Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville

I used to think that well, maybe, someday I could still go, you know. I thought well, maybe down the road somewhere I could still go.

Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant, on her long-cherished hope to go to college. Recorded interview by David E. Whisnant, 1987, 53 years after her high school graduation.

In a previous post (Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville) I told the story of my maternal grandparents (Pierce and Virginia Rudisill) and their young adopted daughter Mary Neal coming to Asheville in late 1922 from cotton mill and construction work in Gastonia. 

In a subsequent one (The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951), I related what I have been able to learn about how the young family tried to deal with the years between my mother’s arrival as a six year-old and when–in early adolescence–she learned (to her unending dismay) that she had been adopted.

Pearl Rudisill and daughter Mary Neal, ca. 1922-23. Montford stop on Asheville street railway
Asbury Whisnant and Henry Thompson with streetcar at Asheville’s Southern Railway Depot, ca. 1905. Final run of Asheville streetcars occurred on September 6, 1934. Collection of Richard and Elaine Whisnant. Image enhancement by Evan Whisnant.

This post reaches from that life-changing discovery through her high school years, which began two or three months before Asheville’s disastrous November 20, 1930 financial crash.

By late 1934, with Asheville still much in the doldrums, she had graduated from high school, taken a short train ride to nearby Marshall in Madison County to marry my father, John Keenan Whisnant (August 26, 1934), and was several months pregnant with their first child. 

To fill out this rather dense timeline of endings and beginnings, several weeks later John’s father Asbury took one (of seven) Asheville Street Railway’s cars on its final run. The company told him he was too old (at 62) to learn to drive its new gasoline-powered buses. Fortunately, having been in his secure union job for 34 years, and having driven his own automobile for more than a decade, he said he was perfectly able to do that, climbed aboard, and drove one for more than 15 years.

Asbury and buses, ca. 1935
Asbury (left front corner of bus of left-hand bus) with other drivers, ca. 1935. Buses had begun to replace streetcars as early as 1924. Collection of Jean Boone Johnson.

Those four or five very unstable teenage years were (as they would be for anyone ) crucial for my mother’s formation and development: her sense of self, her family, her social position, her education, her life’s dreams and prospects.

This post explores these elements and dynamics of Mary Neal’s life during these crucial few years–and their resonances thereafter.

The post is longer than any I have written before, partly because its stories interweave in complicated ways, and also because midway in the writing process I came upon a closely related, unexpectedly illuminating story that begged to be dealt with. I hope that the subtitles (visible above), will help keep the storyline clear.

“It hurt me awful bad”: Mary Neal Learns of Her Adoption

Piearce, Mary Neal and Pearl
Pierce, Pearl and Mary Neal (at about age six, when the family moved from Gastonia to Asheville). Photographer unknown (ca. 1922). Family collection.

Within these years, and long afterward, one key event for Mary Neal was learning that–instead of being Pierce and Pearl Rudisill’s daughter–she had been born to some other mother and father whose identities she did not know, and never was able to learn.

As my mother related to me the bits of the family story she was told, and recalled after so many years, the adoption was informal; no documents have ever come to light.

Sometime during her younger years, her mother had told her that their family doctor in Gastonia had arranged the adoption–and maybe even had himself been the father. I examined those possibilities in an earlier post (Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville). While some circumstantial details (in the section of that post titled Accounting for the Gap Years: An “Informally” Adopted Daughter) were tantalizing, they were ultimately not persuasive.

But some evidence that has come to light more recently suggests that others may have known as well. Other member(s) of Pierce Rudisill’s extended family, perhaps including another female cousin? Of Pearl’s family? Could some of those people themselves have concocted stories about the adoption? If so, they obscured more than they revealed.

But the focus here is not who the birth father or mother may have been, or who may have arranged the adoption, but what impact the fact of having been adopted had on Mary Neal when she learned of it as an early teenager–perhaps not from the female cousin of the family story, it appears, but from another one.

The adoption occurred, she told me, because after five or six years of marriage, her mother

had had three or four miscarriages; she couldn’t have any children, couldn’t carry a child. . . . [They] were living in Gastonia at the time . . . and this Dr. Neal Patrick found out about somebody having a baby and got [my parents] to adopt me – or take me.

How and when did she find out, I asked her. “I was in my teens,” she said,

about 14 years old. And this cousin that we visited some in Asheville – they had moved to Asheville – what were their names? I can’t remember – Bennetts – Leland Bennett. And we went to visit them one Sunday afternoon, and we were upstairs, several girls – they had a large family, upstairs playing, sitting around like girls do, talking. And one of them told me that I wasn’t a Rudisill to start with, that I was adopted. And I remember it hurt me awful bad. I cried a lot about it, and my mother was upset about it. She didn’t want me to ever know it. Of course it is hard to keep things like that secret.

Which Cousin(s?) Told?

Sparse as they were, these fragments about the Bennetts seemed worth checking out. The 1928, 1930 and 1931 Asheville city directories listed Leland Bennett, married to M[ary] Elma, working as a barber at the Antiseptic Barber Shop, and living on W Chapel Hill Road, just south of Biltmore Village near Sweeten Creek Road.

Pierce and Pearl Rudisill, meanwhile, were listed in 1930 at 52 Tremont Street in West Asheville, but were absent in 1931 (and perhaps part of 1930), when the Depression forced

52 Tremont St
52 Tremont Street. Google Earth image (2018).

them to move in with some relatives in Gastonia for a time. The extended Rudisill family they lived with there did in fact include (says the 1930 Census) the young female cousin featured in the original family story, as Mary Neal once told one of my brothers and me: Pierce’s sister Essie Rudisill Jenkins’s 12 year-old daughter Martha.

Having probably returned to Asheville by late 1931 or early 1932, Pierce and Pearl showed up again in the 1932 directory, living at 163 Euclid Avenue in West Asheville. It seems likely, then, that the Bennett and Rudisill families lived fairly near each other at the time the adoption revelation would have occurred (if it did)–probably sometime in 1930-31.

But did the Bennett family include a daughter of the appropriate age, and if so, was she perhaps a “cousin,” as my mother reported? Yes, on both counts. Asheville’s Ward 7 (Biltmore area) census for April 10, 1930 listed the Leland I[vey] and Mary E[lma] Bennett (about the same ages as Pierce and Pearl) family living on Moreview Street [sic; Drive], near W. Chapel [Hill] Rd. And their 7 children (5 to 20 years old) included 13 year-old

To illustrate aspects of the adoption story.
Mary Neal with young girl friend, ca. 1928-30. Relation to either the Rudisill or Bennett family, if any, is unknown. Location and photographer unknown. Family collection.

Helen–about a year younger than Mary Neal. And she was indeed a cousin: Helen’s mother was Pierce’s cousin Elma Walker Bennett, which made Elma’s daughter Helen Mary Neal’s 2nd cousin (“by adoption,” should one say?).

So whoever was Mary Neal’s birth mother, and whoever arranged the adoption, it seems very likely that one (or both?) of these two female second cousins told her–at a vulnerable developmental moment–that Pierce and Pearl Rudisill had adopted her.

That news impacted her so severely that she never got over it. Or so it seemed to me as I talked with her about it when she was in her early seventies.

Knowing What You Wish You Didn’t Know

Early on in my talks with my mother, the question of impact seemed primary to me. “Do you remember talking with your mother about the adoption when you found out about it,” I asked her. No, she said,

I remember asking her about it, and she just said it was true, but they had always loved me so much that they didn’t think it was necessary to tell me. They were awfully good to me. . . . I had a pleasant childhood . . . . We didn’t have much, but . . . they bought me a lot of clothes and a lot of toys and things.

These days, I ventured, adoption is not necessarily a cause for shame or embarrassment, I ventured (mainly out of ignorance, since at the time I had no friends who had been adopted), but “back then people thought about it in different ways.” She agreed, and added that “people considered it kind of disgraceful not to know who your parents were.”

Whatever the particulars in her case (discoverable or not), attitudes have moved toward approval and acceptance during the century since Pierce and Pearl adopted Mary Neal. A current search on Amazon returns many titles that signal the increasingly positive valence of adoption, and even mass-marketed items for adoption parties.

Nevertheless, many recent studies have verified the stubborn links between shame, disgrace and adoption. An online search for adoption disgrace brings 1.8 million results, and for adoption shame nearly 28 million: shame for birth parents, for adoptive parents, for adoptees. Psychological studies have identified a wide rage of impacts upon adoptees (low self-esteem, depression, attachment problems), some of them lifelong.

Thoughtful and loving as they were, Pierce and Pearl tried to modulate the impact of what their daughter had learned. Reassuring and buying things for her were parts of it. The Dr. Patrick-as-possible-father conjecture was another part. Recalling that she had told me earlier that her mother had suspected (or thought she knew?) that the Gastonia doctor was her father, I asked her about that again. “Well, my mother always thought so, . . . [and] she said I looked just like him. I sure didn’t look like either of them, of course.”

