- 1 One Generation Back in Prior Posts
- 2 John at Work and at Home
- 3 Marriage and Family Life
- 4 Building a House as Sons Leave the Nest
Nine years (and over 40 posts) ago, at the outset of my work on this blog, I hoped to show
how the history of a city (Asheville) and of ordinary families (in this case, the Whisnants and Rudisills)
could mirror and shed light upon each other.
I chose Asheville Junction as the blog’s name because I saw Asheville as having functioned–during its nearly 200-year history–
as a junction of many sorts: geophysical, economic, political, social and cultural.
I hope I have demonstrated at least some engaging examples of that mirroring, working out of
some things I knew ahead of time; some I learned from family, friends, and colleagues;
some I garnered from hundreds of hours of research; some I stumbled across through fortunate serendipities;
some I realized (more slowly than I needed to, such as the history of my mother’s Rudisill family);
and finally, some through the process of thinking and writing itself.
One Generation Back in Prior Posts
This blog has focused upon my parents John Whisnant (1914-1993) and Mary Neal Rudisill (1916-2000), and my grandparents Asbury Whisnant (1872-1955) and Sara Ella Austin (1869-1942), and Pierce Rudisill (1885-1967) and Virginia Pearl Fox (1889-1950).
Asbury and Ella came to Asheville as adults in 1900 and 1907, respectively. Only John and his two older sisters were born there. To whom, where, and exactly when Mary Neal was born is not a matter of reliable record; Pierce and Pearl adopted her in Gastonia in 1906, and all three came to Asheville in 1923. My three brothers and I were born in Asheville (1935-1943), but by 1961 we had all moved away. Asbury lived there for the most years (50), and Pearl the fewest (27). Their four Whisnant grandsons spent only 17 or 18 years each.
This present post focuses upon John’s and Mary Neal’s lives together and John’s professional life.
Numerous previous posts provide additional details and expanded narratives for the post-1900 period. Readers may wish to read some of them:
The Whisnant Family
- Asbury’s Asheville, 1900-1907 [Asheville during Asbury’s bachelor years]
- Our Mountain Home: Asbury’s Encounter with a Changing Asheville, 1900-1907
- Mid-Course Correction: Ella Goes to (Mid-Course) Asheville, 1907 [Ella leaves career as early registered nurse]
- Glimpses into the Daily Lives of the Whisnants [work/home, schooling, family and neighborhood, married life, parenting, illness]
- Working Class Family Behind the Big House: Asbury, Ella, and Their Children: 1907-1918
- A Document Answers Some Questions (and Raises New Ones) [Ella’s early nursing registration certificate]
- Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic [street railway workers’ strike of 1913, great flood of 1916, influenza epidemic of 1918-1920]
- Mud on the Rafters [house Asbury and Ella bought in 1923, after having rented for more than 15 years]
- The Land of the Sky at the End of the Line: Asbury and Ella [brief sketches of each, and of their lives together]
- Moving on Up to Pisgah Heights: The Whisnants in West Asheville [from renters to owners]
- Calling CQ: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond [early commercial radio, the amateur sector, John Whisnant as early amateur operator, building his own station, as president of the Asheville Amateur Radio Club]
The Rudisill Family and Mary Neal’s Schooling
- Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville [Gastonia textile belt; textile and construction jobs; mystery of adoption; World War I service and afterwards]
- The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Whisnants and Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951 [class-comparative experience of the two families, two West Ashevilles]
- Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville [Mary Neal’s pain and embarrassment over adoption; school years; work and class; economics and politics of birth control; her hopes for beyond]
John and Mary Neal Together
- A New Vision for Old Hominy Valley: The Coming of the Enka Plant [pre-Enka industry, landing a Dutch company, choosing Lower Hominy, the valley as development node]
- Engineer by Mail: John Whisnant at American Enka, 1933-1941 [John as auto-didact, International Correspondence Schools]
- Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s Early Years Together, 1934-1940 [John at work and home, two approaches to marriage, domestic life for her, raising children as joint project, John as Father, boys and housework]
John at Work and at Home
For 30 years, from the time his first child was born until the last of four left home, John Whisnant drove back and forth “to the plant” 50 weeks a year . He worked hard as an engineer, turning some of his ideas toward improving the intricate viscose rayon process, and a few into patent drawings. Meanwhile he lovingly built things for his sons, took photographs of his family, and developed them in his closet “dark room”. Sometimes on weekends he drove all of us to historic places he thought we might like and learn something from. I have tried to explore some of those linkages here.
Six months prior to my father John Whisnant’s 1931 graduation from high school, the Depression hit Asheville. Banks and businesses closed, city funds and jobs disappeared, soup lines formed and the mayor and a prominent banker died by suicide.1
Although John appeared in the 1931 high school annual The Hillbilly, he may not have completed graduation requirements until some months later.2
Although he was very bright, he had no money for college. He could have tried for a job at Enka (opened in July 1929), as so many thousands did, but lacking a college degree or formal technical credentials, he would likely have had to take an hourly-paid production job.
Falling back on some vocational training he had gotten in the high school print shop, and using a
worn-out press he hauled home and rebuilt, he opened his own print shop in the garage of the family home in West Asheville.
