Several previous posts have focused upon Asbury’s and Ella’s earlier lives and work, some key choices that faced them as they contemplated marriage (for more than a dozen years, it seems), and the general character of Asheville between 1900 (when he came) and 1907 (when she arrived).
What I did not address in these posts was the growing multicultural nature of Asheville (it had been biracial for its entire 100+-year history) and Asbury’s encounter with the racial, cultural, and other dynamics of the growing, bustling city where he had chosen to live and work. This post focuses on some of those change dynamics–partly by using Asbury as a lens.
Asbury’s pre-Asheville environment was mainly rural and agricultural (Golden Valley and Cane Creek in Rutherford and McDowell counties), small-town (Rutherfordton, Morganton and even smaller towns) and Methodist or Baptist (he was likely named for itinerant Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury). Asheville was a very different venue: its population in 1880 was only about 2,600; by 1900 it had quadrupled to just over 10,000.
Although Asbury had visited Asheville before, South Main street–at the time central to Asheville’s rapidly spreading business district–shaped his initial perspective upon it once he moved there. The city he found was biracial (black and white), multicultural (Protestants, Catholics, and Jews), modern in infrastructure, replete with new products for sale, and changing rapidly.
We begin with South Main Street, which led away from Court (later Pack) Square (which much streetcar traffic crossed). Upper South Main was the epicenter of Asheville’s rapidly changing racial and cultural complexion, as well as a merchandising center and a destination for growing numbers of tourists.
During his first seven years in Asheville, Asbury lived within a few blocks (first south, then west) of this area, and as a street railway conductor he passed through it repeatedly every day.
Bachelor Boarding on Asheville’s South Main Street, 1900-1901
During his seven years in Asheville before he married, city directories reveal, Asbury was a boarder. He rented a succession of rooms from his Rutherford County relatives John Sims (then working as a night watchman) and his wife Caroline (Asbury’s aunt, it appears). The first was at 281 South Main Street (later Biltmore Avenue).
South Main Street in 1900 offered a mix of business and residential property. The former predominated on the upper end, and the latter on the lower. The Sanborn insurance map of 1901 conveys the general character of the area:
Starting at center top, South Main begins at “Park” and “Court Square.” One block below, Eagle Street enters from the east. Below Eagle lie Market and Sycamore. Cross-referencing this map with the 1900 city directory (necessary because the map indicates only building uses, not owners or business names), more detail emerges:
Up toward the Square were Asheville Hardware, Asheville Paint and Varnish Co., Falk’s Music House, Perry’s Ice Cream Parlor, Singer Mfg. Co., John Alexander’s lumber company, and the Asheville Dray Co.
Other businesses seemed to cater to the tourist trade (the directory carried many display advertisements for
businesses in Atlanta–served regularly by the Southern Railway). At least four hotels offered rooms: the Arcadia, Eagle, Windsor and Swannanoa. Libations were on every hand at the Laurel Valley and Club saloons, Augusta Brewing Co., Boston Saloon, Acme Wine and Liquor, Union Liquor house, and Bonanza Wine and Liquor. The tantalizingly named Alibi Club was within a few doors of the Swannanoa and White Man’s bars.
For those who managed to remain sober and solvent, the Swannanoa Casino stood nearby.
An undertaker was conveniently close by.
More prosaic establishments included a grocery store, a pharmacy, the Christian Science Reading Room, the Masonic Hall, and quarters of the North Carolina State Band.
Below Sycamore Street (at No. 76), South Main became almost entirely residential, including the Sims house where Asbury first boarded. Married (*) couples lived in somewhat over half of these houses.
These general details confirm that South Main–whatever its racial or cultural configuration–was a bustling, dynamic example of syncretism, change and vitality. To provide a slightly more granular treatment of the area, I turn specifically to two racial/cultural groups.
Black South Main and Eagle Streets
Scattered among lower South Main residences were about a half-dozen marked as occupied by “colored” (c) families. But those few gave little hint of the strong and vibrant presence of blacks on the upper end of the street.
On the map above, the corner of Eagle Street and South Main (one block below the Square) is biracial and multicultural: besides an undesignated cobbler, there was a “Negro Restaurant,” and a “Chine[se] Laundry.”
Eagle Street itself was a major area for black businesses. The 1901 Sanborn map shows two restaurants, two barbers, a pool room, an undertaker, a drug store, a grocery, Asheville Supply & Fundary Co., and a “pressing club.”
Darin Waters’s 2011 Ph.D. dissertation mentions numerous black businesses reaching over a wider area, including Columbus Lipscomb’s tailor and dye shop on the Square (1896), Mountain City Mutual Insurance Company (ca. 1900), and other businesses (coal, kindling, groceries, funeral parlor) operated by the brilliant and entrepreneurial landowner and businessman Isaac Dickson, who owned almost an entire city block around his home in the Eagle, South Market, Sycamore and Valley Street area (at lower right on map). Many other black businesses were located throughout the area: barber shops, restaurants, construction companies, doctors, and insurance companies.
