“Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond

Marconi’s first transmitter, incorporating a monopole antenna. It consisted of an elevated copper sheet (top) connected to a Righi spark gap (left) powered by an induction coil (center) with a telegraph key (right) to switch it on and off to spell out text messages in Morse code. Wikipedia.

As the Titanic was sinking on the night of April 15, 1912, the distress signal its telegraph operators tapped out was not (as in popular myth) SOS, but its predecessor CQD (CQ=”stop transmitting and pay attention”; D=distress).  Though that through-the-airwaves transmission proved futile, it dramatically boosted public awareness of still-new radio technology.

Had my father been born a half-century later than he was (in 1914, two years after the Titanic disaster), during his early teen years he would almost certainly have been buying transistors, primitive microprocessors and circuit boards, building kit computing machines, writing (maybe) FORTRAN for them, and joining the community of computer “geeks.”

But in the mid-1920s he bought and made “crystal sets” and learned Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraphic code. “Morse code” in Morse code  would be: 

He wound copper wire coils, strung antenna wire from one tall object to another, read the early radio magazines, and sought companions among other early amateur radio operators.

Amateur radio remained a central interest and involvement for him  through the 1950s. His “ham” (a popular term for amateur operators) radio colleagues formed his major social group.  Building and operating his own amateur station provided technical education he had no means to acquire otherwise.  And both required and led to other areas of technical learning and expertise.

This post presents as much as I have been able to learn about his process, and ties it to larger developments in amateur radio and its social context.  It is based mostly in available written and documentary records, but also in my early memories of sitting with him in his dining room “station,” listening as he called over and over again, “CQ.  Calling CQ.  This is

John Whisnant with my older brother Richard (b. 1935), ca. 1938 (the year I was born). Whisnant family collection.

W4KI, W4 King Ida, calling CQ.  Come in, please.”

The boxy black microphone on the left side of the table in this photograph dates from the post-Morse code era of amateur radio, which began experimentally in 1933, but by then my father’s CQ-ing had been going on for nearly a decade.

So in a way this post itself is also a CQ, though without the dramatic Titanic “D”: me calling to my dad and his “ham” radio friends across many decades: “CQ.  This is W4KI, W4 King Ida, calling CQ. Come in, please.”

Continue reading

Posted in Asheville history | Tagged | 3 Comments

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)

Continue reading

Posted in Asheville history, Whisnant family | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951

This post is lovingly and admiringly dedicated to my father-in-law Frank Joseph Mitchell (February 12, 1927 – July 25, 2017).  Lifelong student, prodigious reader, indefatigable writer, fearless preacher and unforgettable teacher.  Eager, thoughtful and valued reader of this blog.  Always full of good questions and connections, trenchant observations, and suggestions of things I hadn’t thought of.

Each time he saw me, he always asked, “When is your next post coming out, David?”  I tried, but this one turned out to be a week late.  Belatedly, here it is, for Joe.

The Rudisills Before Asheville: Brief Reprise

William Pierce Rudisill and Virginia Pearl Fox Rudisill, ca. 1916

Readers who have not already encountered my earlier post (Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville) about my maternal grandparents Pierce and Pearl Rudisill (b. 1885, 1888) might benefit from reading it before proceeding with this one.

That post outlines their early lives in and around the booming cotton mill city of Gastonia, their intermittent work in the mills, Pierce’s search for steady work as a construction laborer, their adoption of a newborn child (my mother) in 1916, Pierce’s induction into the military in 1918, and their efforts after the war to “set up housekeeping” (and keep it stable) in Gastonia.

Mary Neal Rudisill (probably second from left) and two other children with unidentified man, likely in Gastonia, ca. 1920.

To some extent they were able to do that, and to give their growing daughter some semblance of a stable life. As a few surviving photos attest, and my mother recalled, the Rudisill grandparents lived in a nearby rural area with access to farm animals and cornfields, and Foxes (somewhat “better off,” my mother recalled–“tradespeople, and several uncles who were doctors”) in the city or suburbs.

In cornfield, ca. 1922, probably near Gastonia. Click to enlarge.

At the end of the prior post, I sketched the Rudisills’ transition in late 1922 from cotton mills, day-labor and what had turned out to be quite unstable lives to Land of the Sky promise.

A short version of the conclusion to the prior post follows, but with an altered frame of two contrasting Ashevilles.  One is conveyed by the ubiquitous, sunshiny, come-one-come-all (and prosper) Land of the Sky.

The other–far less sunshiny–emerges from looking closely at the Rudisills’ actual experience in Asheville after 1922.  With barely enough to live on, and little (except bits of borrowed money)  to invest, they had to seek an affordable yet livable space between those two Ashevilles.

Undated [mid-1920s] brochure. Click to enlarge.

Working Class Life in the Land of the Sky (Is Falling?): the Whisnants and the Rudisills

Not unreasonably, it appeared that the Rudisills expected that things would be better in Asheville for a mill worker turned construction laborer.

And they should have been, for Asheville was in fact booming, and new buildings were going up rapidly.  Grove Park Inn was already a decade old.  Large private dwellings were multiplying.  Expensive subdivisions such as Biltmore Forest, Beaver Lake, Grove Park (1908-1914), and Kenilworth were filling up fast. Downtown business buildings and new county and municipal buildings pierced the skyline.