Competition from several large Asheville printing companies was strong, however. The Miller Press claimed it was the largest in western North Carolina. It had funds to put its display ad on about every third page of the city directory, and to buy the latest printing and mailing technology.
I have not discovered a single document related to John’s print shop effort, although I do recall his showing me a single sheet from note pads he printed for Morris-Austin Lumber Company, a few blocks from his house. The small block of print at the top contained an error, regarding which, he said, the company had never asked for a correction.
In any case, it appears that John’s little garage shop didn’t bring in much money or last very long.3
At the same time, he continued his interest and work in amateur radio, which since early in high school (or perhaps earlier) had provided exciting new technology to master, and a network of friends for years to come.4
Meanwhile, toward the end of her own high school years, brilliant young Mary Neal Rudisill, daughter of a mostly unemployed cement finisher, helped her new boyfriend John “sort papers” while he would “run off little jobs” in his print shop.5
From Printing through Photography to Engineering
Sometime in 1933, it seems, John hired on as an assistant in American Enka Corporation’s Printing Department. It was not a high-level job, but at some point he was elevated to Manager, and started wearing a three-piece suit to work.6
In January 1941, by which time he had been at Enka for close to 8 years, he moved from the Printing Department to Mechanical Research Department,where he worked as Photographic Specialist until at least June of that year. Unfortunately, the documentary record reveals nothing about those months except a single Enka Voice “at work”
On Sunday, June 21, 1931, the Asheville Times splashed a full-page headline across page 19, heralding the opening of Enka’s new employee village. Houses had begun to be available as early as September 1929. 8 The employee magazine also kept the village and its appeal in frequent view.9 A newspaper account blended idealized description and reassurances about Enka’s Dutch-born managers, wearing American clothes and speaking English, thus relieving any potential threat deriving from their foreignness.10 Recreation at the Enka Lake Club and sports fields and courts close to the plant had their own Americanizing functions, and a plant library offered appropriate books and magazines. A welfare nurse monitored residents’ health, new brides received sets of elegant serving pieces, and milk and eggs were delivered to families of new babies.
Early in 1941, the Whisnant family was able to move from their small rented house on Brevard Rd. in West Asheville (below, left) to a two-story house in the newly constructed Enka Village (below, right). It was a welcome move, given that the family now included three children (6, 3, and about 18 months). Whether the availability of the larger, much-sought-after Enka Village house had anything to do with John’s job switch/promotion, I do not know. Our section of the village included a few 2-story ones like ours, and many 1-story ones like the one to the left of it.
It had a large entry hall, 6 sizeable rooms, a nearby garage, and was situated on a large lot. The modest rent included power, water, fire protection and regular painting and maintenance by plant crews. Located close to the plant, it avoided John’s 7-mile commute to work that had been necessary for 8 years.
Although he was in the National Guard in 1942, he was never drafted, perhaps because he had 3 dependent children (4 after March 1943) and worked in a critical industry producing extra-strength rayon for military vehicle tires and other war-related purposes.
In any case, as John settled into his new engineering position, the coming war outside paralleled several long-running inner struggles.
Dressing (and Passing) as an Engineer
With only the nighttime ICS courses behind him, and his years in the Print Shop, John always felt (as he said many times) “below” the engineers he worked with (some of whom later worked for him), most of whom had college degrees.12 He suffered, it slowly dawned upon to me following much later conversations, from some version of an imposter syndrome.
He was in fact extraordinarily intelligent, resourceful, creative and knowledgeable about engineering matters (especially those pertaining to the complex viscose rayon manufacturing process), and a quick learner, but he nevertheless feared that he somehow wouldn’t measure up, would be exposed as a fraud.
The social and professional markers of that status difference were also mapped on the streets of the Enka Village, and we were only mid-way up the line. On the next street east of ours, where most of the houses were smaller, lived the machinists, welders, carpenters and painters. We lived in the middle section, where small and larger houses were mixed. Our neighbors included a few skilled laborers (a plasterer, a lead burner, a cafeteria worker), some process superintendents, some low- and mid-level managers, and a few 2nd-level ones (almost all Dutch). The upper-level ones lived in a separate section to the west of us, where some of the houses were much larger, and the Technical Vice President’s grand house loomed above the lake and club house.
As I slowly came to understand, my father John was always engaged in an equalization effort. It took many forms, but the most persistent of them was making sure he looked right every day when he left for work: polished shoes, starched cuffs and collars, carefully tied ties, and ironed handkerchiefs.
We boys got our first ironing lessons by ironing his handkerchiefs, and our mother took care of washing, starching and ironing his shirts. The ever-present Argo starch cubes she mixed in water and dipped the collars and cuffs in linger in memory after so many decades. His suits from The Man Store in Asheville got picked up at our house by the ever-friendly and jolly Mr. Simms of the Swannanoa Laundry, and delivered cleaned and pressed the next week.
