Moving on Up to Pisgah Heights: The Whisnants in West Asheville

Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup, The Heart of the Alleghanies: Or, Western North Carolina (1883). Google Books.

This is the story of a street railway operator and his family moving from a small rented house (their home for 16 years) on an in-town estate in downtown Asheville (see previous post: Working Class Family Behind the Big House: Asbury, Ella, and Their Children: 1907-1918) to a small Pisgah (later Brownwood) Avenue house they bought in Pisgah Heights in West Asheville in 1923.

It is about how they adjusted to their new house and neighborhood, how their three children negotiated their teen (and high school) years, and what it was like for them to move into adulthood during the final years of the Asheville boom, the Jazz Age, and the advent of the Great Depression.

The Pisgah Heights location might have seemed to present promising possibilities for the family.  For many decades, the name of widely-photographed Mt. Pisgah to the west of Asheville was resonant of picturesque mountain scenery, healthful air, upscale exclusivity and leisure, and in some cases sacrality (Pisgah was the Biblical mountain from which Moses first saw the promised land).

Pisgah-named features were actually spread far and wide.  More than a dozen western North Carolina counties contain Pisgah features (mountains, forests, ridges, creeks, towns and communities), and others stretch from Antarctica to Australia to New Zealand to the Shetland Islands, and back to the U.S., where one finds them in ten states from Oregon and California to Vermont and (especially) Pennsylvania.

As a local name in and around Asheville, Pisgah followed by nearly anything, or Heights preceded by nearly anything, was considered likely to bring in potential members, patrons or buyers. City directories for 1883 (the first one), 1900 and 1923 yield many examples of neighborhoods or subdivisions, roads, businesses, churches, and organizations.

By 1883 there was already a fraternal organization called Pisgah Castle of the K[nights of the?] G[olden?] R[ule?], a Pisgah Methodist Church, and the Hominy Creek railway station was “a place of great resort for summer tourists . . . a spot in which to recuperate from the turmoil of city and business life . . . [with] Mt. Pisgah . . . towering to . . . nearly 6000 ft. . . . a striking object in the landscape.”  By 1888, Pisgah Lodge No. 32 of the Knights of Pythias was meeting, and by 1923 Pisgah Rebekah Lodge No. 16 had been organized and Pisgah Avenue ran between elite Montford Avenue and Courtland.

Heights subdivisions continued to multiply.  Oakland Heights and the Oakland Heights Hotel were in place by 1900.   By 1923, one could choose among Bingham Heights, Villa Heights, Charles Heights, Fenner Heights, Riverside Heights, and Governor Heights.  On the healthfulness front, Dr. Chase Ambler was running his Ambler Heights Sanitarium just east

Ambler Heights Sanitarium. Asheville city directory, 1923

of Biltmore.  “Heights” churches provided a sacrality resonance: Oakland Heights Presbyterian on Victoria Road (couldn’t actually see George Vanderbilt’s palatial house from there, but it was “out that way”), Horney Heights Baptist on Sulphur Springs Road and Hominy Heights Baptist to the west (toward Pisgah it was).

Thus to name a subdivision “Pisgah Heights” was to harvest the whole package: picturesqueness and pure air, leisure, healing and healthfulness, exclusivity and social elevation, sacrality, access to exotic brother- and sisterhoods, and (for good measure) a touch of the old Biblical world.  Supposedly available to any seeker or buyer (say, a street railway worker such as Asbury Whisnant and his family) who had the money.

However, there was a paradox: in 1889, super-wealthy George W. Vanderbilt (1862-1914;  son of New York Central Railroad owner William H., 1821-1885, and grandson of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, 1794-1877) began buying mountain land (eventually 130,000 acres) in western North Carolina, including Mt. Pisgah.  Look, but don’t touch–at least for about 30 years, when Vanderbilt’s widow sold more than 80,000 acres to the federal government, which turned into (publically available and touchable again) Pisgah National Forest.

Pisgah National Forest and “The Cradle of Forestry” from Blue Ridge Parkway

So if the Pisgah Heights location was (at least at some subliminal level) encouraging, what about the street railway operator part of the Whisnants’ new circumstances? Drawing upon the then-popular “rags to riches” story, a prominent former U. S. senator had had this to say in his book The Young Man and His World (1905):

Twenty years ago [a man I know] was a street-car conductor; today he controls large properties in which he is himself a heavy owner; and a dozen graduates of the high-class universities of Europe and America beg the crums [sic] that fall from the table of his affairs. . . . [Another such gentleman is] one of the most successful political “bosses” in this country, a man who makes politics his profession, and who, just past forty, is in control of the political machine of one of our great cities, rose to that position, by ability alone, from the occupation of a street-car driver.  

Albert J. Beveridge, The Young Man and His World (1905)

The Young Man and His World: “Wholesome Truths” (or Not)?

Plate from an early edition depicting a “smasher” (luggage boy), a newsboy, and two bootblacks. Wikipedia.

Just after the Civil War ended, Horatio Alger, Jr., wrote Ragged Dick, the first in what became a series of “rags to riches” stories, which promised that poor boys who worked hard, kept their noses clean, and had a little luck along with their “pluck” could achieve the American Dream–or at least the version of it that lay along the margin of upper middle-class respectability.