Central Bank and Trust Company, 1920s.  D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

In July 1923, Buncombe County reported  encouraging statistics on the county’s dramatic rise.

Timber, mineable minerals, and water power were abundant. Assessed value of property had increased by 600% since 1910.  Agriculture (tobacco, apples, poultry, dairy, cheese production) and industry were growing rapidly (furniture, textiles, steel and cement factories, talc and mica, printing).

And just by the by (one might say), prospective residents and entrepreneurs were assured that there was “an abundance of good, cheap labor” and that the racial ratios were

well above the state average in the white majority over negroes. . . . Did it not include . . .  Asheville, with its negro population, Buncombe’s percentage of blacks would be almost negligible.

Indeed, readers learned that

Between 1910 and 1920 negro farmers decreased 48.3 percent in Buncombe . . . largely due to the unsuitableness of our crops to farming by negroes. Negroes generally are not intelligent enough
to compete with home owners operating their farms . . . .

These statements shouldn’t be surprising, since 800 Ashevillians had attended a Ku Klux Klan organizational meeting in September 1921.  The KKK held its annual meeting in Asheville in July 1923.

Some other indicators were troubling, the county admitted: a low birth rate, a high divorce rate, and homicides higher than the state average (itself the highest in the nation).  But overall, as Asheville’s second half-century as the Land of the Sky (see Asheville as “The Land of the Sky”: A Novel, and a Phrase That Stuck) arrived, the curves could be (and were) presented as trending reassuringly upward.

The Whisnants: Stability at 60 Brownwood Avenue

It proves helpful at the outset to cast the Rudisill family against the more stable experience of Asbury and Ella Whisnant (see earlier posts Asbury’s

Asbury, Ella, John [L], Bertha [C], and Azile [R] about 1916. Click to enlarge.

Asheville: 1900-1907 and Ella Goes to Asheville, 1907).  Until he had been in Asheville for twenty-three years, and she had been there for sixteen, they remained with their growing family in the same small rental house on South French Broad Avenue (see earlier post: Working Class Family Behind the Big House; and Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic).

Asbury kept his job through a streetcar workers strike in 1913 (see post Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic), enabling them to save enough money to buy a house and lot at 60 Brownwood Avenue (earlier called Pisgah Avenue in the Pisgah Heights subdivision, platted in 1906) in West Asheville in early 1923.

Soon afterwards (1924), the Asheville street railway began to change over from streetcars to buses.

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

November 1910 issue of The Motorman and Conductor, official journal of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America, of which the Asheville Street Railway workers constituted Division 128.

Asbury was by then fifty-two years old, had been working for the street railway (as a union member) for twenty-four years, and driving his own automobile for at least a year.

The company told him, however, that he was “too old” to begin driving the new buses.  “I’ll show you,” he said, climbed aboard, and drove it, as he continued to do for another thirty years.

These several factors (a union job, nearly 25 years of steady employment in a then fairly stable industry, and recently established home ownership, and a cushion of a half-dozen years before the city’s financial crash in late 1930.


The Rudisills: From Pillar to Post in Asheville and West Asheville: the 1920s and Beyond

Between the two Ashevilles, the Rudisills chose the hopeful one.  My mother Mary Neal recalled sixty years later that her father

went up there [from Gastonia] to work on the Asheville Normal School. They were building a new building, and he went . . . to work on that, and [Mother] liked it so much up there she didn’t ever want to leave, so they stayed in Asheville the rest of their lives.

Asheville Normal School (1887). Ewart M. Ball N1366, Special Collections, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

In the fall of 1922, Pearl Rudisill noted in her “baby book” that her adopted daughter Mary Neal spent her sixth birthday in Asheville, that she started to school there in late October, and that the family were “light-housekeeping” in a house (my mother recalled it as a boarding house) at 55 Victoria Road, with a generous couple who “take us [for] nice rides and mountain trips.”

The Land of the Sky was their new home, and a family photograph taken (probably) at about the time they left Gastonia conveys both the sweetness and gentleness I always encountered in them, and perhaps their hope for stability and respectability as well:

Pierce, Pearl and Mary Neal (at about age six). Photographer unknown (ca. 1922; possibly L. E. Webb in Morganton).  Personal collection.

But for the Rudisills (and many like them, unfortunately), Asheville’s rising curves and cheery statistics turned out to be deceiving.  One of the two Ashevilles turned out to be considerably more welcoming than the other.

For an hourly-paid construction worker to achieve even the modest stability (not to mention respectability) that the Whisnant family had achieved with a union job in working class Asheville meant moving from job to job and from one rented house to the next, hoping for a good life for their daughter, and always (always, for nearly thirty years) dealing with disappointment.

After they arrived in late 1922, they tried to use Pierce’s  meager, contingent, hourly-wage income both to stabilize their lives and livelihood, and to participate to a limited extent in (and perhaps even to benefit from) the local boom (and, after November 1930, bust-ed) economy.  But eight years of  adjustment, work, planning, and repeated disappointment lay between them and that catastrophic event.

West Asheville Improvement Company advertisement, Asheville Daily Citizen, June 26, 1891, p. 3. Click for larger image.

By the time the Rudisills arrived, Asheville had already been in the midst of a development and building boom for several decades, but West Asheville’s development–in evidence as early as 1891 with E. G. Carrier’s West Asheville Improvement Company–was proceeding more slowly.

