Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

“The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville

NOTE TO READERS: This is the second in a series of posts on the coming of the American Enka Corporation plant to Buncombe County’s Hominy Valley in 1928, and its presence there until recently.  Others will follow as I get them written.

Part 1: A New Vision for Old Hominy Valley: The Coming of the American Enka Plant.

I will try to make each post as free-standing as possible, and also link parts of them to others of my more than 30 previous posts that provide context and more detail on the American Enka story.  Posts in this American Enka series may be read in any order, but since they combine to form a historical, social and cultural narrative that ranges over some 70 years, they would be best read in order.

Asheville’s Pre-1920s Booms

To help explain why the advent of American Enka in mid-1928 was reacted to and celebrated as it was, one needs to cast that event upon the historical scrim that hung behind it.

The object of this post is to contextualize American Enka’s arrival in such a way.  Such a large task can be done here only schematically, but further details and fuller narratives (including those in my previous posts) may be found in textual links and footnoted sources.

The city of Asheville and the “boom” meme have been closely associated for more than a century, with the meme virtually always attached (a bit loosely) to “the 1920s.” And Asheville did in fact have a boom in the ‘twenties, but it had had several of them (or boom-like pieces) before, as well as bust-like downturns after each.

The boom meme also generally implied that the Asheville area was a sort of Rip Van Winkle place–belatedly awakening from its prior isolated, somnolent pre-industrial condition. A corollary of that characterization was that there was something blessedly “native” about the area–that innocent “mountain” white (and “Anglo-Saxon,” in fact) people had not been contaminated by immigrant blood and ideas, and that they were consequently available for, amenable to, and adept at being trained as industrial workers.

Several points are essential to understanding the 20s boom and American Enka’s arrival near the end of it:

  • That boom, toward the end of which Enka arrived–was not a spontaneous, magical event.  The groundwork for it had been being laid for nearly 50 years in a series of boom-like surges.1
  • Each component surge/boom had its own salient features: transportation, industrial expansion, private entrepreneurial building and development, commercial and residential development, territorial expansion, infrastructure, tourism, and others.
  • Occurring alone or in conflicting and/or synergistic multiples, those characteristics imparted an oscillatory character to the city’s development.
  • For narrative convenience, I have partitioned those oscillations into decades, but rather than beginning or ending so neatly, they overlapped in complex ways.
  • In September 1928, when the American Enka announcement burst forth, Asheville was already experiencing the tremors of its seismic collapse of November 30, 1930.

Sondley map

Plan of Asheville with Numbered lots. names of original purchasers (Patton, Erwin, Baird, Vance, Davidson) will be familiar to those knowledgeable with Asheville’s history and cityscape. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County (1922), p. 70.

In 1800, three years after the new town (originally called Morristown) became the county seat, only 38 people had taken up residence. Names of some original purchasers (e.g., Patton, Erwin, Baird, Vance, Davidson) will be familiar to those who have ever walked and driven Asheville’s streets.

At the end of the Civil War, there were still few enough Asheville residents (only about 500) to leave some farm land open west (it appears) of Haywood Street.  But the city was on the brink of substantial growth and development.

Asheville 1866

Haywood Street in 1866. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County, p. 186.



Asheville’s first boom  followed the arrival of the railroad in 1880.Spurred by industrial and commercial development, increased tourism, entrepreneurial zeal, and civic undertakings, the city grew rapidly in both population and physical size.  City population in 1880 was only 2,616, but within a decade it nearly quadrupled to just over

Advertisement for Western North Carolina Railroad and “The Land of the Sky”. Chunn, Descriptive Illustrated Guide-Book (1881). This is the earliest such document I have seen that links the Land of the Sky rubric with the railroad, which made its first scheduled stop at Best (later Biltmore) outside Asheville on October 3, 1880.