When I asked her about how long she felt really upset about the adoption story, she said “I think I felt upset about it for maybe a year. At least a good many months.” But she also said she had not talked with anybody about it at the time, and that her parents “told me what there was to tell me, . . . [but] just didn’t want to talk about it.”

In the Poorer Class or the Middle Group?

Pierce and Pearl had come to Asheville from Gastonia in late 1922, hoping to move beyond the cotton mill work they both had done, and Pierce’s manual labor in construction. During the late 1920s, they actually had managed to buy several small building lots in West Asheville, but had not been able to hold onto them, or to build a house, as they seem likely to have planned (this phase of their life is featured in an earlier post: The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951).

Being curious about her social circle, I asked her if she had close friends at school. “I remember a few little girls I was going around with at school,” she said,

but I never brought any home to amount to anything, not at all, I don’t think, ‘cause we were poor, and I just didn’t bring them home much. [My mother] didn’t feel like I needed to bring home a lot of kids from school.

As she moved into her high school years, Mary Neal proved to have more than ample intellectual ability to rise, but financially and socially her family lacked the wherewithal to compete with those who were better off. And the adoption revelation continued to blur her sense of where she was from.

She was clear, it seems, about her family’s difficult socioeconomic circumstances: we were poor. Neither parent had advanced education, professional training or employment. They had no savings or other assets, lived in a series of rented houses, and made do the best they could on Pierce’s uncertain wages as a manual laborer.

But when I asked her once how she would place herself economically and socially in relation to her classmates, a number of whom came from upper-class professional and commercial families, she hedged. “Do you feel like you would have been in the lowest group, or . . . ?” “The middle group,” she responded quickly. I was surprised: “The middle group?” “Um hmm,” she said.

I really never felt deprived at all. I think where there is a lot of love in a family, you don’t really feel deprived. And they always saw to it that…we had plenty to eat, most of the time. Sometimes it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t very varied to amount to anything, but we always had enough. But I felt like I was in a medium bracket. ‘Course I guess we weren’t, really, we probably were in the poorer class. But I always felt like we were sort of in the medium class. ‘Cause I think economically that is where we would have been except during those very bad Depression years when [my father] couldn’t find any work.

But she didn’t remain passive in the face of such circumstances. She worked hard at school, and found a job for weekends and holidays.

High School and Work Years: From “Medium Bracket” to Top of the Class

“I went to high school from Louisiana Avenue,” my mother recalled, only partly correctly, since there was at least one other address, and some months living with relatives in Gastonia. In any case, sitting high on a bank and back off the road at the lower end of Louisiana, number 178 was a big, white two-story rental house, maybe with a front porch, as my older brother recalls. It was the last one toward the bottom of the hill before Patton Avenue turned right toward the river and up the hill to downtown.

Mary Neal’s memories of the house were few, partly because she was going to school and working on the weekends to pay her modest school expenses and help her family. A lot of girls did that, she recalled, “everybody but the rich girls.” As soon as she could, she got a work permit,

whether . . . at fifteen or not I don’t know, but I got it as soon as it was allowed. . . . I went to work on Friday afternoon and Saturday as soon as I could, to help them more than anything else. That was during the bitter Depression, and [my father] had no work, and I could work on the weekend, and I paid our light and water bills, and things like that, and made money for my bus fare, my streetcar fare for school. And I did without lunch. I didn’t have any; there wasn’t anything to take.

Some girls worked in the ten-cent store, she said (Kress’s it would have been, since the Woolworth store didn’t open until 1938), but “I worked at Efird’s. That’s the only place I ever worked.”

Efird’s Depatment Store, in the old Harkins Building (name in peaked center section of roof) 28 Patton Avenue in Asheville. E. M. Ball Collection (ball1265; undated), Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

Founded under another name in Charlotte in 1902, the company became Efird’s five years later. By 1914 it had stores in Concord, Gastonia and Winston-Salem, positioned to compete with middle-income shoppers who also frequented Belk, J. C. Penney, Ivey’s and Sears. The Asheville store drew a large crowd when it opened on September 24, 1927.

Asheville city directory, 1928, p. 111.

The 1928 directory also listed Pierce Rudisill as operating a small grocery store on Haywood Road in West Asheville–likely another of his efforts to achieve the mobility he had brought his family to Asheville to find. The store apparently didn’t last long, however; in both 1927 and 1929, he was listed as a “cement worker.”

Meanwhile, Mary Neal worked at Efird’s on weekends, during the summer, and “always on holidays.”

We didn’t make a salary, we made commission, like ten cents on the dollar on what you sold. A lot of Saturdays I worked . . . . I remember working one Saturday, I made 75 cents. But big Saturdays you got $2.25. Went in at nine o’clock and worked till nine o’clock at night. Twelve hours, two dollars and a quarter. And the bus fare to get me from West Asheville to work was five cents. So we stood on our feet from nine o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night. Stocked and straightened stock and waited on customers.

But not only those tasks. In odd moments, surrounded (as this Efird’s display ad suggests) by multiple floors of attractive and reasonably-priced merchandise, she must have browsed and fantasized a bit.

Efird's women's clothing advertisement, June 1934
Efird’s dress sale advertisement, Asheville Citizen-Times, June 12, 1932, p. 5.

The priorities were clear, however: almost all the money she earned had to go home.

. . . that money I made oftentimes paid our light bill and my bus tickets to school. And I hardly ever ate any lunch. Sometimes I’d take a sandwich. . . . One Christmas I remember wrapping packages. They must have paid me maybe a dollar and a half a day for that. [But] that’s how I made it.

As her junior /senior banquet approached, though, she saw a possibility of obtaining one of the $6.85 “better dresses.”

Voile formal dress, vintage 1934, with lace Bertha collar. Research by Elaine S. Whisnant

I remember buying my junior / senior banquet dress, putting it on layaway. And paying fifty cents a week on it till I got it paid for. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life. It was pink silk knit with a great big Bertha collar, with roses and chiffon around it. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw and I got it for fifty cents a week.

For a bright and sensitive young woman who had experienced a traumatic, ego- and identity-bruising discovery on the brink of her high school years, who was determined to go to college and “make something” of herself (in the likely vernacular of the time), and who was working weekends, holidays and summers to pay her own way and help her parents, making the final (the 14th, it would likely have been) 50-cent layaway payment and taking such a dress home with her on the bus to show to them must have been a high moment.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that for her the dress marked some sense of having achieved and arrived–and perhaps some promise of after-high school recognition and opportunities for her achievements.

Whether she actually went to the junior-senior banquet in her gorgeous pink layaway dress, I did not think to ask at the time, nor did I ever hear her or anyone else mention it later.

An Academic Record vs. Economic and Social Realities

Academically, Mary Neal had had done well since the beginning. She had always loved school and been determined to excel. “I always felt,” she recalled, that

I wanted to be a leader, the best in the class, and usually was. I was usually in the top two or three anyway, all the time. . . . I enjoyed going to school, liked it a lot and most of my fun of my life was more or less around going to school, ’cause that’s what I loved to do. I was always proud of my teachers and got along well with them, and was pretty generally a favorite in the class. So I enjoyed going to school.

Surviving records of her schooling confirm her memories. From the beginning she did well in academic courses, and she did even better in the advanced English, History, Math and Latin courses she took in her high school years (instead of the Commercial Arithmetic, Stenography and Typing, Freehand Drawing and Bookkeeping also offered–mainly for women, seems a reasonable guess).  

In Domestic Science (“Home Ec,” for women) she got A’s, but did not like it. Most women students, it seems, took the course. “I didn’t like it, but I took it. The poor little old Home Ec teacher we had was a real old lady, and she used to say, “now, guls, please stop . . . We’d be cutting up and laughing and talking.” “They taught us,” my mother once remarked sardonically, “how to make a proper pineapple salad.”

A small history detour will shed some light on this gender- (and class- ) inflected imbalance between serious academic pursuits and preparation for one’s wifely duties. In February 1929, only months before the Asheville economic crash of November 1930, the city opened a new pink granite, tile-roofed Art Deco/Italian Renaissance high school, splendidly and functionally designed by the renowned architect Douglas Ellington, already credited with numerous local residences and other iconic buildings (First Baptist Church, the Asheville City Building, S&W Cafeteria) in the Art Deco style.

Asheville High School, designed by Douglas Ellington, opened February 1929. Photo by E. M. Ball (ball1827), E. M. Ball Collection, Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

Located on a 66-acre site south of downtown, the school was intended to become a model “educational center of the community,” replacing the downtown David Millard High School (1919) and West Asheville’s Hall Fletcher High School (1925), both of which, although relatively new, were seriously overcrowded. Within a few months, however, as pressures on the city budget mounted, the new building was closed (dates differ in several accounts) and students were divided and returned to David Millard and Hall Fletcher. The two were still functioning on that basis when the 1934 edition of The Hillbilly appeared.

The Hall Fletcher/David Millard partitioning likely resulted in some of the social/cultural re-stratification that had marked the pre-1929 opening of the new high school. David Millard was located on the east side of downtown, adjacent to some wealthy developed areas to the north (Charlotte Street, Grove Park, Lakeview Park, Montford). By contrast, Hall Fletcher was in West Asheville, a middle- and working-class area with lower housing prices and lower-level shopping. As high schools, they had drawn principally from these cultural/demographic areas, to which “home” areas the new Asheville High School’s temporarily displaced students were sent back. This sort of sociocultural/geographical (but not racial; all black students went to Stephens-Lee High School, opened in 1924) sectoring out was only part of the mix, however.

The term “gender-tracking” wasn’t in use at the time, of course, but cultural and institutional evidence of the pattern and practice was abundant: women and men were likely to end up on separate(d) tracks. Consider the combined 1934 Hall Fletcher/David Millard group photograph of the Torchlight Society (the academic “Honor Society”), for which Mary Neal was chosen, and of which she was elected Secretary.

Torchlight Society photo, Asheville High School, 1934
National Honor [“Torchlight”] Society, Asheville High School (1934). From annual The Hillbilly.

Of the 30 members in the Society (photo also shows perhaps six faculty members, five female and one male), 24 were women (80%), and 6 were men (20%). At each school, the voting majority (if that is how the choices were made) had chosen women for all 3 offices. Mary Neal Rudisill is at L in 2nd row.

Now compare this group with members and officers of the combined Student Council.

Student Council photo, Asheville High School, 1934
Asheville High School Student Council (1934). From annual, The Hillbilly.

There were 30 members (again, 4 or 5 faculty advisors appear in the photo). There were 9 women (30%) and 21 men (70%). Both presidents were men, and both secretaries were women. Only one man (Hal Randolph) was also in Torchlight. No Torchlight woman, and only two men (Randolph and Lee), had been elected to Student Council.

To further highlight the gender imbalance, consider the honor students:

Honor Students 1934
Asheville High School Hillbilly, 1934, p. 31.

Six of the eight Honor Students, including all four valedictorians and salutatorians, were women: Mary Neal Rudisill and Mary Katherine Gardner from the Hall Fletcher group, and Mary Anne Heyward (to whom we will return later in this post) and Ruth Frady from the David Millard group. Both student body presidents were men (accorded the upper outside corners in the array), however, and the other two women were included to honor their years of perfect attendance (hence their reliability in following the rules?).

Thus Mary Neal’s academic record could not have been more persuasive: she graduated as Valedictorian of the Hall Fletcher contingent. But socially and culturally, as she herself knew, her academic success did not lift her out of the lower (middling at best) social/cultural sector.

That that was the case was vividly and embarrassingly evident in Asheville’s prime cultural event of the year–its huge Rhododendron Festival. Wistfully, my mother told me several times over the years that a beguiling dream for her (shared by many a young Asheville woman) was to be chosen as a participant in the Rhododendron Festival.

Rhododendron Festival Court (1940)
Rhodeodendron Festival Court (1940). Pack Memorial Public Library.

One wonders whether maybe she hoped (consciously or not) that some of the senior-year magic evoked by her elegant layaway dress might be experienced from atop a parade float–or better, as a member of the Festival Court.

An Impossible Cultural Dream: the Rhododendron Festival

Pollock’s float, 1934 Rhododendron Festival. Photo by E. M. Ball (ball1703), Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

Rhododendron Festival Precursor: Gala Week (1892)

As early as 1892, Asheville had staged a “Gala Week Festival,” featuring races (some on upscale Montford Avenue, some at West Asheville’s Sulpur Springs race course), shoots, tournaments, and firemen’s contests. “Hurrah for Gala Week!,” the Daily Citizen crowed in a full-column commentary in mid-July. Merchants were delighted by the increase in trade, and the street railway transported an “orderly crowd” of 23,000 people to the events. The first festival, the Daily Citizen confidently predicted, “will make next year’s Gala Week one of the greatest events the Old North State has ever known.”

Following the 1892 event the “Gala Week” term continued to be applied to numerous events of various sizes, lengths and types during the years The 1918 version was centered at the Asheville country club, featuring dances, bridge parties, luncheons, and elegant dinners at private residences. A turn toward a more upper class-linked gala week seems to have emerged in the early 1920s with the advent of an annual gala invitational golfing week event. More detailed documentation might demonstrate the class shift, but the general drift was evident.

Curiously, no extensive newspaper accounts of such an event appear again until 1921, when a citywide festival took place to raise money for chimes to honor soldiers killed in World War I. The Asheville Citizen linked it to the original Gala Week, however, gushing that it “resembled the scene of a world famed carnival . . . [with] visitors’ gay-colored costumes . . . under a sparkling array of electric lights.” A festival week “has come to Asheville to stay,” the writer said; there were plans “to make it a permanent feature in the Land of the Sky, and on a larger scale each year.” Merchants (e.g., Whitlock’s Clothing House, corner of Main and Eage Streets) signaled their enthusiasm in Gala Week Announcements in the newspapers.

The grand parade included units predictive of those that became more familiar with the Rhododendron Festival a half-dozen years later: local businesses, clubs (Kiwanis, Elks, Civitan, Rotary, Shriners), women’s organizations (hospital nurses, Business and Professional Women, YWCA), Boy Scouts, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and Confederate soldiers, city schools groups, and others. Booths, musical performances, a street dance, clowns, and other attractions lined the road leading to the Biltmore Estate.

But except for the 1921 Biltmore Estate-related venue, the 1892 Gala Week Festival was small and home-grown compared to the more elegant, grander, ostentatious, tourism-linked Rhododendron Festival that appeared in 1928, just short of the top of the wild roller coaster ride of the 1920s to the top of the speculative, bond-funded development boom (and 1930 crash). 

The Rhododendron Festival, 1928ff.

Virtually all historical narratives of Asheville from 1928 through the 1930s attend to the Rhododendron Festival, and it has received renewed critical attention in recent years–in Matthew Blaylock’s “Rhododendron Queens: Elite Women and the Creation of Class in Western North Carolina” (2015) and Brent McKnight’s 2016 thesis, “Festival Tourism: Advertising the Western North Carolina Tourist Industry Through Cultural Performance.”

McKnight emphasized the Miami origin of the model for the Rhododendron Festival. In 1926, Miami (styling itself “The Fir White Goddess of Cities”), experiencing a phenomenal real estate and tourism boom similar to Asheville’s, staged an elaborate, hopefully tourism-boosting “Fiesta of the American Tropics” with street dances, parades and floats, and pageants. To the Asheville Chamber of Commerce it seemed like a good idea, so they hired the Miami Chamber’s manger Fred L. Weede and brought him to Asheville to try to replicate Miami’s festival. Which he promptly set about doing.

Blaylock laid out the details as they emerged in Asheville: Organized by civic and business elites and the Junior League, the 1931 event drew 50,000 visitors from as far away as Chicago.  It took place in a magical, rhododendron-bedecked “mystical kingdom,” set in a “gay, delightful,” hillbilly-cleansed region. It embodied Asheville’s “every bit as good as your city, thank you very much” swagger, based partly on its rapid 1920s growth and its stock of iconic buildings –Vanderbilt’s French chateau Biltmore House (1895), Guastivino’s St. Lawrence basilica (1905), E. W. Grove’s imposing Grove Park Inn rock pile (1913), and Art Deco architect Douglas Ellington’s lavish residences and public buildings.

St. Lawrence basilica (1905), Rafael Guastavino
St. Lawrence basilica (1905). Designed and built by Rafael Guastavino. Photo by E. M. Ball (ball0973), Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

The whole Rhododendron Festival agenda and its splashy iconography, Blaylock observed, were embodied in the (always high-born) Rhododendron Queen, “based on two prevailing national symbols of elite womanhood . . . the British aristocratic lady and the southern belle or debutante.”

Forty seven National Broadcasting system stations broadcast from the “magical kingdom” in 1935, Blaylock noted. But it was too late, it turned out: the city had already gone belly up in 1930–beyond rescuing by rhododendron queens in their magical kingdom.  Then war came, and the rhododendron wilted in 1942.

Mary Neal’s Chances and the 1934 Festival

To assess Mary Neal Rudisill’s actual chances of participating in the Rhododendron Festival at the end of her senior year in 1934, I sought details on that year’s festival: Who was in charge of it? Who decided what was to happen? What were the defining events, where were they held, and who could attend? And who (chosen by whom, exactly) were the young women and men who actually turned up in the royal court, attended the elegant social functions related to the festival, and rode on the floats?

Other finer-grained details from my inquiries can be added to Blaylock’s account. The festival came initially out of a November 1927 Chamber of Commerce meeting, quickly drew enthusiastic public support, and became an annual event under the Chamber’s guidance, with design, technical, and logistical support by the Asheville-based Harrington-Russell Festivals company, producers of similar pageants and festivals elsewhere in the South.