Houses for sale and rent in both established and new neighborhoods stood everywhere, but rent and sale prices varied greatly, and locations varied in desirability.

Pearl could take her six year-old daughter for a ride on the Asheville streetcar and be photographed at the Montford stop, but by 1920 Montford (incorp. 1893) had become an elegant residential area bordering downtown, with many imposing homes designed by Biltmore House architect Richard Sharp Smith.  It lay far beyond the Rudisills’ means.

Pearl Rudisill and daughter Mary Neal, ca. 1922-23. Montford stop on Asheville street railway. Click for larger image.

West Asheville offered more realistic possibilites.  Sometime in 1923, it appears, Pierce and Pearl gave up the “light housekeeping” on Victoria Road (up McDowell Street from Biltmore) and moved west, across the French Broad.

I have been able to learn few details about Pierce’s employers, and nothing about his wages, but the family’s series of rental houses–and their three hopeful purchases of building lots–provide an index to their fluctuating stability/instability.  “We moved a lot,” my mother recalled more than a half-century later, “and I didn’t have a chance to have lifelong friends like other people did.”

To convey the vagaries of the twenty-five year process here, the Rudisills’ moves follow here in chronological order, with some notes on their contextual significance.

The 1924 city directory shows Pierce (rooming alone?) at 88 Dorchester Avenue, but also Pearl and Pierce (working as “cement finisher”) at 30 Nevada Avenue (no longer standing).

This and subsequent residences are shown on the  Google map below (click expand icon at upper right to open full-screen on separate page; click the small icon at upper L to display indexed list; click map icon to show the list item).  Blue houses represent their residences; purple icons are subdivisions; orange grocery cart is the short-lived grocery; black icons are building lots they purchased.

By 1925 they had moved to 59 Tremont Park, and the next year took them to 188 Michigan Avenue (no longer standing; both on map above).  Pierce was still a concrete/cement worker, and three years in Asheville had brought no noticeable change in their circumstances.

It does appear, however, that sometime in late 1926, they decided it might be a good idea to get a bank loan, buy a lot and try to build a house.  Nearly everyone else was, it seemed, so why not them, too?  And new subdivisions continued to spring up (and fill up).

This pictorial map of some Asheville and West Asheville neighborhoods between about 1905 and 1925 conveys some sense of the building and development frenzy:

from Live and Invest in the Land of the Sky: Asheville [undated; mid-1920s]. Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville. The more posh Asheville subdivisions lie to the right (east) of the river; several more modest West Asheville ones lie to the west. Click for larger view.

The North Carolina State Historic Preservation office (NCSHPO) map below shows the locations and relationships of these developments (most now historic districts):

North Asheville historic districts (North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office). Annotations by David E. Whisnant. Click for larger image.

Entrance to Albemarle Park, Asheville, 1905. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The elegance of Albemarle Park (center right on map above) is conveyed by a 1905 postcard.  Proximity Park (1907) and Chestnut Hill (including several mid-nineteenth century houses) were nearby. E. W. Grove’s Grove Park (1908-1914) was anchored by a massive stone centerpiece,  Grove Park Inn (1913).

Grove Park Inn (1913), W. M. Cline Co. postcard. Durwood Barbour Collection (P077), Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. Click for larger image.

But these elegant and expensive areas, the Rudisills would have known, were clearly beyond their means, as were two somewhat upscale ones in West Asheville that were already under (or close to) construction when they moved across the river.

Lucerne Park plat, April 1924. Buncombe County Register of Deeds, plat Bk 5, Pg 76. Click to enlarge

Lucerne Park, at the far western end of Haywood Road, was platted in 1924.  Half-acre lots that probably would have cost $6,000 in Grove Park could be bought for  $2,250 in Lucerne.  West Asheville developer J. T. Bledsoe was pushing them hard as “just a touch of Switzerland,” with mountain views and building restrictions (circumspectly unspecified but not difficult to guess at) “such as to insure high-class development.”

Asheville Citizen, January 4, 1925, p. 14. Click for larger image.

Contemporary with Lucerne Park (and close by in West Asheville), Malvern Hills was taking shape–as I have already described in a previous post (The Several Lives of Asheville, Part III).

Still employed as a “cement worker,” and by 1927 living in yet another rented house at 188 Michigan Avenue (see map above), Pierce was not making enough money to afford either of these subdivisions.

So where might they have looked for what would now be called “affordable housing” (or lots)?

Photo by David E. Whisnant, June 2017.

Lower on the cost scale than Lucerne or Malvern Hills,  a development called Greenwood Park had been platted in late summer of 1914.  It was a project of Southern Land Auction Company owner Charles Reuben Moore (b. 1867), a Georgia native who moved to Asheville in 1907 and began building extensively in Weaverville (of which he later became mayor) and West Asheville.

Lying just north of Haywood Road between Herron and Mildred (originally called Circle Street) avenues, Greenwood Park contained about forty narrow (“bungalow”) lots averaging 50 x 125 feet (just over 1/8 acre).  Except for the Greenwood Avenue street sign, little remains to mark the area as a planned (and hopeful) subdivision.

Greenwood Park plat, August 31, 1914. Buncombe County Register of Deeds Office. Click for larger image.

But initially, hopes were high for both developers and buyers–as they were almost everywhere in the Asheville area.

