NOTE TO READERS: This is the first in a series of posts on the coming of the American Enka Corporation plant to Buncombe County’s Hominy Valley in 1928, and its presence there until recently. Other parts will follow as I get them written. I will try to make each as free-standing as I can, and also link parts of them to others of my more than 30 previous posts. They may be read in any order, but since they will range over some 70 years and thus are historical as well as social and cultural, they would be best read in order.
As each subsequent part is completed and posted, I will turn it into a link here. Titles and chapter divisions are tentative:
Part 2: “The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville
Part 3: “Fine Mountain Labor”: Building a Labor Force and Shaping Worker Culture
Part 4: Melding Three Cultural Systems: Dutch Leaders and Teachers, Locals, and the Asheville Elite
Part 5: The “Sunny Side of Life” (and Corporate Paternalism): Employee and Family Life in the Enka Village
Part 6: Things He Learned and What He Did at Work: John Whisnant at American Enka
Part 7: Things He Made For Us, Helped Us to Learn, and Taught Us (About How to Learn Things)
Part 8: “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again”: To War and (Maybe) Back To Enka
Part 9: Post-War Years: Back Into the Domestic Market, Nylon, and Modulated Expectations
Part 10: “As of five o’clock this afternoon . . . “: Endings, New Owners, and Long-Term Impact
For the public, the news of the coming of the American Enka Corporation plant arrived in Sunday morning banner headlines:
The news on a late September Sunday morning in 1928 that the American Enka Corporation was going to build a $10 million plant in Buncombe County pleased virtually everyone. Hominy Valley land prices would rise. There would be thousands of new jobs. Tax revenues would pour in. Businessmen’s profit curves would rise, and store owners anticipated booming sales. Real estate salesmen started to turn out new, enticing ads to home builders and buyers.
The Chamber of Commerce saw the plant as the bellwether of many more to follow. And despite Asheville’s having been celebrated and marketed as the enchantingly beautiful “Land of the Sky” for a half-century, long-established tourist interests were as confident and excited as all the rest that the coming of American Enka would probably drive up industrial development.1
A central fact here is that American Enka did not come into a pre-industrial area, but one that had had a growing commercial and industrial base for more than 100 years. This post explores that part of what one might call the pre-history of American Enka.
Pre-Enka Industry in Asheville and Western North Carolina
American Enka was by no means the first factory to locate and operate in or near the city. Small and larger local mills (grist mills, sawmills, lumber mills), had been there for many decades. An armory had operated in the city during the Civil War, and a mica processing facility opened shortly thereafter.
In the surrounding area (e.g., Candler, Arden), production potteries had for a long time been turning out the earthenware (later, stoneware) churns, milk jugs, and food storage vessels people depended upon long before glass jars, metal cans and plastic bottles appeared.2
More than 40 years before the American Enka announcement, Walter Gwyn was offering “mill property” along with timber land and tobacco acreage.
Manufacturing establishments multiplied rapidly after the railroad arrived in 1880. The 1883 Asheville city directory listed planing mills, corn, flour and woolen mills, furniture factories, and harness and saddle manufacturers.
By 1887 a foundry, cooperage and a sash, door and blind factory were operating.
Lindsey’s Guide Book to Western North Carolina of 1890 had a longer list: an ice factory, a cigar factory, three large planing mills, two shoe factories, a carriage and wagon factory, a “first-class” flouring mill, “one of the largest furniture factories in the South,” and a “large cotton factory working more than four hundred employees.”
The latter was the 35,000+ square-foot Asheville Cotton Mills (formerly C. E. Graham Co., established in the early 1880s.)3 To understand the social, economic, and industrial configuration of Asheville at the turn of the twentieth century, one must also understand both the mill and its associated employee residential area “Chicken Hill”.4
Although many former residents recalled their years in the mill and on Chicken Hill nostalgically, the village air was heavily polluted, the company store took its legendary toll, and workplace hazards were serious. Analogous hazards also turned out to be associated with the in some ways more “modern” American Enka plant.