The meme spread quickly through popular and political culture–literature, graphic art, advertising, radio, movies, religion, politics, public discourse, and eventually social media. Over the decades, instead of remaining a quaint literary conceit, it joined the canon of generally accepted explanations for how social mobility can and should occur.

In 1905, Senator Albert J. Beveridge (R-IN, 1899-1911) addressed this issue in The Young Man and His World–part autobiography, part social/historical commentary, and part advice.

So credible did his perspective become that for the past 70+ years, the American Historical Association (1884) has bestowed the Albert J. Beveridge Award, to honor “a longtime member of the Association and an active supporter of history as both a lawyer and a senator.”

Full text available on HathiTrust

Using funds provided by the Senator’s second wife and others, the AHA presents the award biennially for a book “that employ[s] new methodological or conceptual tools or that constitute[s a] significant reexamination of important interpretive problems.”

Had I been asked (as of course I was not), I would have opined that The Young Man and His World did neither. Instead, it repackaged central features of the dominant discourse (rags to riches, the Gospel of Wealth, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy) by then in evidence for nearly 40 years in their Algeresque shapes, but present long before. Despite some Progressive leanings (including a 4-volume, Pulitzer Prize biography of Chief Justice John Marshall), Beveridge was avowedly racist and imperialist in his policy positions.

Fortunately, over the years the AHA moved beyond the world view implied by the name of the award, generating a long list of  award-winners (e.g., Peter Wood, for his Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion of 1975)any one of whom was a more distinguished historian than Beveridge himself.

I know of no evidence that Asbury ever read Beveridge’s book (indeed, I never saw him reading a book at all).  But he did not need to read it in order to imbibe its core messages, which were all around him.  Beveridge himself turned up in Asheville newspapers more than 40 times between 1899 and 1923, and Asbury always read the newspaper.

On October 17, 1905, the editor of the Asheville Citizen welcomed The Young Man and the World with fulsome praise: a book, he said, “in [which] the brilliant young senator tells much about the manner in which he achieved his present prominence.”  The AHA would have been pleased to read of Beveridge, “the great orator,” the “master of style,” imparting to  young men “the wholesome truths which have been impressed upon him during . . . his brilliant . . . career.”

In any case, even by 1905, when Asbury had been a “street-car driver” (i.e., motorman or conductor) for only five years, there was already room to doubt Beveridge’s reassuring paradigm of success.  In 1913, to take a dramatic piece of evidence, Asbury and other Asheville street railway employees went (successfully) through a short but violent strike (see my previous post, Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic).  A central lesson of that strike was that luck and pluck had their limits.  And so impressed was Asbury that he named his son (born a little more than a year later) John Keenan Whisnant, after George Keenan, an official of the international union who had come to Asheville to assist with the strike.

Asheville street railway employees after strike vote, Central Methodist Church, April 1913. Asbury Whisnant (with mustache) on step, below R edge of 2nd column from L. Click to enlarge. Photo by Herbert Pelton. Personal collection.

Moving to West Asheville: 1923

Almost exactly a decade after the strike, at about the midpoint of Asbury’s time in Asheville (1900-1955), and of Ella’s as well (1907-1942), the family moved to West Asheville.  In previous posts, I have explored their Asheville years prior to that family transition:

For readers who may not have yet encountered those posts, the benchmark details are these:

For seven years, Asbury had lived alone in rented rooms or boarding houses.  He and Ella married in 1907 (just after Ella left her professional nursing job in Morganton at age 38).  Four children were born (one died at birth) within six years–the last when Ella was 45 years old).

By 1912 they had managed to save enough money to buy (for $3750 cash) a farm back down the mountain near Whisnant family relatives, and begin building a house on it (for a fuller account see Glimpses into the Daily Lives of the Whisnants).  But for another decade, the family continued to live frugally in a small rental house at 44 South French Broad Avenue.

By the time they moved to West Asheville, Asbury had  23 years of seniority in a union job (rather scarce in Asheville). Ella was 54 years old, and Asbury was 51.  They had two daughters, 13 and 10 years old, and a nine year-old son.

Asheville’s boom was well under way, and the danger signs of a possible bust were still not in evidence.  And just before they moved, they bought their first automobile–a marker not

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

only of the physical move, but also of a socioeconomic one as well.  “It was bought,” my father remembered 60 years later,

 just before we left [South French Broad]. It was a ’23 model Dodge, and it came out, seemed to me like the new models came out about August. And it was bought just before we moved to West Asheville. And we rented a garage across the street to put it in.

John Whisnant and (it appears) 1923 Dodge touring car. Click to enlarge.

Did they drive it down to the farm?

Oh, yeah. Many times. It was a Dodge touring car, and we put up side curtains. Of course, it didn’t keep any of the cold out. You still froze to death. Put the two dogs in the floor of the back seat, and everybody fought to keep their feet under them, so they could stay warm.

But why–at a boom time characterized partly by the advent of multiple new subdivisions–might they have settled upon West Asheville?  And why, among other West Asheville ones, did they choose Pisgah Heights?

Pisgah Heights and Other West Asheville Subdivisions

The evocatively named “Pisgah Heights” also echoed longstanding aspirations West Asheville (about 4 miles west of downtown) had had to be (or become) the western gateway to the Land of the Sky (the similarly evocative title of Christian Reid’s 1875 novel–see three earlier posts in this blog: Asheville as “The Land of the Sky”: A Novel, and a Phrase That Stuck“The Land of the Sky”: A Brief Guide to the Novel and Its Moment“The Land of the Sky”: How a Phrase Went So Far, So Fast, and Lasted So Long).