Only three days after engineer W. N. Willis finished inking the plat for Greenwood Park, a Southern Land Auction Company advertisement in the Asheville Citizen promised free streetcar rides from Pack Square, prizes of a “Logan made suit” and a ladies gold watch, and a concert by “a first class brass band” for auction attendees.  For some buyers, comparatively low prices might have been offset by the rather stringent terms: 1/3 down and the balance in one or two years.

How fast the door prizes and band concert drew in buyers is not clear, but two years later the company was still advertising all forty of the lots:

Asheville Citizen, June 7, 1916, p. 2  Click for larger image.

Sunday Citizen, October 29, 1916, p. 22. Click for larger image.

About five months after the second auction, in any case, one (disgruntled or disillusioned?) buyer offered to sell or exchange his Greenwood Park lot on generous terms (trade in your cow on it!)–especially considering that it was roughly double the size of most others.

Sunday Citizen, April 29, 1917, p. 23.

Six months later, prices for houses and lots may have fallen, as suggested by a local realtor’s offer to sell “three cheap little homes,” one of them in Greenwood Park.  The house was small, but $1,250 for it and the lot together was certainly attractive.

Four years later, another four-room Greenwood Park house (lot size not given) was offered (urgently) for about twice that price.

Asheville Citizen, May 21, 1921.

Whether the Rudisills were watching the real estate market I have no idea, but in early January 1927, they bought–with a $3000 “Federal Mortgage Loan,” said the deed–Lot No. 36 (no house mentioned) in Greenwood Park from local contractor Nathan Lanford.

Pierce might actually have been employed at the time by Lanford, but I have seen no evidence of that.  In any case, the Lanfords were active buyers and sellers of lots in West Asheville and elsewhere.  They had in fact bought Greenwood Park Lot No. 36 (no price given) in March 1926, executed a Central Bank and Trust Company deed of trust on it early in June, sold it at the end of September, and bought it back on December 22 before selling it to the Rudisills ten days later. Such was the volatility of the local real estate market.

62 Mildred Avenue (old Lot No. 36) in Greenwood Park. Photo by David E. Whisnant, June 2017.

Whether “Federal Mortgage Loan” signified a federal subsidy or guarantee (derived from Pierce’s World War I service?) I have not discovered.  But it seems reasonable to assume that buying in Greenwood Park might have boosted their spirits and expectations.

There is no evidence that they built on the lot, but had they done so, the house might have resembled the one now standing at 62 Mildred Avenue (old Lot No. 36).

In any case, in the Classified Business section of the 1928 directory Pierce is listed as the owner/operator of a grocery store at 598 Haywood Road.  For him to undertake such a venture at age forty-two, with experience only as a mill hand and construction worker, was audacious at best–especially since during at least some part of 1928 they were living in some sort of rooming house with at least two other families at 62 Newton Street.  Perhaps to help with the grocery store venture and to get out of the rooming house, at the end of June they sold their Greenwood Park lot (for which they had signed a note for $3,000) for $2741 plus unspecified (probably small) 1927 taxes.

But the grocery store  did not last.  The 1929 directory listed Pierce again as a cement worker.  For at least thirty years the building served other purposes, but it was eventually torn down to make space for a below street-level, Batman-themed parking lot.

598 Haywood Road grocery store site with Batman (1939ff.) mural.  Photograph by David E. Whisnant, June 2017.  Click for larger image.

184 West Chestnut Street, on border of Montford area. Large front porch likely a recent addition. Photo by David E. Whisnant, June 27, 2017.

Lacking aid from Batman (with his vast wealth) or anyone else, the family moved out of West Asheville and back across the river to 184 West Chestnut Street–an unlikely location, it seems, on the edge of the upper class Montford area (see Rudisill residences map above).

More than fifty years later, my mother remembered it as a lonely time for a (perhaps) twelve year-old:

one place we lived, . . .  on West Chestnut Street, over across the road and up on top of the hill – there wasn’t as many houses in there as there is now – there was a black family lived up there. And I played with those little black children, I can remember playing with them. Remember playing jacks and hopscotch. . . . But oftentimes I just didn’t have any [friends]– it wasn’t because [my parents] didn’t want me to play with anybody, it was just that we didn’t have anybody.

In any case, they stayed on West Chestnut for perhaps a year. By 1930 they were  in West Asheville yet again, renting  at 52 Tremont.  There their path again

52 Tremont Street, ca. 2017. Addition at R may postdate 1930.  Google map image. Click to enlarge.

crossed that of Nathan and Odessa Lanford, from whom they had bought Lot No. 36 in Greenwood Park three years earlier.  The Lanfords were neighbors at 59 Tremont.

Lanford had left his work as a contractor in favor of running a furniture store on Haywood Road, but the couple were still dealing in real estate.  In mid-January, they sold another lot (price not specified in the deed) to the Rudisills–this one east of Asheville, on Grassy Branch in Swannanoa Township.

Central Bank and Trust Company. Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill. Click to enlarge.

The Grassy Branch purchase was especially ill-timed, as was another that followed close upon it in Hazel Ward (price again not specified).

The October 1929 national financial collapse had already happened, and Asheville’s own (synoptic account here) followed when Central Bank and Trust Company (where most of the city’s funds were) closed its doors on November 30, 1930.

Sunday morning headline, November 30

The personal, social, economic, and cultural costs of 1920s boom development  had not been unanticipated.  Native son Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel of 1929 presented a scathing prefiguring account–centering partly on his own family’s involvement (and entrapment) within the boom.

