed likely to continue. The 1908 directory of “the Queen City of the Land of the Sky” offered abundant evidence that businesses, industries, retailers, and professionals were multiplying rapidly: hotels and inns (twenty of them listed); brokers and banks; printers, daily and weekly newspapers; bleachers, tanners, dyers, lumber and pulp mills and a cotton mill; builders and tradesmen of all descriptions; medical facilities and tourist and recreational attractions. Railroad lines led in and out from several directions. Entertainments and amenities were springing up widely, partly driven by the streetcar lines.
Lending some stability and continuity was the fact that Asheville–despite its drive toward modernity–had still not moved entirely beyond its small-town, market crossroads phase, as advertisements from other businesses, trades and facilities attested. The city still had
blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and carriage and wagon dealers; feed and seed suppliers; and purveyors of harness and saddles. One merchant traded in ginseng, hides, sheepskin, beeswax, and goose feathers.
There were also the lawyers, real estate brokers, surveyors, and other businesses that would stir to frenzied activity when the crazy 1920s boom of buying and selling land and property in the streets arrived. But not yet.
Cut clearly Asheville was a magnet, a pull factor that on the whole seemed to promise stability, manageability, and modest opportunity.
So what did this bustling city offer to Asbury and Ella? How would it be to build their lives there? What choices would be thrust upon them? What would their financial circumstances likely be? And especially in the short term, how would it be to have children and raise a family there? Part of that depended upon the city itself, and part depended upon Asbury and Ella themselves–separately and together.
In 1907 Asbury and Ella were also, it turned out, near the mid-point of their own lives. She was thirty-eight and he was thirty-five. And they had been in a relationship (exact contours and dynamics unclear) for something like fourteen years.
On the positive side, Asbury was healthy, and a steady and reliable worker. He had worked some (indefinite) number of years at the State Hospital in Morganton–perhaps, as my father recalled, as “an attendant . . . an untrained nurs[e].” Afterwards he secured a good job in Asheville, and had been in it seven years. He had maintained his relationship with Ella for fourteen years, but how exclusive that had been, or whether he might have during that time had other relationships (serious or not), I do not know. A few family anecdotes suggest that he may have.
If Asbury had any intention of marrying Ella, or of having a family, however, the time had pretty clearly come–both for him and for her. At thirty-eight, she was perhaps fifteen years or more beyond the age women of her generation commonly married. Hence both the cultural norm and her position in her own life cycle urged her to get on with it.
So however the two of them sorted out these factors, on November 7, 1907, they donned their wedding outfits, got married, descended the ceremonial staircase at the State Hospital, and headed for Asheville. A week later, the Lexington Dispatch reported–with a nearly audible sigh of relief–that “After fourteen years of courting[,] Miss Ella Austin of Caldwell County and Mr. Asbury Whisnant of Asheville were married in Morganton last week.”
To Have a Family–or Not?
But what about starting a family at their stage of life? How might it be (physiologically, culturally, or otherwise) for Ella to go through a series of pregnancies (probably closely spaced) at her age, and raise children into their teen years, until she herself might be on the verge of her early sixties?
A few relevant bits of genealogical and census data suggest that with regard to having children at her age, Ella’s situation was not necessarily unusual.
Within her own family, her grandmother Sarah Bolick (b. 1792), had had her first child at twenty-seven and her last (of eleven!) at forty-six (in 1838). Ella’s own mother (b. 1835) had had her first child at thirty (postponed because of the Civil War?), and her seventh (and presumably last) at forty-one (in 1876).
Asbury’s mother Eliza, born in 1844, had her first child (daughter Lourana) in 1870 at twenty-six and her last in 1882 at thirty-eight. So when Asbury went to work at the hospital about 1894, his fifty year-old mother would have been at home with a twelve year-old. Lourana had her her own first child at twenty-nine, and would have a third at thirty-six. Census records for Lower Creek township, where Ella had grown up, also reveal that among their neighbors, women not infrequently continued to have children into their early forties.
The difference was that these women in general were having their last children at or near the age at which Ella was starting the process. In any case, the possibility of “aging out” of her child-bearing years clearly did not loom large enough as an issue for Ella to cause her not to proceed.
How Much Money Could They Count On?: Land, Timber and “The Whisnant Bros.”