Turning south off Eagle is Market Street, and lying back to the right is “Negro Road,” below which are “Negro Dwellings.” The map inset at bottom right locates Valley Street, a black residential area.
Thus the black presence on and around South Main and Eagle streets was abundantly evident. That was thecase partly because of the concentrating effect of racial segregation and the consequent character and dynamics of the large residential and business area southeast of the South Main / Eagle Street intersection. But partly also because Asheville blacks had built the community over many decades. The Young Men’s Institute, after its completion in 1893, functioned as a cultural center, in which several businesses, a medical office belonging to Marcus W. Alston, the city’s first black physician, and a pharmacy were also located.
What is not evident, either on the map or in city directories (unless one already knows which names to look for), is that both North and South Main (and as time passed, other nearby streets as well) were also home to numerous Jewish-owned businesses run by Jewish families who began to move into Asheville in significant numbers after the railroad arrived in 1880.
Jewish South Main Street
Only within the past several decades has the perennially important Jewish sector of Asheville’s history and life begun to be examined. Most published histories of Asheville have given it short shrift.
John Preston Arthur’s Western North Carolina (1914) does not mention Jews. Foster Sondley’s Asheville and Buncombe County (1922) mentions only that an old building abandoned by Baptists “is now [no date; pre-1922] a Jewish synagogue.” The Van Noppens’s Western North Carolina Since the Civil War (1973) mentions Catholics in passing, but not Jews. Even former UNCA history professor (and first Director of the Jewish Cultural Center at UNCA) Milton Ready’s The Tar Heel State (2005) has only three brief references to Jews, and none within in his twenty indexed references to Asheville. Even Nan Chase‘s in many ways admirable Asheville: A History (2007), does not comment extensively on Jewish life–surprisingly, since she herself is Jewish.
Hence there is still no fully realized presentation and analysis of Jews in Asheville. A few regional and local parameters are available (I claim no competence personally) in the Institute of Southern Jewish Life‘s Asheville entry in their Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities:
- Congregations formed in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia by 1790.
- Wilmington had a few Jewish merchants by 1800.
- More Jews lived in Charleston in 1820 than in New York City.
- Many North Carolina Jewish merchants began as peddlers, supplied by Baltimore Bargain House, which would extend credit to them.
- First wave of Jews began to arrive in Asheville after the railroad came in 1880.
- A variety of businesses opened in succeeding years on Patton Avenue, Haywood Street, North and South Main, Broadway, and other streets in the core downtown area.
- First North Carolina congregation 1867; Asheville’s Beth Ha-Tephila founded 1891; Bikur Cholim (Beth Israel) founded 1896. Other Jewish organizations followed, 1907ff.
Some of the best recent, locally-focused work on Jews in Asheville has been done by Jan Schochet and Sharon Fahrer, whose The Family Store: A History of Jewish Businesses in Downtown Asheville, 1880-1990 appeared in 2008. More recently, Pack Memorial Public Library’s North Carolina Room has become a center for ongoing work. The voluminous archival materials in the Jewish Life in Western North Carolina collections at UNCA’s D. H. Ramsey Library include manuscripts, photographs, newspaper clippings, oral histories, business and family histories, and numerous links to other sources. From the work of Schochet and Fahrer, PMPL and others, some details are available for South Main (to which I limit myself here, although there were also Jewish business elsewhere):
For my purposes, newspapers and city directories have proved productive. Jewish-owned stores 1890-1911 included Asheville Shoe Company; Blomberg’s clothing and Bromberg’s liquor store; Bon Marché (#15; Lipinsky); Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop (#39), Goldsmith’s,
Fields’s and Fisher’s jewelry; two groceries (Kepler, Cooley), Goodman’s and Grossman’s dry goods, Guarantee Store; R. B. Zegier’s clothing store; Lubinsky’s Marble Hall (men’s clothing), NY Tailoring; Palais Royale (#17; Meyers); the Stoner Bros. Racket Store (#30; dry goods); Reiter’s candy store, Strauss European Hotel, Swartzberg millenary, and Whitlock’s dry goods and fancy goods. When Easter came around, the Racket Store advertised Easter clothing to its Christian clientele.Michalove’s IXL (“I excel”) store offered Christmas merchandise for its Christian clientele.
By the 1920s, some twenty-five Jewish-owned businesses were operating at various locations in Asheville., including Coleman Zageir’s Man Store (1922).
Through the decades, more than 400 of these businesses operated throughout downtown Asheville. Most were family owned, and many multiplied across two or three generations (as in the Blomberg and Michalove families).
No records are available to me that might shed light on how much Asbury (and later he and Ella) shopped at Jewish-owned stores. But since there were so many of them downtown, they could hardly have done otherwise.