Working in primary documents during and immediately after the crash, William H. Plemmons (later President of Appalachian State University) wrote a Duke University M.A. thesis (1935) that provided key details and arguments for the prelude and the crash.  The upward curves and numbers were dramatic: doubled population 1920-1930 (28K to 50K) and spiraling building permits (up 800% 1919-1926).  But the turndown was even more dramatic, and happened faster.  Rapid building had left city facilities, services and infrastructure “entirely inadequate”; public indebtedness for infrastructure development rose 600% 1922-1930; building permits fell from $9.3 million in 1926 to only $67,000 in 1932; tax revenues fell dramatically; illegal (and ineffective) efforts were put in place to prop up CB&T with public funds.

Recent books by Asheville historians Nan Chase and Lou Harshaw pull together the dramatic details:

Depositors formed long lines outside closed bank doors; businesses failed and jobs disappeared; boom-inspired city and county debt soared above $50 million; food became scarce; investors fled and buildings emptied; bank officials were indicted and a few went to prison; mayor Gallatin Roberts and several others committed suicide.

Despite the trauma and despair, newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce and business owners counseled steadiness and calm, and proclaimed themselves determined to pull through to recovery.  City officials reconfigured city debt and government, hoping to move quickly head.

Asheville High School (1929). Designed by Douglas Ellington. National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Elisa Rolle.

But as Chase explains, a quick recovery was not in the cards.  Even school teachers’ already modest wages were cut; some school buildings (including Douglas Ellington’s grand new Asheville High School) were closed and students shifted elsewhere.

So what was a forty-six year-old cement finisher to do about work in the midst of such turmoil?

When I interviewed his then mid-teen daughter (my mother) more than fifty years later, she recalled her daddy’s daily search for work.  “He was a very gentle, very tender man,” she said, but

he did have a lot of drive, a lot of initiative to get out and go and make something, you know. He thought it depended on the building trades – if it was up, he had work, and if it was down he didn’t have any.

Apparently lacking knowledge or memory of the grocery store interval, she continued,

I suppose he never thought of going to a grocery store or a dry goods store or anywhere else and trying to find a job, doing anything else. When there wasn’t any of his kind of work, he didn’t do anything.

Did the lack of work cause trouble between her parents?

No, not that I know of.  [She] used to worry a lot about us being out of money, but so far as I know she didn’t chide him for it. I never heard them argue over it. He accepted the fact that there wasn’t any work. He’d get up in the morning and he’d get dressed and go off looking for work, and sometimes he’d be gone all day, come back, and he couldn’t find anything. . . .

During the real bad years . . . before Roosevelt was elected, he used to get out and pick blackberries and sell them door to door. Things like that, and did odd jobs around for people to try to bring in a little money.

Gastonia, ca. 1926. Click to enlarge.

Sometime during this period (1931 seems likely), times got so hard that they went back to stay with their families–grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, and in-laws–in Gastonia, whom it seems they had visited fairly regularly in the years before.

“How they used to do it.” Probably near Gastonia, ca. 1923-1924. Click to enlarge.

back there for refuge in 1931, some of them bunched up together in “a sort of duplex house,” as my mother recalled, probably 613 East Airline Drive–both the home of the Jenkins grandparents and the location of the family-operated sheet metal shop that fabricated sheet metal for the cotton mills.  Other family members lived a few blocks away on West Second Avenue

[We]  lived with them, and [Daddy] tried to find a little work around to help out. We lived there about a year and a half, I guess. And they were all real good to us. I can remember having so many around the table. . . . There was a big household of us, when we lived there. Took a lot of cooking and getting a lot of food in there to feed that many people.

Fortunately, most of the Gastonia Rudisills and Jenkinses had jobs. Pierce’s brother was driving an oil tanker, his younger sister Adlean was still in school, and his sister Essie was married to Campbell Jenkins, who worked in the family-run shop. My mother recalled that her uncle Campbell was never out of work.  “I enjoyed that year,” she told me,

when we lived there with [my cousins] Martha and John, because I never had anybody to run around with. We’d always get cleaned up on Saturday afternoon, take a bath and get all dressed up and go up town. . . . We’d go to a movie and then we’d go down to an ice cream parlor they had there on Franklin Street and get us an ice cream cone. We enjoyed that.

163 Euclid Boulevard. Shed-roofed section at rear may have been added later. Google Map image. Click to enlarge.

She went to one year of junior high school in Gastonia, and then the family packed up and went back to Asheville, renting a house at 163 Euclid Boulevard (see Google map of Rudisill residences above).

Newspaper notices suggest that a six-room house in the area could be rented for perhaps $15.00 per month, and the 1932 city directory listed Pierce once again as “cement finisher” living at the Euclid Boulevard address.

Pierce’s work may have become somewhat more regular “after Roosevelt came in,” as my mother recalled, and federal money began to flow into public works projects in Asheville.

As historian Roger Biles detailed in The South and the New Deal (1994), the flow of that money turned out to be uneven regionally, racially (with regard to Blacks, of course, but also Mexicans), and in other ways, and was challenged at

NRA “Blue Eagle”: icon of the National Recovery Administration

every step by entrenched political and business interests, as well as long-established cultural mores and practices.  The complex history of the New Deal and the South, as well as the details of such challenges to it, lie beyond the limits of this blog, but are easily available in Biles’s book and elsewhere (especially the series in Digital History).  Here we can only look at a few details from Asheville as they may have related to Pierce Rudisill.