Ella’s employment ended when she moved to Asheville, but Asbury’s streetcar earnings were steady. Steady, but not great. Sketchy available data indicate that at the time of the marriage, he may have been earning about fifteen cents an hour. Assuming he worked perhaps a fifty-hour week, his weekly earnings would have been about $7.50; yearly, perhaps $375. Better than cotton mill pay, which (as Leloudis and Walbert have written) in 1904 ran–depending upon one’s mill duties–$2.50-$6.00/week, but still a modest income.
Bits of data suggest, however, that the couple had more disposable income than Asbury’s street railway wages would likely have provided. In late April 1912–four and a half years into the marriage, and after they had had two children (one of them stillborn)–Asbury and Ella paid $3750 (cash, it seems; equivalent to about $91,800 in 2015) for a parcel of land in Rutherford County. No acreage amount was given, but per acre prices in similar deeds at the time suggest that it may have been as much as 350 acres.
How would Ella and Asbury have been able to come up with such a large sum, if not from savings? A loan from some source? Income separate from Asbury’s Street Railway wages (as a family anecdote hints)?
The best evidence I have thus far encountered is that various Whisnants had been buying and selling small parcels of land and “boundaries” of timber in Rutherford and McDowell counties for a long time. The earliest McDowell County deed I have seen referring to a land transaction by a Whisnant is dated 1844; other deeds show transactions by the extended Whisnant family throughout the nineteenth century. Several show that Asbury’s father and mother had owned (and sold) land in Rutherford County a number of times and at several locations as early as 1883, and in McDowell County as early as 1904.
Moreover, several of J. P. Whisnant’s sons were–as “The Whisnant Brothers”–buying, selling, and trading in land and timber. I do not know for sure that Asbury was among
them, but it seems likely. In any case, a deed dated February 7, 1913 shows that “The Whisnant Bros.” (first names not given) paid $75.00 for a “boundary of timber” near Dysartsville in McDowell County. The land was bounded on the north by land owned by Asbury’s younger brother C[harles] P. Whisnant, and on the west by land owned by their father J[ackson] P[inkney] Whisnant. The “Whisnant Bros.” designation suggests that at least two brothers were operating in the timber market under that legal designation.
How early the Whisnant brothers began to do so, how active they were, and how long the partnership lasted, I do not know. A 1918 McDowell County deed showing that brothers C[harles] P. and D[aily] C. Whisnant bought five acres “on the west side of Cane Creek” does not list them as “The Whisnant Brothers.” Nevertheless, commercial collaboration among the brothers might have produced supplemental income for Asbury, if indeed he was a partner in it.
Additionally, some years earlier, Asbury had acquired title to 160 acres on Cane Creek, near the Rutherford-McDowell County line, and had built a house on it–probably before 1912. I have thus far discovered no deed to the Cane Creek farm transaction, but family stories and photographs verify the general fact of ownership.
As best I can judge, in any case, Asbury and Ella were ready and able to start a life and a family together. Their first child–an unnamed stillborn son–arrived in late 1908; their last, born in 1914 when Ella was forty-five, was my father.
Problems at the State Hospital at Morganton
Thus the pull factors for Asheville were present, but there was also a push factor: by 1907, things had not been looking good at the State Hospital for quite some time since it opened in 1883.
How, whether, or to what extent problems at the hospital may have played into Ella’s calculations, I don’t know. I have been unable to discover whether she remained there until she left to go to Asheville. Some family anecdotes suggest that she may have gone back to Lenoir to care for an ill family member several years earlier. But it seems likely that she would have been aware of events at the hospital in any case. And that knowledge would presumably have affected her desire to remain (or return) there.
As Carrie Streeter emphasized in her thesis, in its earliest years the State Hospital was dubbed “the pearl of the mountains,” as indeed in many respects it was. Unfortunately, that pearl had been dropped into the turbulent, disordered, and violent post-Reconstruction period that stretched across the last three decades of the century. Its most dramatic episode was the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898.
A previous post (Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History) focused on the early–and less problematic–history of
the hospital itself, as well as on Ella and Asbury’s time there. As Streeter’s thesis outlined, under the enlightened leadership of its first superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy, the hospital quickly gained a deserved reputation as a model institution, and grew and expanded rapidly.
But problems–some related to that very growth and expansion, to associated costs, and to party politics within the state–began to emerge before the turn of the century. For some months in 1897, an effort to change the leadership of all three state mental institutions (Raleigh, Goldsboro, and Morganton) produced two rival boards of directors at Morganton, meeting simultaneously and hurling contradictory declarations and proclamations at each other. After Supt. Murphy refused to turn over control of the instituion, both boards “lawyered up” and went to court. He eventually prevailed, and remained as Superintendent.
Some of the problems had to do with the nursing program in which Ella worked. As it expanded along with the hospital’s growth, Supt. Murphy’s reports on it remained positive and optimistic until around 1900.
The program appeared more robust, however, than Murphy’s comments frequently suggested, even during the late 1890s. In his minutes for the September 12, 1900 meeting of the hospital board, he said glumly that “The school for nurses has been a drag for the last year. This system should be put on a better basis or discontinued; . . . it has been of material benefit to the patients and the Service, but . . . it should be enlarged and made more perfect. The many difficulties of the work have only been partially overcome–there are many yet to surmount.”
In mid-September, the Nurses’ Training school was “suspended for reorganization.” An unsigned journal entry of September 29 (perhaps written by Murphy) summarized the discouraging statistics: out of fifty-six nurses admitted to training since 1895, the entry said, fifteen “failed to pass the two-month probation,” and sixteen had graduated (averaging three per year). Eleven “pupil nurses” and seven graduates still remained in “the [nurses?] house.” Seven had been discharged and others “have resigned for various reasons.”
Worse yet, Murphy complained, overburdened with 800 patients already (some of them, as Streeter points out, from the 70 new cotton mills in surrounding counties), the Hospital could not meet the constant demand for its services. Crops on the hospital’s patient-tended farm were short, and the institution’s financial situation was worse than it had ever been. State appropriations were lagging, fuel was low, costs were rising, part of the payroll was being met with borrowed money, not enough wood was on hand to last through the winter, and the sewage system was edging toward condemnation.
The hospital’s ensuing years were a downward slide. Patrick Murphy died–young and quite unexpectedly–in 1907, state funding dwindled, treatment protocols shifted toward merely custodial care, and the patient load climbed ever upward.
During ensuing years, as Carrie Streeter summarizes the situation,
institutions . . . once . . . hailed as pearls of state government were sources of shame . . . , overcrowded . . . places of filth and torture . . . . In the early twentieth century, [highly touted new] solutions included eugenic sterilizations, electric shock therapy, insulin-induced comas, and lobotomies. Society would later condemn these practices as horrific and inhumane, but when they were proposed they were often received as hopeful fixes . . . .
Clearly the turn of the century marked the point at which the curve at the State Hospital turned downward. It seems reasonable to infer that the slow slide downward that began then, in addition to Supt. Murphy’s death, figured significantly in Ella’s calculations about staying or leaving.
Beginning early in 1900, another significant local (as well as statewide) factor was the post-Reconstruction racist agitation fomented by (among many other entities) the White Supremacy Club (manifestly an arm of the Democratic Party).
On February 22, the Washington Post reported that such White Supremacy Clubs were being organized in the state to combat “negro domination.” Their constitution declared their purpose to be “to fully restore and to make permanent in North Carolina the SUPREMACY of the WHITE RACE” (“the only hope for the preservation of our civilization”). County and township units were open to white men (women could join, but couldn’t vote). The object was to shape elections by challenging voting lists, getting voters to the polls, and making sure they voted Democratic. Public “speakings” and “attractions” of “large attendance” were envisioned, and local units were to be “working bodies, not dress-parade organizations.”
A county unit was organized in Burke, whose seat was Morganton, site of the State Hospital. In its “State Hospital Notes” column (the title of which seems to have referred not necessarily to the Hospital itself, but–colloquially–also to a larger geographical area around it), the Morganton Herald carried several reports of Club gatherings at Oak Forest (a community that lay within the larger area) as well as Glen Alpine and Oak Hill. What, if any, connection the gatherings may have had to the Hospital itself is not clear.
At one of those meetings (on May 2,) 300 local people heard stirring oratory urging “all white men to stand up for their color against darkest Africa,” and “to stand firm for white supremacy.” The Morganton Cornet Band “enlivened the occasion with many popular and spirited airs.”
By any measure, the state in 1900 was fully in the grips of virulently racist “leaders” and organizations. A proposed amendment to the state constitution to secure white rule was soon to be voted on On June 17, the entire front page of the Sunday News and Observer was splashed with images of racist Democratic candidates:
Whether the racist local climate in Burke County and Morganton had anything to do with Ella’s decision to leave the Hospital or the area is unknown. If it did, she would find little respite from racism in Asheville, since the entire state was in the grip of it during the decades surrounding the turn of the century.