Engineer, Manager and Inventor
The bulk of my father’s work during his earliest years as an engineer at Enka (in Plant Engineering) seems to have been oriented toward developing
and maintaining the engineering side of the production facility. During his middle years he was promoted to the “newly created position of assistant leader of Engineering Unit, Research Engineering Section.”13 Later he moved toward engineering management and research efforts — from concept and design through pilot plant phases.14
However all this sorted out, my father was a brilliant engineer who worked hard at his job. And as he said to me once, “I enjoyed the work I did.”
Though the years he was credited with more than a half-dozen rayon patents.15 And others followed.
Unfortunately, such creativity, which was financially valuable to the company, did not bring him (whose salary was never large) any financial reward. Somehow I learned that any employee credited with a patent received a token $1.00 from the company, which was then listed as the patent holder. 16
As his father had before him, he depended upon the solidity of his job to hold things together. And two of those things were a marriage and family.
Marriage and Family Life
Appearing and functioning on a daily basis as the professional engineer he had not been able to be formally trained to be was a difficult enough daily task. On the whole, it has long seemed to me, he handled that as well as anyone could have.
But lying beneath that challenge was another related one: being a man in both contexts, every day, year-round, year after year, within what had been defined and bequeathed to him by his raising and the larger cultural frame in which its limits were embedded.
The post-high-school to printing apprenticeship to pre-engineering formation he passed through until he was 27 years old seems to me best understood not just as a purely professional trajectory, but also a social/cultural move that required a new self-redefinition and positioning. Also (as time proved, depending upon when one sampled the evidence) it inevitably brought a challenge to a marriage and helping to raise four boys.17
How well John managed the challenges already discussed was remarkable, especially given the depth and stringency of the patterns and boundaries of his cultural formation. As they actually operated socially and culturally, those boundaries were actually somewhat ambiguous and blurred, but within his understanding of them, it seemed to me for years, they might as well have been definite and rigid.18
Fortunately, in late 1983 I bethought myself to try to do a few taped interviews with my parents. Driving down from my university job in Baltimore for a Christmas visit, I interviewed him in January 1984 (he was 70). I was unable to return to talk with my mother until July 1986 (when she was 70). By then I was 20 years out of graduate school, with two children of my own.
He talked a good bit about his parents and his early years, but hardly at all about Enka, and said nothing at all about my mother, before or during his life with her.19 By contrast, she talked a openly about her own early life and her life with him, before marriage and during. She also related some memories of his parents’ relationship with each other, and with her.20 His modal reaction to his own memories was more “that’s just the way it was” than a probing of their dimensions, while hers was to ponder their dimensions and complexities.
My parents’ differing modes of thought and pondering were evident throughout the interviews. My mother was a serious, high-achieving student who graduated as valedictorian of her class.21
Two Approaches to Marriage
My father’s early experience with women is undocumented, but a single photo from when he was perhaps an early (unhappy?) teenager suggests that it may not have been entirely satisfactory.
During his high school years, however, he seems to have been a socially active, girl-watching teenage male whose yearbook was filled with many female classmates’ signatures, “best wishes,” and ardent “don’t forget”s and “remember when”s.
“Your daddy was a great dancer,” my mother told me. “He went to a lot of dances. From things I heard . . . he drank some. I imagine it was just like all the boys did, just take a drink at the dance. He was no drunkard by any means. He got hold of some poison whiskey one time, [and nearly] died.”
“When I hear you describe how your life was,” I told her during our interview, “it doesn’t sound like getting married changed all that much for you . . . . I mean you hadn’t had major social life [in high school]. You hadn’t had major personal freedom or anything like that. . . . But his life was pretty free. . . . like it was the difference between being male and being female at the time. [It] seems to me like his perceptions of being married would have been. . . [more] of a personal shock [to him] than it was to you.”22
As our talk went on, it became clear that she had spent enough time with his parents before they were married to recognize some of her young husband’s patterns as deeply rooted in his family.
“His father [Asbury, b. 1872; first child born 1910] was sort of old-fashioned in that the man was head of the house and he was free to go and do anything he wanted to do, and she [his wife Ella] stayed there, got up and made his breakfast at 4:30 in the morning, cooked and washed, ironed and made a garden, and was there waiting on him on the front porch when he got home in the afternoon. That was sort of instilled in your daddy. . . . [By] and large he was raised with this ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ philosophy.”23
From my interview with my father 2 years earlier, I told her that “Daddy . . . talks about [his parents’] relationship . . . as being placid . . . very cool, or kind of businesslike rather than . . . ” I was going to say amorous, or something, but she responded quickly:
“I think it was,” she agreed “There didn’t seem to be . . . any visible emotion, you know, no affection expressed between them. Openly, where other people were [present] . . . . She was a happy person. So contented. I never heard her complain about anything.”24
That assessment meshed so completely with what I remembered about my grandmother Ella during my own childhood that I was content to go on to another topic: “I always had the sense that basically Daddy didn’t want to be married . . . .”
“Well,” she allowed, “I think he got tired of it a long time before I did. And I think he felt like after a few years . . . he had been cheated, you know, of having a good time. I can understand him better now from a long distance than I could back then, of course. I can see where he felt like he was tied down. Of course he wasn’t any more tied down than I was, but . . . I never did have the yen for all this partying and stuff that he did. I just wasn’t very interested in it. . . . He never did drink any more,” she continued. “During the Prohibition years, you know, you had to buy bootleg liquor. They got hold of some that wasn’t all that good, and he was real sick.” But, she continued, “I think he always had a lot of girlfriends.”
It wasn’t clear to me then, and still isn’t now, whether she was referring to his high school girlfriends, or some he may have had afterward. Either, I slowly came to realize from a few inadvertently dropped bits of information, might have been justified. In any case, there were some bits regarding marriage and children that seemed to suggest as much.
His Marriage and Hers
What Mary Neal Rudisill had imagined and wanted during her high school years was to escape her family’s working class limits, go to college, and become a teacher. But those outcomes proved beyond her grasp.25
What John Whisnant had long prepared for, on the other hand, proved at least partly within his grasp. At least it seemed so until he was in his early 30s (see “Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond), when he began to move toward engineering. He clearly had some aptitude for that, but lacking a college degree, he felt educationally unprepared for it.
However all of this was, John Whisnant seems not to have entered an unanticipated marriage in 1934 with the self-awareness, adaptability and determination that his young wife brought to it.
These basic lacks produced some deep disappointments for both. The marriage they turned out to have was not exactly what either anticipated or wanted. But she found that she liked what came to be her married lot.
They both reshaped themselves to the marriage they had, worked hard at it for more than 30 years, and (mostly) did a good job. But differences of temperament, patience, and aims cropped out in stress and conflict.
“There was [a] time,” my mother told me once, “that he went to a dance one night without me, when I was really big pregnant . . . , and he took off and went to this dance and stayed out till 2:00 in the morning. And I cried and cried about that.”26
That occasion, some of her other remarks suggested, was during her first pregnancy (she was not yet 19), when the two of them were living with his older sister and her husband. A miscarriage followed soon after that birth, and then three more children at 22 (1938), 23 (1939), and 27 (1943).
“Those years must have been really, really hard,” I commented to her. “After the children began to come,” I asked her, “did you ever go out any, or go, you know, to parties or dances or anything like that?”
“They were hard,” she said, “but I enjoyed it. I always enjoyed my family. Enjoyed watching y’all grow up and everything you learned and
everything about all of you was a thrill to me. I really enjoyed it. I just enjoyed motherhood, I guess. I just loved it. You know how much pleasure you get out of your two [children]. Well, I got that much pleasure out of each of you all.”
There was evidence that he did, also. However he felt about his wife, or acted toward her, whatever stresses he coped with in his job, she at length (and not great length, at that) bore him 4 sons, of whom he was immensely proud.
However proud they both were of their children, was she happy in those years, I asked her.
“Well, I don’t know, David,” she said. “When you are raising four kids, you’re just so busy, you don’t really think a lot about whether [you are] happy . . . or not. I don’t remember ever feeling like the world owed me happiness. Didn’t think the world owed me anything except what I was able to do for myself and make as good a situation as I could out of what existed.”
Her response could have been seen as fatalism, but my sense after experiencing her as my mother, home-maker, caretaker, teacher, and (yes) confidant for a bit over 60 years, I think it was far broader and more tender and loving than that. And except for my father “bringing home the check” (as he never failed to do), she did all of that without much help except what she got from a few women friends, the Baptist church, the Sunday school class she taught for years, and a small box of “devotional cards” that sat on the window sill over the sink where she washed the dishes every night (and the boys took turns drying).
Children As a Joint Project
However different their approaches to marriage were, the two of them raised us together, both at home and outside–especially in our schools.
“You particularly, and Daddy to a considerable degree, were really interested in working in our schools,” I said to her at one point. “Why do you think y’all did that when most other people didn’t so much?”27
“We were just always real interested in anything y’all were interested in,” she said. “And your Daddy was interested in the [Boy Scouts], was a scout leader, and I was always in the PTA meetings. And he went to PTA meetings a lot, too. We of course helped to have the little parties
for you at school, and Easter egg hunts, and . . . the Halloween carnival in the gymnasium, the classroom Valentine boxes and Christmas decorations. I was always baking or doing something for the school. And then we got into the church . . . [and] were interested in that.
“[It] was always just a lot of fun to be in things you all were interested in.” One might also have conjectured–although I don’t recall her ever mentioning it–that by working in our schools she could almost be the teacher she had been unable to find a way to become herself.
My own memories of my mother and other women gathering in our living room after we boys were in bed, making Halloween hats and decorations for school, and laughing at some of the results are still strong, as are those of both of them helping us with the uniforms and camping gear we needed for Boy Scout camping trips, and my mother sewing our “merit badges” on uniform sashes more neatly than it (secretly) seemed to me that some others did.
Who Bought the Groceries?
At the end of any meal, my father pushed his plate back and got up from the table, neither carrying his own dishes to the sink nor taking a turn at washing them. The clothes he took off at the end of the day were left where they landed in the floor. I never saw or heard of him feeding, changing or dressing a child, or operating a vacuum cleaner, cleaning a bathtub or window, or sweeping a walkway. And shopping for groceries was (as was so much else) “women’s work.”
In fairness to both of them, which one did the grocery shopping was constrained not only by gender norms, but also by situational factors. He had to be at work from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., five days a week, and (as I knew from my high school years as a supermarket “carry-out boy” and “checker”) Saturday was not a good day for grocery shopping. And in those pre-secularized times, West Asheville’s two supermarkets were closed on Sunday.
Such a schedule left the grocery trips up to her. Between February 1935 (birth of first child) and early 1941 (the move from West Asheville to the Enka village), she would have had the relative ease of walking or riding the bus to the store with one or (after July 1938) two children.
By early 1941, when we moved to the Enka village, she would have had the weekly task (until child #1 entered school in September) of piling 2 or 3 preschool children into an increasingly decrepit 1934, two-door Plymouth (foot-operated starter, 3-on-the-floor gearshift) with cotton coming out of the upholstery (“Mama, he’s throwing cotton balls at me!”), cardboard in a window or two, a roof that leaked, and driving the 8 miles or so to the A&P in West Asheville.28And during World War II, there was the added complication of small books of war rationing coupons to contend with.29
At the grocery store, she had to retrieve the children from the back seat (no seat belts), shepherd them through the store (before multi-child carts fashioned to resemble locomotives or fire engines), get children and groceries back in the car (no trunk). Then turn the whole thing around: drive back to Enka, take the groceries inside and stash them in a small kitchen with minimal storage space and a refrigerator freezer that would hold only two ice trays and maybe a pint of ice cream. And start cooking supper for 6 people.
The ’34 Plymouth continued as the family car all through the war, until we acquired a new Dodge in 1948, when over-used prewar vehicles were more easily acquired than new ones.30
Reaching across the gender gulf, my father’s expressions of tenderness toward my mother (the ones I witnessed) were infrequent and usually modulated by teasing. But there had always been a softer, sweeter side to him as well. Years later I heard from an aunt that on the way to pick his girl friend Mary Neal Rudisill up and take her to a high school prom, he had come up the walkway singing a popular romantic song.31 One son reported that he had broken (rather dramatically) out into song on another occasion or two, but I never heard anything like that myself except for once when he tried (without success) to get us to sing together in the car.32
Boys Doing Housework
The thing I remember more clearly about John’s orientation to these carefully-marked gendered sectors is that he was eager for his sons not to be shaped by their mother’s sense that, male children though they were, they should be trained to “help out at home.”
I never heard him talk about any of that, but others of his views I did hear him express appeared to confirm it. My guess is that, for some reason(s?) he feared it, maybe because he feared something related in himself.
“Part of what I keep trying to figure out [as] I think about how we were raised” I told my mother when I interviewed her, was “about the fact that you taught us . . . cooking, laundry, all that kind of stuff, which was not normal for male children to do. Clearly it was necessary; there was no other way to keep things going. I am glad that we learned to do all those things. But in some ways your having insisted that we . . . learn to do [them] was going against the current . . . against normal expectations, certainly against Daddy’s preference. And certainly he never did those things.”33
“And he didn’t like for me to teach you to do them,” she said. “He thought it was sissy.”
Never having heard any of my young male friends say they had to help in such ways, either, I asked her, “So where did you get that idea?”
“I don’t know where I got [it],” she said. “I just made up my mind within myself that I couldn’t possibly run the household . . . without any help, and your daddy wasn’t going to give me any. And I just decided it wouldn’t hurt you all, it would be good for you, and it would be helpful to me, and it was a new way to [raise?] children, male children. I didn’t have any girls, and I had to have some help from somewhere.”
“And you don’t ever remember talking with anybody about that,” I continued, “or hearing of anybody else doing it, or was it basically something that came out of your own sense of what the necessities were?”
“Yes,” she said, “and of . . . everybody’s responsibility for everybody else. I failed to see where it was my responsibility to do all those things. I couldn’t see how I could do it physically. And you all seemed willing to do it. Even from the time you were little, before you were old enough to really do things right, all of you wanted to help. We started out with you all drying the dishes, that was the first thing that any of you did to help, was to dry the dishes.34 Then you started cleaning off the table, and then in the summertime . . . you did more . . . than in the wintertime. You didn’t do much when school was going on, . . . but in the summertime we made a list [for each of you].”
“Everybody had certain responsibilities,” she continued, “and they were put on the back of the door and they were switched every week so you didn’t have to do the same thing every week. But everybody had some things they had to do before you could go out to play. And I think it was extremely good for you in the summertime, because most children became a burden to themselves and their parents and everybody else because they were bored.”
“What . . . do you remember Daddy doing or saying about that,” I asked her.
“He would just sort of turn up his nose,” she said. “Occasionally he’d mumble something under his breath about it being sissy. . . . A woman’s work was definitely a woman’s work, and a man didn’t have anything to do with that, at all. . . . A man didn’t do those things. He got that from his people, and never having had any brothers, I didn’t have any prior example to go by, so I just made all this stuff up out of my head.”
“Your own father never helped with stuff like that?,” I ventured.
“Oh, yes, he did,” she said, “I don’t remember him sweeping and mopping and that kind of thing. But he did a lot of cooking, and he’d clean up the kitchen, and sweep off the back porch, and things like that. . . . A lot of times, [he] and I would get in the kitchen and we’d fix the meal, and clean up afterwards, and we just enjoyed it. . . . So I guess I got the idea from him doing those things that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.35
Clearly for both of the parents, the models reached at least one generation back. The difference was that they were in these respects diametrically opposed. And as the years passed, their successive arrangements to manage their differences — together with contextual changes beyond their control — brought various phases of their lives to an end.
Given these stark differences about gender and gender roles, how did John do as a father?
John as Father
Our father was sternly authoritarian. You did as exactly as you could what he told you to do, when he told you to do it, or you suffered the consequences. A child’s plaintive “Why?” brought the same answer every time: “Don’t ask me why! Because I told you to, that’s why!” And if you didn’t execute the command “right now,” the switchings on bare legs might follow hard upon the infraction–especially if you were told to go select the switch yourself. In that case, as composer-singer Jason Isbell put it not so long ago, “the line between right and wrong was so fine.”36 It was in some ways, as the old saying had it, “a hard row to hoe.”
But the upside of the arrangement was that he was always making (and doing) things for (and with) us, not infrequently drawing upon his experience as an engineer and inventor. His sense of design was also always there, whatever the venue or challenge.
His photography he seems to have done mostly after he got his Rolleicord (around 1938), and carried through his whole life, mostly with portraits of his sons, or wife and sons.37
There was no money for a full photography studio, so a white bed-sheet hung across the double door between the living room and entry hall–or in good weather, an outdoor setting–had to suffice as a backdrop. I remember being with him in his darkroom (a converted double closet): the red lights, the enlarger, the look and smell of developed prints hanging to dry. And images drawn from opportune moments at home, birthdays and holidays, and later, graduations and other moments of achievement or life transition.
Beyond photographs, there were the objects and mechanisms he put together in his small basement shop. He stored his smaller tools in a chest he fashioned from a wooden apple box. And at the end of the war he was able to buy a small metal lathe.
I got my lathe-running instructions while standing on a low stool, because I was still too young to reach up far enough from the floor.38
Although his salary rose slowly through the years, John never got over feeling economically marginal. One reason he joined the Enka volunteer fire department (which served both company property and the surrounding countryside) was that firemen were paid $2.00 each time they were called out, and that money (paid just before Christmas) made up what was available for “Santa Claus” presents. One year when there had been few fires, the total was $12.00.39
I also recall his getting a box full of salvaged bicycle chain somewhere at the plant and bringing it home. Working together, we cleaned, oiled, and wrapped it, and then sold it to Hearn’s bicycle shop downtown.
On some other afternoons and evenings, I worked with him to rewind burned-out transformers from his amateur radio transmitter. The smell of bakelite (a synthetic plastic developed in 1907) being turned on the lathe is still vivid, as is that of glyptal, the red enamel insulating paint he used for such purposes.
Working within these somewhat limited circumstances, he frequently made wonderful things for his family (examples in photo gallery below; click to enlarge images):
- small circular cutouts of scrap 1/4 inch plexiglass with center holes the size of Christmas tree bulbs and heated in the kitchen oven became conical halos for tree lights
- a steel angle frame made by a welder friend and fitted with a wooden top and an adjustable lamp served as a beginning workbench for his sons (L background)
- a small wooden box, painted white with a red stripe and mounted on ball bearing wheels became a wagon for son #4 (R foreground)
- the family’s first (salvaged) 10-foot metal “motorboat”– scraped and re-painted, with new handmade oak gunwales and a small Evinrude motor. Transported to nearby lakes by suspending it under a trailer made from two bicycle forks and wheels
Two photos 3 and 4:
- a step up to a 12-foot Chris Craft kit boat with a homemade “surf board” to tow behind it, sawed from 3/4″ marine plywood and fitted with non-skid stair treads
Sometime after making the surfboard, we wanted to try water skiing (very popular at the time). But water skis were expensive, so a 55-gal. drum mounted on some rocks in the backyard, filled with water and with a fire under it, served to boil two ski-sized planks of beech. Bent and dried to shape, with hand-cut brass mountings holding foot bindings cut from thick truck inner tubes, the two planks formed a quite serviceable pair of skis. Towed by outboard engines that slowly increased in size as we traded upward from one second-hand one to the next, they served us for several summers until second-hand skis (some still bearing a trendy Cypress Gardens or other logo) began to appear on the market.
An activity he periodically arranged (a surprising one, given that he was not a reader of books and lacked a college education) was taking us to sites of historic and engineering interest. We did not have money to fly to western ski resorts, or extended European trips, but several times we went to our grandfather Whisnant’s farm in Rutherford County to see sorghum molasses made in the large wood-fired boiling pan, and he drove us 100 miles west from Asheville to see the enormous trees in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. And during the early days before it was disallowed, he took us to see the gigantic hydroelectic turbines inside the Fontana Dam (1942; then the 4th tallest in the world).40 Another long highway trip (1,000 miles, before the interstate highway system) took us to Fort San Marcos in St. Augustine.
Building a House as Sons Leave the Nest
As these modest steps upward in our family resources and outward in our range of possibilities and activities appeared, the years were passing, and with them the parents’ aging, their own parents dying (Ella Whisnant in 1942, Pearl Rudisill in 1950 and Asbury Whisnant in 1955), and the unfolding lives of four sons.
Beginning in 1952, the sons moved on and away, as offspring inevitably do. There were four high school graduations between 1952 and 1961, four departures for college in 1952, 1956, 1957 and 1960, and four marriages in 1957, 1960, 1961, and 1965.
More sharply and quickly marking the family transition than the slower, phased departure of the sons was that at the end of October 1956, 15 years after they had moved to the rental house at 12 Crescent Street in the Enka village, our parents were able to buy a lot and begin building the first house they had ever been able to even contemplate owning. John had never paid much attention to the Crescent Street house except to delegate sons to rake leaves in the fall, but Mary Neal had hung pictures, bought small decorative items, and engaged Enka plant maintenance employees to scrape and paint the dark woodwork white and hang wallpaper. Meanwhile, the old living room furniture showed more and more of its cotton stuffing.
In mid-1956, local small homes contractor Robert Grant (a friend from church) helped them select a large lot south of Asheville on Bevlyn Drive in the Oak Forest subdivision, and construction began almost immediately. Moving out of the village and from rental to ownership was a major step.
The new house had a spacious side porch, dining room and kitchen (with raised fireplace, of which Mary Neal — after many years in a small kitchen — was very proud), three sizeable bedrooms and two baths (with the colored fixtures and wall and floor tile characteristic of the period), and garage, storage and shop areas underneath. Concrete sidewalks were poured; grass, flowers and bushes planted; pictures hung; and furniture (including some new pieces) arranged.
One item that had hung in the 12 Crescent living room as a reminder of the home of her own she had longed for for 15 years was an oval gilt mirror she had put on layaway in a West Asheville furniture store (maybe around 1937) and paid off at 50 cents per week until she could take it home. It was the first “good” decorative piece she had, and she always referred to it with pride as “my oval mirror.”41 It went first with her and the family to various rented quarters in West Asheville, then to 12 Crescent Street in the Enka village, and from there to 22 Bevlyn Drive, where it got hung over the fireplace, as it had long been.
Unfortunately, I have found no photograph of “my oval mirror” taken in the Bevlyn Drive house. But this one, taken at 12 Crescent Street around 1945-46, captures its semiotic significance and utility for Mary Neal: the valuable gold oval, the mirrored reflection of wallpaper she had had hung, the narrow edge of the Christmas tree on the right, the pine fronds dappled with egg-white and sugar “snow” she had made in the kitchen, the little plastic reindeer she brought down every year in the cardboard decorations box she kept in the attic, and the repurposed knicker socks hung for Santa Claus’s arrival. And the real and reflected images of son #2 (me) of “my four boys,” as she always called us.
When they moved into 22 Bevelyn Drive in 1957, my father was still only 43 years old, and my mother was 41. To be so young, they had worked a lot and tried so hard to make good lives for their children. And some factors seemed to promise that they might have several more secure and enjoyable decades together. But it was not to be, as I will explain in the post that follows.
- On the course of the Depression, see Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (McFarland 2007), 111-135.
- For clarity, given the long time spans and role changes involved, I will refer to him below as John.
- The 1932 city directory listed 13 printing companies — not including his — in its Classified Business Directory section.
- See Calling CQ”: An Amateur Radio Geek in the 1920s and Beyond.
- From my interviews with her in 1986-87.
- A more detailed account of this move is available in my previous post Engineer by Mail: John Whisnant’s Early Years at American Enka, 1933-1941.
- Spaanbroek was one of the original Dutch technical trainers brought over to help start the plant in 1928-29. John’s small surviving collection of books includes a technical manual on photography with Spaanbroek’s name inside. The camera still exists in the collection of Norman E. Whisnant. It was to be the family camera for all the years thereafter.
- On the overall design of Enka Village streets and houses, see Kathryn Anne Franks, Enka North Carolina: New Planning in an Early Twentieth Century Southern Mill Town (Drexel Univ.: Master of Historic Preservation, 1995).
- See early street scenes in “Modern Homes and Beautiful Streets in Enka Village,” Enka Voice, April 1932, p. 6.
- “Happy People Dwell in Modern Village,” Asheville Citizen-Times, June 21, 1931, B4.
- Again, see the Engineer by Mail post cited above on the International Correspondence Schools and his movement into Engineering.
- I have no knowledge of what my parents may have talked about after we were in bed, but in general I do not recall substantive conversations prior to that. In retrospect it seems to me such conversations were rare, if they occurred at all — another indicator of an unfortunate separation between his daily life and hers.
- Enka Voice, September 1952
- These Engineering unit names are my best guess. Many personnel records were lost in two floods.
- Since understanding any one of those would require knowledge of the rayon process itself, I include only a single image from his early engineering years.
- Presumably, accepting the $1.00 carried the requirement that the inventor relinquish all rights to the patent.