An early infrastructure response to such growth was the building of a new water supply plant in 1882-1883. “This great enterprise,” said the 1883 city directory, was “destined to be of such inestimable

Asheville Water Works, 1883. Photo by E. E. Brown. Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina Asheville

benefit to the people of Asheville . . .  is to be completed the present year, at a cost of $20,000. The [1,000,000 gallon] reservoir . . . is situated on the mountain-side, . . . [and] water is conducted . . . [through] ten-inch iron mains . . . to the Public Square, from [which] six-inch pipes branch in all directions over the city, carrying the precious fluid to its remotest parts.”  The city’s list of “Needed Improvements” was substantial, nevertheless: an ice factory, electric lights, a street railway, a telephone exchange, and a national bank.

1882 edition. North Carolina Digital Collections.

A useful index (but by no means the only one) to the post-1880 boom was hotels.3  The contemporary Illustrated Guide Book of the Western North Carolina Railroad (1882) understandably focused on travel accommodations, alerting travelers to local hotels.

Two of the available Asheville hotels had served stagecoach traffic since antebellum years: the old Buck Hotel (1825) and the upscale Eagle.

James Smith’s Buck Hotel (1825). Smith-McDowell House Museum.4


Black worker fanning flies from elegant white woman, Eagle Hotel, Asheville, ca. 1874. New York Public Library.

The Eagle, dating from at least 1814, was still going strong in the mid-1870s.  The 1890 city directory entry  said that it had “for a long time past  . . . been poorly managed,” had “fallen into bad hands” and was in “stagnant condition,” but was being revamped by a new owner.5

Chunn, Descriptive Illustrated Guide-Book to North Carolina Mountains (1881), p.95. This is the earliest date (and image) I have encountered, but the advertisement says the hotel “has been thoroughly finished and renovated, and [is] under new management,” implying that it has been there for some time.

But these hotels could no longer meet the demand, and new ones were rising. Before long, travelers seeking elegant surroundings in Asheville could stay at the Swannanoa Hotel.

The Swannanoa kept its first-rank place for only a short time, however. Frank Coxe’s enormous Battery Park began its 40-year run as Asheville’s premier hotel only three years later, in 1886.6

At about the same time the Battery Park opened, West Asheville developer E. G. Carrier bought land for his new Sulphur Springs Hotel a few miles west of downtown on a site that an earlier Sulphur Springs hotel had operated from the early 1830s until it burned down in 1862.7

Helper and Cyril, Asheville, Western North Carolina: Nature’s Trundle-Bed of Recuperation for Tourist & Health Seeker (1886), p. 52, via HathiTrust

Nan Chase provides a more complete catalog, and says that Asheville “had 47 hotels by 1890.”8 Chase cites no source for this figure, but a detailed inspection of the 1890 City Directory and Business Reflex turned up only 12. And of those, at least two (the Swan and the Western) appear to have been residential hotels, and another, Winyah House, was likely a sanitarium owned by Dr. Carl Von Ruck.

The huge hotel news in the late 1880s, however, was the opening of the Battery Park in 1886, which was bigger, grander, and more centrally located that any of the others–on what was left of the old Battery Park hill, blasted and chopped down for the purpose.

In February 1889, three years after the Battery Park opened, electric streetcars made their first runs. A primary site for discharging and taking on passengers was then called Court Square, but in 1891


Streetcars on Square at N. Main Street (1890). Click for larger image. Photo by Lindsey’s Photographic Parlor. Pack Memorial Public Library L296-8a.

civic-minded George W. Pack deeded land to the city for what became Pack Square 9

Paralleling the boom in short-term visitors were the manufacturing plants that arrived in the 1880s, 1890s, and on into the 1920s. Having explored that industrial(izing) history in some detail in an earlier post (A New Vision for Old Hominy Valley: The Coming of the Enka Plant), I will not dwell upon it here.

Toward the Turn of the Century: Asheville As a “Hustler”

The Asheville city directory of 1890 opened with a glowing synoptic characterization of the city:

The Queen City of the Mountains, and . . . the Gem City and Metropolis of this Great, Charming Combine—
A Domain of Fashionable People, Social Culture and Refinement—A City of Magnificent Resources, Natural and Acquired Advantages as a Health and Pleasure Resort.