Another of Enka’s predecessors useful to consider a bit more was the Asheville Tannery, set up by Hans Rees and his sons on Lyman Street, running along the French Broad, in 1898. As Citizen-Times columnist Rob Neufeld aptly observed, the industrial revolution was “driven” by leather belting that transferred water- or steam-produced power from long (“jack”) drive shafts to individual (or rows of) machines.
In Asheville, the belting was made from cowhides (shipped in by Chicago meat packers) tanned in a process in which tree bark (ideally, chestnut oak) and water (both of which western North Carolina had an abundance at the time, before the chestnuts died) were essential.
The large (and old, founded in 1868) northeastern company Hans Rees & Sons opened a tannery on the banks of the French Broad River about 1898. The factory first appeared on the Sanborn fire insurance map of 1907, p. 23. Within a few years, several hundred Rees & Sons employees were listed in the city directory. Almost all of them (except for a few women in office jobs) appear to have been men, and most held low-level jobs (laborers, drivers, etc.).5
The 1901 Sanborn insurance map showed the aggregation of factories that had grown up near the railroad yards (and on the French Broad River’s banks) over the years. Major ones were Jones Sash, Door & Blind Co., Asheville Ice & Coal, Asheville Milling Co., and (largest of all) Asheville Cotton Mills. Smaller ones included Ottalay Novelty Co. and Armour Packing.6
During the nearly 30 years between 1900 and the coming of the American Enka plant, several other large industrial plants came to the Buncombe and Haywood County area. Early steps toward formation of what became Champion Paper & Fiber Company began
with the renaming of the town of Pigeon River in Haywood County as Canton in 1893. Ohioan Peter Thompson bought thousands of acres of virgin timber on the headwaters of the Pigeon, and construction began in 1905.7
The owners of the new mill conveniently convinced the North Carolina legislature to amend the public laws of 1907 (“An Act to Encourage the Building of Pulp Mills and Paper-mills and Tanneries in the Counties of Haywood and Swain”) to move the designated pollution point of the river so that “only new facilities below the forks of the Pigeon River are accountable for their pollution, moving the designated point down river, conveniently below the location of the new Champion Fiber mill.” For the coming of industrial development in western North Carolina, it was an ominous step.
Carolina Wood Products Co. came to Asheville around 1910 and hired hundreds to make furniture and radio cabinets for the new but rapidly expanding radio broadcasting industry.8
Another contemporaneous factory was Sayles Bleachery (1927), whose 500+ employees, encouraged by management’s fairly tolerant corporate paternalism, unionized without incident in 1940.10
Thus the American Enka plant was new in some respects, but by no means did it constitute a big leap into a previously non- or lightly-industrialized area. Indeed, one might argue that, rather than being unprecedented, it rode a long-standing wave of post-1880 (heavily railroad-induced) industrial development.
Landing a (Dutch) Rayon Company
The news out of Asheville about American Enka, welcome as it was, was a bit puzzling. Why would a Dutch company, with more than a dozen plants already scattered around Europe, want to build one in western North Carolina? And to make rayon (“artificial silk,” some called it), in a state known for nearly a hundred years for its cotton mills and tobacco factories?
Rayon, after all, had not been around very long. Some laboratory discoveries by a French chemist in the 1870s led to a new synthetic fiber in 1884, and five years later to factory-scale production.11 The original French plant was sold to the DuPont Company after WWI, and by 1928 there were 100 factories producing 350,000,000 pounds of rayon annually, most of it through the so-called “viscose” process (one of four possible ones).12
Production in the United States was slow to develop. Much of the rayon used was imported until the mid-twenties, but Avram’s history contains glowing reports from officers of a growing number of domestic plants, most formed recently, and some (like Enka) offshoots of European companies: Acme Rayon and Industrial Rayon Co. both opened plants in Ohio in 1920, Tubize Artificial Silk Co. opened one in Hopewell, VA the same year, and DuPont Rayon Co. opened plants in New York and Tennessee about the same time. 13
The U.S. Department of Commerce issued optimistic predictions of coming market activity. A Rayon Institute had been organized, and some researchers at U.S. universities were turning attention to rayon. Foreign competition continued, but was not considered a major ongoing threat, given “constantly growing demand.” The consensus was that “Rayon is here to stay.”14
Most pertinently, the Dutch parent company had 8 plants in Holland, France, Germany, Italy and England. and was the largest rayon producer in Europe. The firm was about 15 years old in 1928 when it incorporated American Enka as a United States subsidiary.