After a year on South Main, Asbury moved to another boarding house the Simses operated at 37 N. French Broad (a few blocks east of Main), where he appears to have remained for four or five years (again with the Simses).
One-block long North French Broad had a very different character from South Main. French Broad Baptist Church stood on the corner of Patton Avenue, a few doors distant from the Sisters of Mercy’s St. Joseph Sanitarium. Between the two was the Sims house. A couple of doctors’ offices and a rooming house finished out the street.
About 1905-06, Asbury relocated to 144 (and later 172) South French Broad, each time with Sims and his (new) wife Hannah. Although these moves carried him some distance from the central business district, the biracial, multicultural mix that characterized South Main was increasingly evident in the city’s general demographic, business and cultural character. Jewish businesses were spreading on North Main Street, toward the west on Patton Avenue, and along Haywood Street.
Cultural Headlines from a Changing Asheville
By 1900, Asheville–ringed by incomparable mountains–had for a quarter-century been known as “The Land of the Sky.” And so it was in many respects: new products, new fashions, new technology, the latest in popular culture beguilingly in evidence in the newspapers, on marquees and storefronts, on postcards and in souvenir booklets.
But beneath the romantic, picturesque Land of the Sky (or, as here, “Switzerland of America”) image also roiled some social, cultural, economic, racial and political tensions–as well as efforts to bridge, work across, or get beyond them. Many Asheville workers (carpenters and joiners, painters, retail clerks, stonemasons, bricklayers, plasterers, streetcar men, tinners, and typographers) were organized, and met weekly in the Central Labor Union hall at 39 Patton Avenue. And Asheville had its own Socialist newspaper.
So what would have one seen in Asheville newspapers during the 1900-1907 period we are interested in here? From his perspective as a (not incidentally, unionized) conductor on the platform of a streetcar, and through the newspaper he read religiously every afternoon after work, Asbury watched and read.
Most obviously in some respects, popular culture was in major flux. The Victor Talking Machine Company began operations in 1901. Its production of it ubiquitously advertised talking machines and records was vast. (Delve into that history here, if you are interested. And even if you aren’t, the industry publication Talking Machine World for 1906 offers a fascinating window on early cultural media technology.)
The advent of sound recordings had an enormous impact upon the dynamics, production and distribution of many cultural forms and genres from the 1880s onward–in Asheville
as well as virtually everywhere else. Sears Roebuck knew the market: its 1902 catalog had an eight-page “Talking Machine Department.” Dunham’s Music House on Patton Avenue knew the market, too. It ran newspaper advertisements regularly, touting the new-fangled devices.
But it wasn’t just devices that commanded attention. Intermingled with such advertisements were some that betokened other currents.
These few print advertisements, touching on products, services, new technologies, entertainments, cultural genres and practices, public discourses and boundaries provide a small but not unrepresentative glimpse into the Asheville of 1900-1907. Each could be multiplied many times.
Beyond print, motion pictures (introduced in 1896) were beginning to make their appearance. The Gayety Theater advertisement here is believed to be the first evidence of the public showing of a motion picture in the city.
Ashevillians were obviously ready: an Asheville Citizen headline of the same date announced that the Gayety “opened to a packed house.”
A graphic online introduction to this new and fast-changing aspect of popular culture throughout North Carolina is available at Going to the Show.
My next post will focus on the “house behind the big house” that Asbury, Ella and their three children lived in at 44 South French Broad Avenue for more than fifteen years.
Although no drawings or photographs survive, I have been able to piece together from multiple–if mostly fragmentary–sources, a fairly full picture of the very large lot (eight times as large as most of the nearby ones, and running all the way through the block from South French Broad to Grove Street), the carriage house and its two Cadillac touring cars, the servants’ house, and the big house (more than 12,000 square feet, it seems, and probably built in the late 1880s). Who owned this estate so near the central business district? What did the big house look like? How large were the smaller houses–especially the one rented by the Whisnant family? Where were they all placed placed on the lot?
Following this piece of bricolage, and assisted by some taped interviews I conducted with my father and his sisters thirty years ago, I will move to the subsequent post on “a day in the life” of the family. Where did they get their food and where did they eat together? How many rooms did the house have, and how were they furnished and lived in? (I have been able to learn about this, though not a piece of their furniture survives.) How was school for the children? What about child rearing ideas and practices. And so on. Stay tuned.
A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life; David C. Bailey, et al., Trolleys in the Land of the Sky (2000); Burnet, Up From Slavery: Isaac Dickson, Asheville Pioneer, Mountain Xpress (2/14/2012); Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities; Jan Schochet and Sharon Fahrer, The Family Store: A History of Jewish Businesses in Downtown Asheville, 1880-1990 (2008); Freeman Irby Stephens, The History of Medicine in Asheville (2013); Walter R. Turner, Development of Streetcar Systems in North Carolina; Darin Waters, Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900 (Ph.D. diss., UNC, 2011).