By mid-May of 1891, electricity lighted the streets, telephones were in use, electric streetcars served downtown, and four railways ran in and out.  The Asheville Democrat  proclaimed that “Asheville Is a Hustler,” the new mayor and aldermen having just voted money for street paving, sewers, and public schools. It was “the biggest thing that Asheville has done since Noah’s ark landed,” the writer crowed, proving that “her people are progressive, live-brained, seeing into the future kind of folks.”10

Buttressing the assessment, newly-arrived (1889) George Vanderbilt began buying vast acreage in the area (eventually some 130,000 acres) and peering into his own future by going down the hill and buying the little town of Best (which he renamed Biltmore). Six years later his 255-room French chateau (Biltmore House) opened.11

But alas, not all was well, neither in Biltmore nor in “live-brained” Asheville. Historian Nan Chase points out that around 1901 Vanderbilt “had lost, by one single investment, a great part of his inherited fortune.” Following that loss, he shut down his huge house, closed the farms, canceled the lavish parties, and sold his private railway car. Within a few months the entire Vanderbilt family decamped for Europe.12 For Vanderbilt, as for so many other titans of the period, the outrageous Gilded Age had come (more or less) to an end. In a way, the Vanderbilt shutdown in Asheville might be seen as a harbinger of the city’s crash some 25 years later.

Some Unresolved Issues and Warning Signs

In any case, “hustler” Asheville’s hustle was not (never really had been) on completely solid ground. Prominent among the indicators were a large  Black underclass and restiveness among White working people.  The former provided much of the labor for the new tourist hotels (as they had for the old ones, all the way back to–yes, even in Buncombe–slavery days) and sanitariums, and cared for white children. The latter tanned the hides, spun and wove in the cotton mill, ran the streetcars, and outlying farmers hauled the food into town.

Convict Labor, Black Workers, White Supremacy and Colored Minstrels

blacks in AVL

Black man drinking from earthen jug, corner of Eagle and S. Main Street, in front of White Man’s Bar, ca. 1883-85. Click for larger image. Pack Memorial Public Library, B365-8.

For nearly 200 years, except for ubiquitous caricatures, Blacks were almost completely excluded from the historical narrative of Asheville and Buncombe County.13

That was so despite the fact that some 700 slave deeds lay in the county’s Register of Deeds books, many scores of the Black convicts who had been corralled and sent to bore the Swannanoa Tunnel that brought the railroad up the mountain and into town had died in the process, and Blacks (always *’d in the city directories, signalling that racial boundaries were properly marked) continued to be relegated to the most undesirable jobs.  In the 1900 directory (when black population was about 25%), they worked as barbers and butlers, carpenters and cooks, drivers, hackmen, laundresses and laborers, office boys and porters, railway firemen, shoemakers and waiters.14

Asheville’s neglect and denigration of Blacks looked even worse when set against the turn-of-the-century statewide backdrop. The infamous coup against Black political leadership in Wilmington in November 1898 was a horrific example of White vs. Black violence.  And the White Supremacy movement took many forms, including the proliferation of White Supremacy Clubs throughout the state.


Asheville Citizen-Times, June 13, 1906, p. 6.

Meanwhile, Black stereotypes continued to have an audience in Asheville. Asheville historian Nan Chase provides a startling account of a minstrel show attended by Charles Dudley Warner on Court Square in Asheville in 1888, featuring HAPPY JOHN, ONE OF THE SLAVES OF WADE HAMPTON.15  In 1906, signaling how unfazed Asheville still was eight years after the Wilmington coup/riot of 1898, Milligan’s “colored minstrels” were engaged to perform in the Opera House.  Any local “colored people” who may have been inclined to see themselves caricatured by whites in blackface were required to sit in the balcony to do so.