A nation-wide search ensued for a suitable plant site. More than 50 locations were evaluated, and among them, Asheville stood out. On September 23, 1928, the Citizen-Times published a multi-page section on the coming of the plant and how/why the Asheville site was chosen.
For some months, a task group drawn from the Chamber of Commerce and Asheville businessmen and public officials, informally “chaired” by Fred L. Seely, wealthy pharmaceutical manufacturer, newspaperman, architect, and developer. Seely, who married the daughter of earlier Asheville developer (most famously of the Grove Park Inn) E. W. Grove, worked with him in various large development and financial ventures, and built his own castle-like home high above Asheville.
Getting the company to commit to the Asheville location, Seely said, had been the “most intensive fight that has ever been waged for something we believed Asheville needed.” Talks over many weeks beginning early in 1928 “occurred in private Pullman car,” Seely reported, and “when difficult matters [were] to be discussed,” the Dutch group repeatedly asked that “just one gentleman accompany us.” The Dutch company president and other officials came over as talks proceeded.
Finally on September 23, the deal signed and sealed, the Sunday Citizen published a lavish “rayon section” to announce it. 15
Work, yes, but a lot else besides–especially, some guarantees to the Dutch owners (some reminiscent of benefits sought by Champion Paper & Fiber more than 20 years earlier): abundant sources of clean (iron-free) water, moderate climate, nearness to supplies of process materials and chemicals (e.g., wood pulp, caustic soda, sulfuric acid), proximity to markets, railroad transportation (a straight shot to the port of Charleston helped), and “intelligent, native born” workers (about whom, more in a later post).
But it was more complicated than promising clean water and the like. As in any such multifaceted enterprise, there were multiple stakeholders. Some would gain, some would lose, and in either case, some more than others. To take the “native born workers” phrase, for example: “In the North,” one commentator pointed out,
the cheap labor usually consists of foreigners, most of whom are ignorant or have radical tendencies. It is difficult for manufacturers to get along with their help. . . . [But the] labor of the mountains of Western North Carolina is the best in the United States. The residents of this section are intelligent, steady, home-loving and pure-blooded laboring persons, and this phase of the section was one that greatly pleased the [Hollanders].
In the (slightly altered) words of the old song, the message to Dutch owners was “Mama don’t allow no union organizin’ around here.” That sentiment was not uncommon in Buncombe County, but also not congruent with the facts. Since 1900, the city’s Central Labor Union organization had met weekly to bring together carpenters, joiners, painters, plumbers and other skilled tradesmen.16 As early as 1901, the city also had a Socialist newspaper (The Workman) and a Socialist Club.17
In 1913, organized street railway employees (Division 128 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America) had won their brief but violent strike against Asheville’s street railway company (see my earlier post on the strike). The city’s Gazette-News carried a “Socialist Column” every Saturday.18 Clearly, some of the local “pure-blooded laboring persons” were open to ideas others judged unacceptable.
Choosing Lower Hominy
So why did the Dutch-derived American Enka Corporation decide to build its new plant in Hominy Valley, lying 7-10 miles southwest of Asheville? What advantages did it offer? Clearly, it offered the company several of its desiderata: land, water, and rail access to markets. Hominy “Creek” was nowhere near as large as the Swannanoa River that joined the French Broad just south of the city, but through it coursed more than the 5 million gallons of water the plant expected to need daily.