The 1934 festival continued the main features of previous ones. The program featured some large public events and tours: the Murphey Brothers circus (replacing the more modest “carnival” of previous years), a parade with elaborate floats, a Baby Parade, a Dog Parade, a Carnival Parade “with grotesque figures,” and the Rhododendron Pageant (with “a cast of several hundred persons”). Although centered in Asheville, the Festival drew participating groups (and a few of the 46 scheduled parade floats) from nearby towns, and there were expansive plans to make it “a Western North Carolina event.”

Portions of the Festival were designed to appeal to the broad public. The Harrington-Russell company’s design for the 1934 pageant shared popular aspects of newspaper comics, B-grade movies, radio soap operas, and tabloids. Its scenes would include, announced the Asheville Citizen about a month before the event,

a prehistoric stone age scene . . . which will flash back more than 400,000 years to show primeval man and animal . . . [staged by] “persons from Saluda”; a Roman chariot race; a genuine gypsy carnival . . . divided into three Gypsy dances . . . age-old sorrow, never-ending trail, and the cry of the gypsy fiddlers; a dramatization of Cinderella . . . with an ensemble of Girl Scouts; “the flight of demoniacs” . . . and an “orgy of demons” scene staged by the Franklin Boy Scouts; the burning hurdles horse act . . . and the propitiation of the gods . . . [which] will include wild dancing, flaming fire, and a monster-idol.  Miss Pauline De Youngs . . . will be offered as a sacrifice . . . staged by persons from Weaverville.

Miss De Young’s post-pageant fate was not reported, but a borderline salacious article some days later offered scandalous details about the monster-idol segment:

a big prehistoric monster in a cave man scene . . . [who would] snort and blow smoke from his mouth and paw down [sic] a favorite cave woman . . . [who] will be rescued by a suitor . . . [and] an ancient temple idol of monster proportions . . . in  a scene depicting savage sacrifice rites . . . [and] savage . . . dance ceremonies.

Lavish and arresting as the public events were advertised to be, and as fulsomely as the public was urged (almost as a civic responsibility, one gathers) to attend them, the socially and culturally legitimizing focus of the Festival lay at the top of the sociocultural pyramid.

When the closely-guarded secret of the King and Queen of the 1934 festival, chosen by (significantly, an unnamed committee) was announced in the Asheville Citizen-Times on May 20 (front page, above-the-fold, top center) ), their credentials were impeccable.

They were Queen Myra Peyton Lynch and King Grove Seely:

Miss Lynch, a new member of the Asheville Junior League, is the daughter . . . of Dr. and Mrs. J. M. Lynch, of No. 1 St. Dunstan’s Road. . . . graduate of St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines school here, St. Mary’s junior college, Raleigh . . . and has studied at the University of North Carolina . . . . She was a lady of the royal Rhododendron court in the 1931 festival.

Mr. Seely, associated with the Morris Plan bank here, is the second son of Mr. and Mrs. Fred L. Seely, of “Overlook” on Sunset Mountain.  He attended the Asheville School and Yale University, from which he . . . graduated in 1932.

The elite markers were numerous and unmistakable: The Junior League was composed of elite women. Dr. and Mrs. Lynch conveyed elevated economic and social status. His office was in West Asheville, but a St. Dunstan’s Road home address carried more weight.

1 St. Dunstan's Rd. home of 1934 Rhod Fest Queen
Home of 1934 Rhododendron Queen Myra Lynch, 1 St. Dunstan’s Rd. Gable with full fan light probably was the original front. End with chimney would then have been the right end, balanced by one on the opposite end, before apparent extension of house to left. The recently added entrance on the corner beyond the chimney probably accounts for the building’s current Sterling Street address. Sterling intersects St. Dunstan’s at this corner. Photo 2019 by Derek T. Whisnant.
St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines
St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines College, Asheville, ca. 1913. P077, Durwood Barbour North Carolina Postcards Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill

St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines was the city’s elite Catholic school for women.

The main campus of UNC had only recently (1932) begun to admit women–presumably those who could afford the modest tuition and had guidance in applying. And “a lady of the royal court” was, well, a lady of the royal court.

Grove Seely was named Grove because his enterprising father, Fred Loring Seely (1871-1942), a New Jersey native, had joined E. W. Grove’s St. Louis pharmaceutical company, helped to develop its enormously profitable Dr. Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic (of which the key ingredient was quinine) in 1887, made a lot of money, married Grove’s daughter Evelyn in 1898, and moved to Asheville in 1912. There he supervised the building of the world-class Grove Park Inn (in record time, working 700 men and 400 mules in shifts around the clock).

Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic
Fisherman and Farmer, January 11, 1895, p. 3.

Seely’s Asheville home, the Gothic castle-like “Overlook” (popularly called “Seely’s Castle”), visited frequently by national notables, was also a repository of classical music manuscripts and early printed books.

Overlook [Seely’s Castle] (1920). Wikimedia.

He sent his son Grove to the elite college-preparatory Asheville School for Boys (founded in 1900 on a 276-acre campus west of town) and then to Yale. He later became a generous benefactor of the city and its institutions.

Hence Grove Seely’s and Myra Lynch’s elite credentials were clear indicators of the class position and cultural tone both intended and cultivated by those who designed and controlled the Rhododendron Festival. There were many clues (and overt statements) of that in the nearly three months of almost daily newspaper coverage that preceded the Festival.

Not surprisingly, the most important Festival events required an invitation and/or a paid ticket: a by-invitation-only Grand Military Ball featuring the new, elaborately uniformed, Rhododendron Brigade (in which “membership  . . . shall be by invitation only” and membership rosters “shall be kept secret”), the rooftop Jester’s Revel and Ball at the Grove Arcade, the Coronation of the King and Queen, and numerous other elegant private dances, receptions and meals.

As the June 10-14 dates of the Festival approached, more and more of the upper class-linked details were announced to the public. The “entire interior . . . [0f] the tobacco warehouse” was to be elaborately decorated for the coronation program. The 70-member court was to include out-of-state sponsors wearing gowns “in the period of Charles the First of England . . . in the colors of the states represented.” Even black gift-bearing slaves were added to the romantic mix. After sponsors were formally presented at the coronation ball:

a gentleman of the court will summon the slaves of the provinces represented, and each will bear a huge basket filled with the most noted product of his country. Among the offerings will be Georgia peaches, Louisiana sugar cane, Florida oranges and other state specialties.

And lest any officially designated state sponsor should turn up at an elite event improperly attired, they were advised that a ” big wardrobe” would be required:

the sponsors’ gowns . . . will be fashioned after those worn by women in the court of Charles I and Charles II, 1640-1660 . . . . The costumes will consist of a satin gown, a taffeta train, and a fancy headdress [representing] the state flower [a bouquet of which will be carried by the sponsor]. Both the gown and train will be hand-painted in the colors of the state flower. With a paneled front, the gown will have a lace collar and cuffs, a low neck, a fitted waist, and will be fanned from side to side by farthingales under the skirt.

It was, withal, a rigorous and punctilious set of specifications that might indeed have required official state backing (and money) to bring into being.

Ultimately, then, taking into account the actually rather broad cultural and class spectrum of festival events, what chance did a young woman of Mary Neal’s class/cultural position have of gaining some sort of honored berth in the Rhododendron Festival? Practically none. She did not have educated and well-positioned parents. She did not live in an imposing house or favored neighborhood. She could not possibly have afforded the

163 Euclid Blvd., West Asheville
163 Euclid Blvd., West Asheville. Rudisill family’s rented residence, 1932 (during Mary Neal’s early high school years). Google Maps image, 2018. Rear extension probably added after 1932.

required wardrobe. Nor would her work and school schedule have allowed her to attend the associated “invitation only” events.

In sum, it seems highly unlikely that her name would have been seriously considered by the “secret committee(s?) that determined who was in and who was not.

Whether she was able to watch the parade from the curb, or go to the circus, or put on her layaway dress and buy a $1.00 ticket for the public dance at the tobacco warehouse (“Laurel Pavilion”), we do not know.

Hence Mary Neal realized one of her two dreams (to be a top student). Another (the Rhododendron Festival) came to nothing. But what about the third one?

The Parallel (and Perhaps Not Impossible) Dream: Go To College

Mary Neal Rudisill's entry in The Hillbilly (1934), p. 24.
The Hillbilly, Asheville High School Annual (1934), p. 24

Mary Neal’s diploma was dated May 18, 1934. For years, she had hoped to find a way to go on to college. Everything about her academic record predicted that she would be able to do that.

With diploma in hand, she tried to think of who might help her find a way (and the money) to go. Her parents neither had the money nor knew how to help.

I just didn’t have any guidance at all as far as going to school was concerned. I remember feeling greatly disappointed to know that my education would have to stop and I would not be able to go on. It was a real heartbreak to me to know that I couldn’t go on like the other bright children in the class.

Looking for the Money to Go

On a sunny afternoon during Mary Neal’s high school years, Pierce donned his (no doubt only) gentlemanly dress suit and fedora for a photograph with his stylishly dressed daughter (perhaps taken by Pearl with their Brownie box camera–the only one I ever knew them to have).

Kodak Brownie Camera, ca. 1900
Brownie box camera by Kodak. Introduced in 1900, when it sold for $1.00. Fixed focus, single shutter speed. Took 10 photos. Wikimedia.
Mary Neal Rudisill and Pierce Rudisill, ca. 1930
Mary Neal and Pierce Rudisill, ca. 1930-32, probably in Asheville.

The image captured by the Brownie bespoke grace and charm, but also a hope that proved to lie achingly beyond their circumstances. What Pierce actually faced was years of little to no work, and dashed hopes of finding a place for his family in the Land of the Sky.

What faced his hard-working, determined and scholarly daughter was four years of moving from one rented house to another, of actually being the brightest in the class, but feeling only middling socially, and watching her college dream slowly slip away.

“My daddy’s biggest regret,” she told me, “was that he couldn’t send me to college when I got through high school.  He couldn’t have paid my bus fare.”

I asked whether any of her teachers offered to help. She said they had not. “They were doing well to hold onto their jobs in those days. They didn’t try to help young people like they do now.”

So that was that, it seemed at the time I talked with her. I didn’t know what else to ask. But rereading the interview transcript many years later, I was able to piece together some details to see that she and her family had indeed tried to find money for her to go.

As in years past, the enigmatic Dr. Patrick had come to mind again. Her mother wrote to him, she told me, asking “to borrow money . . . to send me to school, but he wouldn’t . . . said he didn’t have it.” Trying to engage with the doctor again also had a down side beyond

L. N. Patrick office advertisement
Gastonia Gazette, November 16, 1920, p. 7

being denied help. It raised painful memories and feelings from the still unresolved adoption saga. Once when the family went to Gastonia to visit the Rudisill relatives, Mary Neal recalled,

I think it was during the time when we were trying to find some money for me to go away to school, . . . I went up to [Dr. Patrick’s] office and tried to talk to him, and I asked him point blank who my parents were, and he said he couldn’t tell me. . . . [He] just said “I will assure you they were one of the finest families in Gastonia.” So, that’s as far as I ever got.

What about the extended Rudisill and Fox families? There was clearly no money on Pierce’s side, but there was some among Pearl’s brothers:

All of [my mother’s] brothers and sisters married better than she did, had more [than we did]. They didn’t marry upper class or anything, but they all had plenty, and I think she always just felt sensitive about it because Pierce had such a hard time making a living. . . . [Her three brothers] all . . . educated their children. She thought maybe one of them would help me a little to go to college, but they didn’t . . . They had all they could do to help their own.

By the time I interviewed her years later, Mary Neal didn’t recall many details, but said one of them “got into mill work and became a mill superintendent.” Another became “head of the power and light company in Hickory. The third “was just an automobile mechanic, but he always had a good job and they sent both of their children to college. All the nieces and nephews went to college but me.”

“I can remember,” she said with both pleasure and pain,

visiting Aunt Lula and Uncle Lon and their two children David and Claude. They lived in Charlotte . . . with Grandpa and Grandma Fox and he had inherited some money. They had a nice home in Charlotte. We used to visit there a couple of weeks every summer. That was the highlight of my summer to get to go to Charlotte and visit with them and then we’d go to Gastonia and visit.

There was, it became clear, no college money to be had.

But what about her own teachers–the majority of whom were women? How had they managed to go to college? Where? Might their experience have suggested a possible way to go about it?

Women Teachers and Women’s Colleges

Women made up somewhat more than half of the faculty at Asheville High School in the early 1930s–about 30 out of nearly 50. And virtually all had college degrees, so it could be done. My mother’s Latin teacher (all the way through Latin VII) Louise Agatha Wilson, Head of the Foreign Languages Department, had gotten a B. A. at the University of North Carolina and an M.A. from Smith College. Her science teacher Lucile Mercer had a B.S. from George Peabody College for Teachers. “She was the one” my mother recalled, “who told me to hold up my head; if I didn’t, nobody else was going to.”

There had been opportunities for women students to go to college in Asheville for a very long time. In various guises and under various names, Asheville Female College had operated since 1835, but closed in 1901. Many of Mary Neal’s teachers had gone to state public universities (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Carolina,Tennessee, Texas, Virginia). Others went to North Carolina College for Women (later UNC-Greensboro), or private colleges and universities scattered widely across the eastern United States (Agnes Scott, Boston University, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Columbia, Cornell, Depauw, Duke (which opened its Women’s College in 1930), Eastman School of Music, McGill, Ohio Wesleyan, Randolph-Macon Women’s College, Syracuse, University of Cincinnati, Winthrop).

A few Asheville High School teachers had gotten at least part of their education at Asheville Normal and Teachers College (1887-1944), which had become a four-year institution in 1926. And there was two-year Biltmore College (1929), which came out of the merger of Buncombe County Junior College (1927) and the College of the City of Asheville (1928).

Asheville Normal
Asheville Normal School (1887). The Asheville Normal School and Collegiate Institute changed names and functions numerous times since predecessor institutions had first appeared in the 1830s. This building may or may not have still been extant in 1934. The automobile in front appears to date from the 1920s. Ewart M. Ball photograph (N1366), Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

Whether Mary Neal considered going to Asheville Normal or Biltmore College is unknown. At the time, she could have gone to the former for about $215 per year ($3900 in 2019 dollars). By continuing to live with her parents and working at Efird’s, she might have been able to manage it. I do not recall ever hearing that possibility (or any other) mentioned. A sharp irony lay in the fact that–as she told me in the interviews–a major reason her family had moved to Asheville in 1923 was that Pierce hoped to secure a construction job at Asheville Normal. But if he had, like most such work it would not have lasted long.

A Long Silence and the Way Forward: Grace Under Pressure

The silence that descended over this interval of my mother’s life was not broken until I interviewed her a half-century later. Its possible causes began to fall into alignment after I came upon a few digitized records, reread the interviews (and recalled about the layaway dress, which I had long since forgotten), learned the dates of the junior-senior banquet, of graduation, and of the marriage, and began to piece these and a few other bits together.

As that happened, it slowly dawned upon me that the silences (including that no wedding anniversary had to my knowledge ever been mentioned or in any way celebrated in our house, and I never had seen any wedding pictures) perhaps had something to do with the precipitous marriage (which I mentioned at the outset of this post). Here are a few documentable facts:

Mary Neal’s junior-senior banquet took place (as the Asheville Citizen-Times had announced), on May 4, 1934. Whether she and John Whisnant (with whom she had been in a relationship for some time–to some aspects of which I will return in a later post) had attended it (either separately or together), I do not know. Graduation was on May 18th.

JKW photo 1931
John Keenan Whisnant, Asheville High School senior year annual photograph, 1931.

According to the Madison County marriage register, on August 26 the two took a short train ride to Marshall and were married by Justice of the Peace Lee Bryan in a brief ceremony witnessed by John’s brother-in-law B. C. Boone. Their first child was born 5 1/2 months after that, or 9 months and 5 days after the banquet.

The arrival of an unplanned child at this juncture, it seems reasonable to suppose, would almost certainly have been accompanied by self-blame (however undeserved), embarrassment, frustration and regret, proceeding partly from her (consequently) foreclosed dream of going to college. Her parents, moreover, would likely have been deeply disturbed.

My intent is not in any way to blame or judge Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant for any part of the sequence. She had worked hard, been an exemplary student, paid much of her own way while helping her Depression-strapped family, surmounted a daunting array of social deficits and challenges, and (following one determined teacher’s advice) held her own head up, despite the odds.

Looming near the center of her dilemma was the unplanned pregnancy. What were the odds that it could that have been avoided? I have no information on that in general, but one factor was indisputably involved:

How Available Was Birth Control (or Not), to Whom, and For How Much?

Whatever factors were involved, for Mary Neal Rudisill, this was an “if only” juncture. And in 1934, birth control was a central “if only” factor. During the entire year, the Asheville Citizen-Times published only three items on contraception, all during the October meeting of the state Medical Society. One of them urged plaintively that “the medical profession [pay] greater attention to the matter of contraception.” But since only two contraceptives were in use at the time, neither of them very accessible, affordable or reliable, paying “greater attention” had a long way to go.

Condoms (although notoriously unreliable and stringently opposed by the Catholic church) had been issued to the U.S. military during World War I. Diaphragm production began in the U.S. in 1925. Unfortunately the Comstock laws (1873) banning “trade in and circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use”–obscene and immoral use being interpreted broadly–effectively prevented any legal access to either. During all of 1934, the Asheville Citizen-Times mentioned condom not at all, and diaphragm only 10 times, all of the latter having to do with the then-desired effects of women’s girdles in flattening the diaphragm. 1

What information or devices local doctors may have been providing privately at the time to women is not discernible, but it is likely that knowledge about birth control and access to services were linked to class and culture, as they continue to be to this day. From her own socioeconomic and cultural position, it is unlikely that Mary Neal had such information or access.