- As a single point of comparison, I graduated from high school 25 years later than my father did. By the time I was 27, I was through college and graduate school (on the work-your-way-through Co-op Plan or full scholarships) and into my first teaching job. The Co-op Plan, through which American Enka had sponsored Ga. Tech students since the 1930s, was a work a quarter for pay, save your money and go to school a quarter plan. I spent my work quarters in their Plant Engineering Department. There had been necessary personal and cultural, as well as marital, adjustments (I was a first-generation college student), but along the way I had gained more than my share of the usual formal credentials, and did not yet have children. Clearly I had had a much easier start and ride, and continued to benefit from all of that for many years thereafter.
- For further discussion of the family roots of that formation, see section 10 of Every Marriage Is Two Marriages post.
- That omission was at least as much my fault as his, since the only interview I did had devoted more time to his parents’ life than his. I had planned to return later for additional interviews with both of them, but those never occurred.
- See Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville, The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951, and Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville.
- Because of the financial exigencies of the early Depression, the then-new, grand Art Deco Asheville High School was closed due to the lack of funds to operate it, and students sent back to the junior high school facilities from which they had come: Hall Fletcher in West Asheville (to which Mary Neal Rudisill went) and David Millard in downtown Asheville. Each of the split classes had its own valedictorian.
- See earlier post on her “half” of her unanticipated August 1934 marriage to him: Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant’s Early Years Together, 1934-1940). The marriage rerouted her from her own unfulfilled vision (the subject of Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville) into being a wife, mother (of 3 children by late 1939, when she was 23) and homemaker.
- For several prior posts on Asbury and Ella’s post-1907 home life in Asheville (and their children’s, born 1910-1914), see Working Class Family Behind the Big House: Asbury, Ella, and Their Children: 1907-1918; Glimpses into the Daily Lives of the Whisnants; Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic and Moving on Up to Pisgah Heights: The Whisnants in West Asheville [1923ff.].
- There could have been many things behind Ella’s quietness, I later thought. After an extended (14 years it was) courtship, she had left her job as one of the first registered professional nurses in North Carolina in 1907 (at age 38) to move to Asheville (see A Document Answers Some Questions (and Raises New Ones on her nursing career) and marry him. For the pre-1900 phases of each of their lives (and the 1900-1907 phase of his), see several previous posts: The Cruel War and Its Aftermath: Life Down the Mountain for Asbury and Ella, 1869-1894; Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History; Asbury’s Asheville: 1900-1907; and Mid-Course Correction: Ella Goes to (Mid-Course) Asheville, 1907.
- See prior post Maybe Down the Road Somewhere.
- See Five Years of Month-to-Month and House-to-House, in section 5 of Every Marriage Is Two Marriages.
- Besides lacking a desire to do so, complicating factors for other parents may have been that some lived farther away from our schools (vs. maybe only 3 or 4 miles for anyone who lived in the Enka Village or Hominy Valley), or both parents worked and/or worked different shifts: “days” (7 am-3:00 pm), “nights” (3:00pm-11:00pm), or “graveyard” (11:00pm-7:00am).
- Photos 0f reconditioned 1934 Plymouth sedans tend to show 4-door models, but my oldest brother–13 years old when ours was sold–remembers it as a 2-door. An extensive set of inside, outside, and mechanical photos of a meticulously restored, 4-door, 1934 Plymouth are available here.
- For an excellent synopsis of the ration book system and chronology, see the University of Deleware history page: https://www.history.udel.edu/about/history-media-center/wwii-ration-books.
- Domestic auto manufacturing had been halted by Federal order from February 1942 to October 1945. A search for “1948 Dodge” in Asheville newspapers turns up far more pre-war vehicles than 1948s (many of them dating from the 1930s and likely as decrepit as our old ’34 Plymouth). Any autos manufactured in October 1945 would almost certainly been dated for the coming model year.
- See An Angel in an Evening Gown, section 3 of Every Marriage Is Two Marriages.
- See section 10 of the post just cited).
- Unfortunately, I have encountered no photographs of me or my brothers engaging in those daily activities.
- Images of boys drying dishes or doing other housework did appear in popular magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, but rarely. And the ones I could find at this remove were either watermarked by advertisers or very expensive to obtain rights to.
- Her father, whom I remember well as a sweet, gentle and loving man, had little education, and nearly no marketable skills except as a cement finisher. The family moved from Gastonia to Asheville in 1923, looking for better work for him on then-booming construction projects. For more extensive narratives of her side of the family, see 3 previous posts: Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville; The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951; Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville.
- From Jason Isbell, “If It Takes a Lifetime” (2015). Also Jason Tyler Burton,”A Finer Line” (2014).
- There are very few photos of his wife or sons before he acquired his Rolleicord.
- For a fuller discussion of this and its inter-generational dimensions, see On Being an Autodidact in Engineer by Mail: John Whisnant’s Early Years at American Enka.
- About $200 in 2023 dollars, or $33 each for the 6 of us.
- A recent account of a special tour by local news reporters hints at a possibility of reinitiating public tours. See Kyle Perrotti ,”Inside Fontana Dam,” Smoky Mountain News, August 16, 2023. For an excellent account of the social disturbances and losses associated with building the dam, see Jim Casada, Triumph and Tragedy: Building Fontana Dam, Smoky Mountain Living, December 1, 2021.
- Having come from a furniture store in West Asheville, it would likely not have been very expensive.