Asheville had had tourist-oriented hotels throughout the 19th century: the Buck since the

Early advertisement for Reuben Deaver’s Sulphur Springs hotel. Carolina Watchman, June 8, 1836.

1820s, the Bank in the 1860s, the Eagle before 1875, the Swannanoa by 1883.  And slightlyto the west, Reuben Deaver’s “Well known watering place” at Sulphur Springs opened for guests in the early 1830s.  It continued to operate until it burned in 1861 (see The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part I: Sulphur Springs as Proto-Land of the Sky, 1827-1861).

Deaver’s site remained vacant until 1886, when newly arrived West Asheville developer E. G. Carrier opened a new Sulphur Springs hotel on the long unoccupied Deaver hotel grounds (see The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part III: Edwin Carrier in West Asheville).

Partly because of the downtown Asheville hotels and the arrival of the railroad in 1880, new residential subdivisions proliferated, especially north of downtown: the Montford Area (1893), Proximity Park (1907), Grove Park (1908), and others.

Lacking street railway service until about 1891, West Asheville could not compete with the downtown hotels, but it soon began to try, with subdivisions and other strategies such as those initiated by  E. G. Carrier’s West Asheville Improvement Company (see The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part III, noted above).

In another previous post (The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951), I focused on my Rudisill grandparents, who arrived in West Asheville at about the same time the Whisnants did, and were looking for work and a home. The most likely options were in the new mid-1920s West Asheville subdivisions.  They

Asheville Citizen, June 7, 1916, p. 2

ranged from the very modest Greenwood Park of 1914, to developer J. T. Bledsoe’s slightly

Asheville Citizen, January 4, 1925, p. 14. Click to enlarge.

more upscale Lucerne Park of 1924, and on to Malvern Hills of 1925, which (by touting its

Malvern Hills Country Club, ca. 1927. Photographer unknown.

clubhouse and golf course) tried to compete with even more upscale ones in north Asheville, such as E. W. Grove’s Grove Park (1908; anchored by the Grove Park Inn of 1913).

But the Rudisills were in a more marginal financial position than the Whisnants. Pierce Rudisill was a former Gastonia cotton mill worker who sought unsteady work in booming Asheville as a non-union, hourly-paid construction laborer. Lacking either savings or other assets, it appears, the Rudisills saved for more than three years to buy (with a federal mortgage loan) a small lot in Greenwood Park.  Whatever hope they had to build a house on it disappeared, however, when the Asheville economy crashed about two years later, and construction jobs disappeared.  The Whisnants –for reasons outlined above–fared better.

Buying the Pisgah Avenue House

Newly platted subdivisions in Asheville and West Asheville were usually advertised right away to allow developers to recoup their investment quickly.  To spur sales, developers claimed to offer unique attributes coveted by buyers: prime locations, attractive prices and amenities, some marks of exclusivity, and long-term value.  Sales promotions were sometimes structured as festive public events, with free streetcar transportation, live music, and drawings for prizes.

Pisgah Heights was surveyed and platted at least by late 1906, but a 1903-1925 newspaper search turns up no evidence of its existence or availability until the Asheville Gazette‘s “Deals in Dirt” real estate column noted the sale of a lot for $1300 in August 1912.  A half-dozen years later, Asbury’s co-worker E. W. Beacham and his wife Bessie (later the Whisnants’ neighbors) defaulted on a deed of trust for a lot on Pisgah Avenue.  Then Pisgah Heights appears to have gone dark in the newspapers for another half-dozen years.

How many West Asheville subdivisions Asbury and Ella drove around Asheville and West Asheville to see, I don’t know.  But they settled on Pisgah Heights, which was close enough to the street railway depot for Asbury to (take a long) walk to work.

On February 10, 1923, they bought lot #5 on Pisgah Avenue in Pisgah Heights.  The deed did not mention any house or structure, but some months later they signed a deed of trust for $1200 and apparently gave the former owners an unspecified cash downpayment as well.

An interview I did with my father some 60 years later shed some bits of light on this sketchily defined transaction.  “Can you remember anything about buying the . . . house or deciding to buy it,” I asked him.  “Was it something they worked on for years, or did it just sort of happen?”  “They had been saving to buy,” he said,

I don’t really know how much down payment they had.  Seems to me like it was about $1400 or something.  I’m not sure.  And they had been looking and looking and looking.  You know, not as a crash campaign, but just keeping their eyes open.  And they found this house . . . , and it was very reasonably priced.  The price of it was $4200 [$60,500 in 2017].

And it was built largely, all of the framing and much of the other lumber in it was built from lumber that was reclaimed from the flood in 1916 [see previous post Mud on the Rafters].   There were houses by the dozens went down French Broad River and crashed into that bridge down there.  And piles and piles of lumber.  And a lot of it, all the framing, in fact, was lumber that came out of lumber yards and houses as a result of the flood.

If you go up in the attic and look, you’ll see mud and stuff all over the rafters where they had reclaimed it and put it up.  But the house was alright; it was a fairly good house.  Had five rooms. . . .  Fellow Zollie Owens built it. . . .  It must have between 1916 and 1922 sometime.

With these transactions (whatever their precise terms), Asbury and Ella negotiated passage from renters to owners. That was the good news.  The (presumably) troubling aspect of the move was the probability that they were probably not going back to live in the house they had already built on Cane Creek in Rutherford County (see previous post Glimpses into the Daily Lives of the Whisnants).

De facto, the Cane Creek house and farm became a “retirement” home.  Yes, they now owned two houses and a farm, but the primary place that was to shape their lives–as it had for nearly a quarter-century–was the city, not the country.  And the city, which for them had until then been 44 South French Broad Avenue in downtown Asheville, became West Asheville.

For a tract consisting of two (actually adjacent) lots–No. 4 on Pisgah Avenue in Pisgah Heights, and No. 5 on Brownwood Avenue (“formerly Pisgah Avenue”), “together with [its] appurtenances,” they paid (said the deed of February 10, 1923) some unspecified amount in cash.  Whether a house or other structure was included is not clear.  As a legal term, an appurtenance refers to “an incorporeal interest . . . accessory or adjunct . . . attached and incidental to something that has greater importance or value.  Common . . .  appurtenances to land include barns, outhouses, fences, drainage and irrigationditches, and rights of way.”

Nine months later (November 19, 1923), they paid off for $1200 a deed of trust (which from the given “meets and bounds” clearly referred to lot No. 5).  Again, there was no mention of a house or other structure, but rather to “the above described land and premises, with . . . [its] appurtenances.”  From this I tentatively conclude that there was at this point no house on either lot. A recent Google street view map shows unmistakably that 60 Brownwood Avenue was, and remains, on what was lot No. 4. In the 1923 city directory, Asbury and Ella were still listed at 44 South French Broad, but in 1924 they were at 60 Brownwood.

At some point, perhaps as early as 1918 (why, I have not discovered), it appears from deeds, the Pisgah Heights subdivision name disappeared, and Pisgah Avenue became Brownwood Avenue.  From this point, then, I will use the Brownwood Avenue name.

Life on Brownwood Avenue

So at what developmental stage did this 1923 moment occur for the Whisnant family?  What changes ensued, and in what ways did each of its five members experience and react to these changes?  Lacking any individual or family documentary records except a few photographs and my interviews of thirty years ago, I have to proceed mostly inferentially.

Asheville Citizen October 12, 1918

A few demographic and timeline details help somewhat: In late 1923, Asbury was 51 years old and still working. Ella was 54, had not been employed for at least 16 years, and was a stay-at-home mother who continued to wear her nurse’s pendant watch from years gone by on her dress.  They had three children: daughters 13 and 10, and a 9 year-old son.  The 1913 strike, the 1916 flood, and the 1918 influenza epidemic were behind them (see previous post: Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic).  And Asheville’s 1920s boom still had about seven years to run.

Street car at flooded French Broad River in Biltmore, July 16, 1916. Pack Memorial Public Library

For texture and detail concerning the ten years (1923-1933) the family lived together on Brownwood Avenue before the children were grown and (except for Bertha) out of the house, we can turn to Asbury’s work, the domestic space of the house and lot, and a few gender-differentiated issues with regard to raising daughters and a son.

I do not claim that these are the “best” issues to focus on, or that they were “typical” of families of the time.  They are merely those that it occurred to me to ask about thirty years ago, and have been able to gather some bits of information about since then.  They are also framable within known social and cultural patterns of the period.

Asbury’s Work

Streetcars on Pack Square 1924. Pack Memorial Public Library (B143-8). Click for larger image.

By mid-1923, Asbury had been working for the (many times bought, sold, renamed and reconfigured) Asheville street railway system for 23 years.  For Asbury it was a longer walk to work from 60 Brownwood than it had been from 44 South French Broad, but he had had a steady union job all along–as he would continue to have, even during the coming Great Depression.

New city buses, 1924. Reference image, Pack Memorial Public Library.

Changes were in the offing, however.  In 1924, the system took delivery on its first motorized buses, and some street railway tracks (increasingly complained about because track-bound streetcars interfered with automobile traffic) began to come up.

The most crucial work-related factor for Asbury was not the switch from streetcars to buses, but that as a member of a strong union (Local No. 28 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and  Electric Railway Employees of America, formed in 1892), Asbury remained employed throughout the Depression.  They kept their house.  Their children had a stable home.  And they even sold the drafty ’23 Dodge touring car and bought a ’31 Chrysler with glass windows.

The House at 60 Brownwood

The 900 square foot house Asbury and Ella bought had five rooms, a perhaps 10 x 30 foot front porch, a large screened back porch off the kitchen and a small, dirt-floored basement beneath that porch.  A while after they moved there (I have not found a record of the purchase details), they bought the lot next door for a garage and garden space.  The Chrysler always stayed in the garage, and my memories of the garden remain vivid: grape arbors, apple and cherry trees, and neat rows of vegetables.

When she thought back–six decades later–about what moving to Brownwood Avenue meant to her and her siblings, my father’s sister Bertha recalled that moving offered new opportunities, and altered some relationships and behaviors, both within and beyond the family:

Well, it was a bigger house, and the neighbors were closer.  Seemed like there were more playmates; there were more families around there.  We just lived closer together, and then we had this big field and hills and woods over to the back of us.  Seemed like we had a little more liberty to live and move and do our thing, I guess.

Inside the house, my father remembered, crowded as it was for five people, there was space for parents and their offspring–including sleeping space, which had always been cramped (and shared by all) on South French Broad.  Sisters Bertha and Azile had the front bedroom, and

then there was a middle bedroom that Mama and Daddy had.  And there was what they called a sleeping porch back there that I had.  It was very small.  There was room enough for one single bed. . . . [T]hen it had [a kitchen and] a back porch that was about half closed in–three sides of it were closed in, and I slept out there in the summertime a lot.

There was no central heat, but

we heated with a coal heater in the living room. . . .  And I remember when Mama got her money from her daddy’s estate [about the same time they bought the house], she bought a living room suite.  We thought that was the grandest thing in the world.  It was mahogany finish, and had this kind of cane back and bottom structure.

What about Ella, I asked.  How had her life changed?  Did she have her own friends, or go visiting, or do anything outside the house?  Not a lot, my father recalled,

Ella Whisnant on front steps on Pisgah (later 60 Brownwood) Avenue. Undated, but probably around 1924. Nurse’s watch on dress. Click for larger image.

not really.  She didn’t . . . [because] there just wasn’t time.  So far as having visiting friends, where she went and spent an afternoon or something like that, no.  We had fairly good neighbors, and you visited across the street and next door, but . . . there wasn’t time enough for a lot of visitation.  She was busy every minute of the day.  In the summertime keeping a garden.  We had an extra lot next to the house, which was also a garden, and it was a tremendous garden.  Canning and household [tasks took time, and] . . . of course the girls were getting into teenage.

The implication, it appears, was that mother and daughters (aged 10 and 13 in 1923) took care of the domestic tasks in the house and garden, and the men did whatever was done outside (trimming trees and hedges, plowing the garden, taking care of the automobile, and the like).

And what about the growing teenagers?  How did these new shared experiences–and especially the gender norms and discourses associated with some of them–play out within the three Whisnant siblings’ development?

Raising Two (Different) Daughters . . . and a Son

To take a single example that recalls Sen. Beveridge’s cautions about the “effeminizing” effects of women on boys, during my years with my father (he was 24 when I was born), he had firm views on what roles and behaviors were appropriate for males and females. It was not proper, he insisted, for his sons to help with drying the dishes and other household chores.  

Since our mother had four children and no hired help at all, she found it necessary for us help–as we were reminded by the chore lists she regularly posted on the back of our bedroom doors. So we helped not only to dry dishes, but to mop and wax floors, iron shirts, fold and put away clothes, sweep walkways, wash windows, and vacuum and dust. And for good measure, to sit in a circle and help peel, seed, and cut up fruits for canning.  She was the first feminist I ever knew (though I never heard her use the term), and I met her very early in life.

When much later, as a midlife adult, I interviewed my father and his sisters–then in their early to mid-70s–I was eager to know how they had formed their views about gender–and possibly related ones.  “When you think back about Daddy . . . right after you moved to Brownwood,” I observed to Bertha,

he would have been . . .  only 8 or 9 years old, but shortly after that, he was getting into his teenage years.  Do you think he was rebellious too?  Did he behave in a different way [from you two girls]?

“My impression from talking with Daddy,” I told them,

is that you were raised pretty much the way most children were raised at the time in terms of how you were treated as girls or boys.  Girls were pretty much protected and kept in, but [as a child and young person, he] was freer to go and do what he wanted to do, partly because he was male, even though he was the youngest of the three.

Some gender differences emerged with regard to the family’s ’23 Dodge: “I very well remember when we learned to drive,” Bertha recalled:

Daddy taught us to drive.  He would let me sit beside him, sit over close to him and learn to guide the car, and then later, you know, learn to drive.  And I remember, John was younger than I am, but he let John take the car out alone before he would let me take it out.  . . .  Sometimes . . .  he told me not to go and I [once] had a wreck, not a bad one. I went to visit my girl friends, and he told me not to go over across the bridge, not to go to that side of town, and I did anyway.

Were you upset by the different rules?, I asked Bertha. No, she said,

 I might have been a little jealous, or felt like that if he let John have [the car], I should have it, too.  Might have felt that way.

Bertha’s reluctance to own her jealousy (“might have been”) and resentment (“might have felt that way”) ran against several decades of women’s active experience with automobiles.

Duryea brothers’ automobile, ca. 1893. Wikipedia

The Duryea brothers’ Duryea Motor Wagon Company built its first U. S. model in 1893, and by 1909, 22 year-old Alice Ramsey had driven one across the country. By 1916, the Girl Scouts were offering an automobiling badge for driving skill.

Alice Ramsey and her dark green, four-cylinder, 1909 Maxwell. Library of Congress.

At home, the Whisnant girls were being raised by the older paradigms, it seemed.  But inevitably, the 1920s rolled into their lives, at school and elsewhere, through popular culture: radio, movies, music, and other forms and styles of the Jazz Age.

Flappers with bobbed hair, cloche hats, short skirts, bare arms and knees, thin bodies and flat(tend) bosoms. Women drinking, smoking, and petting.  And the Charleston was ubiquitous: the popular stateside version; black French ex-pat Josephine Baker‘s bikini top version; or–parental advisory!–her topless version of 1927.

Josephine Baker (1905-1975), American expatriate, dancer, member of French resistance during World War II.

John Whisnant at perhaps 14 years old, dressed in suit and tie, with sister Bertha (R) and unidentified woman in Jazz Age inflected styles, ca. 1928. Click for larger image.