There was also land in abundance: 2100 acres of it in an elliptical area lying on both sides of Hominy Creek, including 173 acres of “level land,” and essential raw materials lay not far away. The necessary land also appeared to be available relatively easily. Local newspapers pictured the area as stable and bucolic, one farm bordering the next.19
Decades later, in her study of town planning and architecture associated with the plant, historic preservation scholar Katherine Franks said Hominy Valley consisted of “tranquil farmland owned for generations by descendants of the original settlers.” The sale of land to the American Enka Corporation, she said “was the first significant change in the landholding pattern since the 1700s.”20
But actually it wasn’t. Far from it. If one peruses land deeds from the 1790s onward (Buncombe County was created in 1792, and its county seat of Asheville was founded in 1797), quite a different pattern emerges. The pattern of land ownership and use had fluctuated continuously through the decades.21
Hominy Valley Land for Sale
Perhaps the earliest buyer/settler was William Moore, a former militia captain who marched against the Cherokees in 1776, and afterwards acquired large parcels of land (mostly from the state) from 1790 until at least 1824.22 He also traded in slaves. In 1812 he sold “Simon and Jenny” to Charles Moore (a family member?) for 500 pounds of “good and lawful money.” Five years later he sold 29 year-old “negro man” Dick for $450, and on the same day 26 year-old “negroe woman” Rachal to Ann Ashworth (wife of, or related to, John, perhaps?) for $375.23
Moore was almost certainly one of the earliest land traders in the county (which was much larger then than it was after much of it was hived off into other new counties), but neither the largest nor the longest active one. A deed shows that eastern North Carolina land speculator John Gray Bl[o]unt bought 577,920 acres for 40 pounds in a single tax sale in 1796.
Buncombe County deeds also show that other individuals and families bought and sold land in Hominy Valley for many decades. The Holcombes bought their first acreage in 1793, and nearly 950 transactions (many on Hominy) by their descendants for 1000s of acres all over Buncombe continued up to the eve of Enka’s arrival.
Zacharia Candler bought his first 400 acres on Big Ivy in 1799, and dealt in tens of thousands of acres (most on/near the French Broad) for many decades. His descendants continued doing so into late 1920s. The Brittains, Penlands, Gastons, and Morgans bought repeatedly in the 1880s and 90s.
The 1883 city directory of Asheville provides a glimpse of how land had been divided, distributed, aggregated and re-distributed over almost a century. It listed a few more than 80 “principal farmers” of the area, and how much land each owned. Only 8 of them owned fewer than 100 acres, but nearly half (37) owned from 100 to 299. W. W. Crowell and Charles Brooks owned 400-499, and R. Jones and A. B. Morgan owned between 600 and 700. J. P. Gaston and Solomon Luther each had about 900, and the trio of W. G. Candler, H. J. Davis and S. M. Morgan each owned between 1000 and 1250.24
The Valley as Development Node
Beyond these (much-) extended (and landed, one might say) families, Hominy Valley also had developed a social, cultural and commercial identity. Hominy Creek, the 1883 directory said, “is the principal trading and shipping point for a large section of fine farming country.” But not farming only. It was “a station on [the] Ducktown Branch” of the North Carolina Railroad, where businesses flourished: Boyd Wilson ran one of the 8 steam- or water-powered saw mills, and there were two grist mills and a flour mill, two shoemakers and a wagonmaker, 2 nurseries, 2 chairmakers, and a blacksmith. The 1870 census confirms that many of these businesses were operating at least as early as 1870.25
The Hominy Valley community became a town in 1875, got its own postmaster in 1879, and the NCRR train started dropping off the mail every day shortly after 1880. Solomon Luther augmented his farming income by operating a hotel, and others by cutting timber and raising cattle. Indeed, in his several books, Mashburn presents ample evidence that, rather than being the exception in a mostly agricultural area, farmers who found it necessary to supplement their farm income by operating some sort of “side” business (a mill, a rooming house or small hotel, making and selling shoes, wrought iron goods, or growing and selling plants) were much in evidence.