Off the New Track and Back on the Old: Some Implications of Ella’s Choice
Although Ella died when I was barely four years old, I have vivid memories of her. I make no claim that those memories are infallible, or that they have any definitive relationship to what she herself was aware of, intended, or concerned about. How she would have reflected on her own life in her early seventies, I have no idea. Fortunately, however, I taped interviews with my father and his two sisters thirty or so years ago. Those help me to triangulate this turning point in Ella’s life.
All the evidence I know of indicates that Ella led a wholly domestic life once she arrived in Asheville. It was a conventional arrangement: She was a quiet wife and mother who cleaned, cooked, served meals, gardened, and took care of the children. He worked and brought home his pay envelope, did the outdoor work, and took care of their automobile.
Through the years until Asbury died (while I was in high school), I don’t recall ever hearing anyone mention Ella’s pre-Asheville life or the State Hospital.
Looking into her life for this blog, however–as far as the scant evidence would permit–I learned some bits about that life.
Ella Austin was born in 1869 outside the small McDowell County town of Lenoir. She was the middle child of seven. From the 1880 census (the only available pertinent one,
since 1870 was too early, 1890 was destroyed, and 1900 was too late), I learned that she was in school at age eleven. Her fifteen year-old sister was not–most likely because public schools at the time consisted of only eight grades.
The 1870 census lists her father as a farmer, with real and personal property a little above that of a few–but not all–of his neighbors. I know nothing else about her life until she was about twenty-five, when she turned up as an employee at the State Hospital–a period I examined in a previous post (Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History). She continued to work there as a nurse until a short time (how short, I am not sure) before she married and moved to Asheville.
Clearly, coming to 1907 Asheville was a very different life event for Ella than coming to 1900 Asheville had been for Asbury (see previous post Asbury’s Asheville: 1900-1907). By 1907 Ella was an early professional woman–certainly the first in her family and probably the first in the Lower Creek community), with a decade or so of work experience.
Thus Ella’s marriage and move entailed a major downshift–off the professional track, and back into the conventional domestic female role. How she felt or thought about that (if she did), what she may ever have said or written about it, I wish I knew.
As it is, I am aware of only two possibly revealing items. The first is the 1940 manuscript census (taken thirty-three years after she moved to Asheville), which says Ella attended
college for one year. I had never heard anything of that in the family, and my brothers and I have always said we were “first-generation college.”
In any case, it seems likely that if Ella had a year in college, it would have been at Davenport College in Lenoir (of which I had never heard before beginning to work on this blog) though there were several others manageably near by: Claremont in Hickory, Charlotte Female Institute, and Salem.
Davenport Female College was established by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1855, just outside Lenoir. First classes were held two years later. With around sixty students, it survived during the Civil War, burned to the ground in 1877, and reopened in 1886 as a “higher grade home school.” Sometime before 1891, a new president had clarified the separation between Davenport Academy (lower grades) and Davenport Female College.
Thus the most likely time of Ella’s year there would have been either between about 1886 (when she would have been seventeen years old) and when she went to work at the State Hospital around 1894, or during whatever time there may have been between stopping her work at the hospital and moving to Asheville.
The second item is Ella’s nurse’s watch, which she wore on her nurse’s uniform, and–it appears–proudly on her own dresses after she left the profession. One can only guess at her reasons. My own guess would be
that it marked her move beyond (in several senses) a farm on Lower Creek, that she cherished the image of herself as an early professional woman, and that it
reminded her (and her family?) each day of her strength and competence, her choice to be in a new place and role, and her ability to make a go of it.
Subsequent posts will chronicle some moments in and aspects of Ella and Asbury’s lives with their family after 1907.
Asheville City Directories, 1900-1908; constitution and By-Laws of White Supremacy Club (1900); “Asheville Riverside Park” (French Broad River Paddling and Recreation); Neil Fulghum, “Winston, Francis Donnell” in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography; Michael Hill, “Saluda Grade” NCpedia (2006); “Hospital Notes” in Burke County News and Morganton Herald (1895-1904); James Leloudis and Kathryn Walbert, “Work in a Textile Mille” from Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World; “Rival Boards Meet” and “The Asylum Contest,” Raleigh News and Observer, March 19, 1897; Carrie Anne Streeter, “Let me See Some Insane People”: Progressive-Era Development of the State Hospital at Morganton, 1883-1907; Timothy B. Tyson, “Ghosts of 1898: The Wilmington Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy,” Raleigh News and Observer, November 17, 2006; Davenport College; David E. Whisnant, Taped interview with John K. Whisnant, January 1, 1984; John and Ashley Lefler Wilson, North Carolina Nurses: A Century of Caring (2010).