A major though short-lived (1933-1934) conduit for that money was the Civil Works Administration.  In January 1934, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that nearly 2,800 local men had been employed on CWA projects (out of four million nationwide), and that 7,000 applications were on hand.  The U.S. Conference of Mayors warned that if the program were discontinued (as rumors suggested might happen), “riots” and “revolutions” would be likely in the cities, but opposition led FDR to terminate it in March 1934.

Asheville Citizen, October 29, 1937, p. 14. Click to enlarge.

The  CWA was soon replaced by the much larger Works Progress (later, Projects) Administration (WPA; 1935-1943), which focused on small projects and employed mostly unskilled workers), and the Public Works Administration (PWA), which built large infrastructure projects such as bridges, dams and schools.  Together these and other New Deal agencies employed millions of men and women.

By mid-January 1936, Asheville had received $200,000 plus $100,000 from the state for road work.  Seventeen projects were already under way, including rebuilding the old open-air market, upgrading some utilities systems, widening streets, adding men and autos to the police department, and funding a Negro Welfare Council for work among black teens.

Asheville Citizen, January 11, 1938, p. 9. Click for more readable image.

A report ten weeks later said North Carolina had received $84,000,000 in relief and emergency funds from the federal government.  In addition to payments from relief funds ($10.6m),  Pierce had skills that would have qualified him for work on a variety of projects: roads and streets ($13.5m); housing and public recreation ($5m); and water, sewer and transportation ($5m); schools ($6m)–a total statewide of more than $40,000,000.

Reports of  local WPA projects requested and begun appeared regularly in the newspapers.  One from October 1937 announced the replacement of the abandoned city auditorium by a new one.  It was built it 1939-1940.  and remained an iconic city building into the 1970s.

Asheville Municipal Auditorium. Built 1939-40 by New Deal’s Public Works Administration. Demolished 1974; portions of the interior used in new building.  North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.  Click to enlarge.

Whether Pierce was able to get such work I do not know.  I have no memory of hearing it referred to, but it seems likely in view of his construction skills and experience.  If he did, that might help to account for their somewhat less frequent moves after 1934.   City directories for 1933 and 1934–perhaps never published because of financial conditions–are not online, but some evidence suggests that they may have stayed in the Euclid Boulevard house until late 1934 or early 1935, when they moved to 178 Louisiana Avenue (house razed some years ago).

They remained on Louisiana Avenue for about seven years (with a big garden from which, my mother recalled, they would “carry a little produce up to the grocery store and sell it to get a little grocery money”), but by late 1938 they had apparently abandoned any hope of ever building a house of their own.  Instead they cashed in the only real assets they had–the two building lots they had managed to buy years earlier.  In late 1936 they sold the Swannanoa Township lot they had owned for six and a half years, and two years later the Hazel Ward lot they had held onto for eight years.

The early months of World War II seem to have thrown them back into hard times again.  The 1942 city directory showed them renting once more on Tremont Street–not at no. 52, where they had rented before, but no. 59, which was a sort of Lanford family boarding house that somehow found room for two (daughter Mary Neal had married and moved out–but I will return to that later) Rudisills, too.  Nathan Lanford’s furniture store was no more, it appears; he was a contractor again, and Pierce was still a (by then 57 year-old) “cement worker” (who may or may not have been working for Lanford).

By early 1944, Pierce and Pearl came to the end of the long rental road–their last house at 162 Virginia Avenue, where they remained for about seven years.

Pearl in doorway of 162 [“1” missing from house number] Virginia Avenue

This house–where my three brothers and I visited our Rudisill grandparents–was  modest in every way.  There was a small living room and dining room, a modest kitchen, one bedroom and one bathroom.  Floors, as I recall, were not uniformly level.  Underneath was a dirt-floor basement, and out back was a large garden plot (how well tended or productive, I do not recall).

The 1948-1950 city directories offer the only employer’s name for Pierce that I encountered.  He was a carpenter for (presumably builder) Harold R. Duckett.  Pearl died in the Virginia Avenue house in early January 1951.  Pierce was by then sixty-six years old.

Two Outcomes in Two West Ashevilles

The long-term results of the Rudisills’ many economically-forced relocations emerge here in stark relief, especially in contrast with Asbury and Ella Whisnant’s stable residence at 60 Brownwood Avenue (see earlier post The Land of the Sky at the End of the Line: Asbury and Ella): well-kept house in good repair on a carefully tended, landscaped lot mature fruit trees and grape vines planted years earlier; fine Parker Brothers hammerless shotguns; productive garden tended year after year; immaculately clean and always garaged ’31 Chrysler sedan; some “good dishes” for company meals; walnut Estey pump organ in the living room.

For the Rudisills, the cumulative effects of at least thirteen moves in twenty years (every year and a half on average, but some stays were shorter) were dire.  Many military, ministerial, and other families have moved as frequently (or moreso), but to do it on a meager and unreliable hourly wage in an inherently unstable labor market–with the Great Depression in the middle (1922-1930-1944) was quite another matter, as my recollections from about the age of three until I was seventeen focus sharply.