The valley was also “a place of great resort for summer tourists, who find here the very spot in which to recuperate from the turmoil of city and business life.” The 6000-foot Blue Ridge tourist magnet Mt. Pisgah rose only 12 miles away, and as early as November 1843, Asheville’s Highland Messenger carried “A Visit to Mount Pisgah,” by a traveler who had ridden horseback with “five young ladies, seven gentlemen and a servant” over rocks , roots and fallen trees to camp out at the top of Little Pisgah.
There were several Methodist and Baptist churches, and black residents gathered at Zion A.M.E. church.26
Nor were the railroad and these commercial establishments the only markers of modernization in the Valley. “In 1892,” reported an encyclopedia article on Asheville banker, developer and businessman William Weaver Trotter (1858-1916), “two generators were erected . . . [on Upper Hominy Creek] to produce 250 kilowatts for the rapidly expanding railways and street lighting” in Asheville.27
A modulating word at the outset . . .
Before the pot had gotten close to boiling, Asheville prognosticators were predicting a development curve turning sharply upward, toward a glorious industrial future. Some signs were indisputably promising, but some puffery was also detectible in the September 23 announcement.
Consider the page one headline and photograph: “This Picture Shows The Great Rayon Plant That Comes to Asheville,” it assured readers. But in fact it did not show exactly that. It was a mill in Holland, “the largest in the world.” The Asheville one was to be “an exact duplicate, . . . but on a larger scale, making it the largest rayon mill in existence.” And the plant in the photograph appeared to be somewhat larger than the one actually built in Hominy Valley.
The “industrial village” wasn’t shown, but “will be large enough to house 20,000 people . . . the size of Gastonia.” Since it would be “a suburb of Asheville” (7 miles outside Asheville, in fact), it would “make Asheville the largest city in North Carolina.” Asheville’s fast-growing population in 1928 (up from 28,500 in 1920) was somewhere around 46,000. Adding the conjectured 20,000 for Enka’s “industrial village” was expected to bring it to 66,000 within a few years. But the village that was actually built turned out to be far smaller than the one “in the minds of the the engineers and architects.” And by 1960 (industrial village or no, “suburb” or not) the population of Asheville was still only 60,000.
The next post will carry this story forward by looking in a bit more detail at the expectations (some exaggerated, some not) that businessmen, Asheville officials and prominent citizens expressed at the time American Enka ‘s arrival was announced.
Asheville Sunday Citizen, Enka Plant special Rayon pages, Sept. 23, 1928; Moïs H. Avram, The Rayon Industry (1929), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89078555158; Wilma A. Dunaway, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860 (1996) and Slavery in the American Mountain South (2003); Kathryn Anne Franks, “The Story of American Enka: When the Dutch Choose the South” (M.A. thesis, 1995); John Inscoe, Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989); North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Historic Architectural Resources Report: U-5019: River Arts District Transportation Project in Asheville, Buncombe County NC (2012); J. L. Mashburn, Hominy Valley: The Golden Years (2008), Hominy Valley Revisited (2009), and Asheville & Buncombe County (2012); Rob Neufeld, “A History of WNC’s Working People,” Asheville Citizen-Times, Mar. 22, 2015, and other articles in his long-running series; Phillip T. Noblitt, A Mansion in the Mountains: The Story of Moses & Bertha Cone & Their Blowing Rock Manor (1996); North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville NC; William E. Plemmons, The City of Asheville: Historical and Institutional (M.A. thesis, 1935); David S. Paul, The Rise and Fall of Corporate Paternalism in the Swannanoa Valley (Warren Wilson College, ); William Weaver Rhoades and Verne Rhoades, Jr., “William Turner Weaver (1858-1916),” NCpedia (1996); Southern Railfan (October 10, 1961); Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Ashevile.Notes
- The “Land of the Sky” phrase first appeared in Appleton’s Journal in 1870, but gained traction through a variety of promotional and commercial uses in Christian Reid’s novel by that title (1875). See my earlier three-post series on the history of the phrase and its uses. Thanks to my colleague Kevin O’Donnell for the earlier reference.
- Zug, Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina (1986). Mashburn, “Potteries of Hominy Valley” in Hominy Valley Revisited (2009), 79-94, details the Penland family of potters in Candler, reaching back to 1845.