And how prevalent were those cultural markers in Asheville in the late 1920s? How were they kept in view?  As between their own home and popular cultural images and discourse, the Whisnant siblings encountered mixed messages about the Jazz Age and its flappers.

While others sensed cultural degradation, the op-ed writer of “The Flapper and Her World defended the new forms and messages:

Ridicule her as you will, point out her extravagances as you please, the fact remains that the great subconscious urge which is striving the peoples of the earth to struggle for independence, is the same that lives and flames in the breast of the rising generation here and abroad. (See full article in Asheville Citizen, July 27, 1922)

Mid-1920s newspaper and magazine advertisements featuring women’s driving automobiles were both approving and alluring.  An expanding market did not respect gender distinctions.

Chevrolet, 1924

Such advertisements were so many and varied that any young woman would certainly have encountered both the images and their (guardedly transgressive, one observes) semiotics.  A single example at left:

Easy To Drive: Easy to start. Easy to Steer. Light pedal action.  Easy to shift gears. Easy to ride in. Easy to stop.

The semiotics? Stylish, relaxed, competent, “at the wheel” and in command. Free to go when and where she wishes, even outside the bounds. Probably not feeling “a little jealous.”  Easy, easy, easy.

Easier for Azile, the oldest child, one would guess–at least in some ways.  Born in 1910, she was only 12 when the Asheville Citizen reported that she represented Montford Avenue School in Asheville’s May Day large, PTA-sponsored spring festival at the Masonic Temple in 1922.  The program

included a reception, and tea, a style show and dancing. The latest styles were furnished in shoes and garments for school girl wear from two local stores, while . . . garments, made by the high school girls and the girls in other domestic science classes of the several schools as well, were on display.

A colorful account of the elaborate decorations followed.  Standing in the  receiving line the young ladies exhibited “correct dress styles for . . .  school girls.”  The behavioral

Azile Whisnant (Boone), bottom left, The Hillbilly (1927), p. 65. Alumni Center, Asheville City Schools.

implications of “correct dress styles” proved only partly predictive for Azile, however.  She got married (says the 1930 census) at 15 to a young man from nearby Mars Hill (Boyce Boone) who was six years older.  She went on to graduate from high school in 1927 under her maiden name, with (Mrs. Boyce Boone) underneath.  Moderately active in high school, it seems, she had been Secretary of the Math Club and a member of the O. Henry Literary Society, Weber Literary Society and the Student Club.

Such early marriages were not unheard of, of course (her mother-in-law had married at 17, but her own mother Ella not until she was 38).  But marrying at 15 was transgressive in any case, since the median age for women to marry in 1920 was 21.2, and the age of consent in North Carolina was 16 (but legal earlier with parental consent).  But what about developmentally?

“Why do you think [Azile] got married so young,” I asked Bertha sixty years later.  “Do you have any idea?”  “No, I have no idea,” she replied.

I remember my mother telling me that she . . . was kind of surprised that [Azile] wanted to get married that young, but she didn’t oppose it. She said Azile said, “If I don’t marry Boyce I’ll never marry anybody.” So she must have thought that Azile knew what she wanted and she didn’t oppose it.

Whether her mother opposed the marriage or not, and whatever Azile’s age was, it happened uncomfortably close to the looming Asheville crash of 1930.  The Asheville city directory of 1926 does not show an address for the couple. The 1927 and 1928 directories list them living with her parents at 60 Brownwood, with Boyce working as a carpenter. By 1929 they had moved out of the parents’ house to an apartment at 89 Pennsylvania Avenue in West Asheville, and Boyce had a new job as a watchmaker.

But that didn’t last long, either.  The next year, when Azile was 20, they and their then three year-old daughter had moved in with his widowed mother in Mars Hill. By late 1931 they had another daughter, and another not too long after that.  But as one of the daughters confided to me years later, Azile disliked the Mars Hill arrangement, and by 1932 they were back with her parents on Brownwood Avenue.

Apparently no city directories were published in 1933 or 1934, but by 1935, things had re-stabilized.  They were living in a small house at 51 Belmont Avenue, and Boyce had a job at Asheville Jewelers.  By at least 1940 they were in another house at 80 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Boyce still had a job doing “watch repair.”

So, how may one–more than 90 years later–frame this early marriage?  In the absence of family letters or a young woman’s diary (neither existed, so far as I know), what cultural markers might one turn to, in addition to jazz music, flapper clothing or Charleston-dancing?

Searching the Asheville newspapers for markers, I came across the marriage advice columns of the nearly ubiquitous Dorothy Dix (1861-1951), who began writing in 1896, being syndicated in 1923, and was eventually gained 60 million readers in more than 250 newspapers worldwide.  Dix’s columns showed up in Asheville newspapers after 1910, with more than 6,000 mentions between then and 1950.

Asheville Citizen, December 23, 1923, p. 18.

To maintain control of her topic–and her advice upon it, Dix wrote both the questions and her answers.  Her advice on early marriage?: Don’t.  A column on the topic from late 1924 is unequivocal: “The girl of nineteen and the boy of twenty-one are still children–undeveloped and unformed”:

Asheville Citizen, August 8, 1924, p. 10. Click for larger image

Dix’s advice was as would have been expected from a conservative parent (her chosen persona, it seems).  On the other hand, she knew that times were changing, as she said in mid-December 1928:

Asheville Citizen, December 18, 1928, p. 8. Click for complete column.

Taking a different path, Bertha stayed in school and went on to have (a version, at least) of the life of a “modern girl.” But not all of it was smooth, or led where she wished. “Do you remember how you did in school compared to other kids?,” I asked her.  “Did you think of yourself as sort of average, or brighter, or . . . .?”  “I felt like I did about as well as the rest of them,” she said,   “but I felt like in high school I could have done better, but I don’t think I [prodded?] myself like I could have.”

“Why do you think that was the case?,” I asked her, having perceived her for years as bright, creative (a skilled seamstress and clothing designer), active in the church and with her friends.  “I think I got with the wrong crowd,” she replied rather wistfully:

I think that the girls I ran around with were a little more mature than I was, and they were beginning to date, and get out, you know, on a limb.  I thought I was missing something, and I would lay out of school and we would go to a movie, or something like that, you know.  And I don’t feel like that I applied myself.  I don’t think I realized the importance.  I think I could have done much better had I been, uh … I guess that maybe I needed a counselor, like they have now.

Bertha’s engagement with school appears to have been modest.  She was included in The Hillbilly annual in 1931 (without picture), and listed as belonging to the Student, O. Henry, and Math clubs (the latter only in 1927).  Nothing is known of her academic record.

Part of the problem may have been that her high school years coincided with the turbulent closing years of the Asheville boom, during which rising population put pressure on the school system. One still fairly new (1919) downtown building (called David Millard High School in the 1927 Hillbilly) was bulging with students, so a new (1925) building (Hall Fletcher High School) opened in November 1927 and high school students were divided between the two.

In December, the mayor announced that projected growth still demanded a third building, and a grand new Art Deco central high school, designed by eminent architect Douglas Ellington, opened a little over a year later (February 1929).

Asheville High School, 1929. National Register of Historic Places.

Unfortunately, by then the city’s financial ruin was not far off.  On November 20, 1930, Central Bank and Trust Company (where the heavily indebted city kept most of its funds) closed its doors. For want of money to pay the heating bill, the spanking new high school soon closed, and students were again divided up and shuffled back into the David Millard (now the “David Millard Section of the Asheville High School”) and Hall Fletcher buildings. Signs of hard times reverberated through the school system.  The 108-page 1931 Hillbilly annual had included 27 pages of business advertisements; the 1934 number had 44 pages, and not a single business advertisement.

So what other factors might have contributed to the high school problems Bertha recalled so painfully?  “You didn’t feel like your relationship between you and your parents was such that you could have talked with them” about how things were going?, I asked her. “I don’t think I had the scope of it, David,” she said,

I don’t think I had the vision of what was really happening in my life.  I don’t think I realized.  Well, I know that my parents did emphasize the value of getting an education, and I don’t say that they neglected that in any way.  They wanted us to get a good education, and would like for us to have had more, and Daddy wanted to go on, wanted for us to go on to business college.  That was of course as far as he could see, moneywise.  But I’m sure that I didn’t apply myself in high school like I should have, and I don’t know where the fault lies, probably right in me somewhere.

Advertisement from The Hillbilly, Asheville High School annual, 1931, p. 82.

“It sounds like you were pretty rebellious,” I ventured.  “I was afraid I was missing something, you know,” she replied,

because I had been more or less —  as children, we had been confined to our own lot, you know, and others would go out and run around and do things that we couldn’t do.  Maybe I was rebellious thinking I was going to miss something.  I thought I had to try everything everybody else did, you know.

Ella Austin’s “Nurse’s Certificate of Registration,” December 19, 1903. Private collection. Click for larger size.

Later in the interview, and in her own quiet way, Bertha confided that “I always wanted to finish school and go in training to be a nurse, was what I wanted to do.  And it didn’t work out that way.”  Whether at that time she knew that her own mother, some 25 years earlier, had been one of the first generation of registered nurses in the state, I do not know.  Certainly at this juncture, Bertha revealed no knowledge of it.  See several previous posts: A Document Answers Some Questions (and Raises New Ones), Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History, and Mid-Course Correction: Ella Goes to (Mid-Course) Asheville, 1907.

Despite the restraint of ongoing poor health, as it turned out, the later course of Bertha’s life was  had more of Dorothy Dix’s “modern girl” in it than one might have expected.  She worked for some years as a clerk in Asheville department stores, maintained a social group of women friends, served as an alternate precinct delegate to a county Republican convention in 1938 (age 25), completed training as a nursing assistant (the closest she ever came to the full nurse’s training she had wished for), and lived as a single woman until she was in her forties.  Along the way, she worked as a designer/stylist for the elite Doncaster Company. Founded down the mountain near the old Whisnant homeplace in Rutherfordton as the Doncaster Shirt and Collar Company (1931), it eventually situated itself within “the nationwide network of women empowering women.”

And how was younger brother John raised?  Unfortunately, my interview with my father never engaged this topic for the years after 1923–perhaps five years before he entered high school.  Since I have little direct information, I have to proceed by cautious inference through a second look at the Brownwood Avenue front-yard photo of John, sister Bertha and an unidentified woman; some brief passages on manhood from the Albert Beveridge book that opens this post; a few scant facts on his high school years, and some of his attitudes on gender that I recall from his late (and my early) years.