The contents of the house at 162 Virginia Avenue are still rather sharply etched in my mind: canary in a cage; rubber spare tire with glass ashtray in the center; crocheted

Crocheted doily. Paper Lantern Store

doilies on tables and worn upholstered furniture; small Philco radio, nearly always tuned to “Stella Dallas” (“true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice”; 1938-1956; audio episode here) or another daytime soap opera; fried apple pies cooking in an iron frying pan on a kerosene (?) stove; a wooden “magazine stand” Pierce had made with his hand tools and painted (like everything he made) dark brown; slightly askew wooden corner “whatnots” filled with Pearl’s collection of souvenir glass and porcelain shoes from the dime store; wooden “airplanes” on strings Pierce made for small boys to “fly” in the front yard;  and an intermittently reliable Hudson sedan resting heavily in the driveway.

By both design and necessity, Pierce and Pearl’s daughter Mary Neal (my mother) has figured in this post relatively little except for her seven pre-Asheville years. To pay even modest attention to her life between the Rudisills’ arrival in Asheville in 1923 and her high school graduation in 1934 would have made this post unmanageably long.  And in any case, her story merits its own separate attention–both on its own merits and for what it reveals about the life of a very bright teenage girl in a hard-pressed working class family during the decade that bridged over boom-town Asheville’s calamitous crash in November 1930.

From here we turn first, however, back to the Whisnants in West Asheville–from 1923 when they bought the Brownwood Avenue house to the early thirties, when their youngest child, my father, graduated from high school.


Asheville and Gastonia city directories, 1920-1952; Anthony J. Badger, North Carolina and the New Deal (1981); Roger Biles, The South and the New Deal (1994); Coogan Brennan, “Asheville’s Bond Fears: The Legacy of a Financial Nightmare,” Mountain Xpress, October 20, 2016;  Buncombe County Register of Deeds: Real Estate, 1900-1950; Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Conner, R. D. W. and Boyd, W. K., History of North Carolina (6 vols., 1919); Digital History series on the New Deal; Lou Harshaw, Asheville: Mountain Majesty (2007); Carolyn S. Loeb, Entrepreneurial Vernacular: Developers’ Subdivisions in the 1920s (2001); William H. Plemmons, “The City of Asheville: Historical and Institutional” (M.A. thesis, Duke University, 1935); David E. Whisnant, taped interviews with Mary Neal [Rudisill] Whisnant (July 1986 and November 1987).

Posted in Asheville history, Blacks in Asheville, Fox family, Rudisill family, Whisnant family | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part III: Edwin Carrier in West Asheville

Quick Take on the Early Years: Incorporation, De-/Re-incorporation, Annexation, and Mini-Boom, 1889-1925

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

When West Asheville–already on the way toward development and modernization–was incorporated on February 9, 1889, the language of the Act had the quaint, old-fashioned flavor of an early deed:

[T]he corporate limits . . .  shall be as follows: . . . Beginning at a stake on the east bank of the French Broad river, three rods above the county iron bridge; thence . . . crossing through the gap of a ridge to the ford of Smith’s mill creek below R. O. Patterson’s mill; thence up with the meanderings of said creek to the mouth of a small branch at the Jarrett old ford . . . thence up the dividing ridge between said branches . . . [and] crossing the county road one rod west of J. M. Jarrett’s store; thence . . .  to the head of a branch fronting said Jarrett’s store; thence down said branch with its meanderings to the French Broad river; thence down the southern and eastern bank of said French Broad river to the beginning.

Named as officers until elections were mayor R. M. Deaver (perhaps dating to the Reuben Deaver of the first Sulphur Springs hotel?) and three commissioners, from one of whom (F. S. H. Reynolds) E. G. Carrier bought land nine months later.  This charter was repealed on March 8, 1897 (for reasons no one seems to know), but the town was reincorporated on March 6, 1913.

Shortly after the centennial of this event, Mountain Xpress writer Grady Cooper schematized West Asheville’s history.  His succinct account of the 1915-1917 interval is useful here:

By 1915, West Asheville’s 4,000 residents were served by 10 stores, a mission, a volunteer fire department, a bank and an asphalt boulevard 60 feet wide and more than a mile long. Faced with growing municipal debt and increasing pressure for expansion and various improvements, however, the mayors of both Asheville and West Asheville urged annexation. . . . The merger came to pass on June 9, 1917. Voter turnout was light: West Asheville voted for consolidation 169 to 161; Asheville’s tally was 364 to 157.  In 1917 a low-turnout vote authorized annexation by Asheville, raising the city’s population by twenty-five percent (to 30,000).

Beyond this interval, development was slowed somewhat both by World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920  (see my post, Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic), but from the mid-teens to the end of the twenties, numerous new buildings  sprang up along Haywood Road, West Asheville’s main commercial artery (see West Asheville End of Car Line Historic District).

Haywood Road, West Asheville, ca. 1924. North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

My purpose in this post (and the one that preceded it, The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part II: Edwin G. Carrier Before West Asheville) is to examine a key actor during the period between 1885 and about 1915: Edwin G. Carrier, mentioned in many historical accounts but never examined carefully.  As Cooper said, after Carrier came, “the pace of development stepped up considerably.” Continue reading

Posted in Asheville history, Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part II: Edwin G. Carrier Before West Asheville

Edwin G. Carrier, ca. 1885. Engraving by F. G. Kernan.

