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.

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