She was far from alone. By focusing on a single couple, Linda Cuffman’s recent thesis was able to examine carefully the barriers even a “socioeconomically privileged” couple (“Sallie” and “Arthur”) faced in dealing with “issues of contraception” at precisely the time Mary Neal (emphatically not so privileged) faced her own frightening dilemma.2

A brief précis will sharpen this dilemma for countless women of the time. Sallie was a student at North Carolina College for Women (later UNCG); slightly older Arthur managed a department store in Reidsville. Although educated, urbane, and well-off, they were ignorant about contraception.

In a series of remarkably candid letters (1933-1934), the pair discussed a forbidding and demeaning thicket of constricting public attitudes, enforced silence, Comstockian legal strictures, commercial barriers (drugstores sequestered anything having to do with “feminine hygiene” behind barriers) and professional medical connivance (the American Medical Association waited until 1937 to remove its objection) that frustrated their efforts to secure information about and access to birth control for family planning purposes–which they insisted was their right.

Searching for alternate paths, Sallie asked her sister, a nurse, but she didn’t know anything useful. Doctors’ manuals on women’s health avoided the topic. Even the remarkably frank Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living: Some Things that All Sane People Ought to Know About Sex Nature and Sex Functioning; its Place in the Economy of Life, its Proper Training and Righteous Exercise (1922) that Arthur borrowed (clandestinely) from a friend, although full of advice about how to get pregnant, contained nearly nothing on how to avoid it.

Ten days before the wedding, Sallie (accompanied by her mother and sister, to prove she was a “respectable” rather than “promiscuous” woman), arranged an appointment with a

Johnson’s Drug Store, Pack Square, Asheville Citizen, April 9, 1936, p. 21

doctor at Duke University Hospital. He fitted her, it seems, with a Holland-Santos diaphragm (“most expensive . . . on the market”) and gave her a prescription for the required Koromex Jelly (available in other regions and urban areas by 1931, but apparently not in Asheville until 1936). Some ads included the adjectives “marriage” and/or “vaginal,” but even then, nothing indicating use for contraception. Sallie communicated the news to Arthur, although euphemistically, for fear that her letter would be intercepted by Comstockian postal censors.

Crucially, then, Mary Neal’s much less than well-off circumstances offered her neither money for college, nor experienced mentors, nor other resources that might have protected her and suggested a way ahead. That a curtain of silence descended over these aspects of her young life is in no way surprising.

Post-High School Years

MNW 1934 Hillbilly
Mary Neal Rudisill, The Hillbilly (1934), p. 24.

As a planned later post will explain, the challenges Mary Neal faced after high school were more numerous and rigorous than those that had preceded them.

But when her first child was born, she still looked like her yearbook image.

Rudisill g-mother, Pierce, MN and Richard
Grandmother Rudisill, Pierce, Mary Neal and first son. Ca. June 1935. Family collection

By the time she was 23 (and had been out for 5 years), she was a mother to three boys, and another was yet to come. With no money to hire domestic help, she shopped, bathed boys, sewed clothing, washed load after load of clothes in a washing machine that had seen its better days, hung them on the line to dry, mixed Argo starch cubes in water for collars and cuffs, and ironed them all with a dry iron.

Mary Neal and 3 boys, ca. 1940
Mary Neal (ca. age 24) and three sons, born (L to R) 1935, 1939, and 1938. Photo probably by John K. Whisnant, ca. 1940.

In this 1940 photograph, some of the soft gentleness of her high school head shot lingered, but darkened (how could it not have been?) by what Merle Haggard later called “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”

Somehow in the middle of it all, she cleaned house, cooked and baked, and put countless meals for six people on the table. She made clothing, birthday cakes, Christmas for us all, and even served us (despite her prior disdain) “proper pineapple salads.” She volunteered in school rooms and the PTA, made sure we polished our shoes for church, and–late at night–sewed the badges neatly on our Boy Scout uniforms.

Not many years later, as her second son, I developed a sense that her experience had hurt her, that in some ways it was continuing to, and that I should try to help her with what had always been treated as “women’s work.” It was too early yet for the term feminism, but not too early for me to begin trying to assuage her hurt in small ways. That nascent awareness became (and remains) a vivid part of my experience, on which the handwritten chore schedules she taped to the backs of our bedroom doors are still inscribed.

Meanwhile, Mary Neal kept her silence about the dreams that had not come to be. If there ever was an example of “grace under pressure” (to borrow Ernest Hemingway’s phrase), she embodied and practiced it.

It recent years, I have been unable not to ponder what might have been had some things been otherwise for her. Had the pregnancy not occurred, might she have continued to live with her parents and gone to Asheville Normal or Biltmore College, as a few of her own teachers had? Or if Asheville had recovered more quickly, and Pierce had found a steady job? Or if some benefactor, or a scholarship she might have been eligible for had turned up? No one can know, of course, but while researching and writing this post I made a serendipitous discovery that offered possible clues.

The Other Valedictorian and the Charleston Heywards

Flat Rock historical marker P-45. Erected 1954.
Flat Rock historical marker P-45. Erected 1954. Does not mention enslaved and free black workers who built houses, planned and maintained landscaping, and worked as inside servants in the manions of many of the transplanted Lowcountry elite.

While working on this blog post, I also was doing some contract research and writing for the National Park Service on the Carl Sandburg National Historic Site in Flat Rock NC. Because the main house at the site had been built with slave labor in 1839, and black people (enslaved and free) continued to work at the 260-acre site from then until the mid-1940s, the NPS contract focused upon their history.3 That history was inseparable from Flat Rock history, but had been almost entirely unattended to by the Park Service site for a half-century after it was established in 1968.

Since that history embraced not just the single 1839 site, but also adjacent ones, doing the work for NPS required me to learn about rice planters and other elites of the South Carolina Lowcountry, and about the century-long diaspora that had transported many of them into western North Carolina. And more specifically, into Henderson County and Flat Rock, where had bought extensive lands, built lavish houses and estates, and thrown grand parties.

In the late 1940s, the area had been proudly (but inappropriately) dubbed “Little Charleston-of-the-Mountains,” and declared a model of redemptive high-end culture for (culturally benighted, they were understood to be) local mountain whites and blacks.

This research taught me many names of elite Lowcountry families that became (and remained) prominent in Flat Rock: Alstons, Blakes, Heywards, Izards, Lowndses, Manigaults, Memmingers (C. G., whose enslaved workers helped build the 1839 house, and who was later the first treasurer of the Confederacy), Middletons, Molyneauxs, Pinckneys, Rhetts, Rutledges, Trenholms, and many others.

Meanwhile, working on this present post carried me back repeatedly to the 1934 Asheville High School Hillbilly annual: to see if I recognized any family names of my own classmates there from 20 years later; to check on the gender distribution of student body officers and honor students (see above); to map the activities students were involved in; and perhaps to find a few clues about their socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

These small inquiries proved illuminating–some differently and more specifically than I had anticipated. Trumpet player Ralph Middleton had been a stellar musician. Since he had transferred to Asheville High School from Hendersonville High School, I wondered if he was related to the Lowcountry Middletons–Alicia, Emma, Harriott, De Lancey, several Marys, Rebecca, Septima, Susan, and yes, Ralph)–who had moved into Flat Rock in the 1830s and thereafter, and maintained a lively correspondence with their Lowcountry relatives (later published by Robert Cuthbert).

Ralph Middleton, p.20
Ralph Middleton photo, Mary Neal Rudisill’s copy of Asheville High School Hillbilly (1934), p. 20.
Ralph Middleton biographical entry, Asheville High School Hillbilly (1934), p. 20

I also learned to my surprise that he was the Ralph Middleton who 20 years later became my own band director at Sand Hill High School (out in Buncombe County), and after a year or so made me student director, as he himself had been. Since he must have seen my mother frequently at our concerts, I have often wondered if they ever reminisced about their Asheville High School class of 1934.

First Sand Hill School Band (1950). David on far right in first row with tenor saxophone, which previously he had never heard (or heard of). Instruments (but no uniforms) were bought by the school, so we marched in shirt sleeves and maroon pants and ties at football games on chilly mountain evenings. Whisnant family collection.
Ralph Middleton, SHHS 1954
Ralph Middleton, Sand Hill High School Voice of the Hills (1954)

New band uniforms
New band uniforms (ca. 1952), of which we were inordinately proud.

During one of my many browsings through the 1934 Hillbilly, I also noticed that the biographical notes on Mary Anne Heyward and Mary Neal Rudisill were strikingly similar.

Both entries described their intelligence and accomplishments with awe and incredulity. Both were women. Both were named Mary. Both had been active in student organizations and officers of classes and groups. Both were honor students. And both emerged as Valedictorians.

Mary Anne Hayward_Hillbilly
Biographical note in The Hillbilly (1934), p. 15.
Biographical note in The Hillbilly (1934), p. 24.
MNW 1934 Hillbilly
Mary Neal Rudisill, The Hillbilly (1934), p. 24.

Unusual, maybe, but the parallels were evident. Additionally, the Park Service work I was doing at the time drew special attention to Mary Anne’s last name. Was she possibly Mary Anne of the Charleston Heywards? I decided I would try to find out. If she was, then some other facts might be discovered that would point up contrasts between a working class student and one who came from wealth.

From the Lowcountry to Asheville

If Mary Anne came to Asheville (why? when?) from the Lowcountry, might she have descended from the fabulously wealthy rice planter Daniel Heyward (1746-1809)? By the 1770s, as William Dusinberre documented in Them Dark Days (2000), a study of slavery and rice planters, Daniel owned 1,000 slaves and his son Nathaniel inherited 200 of them and two rice plantations before marrying Henrietta Manigault, from another wealthy slaveholding family. Jointly, the Heywards and Manigaults shared in the enormous rice planter wealth that washed back and forth across these and other intermarried family systems. By the time Nathaniel Heyward died in 1851, leaving a $2 million dollar fortune, he owned multiple plantations and 2,340 enslaved human beings.

But whether Mary Anne was descended from the Daniel/Nathaniel line, or even from any of the Lowcountry Heywards (by whatever lineage), was far from clear. That some of the Heywards had eventually joined the Charleston-to-WNC and Flat Rock diaspora is indisputable in the record, however.

Most importantly, one of the earliest Lowcountry founders of the community, Charles Baring (a partner in the sprawling Barings Bros. Bank), came in the late 1820s with his (already “many times married” says Henderson County historian Sadie Patton, some years-widowed, and by all reports endlessly flamboyant and melodramatic) wife Susan Cole Heyward (1764-1846), who had inherited rice-plantation wealth from husband #3.

Buying several thousand acres of local land and launching their Lowcountry-scale estate, the Baring cum Heyward family established themselves solidly in the mountains. Such Lowcountry families not only established themselves, but also intermingled in a complex geneological system In the mid-1880s, Alice Middleton was writing from Flat Rock to her sister Harriott Middleton in Charlotte about Charlotte (“Lottie”) Heyward Hanckel. Anne Louise (“Louly”) Heyward and nearly 20 other Heywards continued to turn up in a published collection of Flat Rock dwellers’ letters to their Lowcountry families and acquaintances. Playwright DuBose Heyward (of Porgy and Bess, 1935) and his wife Jane Screven Heyward, as well as other Heywards, owned houses in Flat Rock at various times.

So: had Mary Anne‘s own family come to Asheville by way of Flat Rock? If so, her life circumstances would likely have been far better than Mary Neal’s. I was not able to resolve that question until later, but I did discover early on that she had been born in Charleston. And being a Charleston Heyward (whatever her exact lineage or family circumstances) seemed to me likely to have had some import.

The most immediate questions were what happened to her after high school? And how (if at all) had her family’s standing (whatever it proved to be) affected the course of her life? What were her dreams, and to what extent were they fulfilled, as Mary Neal‘s were mostly not?

Not So Far Down the Road: Mary Anne Heyward’s Education and Career

From the most readily available sources on Mary Anne’s life and work after high school, one might conclude that she sailed smoothly through what would for the times have been a fairly conventional academic career. After a year at local (two-year) Biltmore College, she transferred to Duke University (which had accepted its first women students in 1930), where she received her A.B. in 1938 and M.A. in 1940. During World War II she married, divorced, married again, and had the first of three daughters.

For several years she worked as an instructor in English at universities in North Carolina, Connecticut, and New York before moving to Ohio, where she taught at three universities for nearly 20 years at the rank of Instructor (entry-level, “non-tenure track,” as we say these days) until she received her Ph.D. in medieval studies from Ohio State in 1965 (at the age of 47). She then moved to the University of Massachusetts as an Assistant Professor, and rose quickly through the ranks to Professor and head of her department before retiring in 1985 as a nationally recognized teacher, scholar and writer on women’s issues.4

While true to easily ascertainable facts, however, such telegraphic accounts elide key aspects of Mary Anne’s life.

The Heyward Family’s Story: From Charleston to Asheville (Before and After)

Fortunately, some months after I began working on this post, I was able to talk with two of Mary Anne’s daughters about her and their family’s history. I learned that their mother had in some ways had a rougher time of it than my tentative “well, she probably came from the Charleston elite” hypothesis suggested, or any neat after-the fact précis could convey. Some aspects of Mary Anne’s experience (e.g., unsteady work for her father, financial difficulties, straitened family circumstances, frequent family moves, working while going to school) were reminiscent of those Mary Neal also had dealt with.

The Heyward family, one of the daughters told me, had gone from “being rich to extremely poor” in Charleston after a “wicked uncle” several generations back who had taken an orphaned nephew to raise absconded with all their money. Times got so bad thereafter that some daughters had had to share shoes.

Nevertheless, the family continued to “have the sense that they should have [remained] rich.” The Heywards had owned slaves, after all–a fact which, by the time she was a student at Duke, recalled her daughter, Mary Anne realized “was a terrible legacy.” Her aged grandmother ended up living in an attic in Charleston, while some other relatives still lived on “the fancy streets.” Meanwhile, her grandfather moved to a sanitarium in Asheville in the 1920s in search of a cure for his tuberculosis.

Hence this particular Heyward family’s route ran not from wealth to wealth through Flat Rock and into Asheville, but from non-Heyward-like Charleston lives into one of its TB sanitariums.

By 1928, her daughter recalled, her parents had moved to Asheville, where they may have lived initially with her grandparents. After having to work while she was in high school (as did Mary Neal Rudisill), she attended Biltmore College for a year, and then went on to Duke University after a “rich friend” of her grandfather offered to pay her way–but only if she chose the pre-med curriculum.

She tried pre-med, but had a hard time. Used to getting good grades, and worried that she would fail organic chemistry, she became an English major, whereupon her benefactor stopped paying. To make ends meet, Mary Anne worked a half-dozen jobs (in the dining hall and elsewhere) to make ends meet. Despite her grade anxiety, she did so well in German that the university gave her a scholarship to the University of Heidelberg for the summer of 1937.

The Documentary Record

To fill in some gaps in what I had learned from Mary Anne’s daughters, I turned to some documentary sources (especially city directories and census data).5

In the 1920 census, 24 year-old William and Anne W Heyward were living in a rented house on Smith Street in Charleston, where he was an industrial lawyer in “general practice.” Daughter Mary Anne was 18 months old, and Virginia three months. The next census placed them in Asheville.

Heywards begin to turn up in Asheville city directories in 1925, when Julie Hayward took up residence at 62 Orange Street and got a job as stenographer with Chimney Rock Mountains, Inc. By the next year she was boarding at 236 Charlotte Street (the later location of the Jewish Community Center) and working at the Chamber of Commerce.

Mary Anne’s parents William and Anne arrived in 1927 and rented a two-story house at 133 Furman Avenue (near but not in Asheville’s early elite Albemarle Park community). No longer working as a lawyer, William got a job as sales manager for Western Carolina

133 Furman Avenue
133 Furman Avenue with later additioin at rear. Photo by David E. Whisnant (2019).
Albemarle Park (1905)
Entrance to Albemarle Park (1905). North Carolina Postcard Collection, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

Auto Club. About a year later, the couple moved a few blocks north to 5 Lennox Court Apartments (no longer standing), also bordering Albemarle Park. For perhaps two years (1929-1930) they lived at 3 Oak Park Road, south of Furman Avenue, and William worked as a salesman (apparently for Webb Motor Company).

3 Oak Park Road. Photo by David E. Whisnant (2019).

By 1931 they had moved back to 133 Furman Avenue, where they remained into 1935 (employment unknown, since city directories were not published in 1933 and 1934 ).

In the 1936 directory, Mary A Heyward (student) and her parents were again listed at 3 Oak Park, where by 1938 younger daughter Virginia was listed with them.

Despite some appearances, things were not going well for the Heywards. Although in the 1939 directory they were all still listed at the rented Oak Park Road house, the parents had been living apart for about two years–per their July 1941 Deed of Separation on file in Buncombe County. That document “reserved the right to file suit for divorce” at any time, and mentioned William’s right to “the portrait of me painted when I was a baby”–perhaps inadvertently verifying that when he was born in 1895 there was still enough wealth in his family to pay a portrait painter. Virginia was working as a secretary, and William had found work again as a (newly admitted to NC state bar?) lawyer.

It had been a rather unsettled and peripatetic 12 years for the family, and it wasn’t over yet. By 1940, only Ann (Ann W Mrs.) and her two daughters were listed at 3 Oak Park. William had a law office downtown on College Street, but was living at 135 Merrimon Avenue. The next year residences remained unchanged, but Mary Anne was no longer listed, having left for Duke University. The parental separation continued, it seems, at least through 1943. By 1944, no Heywards were listed in Asheville directories.

But beyond these clarifying family parameters, additional biographical details I was able to find for Mary Anne appeared to mostly confirm that whether or not her family was itself wealthy, her trajectory beyond high school carried her far. A Google search for Mary Anne produced nearly 300 results, including some newspaper articles containing clues to her family’s socioeconomic standing.

As early as May 1930, at age 12, she was studying dance at the Newton School. Prior to her senior year, she was able to attend the 1933 summer season at the Episcopal church’s Kanuga Lake camp at Hendersonville. A few days after graduation, she was chairperson for what appears to have been an elegant ball at the George Vanderbilt Hotel, sponsored by Trinity Episcopal Church’s Young People’s Service League.

Asheville Citizen-Times, May 6, 1934, C5.

The Heyward and Episcopalian church connection mentioned in the account of the ball checked out: The majority of wealthy Charlestonians who had trekked toward western North Carolina since the early 19th century had been Episcopalians–founders of one church after the other from the Lowcountry through middle and upcountry South Carolina, all the way into the mountains, where Charles Baring and his flamboyant wife built what became Flat Rock’s St. John-in-the-Wilderness Episcopal chapel around 1836.

What is also clear from the record is that following her high school graduation Mary Anne was able to enroll in local Biltmore College, where she extended her former scholarly success and activities.

In her first weeks, she was chosen as an associate editor of Bluets, the school magazine, for which she wrote short articles, a book review, poems, and a short story or two. Especially for a 17 year-old, her writing was thoughtful, graceful, rather polished. And some of it fell within the rubric of “progressive undergraduate opinion” announced on the title page.

Bluets title page, Jan. 1935
Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville. Digital copy by Ashley Whittle.
Bluets May 1935 contents
Table of Contents, Bluets, May 1935. Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville. Digital copy by Ashley Whittle.

Two Dreams: Asheville Rhododendron and Charleston Magnolias

Beyond Biltmore College and Duke University, as her professional biography (quoted above) makes clear, Mary Anne Heyward achieved a great deal more than Mary Neal Rudisill even imagined in her 18 year-old “maybe down the road somewhere” projections.

But even in her own comparatively privileged case, Heyward’s dream seemed to her in some ways truncated. One daughter recalled that even though her mother had finished her bachelor’s and master’s degrees by the time she was 22, and worked tirelessly to complete her PhD 25 years later, she “regarded herself as having had a checkered educational career . . . and because of the interruptions in her life not fully educated for the work she wanted to do.”

Paradoxically, one learns from Bluets, barely six months after she and her Mary Neal classmate and namesake graduated from Asheville High School, and while Mary Neal was hoping she might–despite the odds–be drawn into the fantasy Rhododendon Festival orbit, Mary Anne was writing rhapsodically about the Charleston myth that had impelled some of her (distant, one must be careful to note) kinspeople to join the Little-Charleston-of-the-Mountains diaspora.

Whatever family wealth there had been was long gone, and neither she nor her parents had been able to set up their own faux “Little-Charleston-in-the-Mountains” estate. The dream had lodged and stuck, nevertheless.

SC's Charleston piece in Bluet, Jan. 1935
Mary Anne Heyward, “South Carolina’s Charleston,” Biltmore College Bluet, January 1935. Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville. Digital copy by Ashley Whittle. Click to enlarge.

Much of the romantic language Heyward employed in her dreamlike evocation of Charleston had been in circulation since the late 19th century, and was especially evident during the 1930s (including in the wildly popular DuBose Heyward musical Porgy and Bess of 1935): magnolias, wrought iron gateways, “a proud old house . . . [whose] very age seems to assure its permanence and timelessness.” “Tiny fishing boats in the harbor . . . [were being] unloaded [by] simple fishermen” and wharves were bare at day’s end except for “a few dark stevedores . . . lazily singing at their work.” From a yacht party “gay voices and soft music” drift across the water, and along the Battery both “truly beautiful” old houses and ugly modern ones (“built since Lee surrendered”) seem “to be dreaming, drowsily recalling . . . the glory, the pride, and the sorrow of those who left their souls in the old city.” Charleston was, Mary Anne concluded, “A city rich in tradition, reflecting the now faded grandeur of the past . . . a people reminded of the past by its monuments, and clinging to the old regime with an unquestioning devotion, . . . a rare tradition of luxury and high-living, dear because it called for the sacrifice of all, . . . a proud city, arousing a fierce pity and an intense loyalty–this is Charleston.”6

On June 13, 1934, several weeks after Mary Neal and Mary Anne graduated from Asheville High School, the two Marys’ dreams merged. The Asheville Citizen ran a long article detailing a lavish Rhododendron [Festival] Week tea, at which the “ladies of the Court . . . paid courtesy” to the invited state sponsors.

From their immaculately appointed rooms in the Grove Park Inn, the ladies motored downtown to the George Vanderbilt Hotel, where the elegant tea table (“a real Rhododendron symphony of color”) gleamed with silver. South Carolina’s sponsor (each southeastern state sent one) was Julia Elizabeth McLaurin, “in green satin net with peach satin sash,” accompanied by her aunt/chaperone “in flowered crepe.” Following the pouring of tea they motored again to Overlook/”Seely’s Castle,” where King Grove Seely presided over a buffet supper “prior to the Grand Military Ball at Grove Park Inn.”

It wasn’t “dear”and “proud” Charleston itself, but it melded tantalizing elements of the Charleston Heywards, Susan Heyward Barings’s long-ago flamboyance, Flat Rock’s faux Little-Charleston-in-the-Mountains posturing, Mary Anne’s lingering Charleston fantasy, and Mary Neal’s fervent but frustrated dream of rising from “middle level” to lady of the court. Fortunately, they were both made of more durable and serviceable stuff.


Asheville Citizen and Citizen-Times, 1925-1935; Asheville city directories, 1925-1945; Matthew Blaylock, “Rhododendron Queens: Elite Women and the Creation of Class in Western North Carolina,” Appalachian Studies Association conference, 2015; Asheville Citizen (Sept. 24, 1937), “Large Crowd at Opening of Efird’s Store Here”; Asheville Citizen and Citizen-Times (1892-1940); Biltmore College, Bluets literary magazine (1935); Lawrence Fay Brewster, Summer Migrations and Resorts of South Carolina’s Low-Country Planters (1947); Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Linda Cuffman, “A Thoroughly Modern Courtship: Preparing for Marriage in the 1930s” (M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina, 2010); Robert B. Cuthbert (ed.), Flat Rock of the Old Time: Letters from the Mountains to the Lowcountry, 1837-1939 (2016); William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (2000); Gastonia NC city directories, 1931-1932; Grove Park Sunset Mountain Neighborhood, Grove Park Historic District (ca. 1990); Lou Harshaw, Asheville: Mountain Majesty (2007); H. Brent McKnight, Jr., Festival Tourism: Advertising the Western North Carolina Tourist Industry Through Cultural Performance in the Cherokee Indian Fair, the Rhododendron Festival, and the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (Honors thesis, UNC Chapel Hill, 2016); National Register of Historic Places, National Register nomination, “Asheville High School” (1996); Sadie Patton, The Story of Henderson County (1947); Richard D. Starnes, Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina (2005); Edward F. Turberg, “Douglas D. Ellington,” NCpedia (1986); John K. Whisnant, taped interview by David E. Whisnant, 1984; Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant, taped interviews by David E. Whisnant, July 12, 1986 and November 28, 1987; David E. Whisnant, Telephone interview with Margaret Ferguson (Nov. 27, 2018); Elaine Sanford Whisnant, genealogical research on Whisnant and Rudisill families.

  1. For more information, see Wikipedia entries on Condoms, Diaphragm (birth control), and the Comstock laws.[]
  2. See Linda Cuffman, “A Thoroughly Modern Courtship: Preparing for Marriage in the 1930s” (M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina, 2010.) Information for–and much of the language of–the following discussion comes from this thesis.[]
  3. The official NPS site may be found at Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site[]
  4. For more fine-grained detail on her career, see “Securing a Place for Women’s Stories,” Duke Magazine (March 2016) and “Mary Anne Heyward Ferguson” in Prabook.[]
  5. There are also a few scholarly sources, but for various reasons they lie beyond the scope of this post. Those interested might consult Margaret Belser Hollis et al. (eds.), Twilight on the South Carolina Rice Fields: Letters of the Heyward Family, 1862-1871 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), and a multi-part series by James B. Heyward, “The Heyward Family of South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 59 (3 and 4), July and October 1958.[]
  6. On DuBose Heyward, see South Carolina Encyclopedia. For the de- and re-romanticized history of Charleston from the end of the Civil War through (and especially during) the 1930s, see Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: The New Press, 2018).[]

One thought on “Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville

  1. Pingback: Every Marriage Is Two Marriages: John Whisnant and Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant's Early Years Together, 1934-1940 | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. WhisnantAsheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

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