Edwin G. Carrier, ca. 1885. Engraving by F. G. Kernan. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library.  Previously appeared in West Asheville History Project and J. L. Mashburn, Hominy Valley Revisited (2009).

The Story So Far

Edwin Carrier was born in 1839, so he was in his late forties when he arrived in Western North Carolina (probably in 1885). Early discussions of his life before Asheville said almost nothing about it before then.  Arthur’s Western North Carolina (1914) said only that he “came from Michigan,” and Sondley’s Asheville and Buncombe County (1922) doesn’t mention him.  Neither the recent Dictionary of North Carolina Biography nor NCpedia offers anything.

In her 2007 history of Asheville, Nan K. Chase paid extensive attention to the quartet of wealthy developer “giants”  (George W. Vanderbilt, George W. Pack, Frank Coxe and E. W. Grove) who have loomed large in popular accounts and iconography.

Pack Square, donated and named in honor of George W. Pack. Facing west, with roof of Battery Park Hotel (1886), built by Frank Coxe.

Pack Square, 1913.  Donated by and named in honor of George W. Pack. Facing west, with roof of Battery Park Hotel (1886), built by Frank Coxe, beyond buildings at upper right.  Photo (N2352) by E. M. Ball, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

But in a half-dozen early lines about West Asheville, Chase also notes that the “phantom presence of a fifth major city-builder of this time, the Northern lumberman Edwin George Carrier (1839-1927), hovers about the scene.”  She says that he came to Asheville with his “lumber fortune,” that he may have sold Jersey cows to George Vanderbilt for his showcase herd, and that he built a horse-racing track on the banks of the French Broad.  But the phantom continues to hover pretty much as a phantom.

Carrier gets somewhat more extensive treatment in Harshaw’s Asheville: Mountain Majesty  (published in 2007, as was Chase’s).  He was “engaged in a very successful lumber business” in Michigan, she says, but Michigan receives no further attention.   The rest is about his building a hotel on the long-abandoned site of Deaver’s Sulphur Springs (see previous post), his early agricultural experiments, his West Asheville and Sulphur Springs Railway and early hydroelectric dam on Hominy Creek, and his various development projects in and around West Asheville, including the race track.  One wishes to know more, but at least Harshaw’s Carrier emerges as more than “a phantom presence.”

My hope here is to give some substance to the phantom Edwin Carrier’s pre-Asheville years.

In this quest I have been aided greatly by digitized materials not available to Chase and Harshaw at the time they wrote: millions of pages of newspapers, census schedules and  genealogical materials, early city directories, some websites that offer their own digital resources, and early books and other early print materials previously accessible (if at all) only through inter-library loan, but now online at HathiTrust Digital Library, Google Books, and elsewhere.

I have not found everything I had hoped for, but a great deal nevertheless.  I invite you to join me. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

The Several Lives of West Asheville, Part I: Sulphur Springs as Proto-Land of the Sky, 1827-1861

Mt. Pisgah with West Asheville in the foreground. Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup, The Heart of the Alleghanies: Or, Western North Carolina (1883). Google Books.

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

This post arose initially from my effort to understand the West Asheville of the early 1920s, when both my Whisnant and Rudisill grandparents moved there–the Whisnants from fifteen years in a rental house on South French Broad Avenue  (see earlier posts Working Class Family Behind the Big House, and  Family Challenges in the ‘Teens), and the Rudisills after years of frustrating textile mill and construction work in Gastonia (see earlier post, Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky).

My own memories of West Asheville history reach back to my childhood from the mid- and late 1940s into the late 1950s: the Whisnants’ modest but impeccably neat house at 60 Brownwood Avenue (see earlier posts Mud on the Rafters and The Land of the Sky and the End of the Line: Asbury and Ella), the Rudisills’ small and somewhat shabby rented house with its dirt-floored basement at 162 Virginia Avenue, going to first grade at Vance Elementary School, working weekends at the Winn-Dixie Store, playing tenor sax (passably) in school bands, and singing in choirs at West Asheville Baptist Church.

I have long intended to write this post when the appropriate moment arrived on the blog’s timeline, but recent unanticipated connections have also reshaped some of my understanding of West Asheville history: the recently inaugurated West Asheville History Project, a centenary symposium on the Flood of 1916, a heavily attended community gathering at the recently opened New Belgium Brewery on the banks

End of Car Line Monument, --- block of Haywood Road. Erected by West Asheville Business Association, 1998. Photo by David Whisnant (2016).

End of Car Line Monument, 700 block of Haywood Road. Erected by West Asheville Business Association, 1998. Photo by David Whisnant (2016).

of the French Broad (including “West Asheville History Moments” trading cards), a brief quest with my wife for the End of the Car Line monument in West Asheville, which in turn led to a search for surviving relics of what one might call “the Sulphur Springs century” (1827-1927) of West Asheville.

Pagoda at spring for E. G. Carrier's Sulphur Springs Hotel (1887-1891). Photo by David Whisnant, July 15, 2016.

Pagoda at spring for E. G. Carrier’s Sulphur Springs [aka Belmont] Hotel (1887-1892). Photo by David Whisnant, July 15, 2016.

So what I present here is not the or even a history of West Asheville.  I hope only to offer some fresh perspectives on parts of that history, so as to better understand the historical moment when my Whisnant and Rudisill grandparents took up residence there in 1922-1923. Continue reading

Posted in Asheville history, Mountain people, Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments