Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Asheville and the Enka Clock Tower

Enka plant

American Enka Corporation by Moonlight. Buncombe County; Hominy Creek in foreground, late 1930. LeComte Postcard Collection, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

In this brief post I am not telling anyone much that most Ashevillians (and those in numerous online networks)  don’t already know. I just mean to urge that those who know (or learn here) take action right away.

The key message is this: As John Boyle sketched his story in the Citizen-Times on November 10, the iconic Enka clock tower–despite assurances to the contrary ten years ago–is about to be demolished.

Asheville and Ashevillians, historians of all stripes (public, regional, architectural, cultural), preservationists and other stakeholders need to give this serious attention.

This news came as I had just begun to prepare a post for my blog on the coming of the American Enka Corporation to Hominy Valley in 1928. That post is still in preparation, but I offer a few key points in advance of it–in hopes that people will urge the City of Asheville to weigh in against this ill-advised (and wholly avoidable) move.

The iconic clock tower of the “Enka plant”–as we who grew up in the shadow of it, worked in it, and owed their livelihoods to it, usually called it–marked the center of a hub of technological and economic, but also social and cultural, activity that shaped life for many miles around, through many decades.

Working at “the plant”

Photo by E. M. Ball (1950). D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

I formed my earliest perspective on that wide frame in the early 50s by riding my bicycle down Crescent Street in the village at 5:30 a.m. to stand by the gate and sell the Citizen-Times to busloads of workers arriving for the morning shift on buses from Avery Creek and Arden,  Barnardsville, Bent Creek and Beaverdam, Candler , Clyde and Canton, Deaverview, Fletcher and Leicester, Swannanoa and Sandymush, West Asheville and Weaverville. The parents of children I went to Sand Hill School with–Brookses and Browns, Carlocks and Cogburns, Holcombes and Holbrooks, Gastons and Medfords, Penlands and Sanfords–streamed by the hundreds into jobs in Spinning, Twisting, Bleaching, Coning, Reeling, and the Vacuum Wash.

Enka was by many measures a boon and a success: 3,000 steady jobs (a majority of them for women–as had not been a pattern previously, and many of them unionized)  appeared on the very cusp of  Asheville’s cataclysmic bust in November 1930. And their multiplier effects were spread widely. On the whole, people who “worked at Enka” did not lose their jobs during the Depression, and even more jobs appeared later. And Enka’s social programs (cultural, recreational, athletic, educational) were some of the best available at the time.

There were contradictions, of course, which I will attend to in the longer post to come. Social programs could appropriately be filed under “corporate paternalism.” Gender issues were a regular feature among the heavily female workforce. Making rayon was inseparable from serious process-related health issues, as was environmental (air, water, soil) damage. Benefits skewed sharply toward white workers, supervisors and officials. Blacks got only the lowest-paying jobs, and ate by themselves in the Colored Cafeteria.

Asheville and Enka

Asheville was deeply involved in securing the Enka plant for the city and the county–a 2000+ acre installation, lobbied for over months in 1928 by the Chamber of Commerce and a cohort of heavy hitters from the city (led by local businessman/developer Fred L. Seely), in competition with 50 other locations. The Dutch parent company made substantial promises (mainly jobs) and made clear what their requirements were (land, clean water for the process, railroad connections, a “reliable” labor force). Meanwhile, the Asheville group made clear that they could and would meet those requirements–in the middle of the Land of the Sky, to boot.

Over the long haul, both sides kept their word, and enormous benefits flowed to Asheville. Enka was not the only industry in the area by a long shot, and there were more and more of them as the decades passed. But Enka was key.

“The Enka plant” is gone now. But the importance of sustaining the memory of it is not. And the clock tower with ENKA rising around each side is a valuable image and marker of that importance.

Lamentably, the destruction of the tower has already been approved by the City’s Technical Review Committee, and it is scheduled for a hearing before the Planning Committee on December 2. Read John Boyle’s followup November 16 article here. You can also sign a reddit petition . Use this link to keep abreast of upcoming actions and how to make your voice heard.

10 thoughts on “Asheville and the Enka Clock Tower

  1. Sherry P Hill

    Although I was born and grew up in West Asheville, my knowledge of Enka was limited to people I knew who were employed there. I find info on this part of Buncombe county to be fascinating and will look forward to more on this subject.

  2. RICHARD A WHISNANT

    Like my brother, David, I grew up in the Enka Village and worked at the Enka plant during my college days as a Co-op engineering student. I sold the newspaper at the gate just as he did while in high school. It is truly sad to me that time and technology have bypassed what was a vital element of Buncombe county’s life for many decades. The clock tower is symbolic of what was central to our lives as we grew up. I note that the word “Enka” has been removed from the tower as it now stands, and I would not only like to see it preserved but have “Enka” restored. I think it was removed when another firm, BASF possibly, bought the facility years ago.
    Richard Whisnant

  3. Norman

    I word many years in the Enka plant. I have been in the tower and seen its inner workings. There used to be a huge generator in the base of the tower emergency use. There was a large water tank and flag pole on top. The workings of the clock were out in the open. Does anybody know where the idea for the clock tower came from? Thanks, Norman Wright.

  4. Norman Wright

    The letters on the tower were removed by BASF. There were made with white brick and had to be chiseled out and replaced with red brick.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Thanks, Norman: This is interesting, if disappointing, information. I presume that, since the white ones were chiseled out, the red ones could be, too, and replaced by white! I don’t expect that to happen, of course, but one can always hope. I would always be glad for any corrections or suggestions you might have on the blog. David

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Keaton:
      From a certain perspective I would agree (at least partly), but as may be clear to you if you have read some of my (by now) more than 30 blog posts, I am interested in Asheville proper (i.e., within the city limits, which have changed many times since 1797), but also (and necessarily, I think) in aspects of its wide surround. I am presently working on the 2nd of what will probably be about 8 posts on the wider Enka story, and this one focuses, actually, on the reactions within the city to the coming of the plant in 1928. If you put you email in the SUBSCRIBE box and respond to the email you will receive, you will have access to both previous and future posts.
      Best to you–
      David

  5. Cynthia P Justice

    The clock will not be torn down now. The people have spoken, maybe in response to this and, of course, John Boyle. The smokestack was lost, though.
    Jan 14, 2021

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Cynthia:
      Sorry to be so slow in responding, but COVID and all the attendant disruptions have intervened. No one in our family has had it (yet!), and we are all getting vaccinated, but one never knows.
      I am glad the clock tower was saved, but I am sorry that whole site is being turned into an Amazon-like parking lot. It deserves better.
      I am currently working on the 2nd of what probably will be 8 or so posts on the broader Enka story. You might enjoy the one I just put out a few days ago on Hominy Valley and related matters.
      Best to you,
      David
      Are you of the Candler Justices? I remember Justice Ridge Road.

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