- On the cotton mill, see Noblitt, A Mansion in the Mountains (1996), 11.
- For an excellent brief history of the area, see Katherine Cutshall, “Where Are All the Chickens on Chicken Hill?” HeardTell: Stories From the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library (2019).
- Substantial portions of the factory washed away in the flood of 1916, but the remaining buildings have been incorporated into Asheville’s River Arts District. For later maps, descriptions and photos, see Historic Architecture Resources Report: River Arts District (2012).
- Of further interest is that although numerous sources date the main Asheville passenger depot–vitally important to the city’s development and connection to markets–uncertainly to “about 1905” (see Rob Neufeld, “Portrait of the Past: Southern Railway Passenger Station,” Asheville Citizen-Times, Feb. 6, 2016), it is clearly visible in the 1901 Sanborn map at lower right between Depot Street and the railroad tracks.
- Information in this brief section is from Forest History Society, “Champion Pulp and Paper Mill in Canton, NC, Timeline.“
- Plemmons, The City of Asheville (1935.
- See Paul, The Rise and Fall of Corporate Paternalism in the Swannanoa Valley and Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of an American Mill Town.
- See Neufeld, several articles on the bleachery in Asheville Citizen-Times: “A History of WNC’s Working People,” March 22, 2015; “Stories of Asheville Bleachery Village,” August 2020. Newspaper coverage of Sayles was copious from the time of construction to its demolition in 2003 to make way for a WalMart SuperCenter.
- Most of the detail on rayon and the industry given here comes from Moïs H. Avram, The Rayon Industry (1929).
- Avram discussed the other three at length. Initially, “artificial silk” and “rayon” competed as names, but by 1929 the latter had become dominant.
- Avram’s list also includes American Bemberg (1925; TN), American Cellulose (MD), American Glanzstoff (1927; TN), Amoskeag Mfg. (NH), Belamose (1925; CT), Celanese (MD), Delaware Rayon (1927; IN), Rosland Corp. (1928; NJ), Skenandoa (NY), Viscose Co. (1911; PA, VA, WV). For photos of the Tubize plant, see https://lhgc.omeka.net/items/browse?collection=8.
- Avram, The Rayon Industry, 1-44. See especially a developmental rayon timeline 1644-1929, pp. 34-44.
- Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, A1-A4, B1-B14.
- List in 1900 city directory, p.49.
- The Workman, March 30, 1901, p. 4. The Directory of US Newspapers in the Library of Congress dates the advent of The Workman to 1900.
- See Asheville Gazette-News, May 3, 1913, p. 8.
- “Enka’s Great Plant Will Be Located Among These Scenes of Natural Beauty,” Asheville Sunday Citizen, Sept. 23, 1928, B4.
- Franks, “Enka North Carolina: New Planning,” 4-5.
- What follows here is based upon careful examination of scores of Buncombe County deeds and other documents. In general I have found fewer varied, appropriate, usable quality images of pre-Enka Hominy Valley than I hoped.
- A personal aside: Moore built a fort and a home off Sand Hill Road, near the future Enka plant site. When I became Patrol Leader of the Captain Moore Patrol of Boy Scout troop 36 at Sand Hill High School in the early 50s, I had no idea what he was captain of, or what he did (or why), or built (or where.) I lived about 3-4 miles from there.
- It should not be assumed that mountainous, non-cotton growing Buncombe County had no enslaved inhabitants, or the market transactions associated with them. Both extant slave deeds and much recent scholarship prove otherwise. For only two examples, see Dunaway and Inscoe in References. Some 700 Buncombe County digitized slave deeds are now online.
- Asheville city directory (1883), 81-83.
- Mashburn, Hominy Valley Revisited, p. 34.
- Mashburn’s Hominy Valley: the Golden Years (2008), Hominy Valley Revisited (2009), and Asheville and Buncombe County (2012) have much more detail on all of these topics than can be presented here. I failed to find additional information on the local A.M.E. church.
- Rhodes and Rhodes, NCpedia (1996).