Take another look at that photo from the side yard of 60 Brownwood Avenue: The two glamorously fur-collared women are posing slightly coquettishly, each with one leg demurely extended.  One hairdo is cloche[d] and the other loose in the breeze. The young man looks downward (in the late afternoon sun, as the long shadows show), hair carefully parted, hand rather woodenly on the arm of the woman to his right.  He seems reluctant, uncomfortable, uncertain about how to be or look, or what the meaning of this moment might be.

Beveridge’s book offers some clues.  One of his identifiable meta-themes is that close association with women (mothers, wives, girl friends) may have an “effeminizing” effect on young men, who need to move steadily and resolutely toward the opposite pole of  “manliness.”

And there were cultural hazards in that process, Beveridge judged.  “Be a man,” he urged,

a great, strong, willing, kindly man—calm in the glory of a fearless heart, serene in your trust and belief in God, . . . that you go about your daily business free from those silly cares which corrode and ruin manhood itself. Be a man—that is the first and the last rule of the greatest success in life. (11)

[Men] are under the direct influence of woman from the cradle to the grave; and . . . gradually (imperceptibly, perhaps, to our own eyes) an effeminizing process occurs in mind and character. (65)

You have got to ” make good ” with [your]  father, young man. He has ” been through the mill,” until the softness is pretty well ground out and little remains but the granite-like muscle of manhood. . . . (75)

We cannot change our sex, or the nature and habits of it. A young man is a male animal after all, and those who object to his rioting like a young bull are in a perpetual quarrel with Nature. (105)

“The man[hood] I have in mind,” Beveridge insists,

is no candy manhood. His is no smooth conduct. . . . He is the sort of man who would confound sharp practises of the crafty; or “call the bluff ” of a financial gamester; or walk unconcerned where physical danger calls for nerve of steel and lion’s heart; . . .  No whining willingness, no soft and pretended desire. [74]  

The man who makes his way through such cultural gauntlet is

clean to the bone . . . strong, upright, faithful, joyous in the unsullied happiness of the manly living of a manly life. (145)

It will take a man, Beveridge continues,

with veins and arteries swollen with masculine blood pumped
by a great, big, strong heart, working . . . easily and joyfully . . . with thews of steel wire and step as light as a tiger’s and masterful as an old-time warrior’s; with brain so fertile and vision so clear that he fears not the future, and knows that what to weaker ones seem dangers are in reality nothing but shadows—it will take this kind of a man to make any ” career ” that is going to be made.

And what of women in a social/cultural field so starkly gendered?  Watch out for the propaganda, Beveridge cautions,

that woman is the equal of man, and that it is all right for her to take on man’s work in business and the professions. [It is] due not so much to an abnormal development in her character as it is to a decadence in our manhood.  (177)

The Hillbilly, 1931, p. 38. John Whisnant on R in middle of column.

It was a tall order for an eighteen year-old high school graduate launching himself into the world, especially given the uncertainty and vulnerability of the Great Depression: develop and display strong, unflinching manhood, with the granite-like muscle of his father, nerves of steel and a lion’s heart, beset by insidious effeminizing influences but steadily resisting softness or whining, with veins and arteries swollen with masculine blood.

And what preparation had he actually had for such a challenge?  Beveridge-ism (as one might call it) would be daunting to operationalize at best, and candid engagement with parents was an outside chance.

Meanwhile, Bertha recalled that he “dated a lot,” was a good dancer, and had an active social life.  Rather risky behaviors from within the Beveridge paradigm.

John’s high school record appears (from scant available evidence) to have been modest, as his sisters’ had been.  There was no sign of noteworthy academic achievement.  He had taken a strong interest in a vocational printing class. but he belonged to only two clubs: the Boys’ Athletic Association (although he had been on no varsity teams) and the Radio Club (not included among organizations featured in The Hillbilly), of which he had been President, Vice President, and Secretary.

Soon after graduation, it appears, his Radio Club activities moved him seamlessly into the Asheville Amateur Radio Club, of which he became President in 1939.  I turn to that sector in my next post.

References

Asheville City Schools Alumni Center, Asheville High School, The Hillbilly [annual], 1922, 1923, 1926, 1927, 1931, 1934; David C. Bailey, Joseph M. Canfield, and Harold E. Cox, Trolleys in the Land of the Sky: Street Railways of Asheville, N. C. and Vicinity (2000); Albert E. Beveridge, The Young Man and His World (1905); Catherine W. Bisher, Michael T. Southern and Jennifer F. Martin, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999); Justin Bristol, Asheville High School: A Grand Project Built During Asheville’s Population Explosion (B.A. thesis, UNCA, 2004);  Buncombe County Register of Deeds; Nan Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Lou Harshaw, Asheville: Mountain Majesty (2007); Historic Vehicle Association, “Women at the Wheel” (October 24, 2012); David E. Whisnant, taped interviews with John K., Azile and Bertha Whisnant, 1984-1986.

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One Response to Moving on Up to Pisgah Heights: The Whisnants in West Asheville

  1. Richard Whisnant says:

    Enjoyed this post, as I have the others, especially because it contains some family facts that I had not heard before, and some pictures I had not seen. I was particularly struck by the history on Azile, mostly because I somehow know so little about her early years. Her photo in the high school yearbook shows her as a very pretty young woman, which might have influenced her into an early marriage. Of course, many other factors may have contributed to that.

    You need to stop using words like “semiotic” because education deprived scientists like myself have to interrupt our enjoyment of the blog to resort to our dictionary.

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