And as if to send the strongest possible signal, the Ku Klux Klan, which had been in the news in Asheville since the late 1860s, became increasingly visible in Asheville after 1920. An organizational meeting in 1921 drew 800 people, and a KKK national meeting took place in Asheville in 1924.16

Restive Workers and Reactionary Companies

A prominent feature of the Gilded Age was working class disturbances, in the form of labor organization (e.g., the Knights of Labor, 1869-1887), strikes (Great Southwest railroad and Haymarket affair in 1886, Homestead in 1892, Pullman in 1894),  and management resistance in many forms.

The history of labor organization and action in Asheville is still to be written, but it was certainly present from the turn of the century onward. On May Day 1890, the Asheville Daily Citizen carried reports of “monster parades” and strikes by workers in major U.S. cities and in Europe. It reported on the formation of Asheville’s Central Labor Union in


The Workman, March 30, 1901

1896. By at least 1901, the city’s Socialist Club was meeting every Friday night in the Central Labor Union (C.L.U.) hall, as it appears to have continued to do at least until the time of the street railway strike in 1913.17

The advent of World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 (see previous post) took precedence in the pre-1920s news, but the (insistently) good news of Asheville’s of boom years came back to the fore early in the new decade.

A Burst of Sunshine: Roaring  Into the 1920s


Undated brochure–probably mid-1920s, judging from the Jackson Building at center rear (1924). Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina Asheville.

Malvern Hills

Full-page advertisement, Asheville Sunday Citizen, May 24, 1925, p. 20. Click for enlarged image.  On less expensive subdivision options in West Asheville, see my earlier post The Down Side of the Land of the Sky.18

As numerous writers have pointed out, the 1920s boom in Asheville was marked by ebullient optimism from almost all quarters, new multi-story public and commercial buildings, the Art Deco style in architecture (mainly Douglas Ellington’s buildings), the lavish Rhododendron Festival (1928 ff.), fevered buying and selling of real estate, skyrocketing property values, rapid expansion of outlying suburbs (such as mid-level Malvern Hills, west of the city) and the necessary infrastructure to serve them, and seemingly boundless boosterism of every sort.

Fittingly, the new commercial radio station WWNC (Wonderful Western North Carolina) opened its studios (“the highest broadcasting station in Eastern America”) atop the recently completed Flatiron Building in February 1927.


Control room of WWNC. WWNC Radio Station: First Anniversary (1927). Special Collections, D. H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville.

In its first anniversary brochure, WWNC announced that at “we are presenting a series of industrial talks, in an effort to tell the outside world that not only are we AMERICA’S YEAR ROUND PLAYGROUND, but that we have a real industrial background.”

That was true, but also a selective statement.

The fuller truth was that a lot of disquieting handwriting was on the wall, and had been there for several years.

Storm Clouds Gathering

By the time Duke graduate student William H. Plemmons submitted his master’s thesis in 1935, Asheville was about five years into a disastrous depression.19 I choose Plemmons here because he wrote two decades after Arthur’s 1913 history, a decade after Sondley’s of 1922, and was watching the events as they happened and reading recent primary documents.  So what did Plemmons discover?

Far-flung and Excessive Debt-financed Infrastructure

Plemmons pointed out that between 1920 and 1930, city population had nearly doubled, and a 1926 city audit showed that since 1923, expenses had almost tripled. Public facilities had become “entirely inadequate to meet . . . public demands.” The city’s bonded indebtedness–$2.8 million in 1922–rose to $18.8million in 1930, and Buncombe County “almost duplicated this amount.” Most of it went, Plemmons observed, “to make  the city more attractive for visitors: new streets, a viaduct, the Beaucatcher tunnel, schools . . . a municipal golf course . . . public park[s] . . . water and sewer improvements . . . [and] an elaborate city hall.” The next two audits (1928 (the year of American Enka’s arrival, and 1930) showed that the city was more than $22 million in debt.20

Imprudent Private Spending

Private expenditures, Plemmons went on to point out, were as out of scale as the public ones. In that respect, bad news followed good. In 1919 the city had issued 109 building permits, for a total of $800,000, but in 1926 there were 877, for $9,200,000. But the fall, when it came, was as dramatic as the rise: in the first 8 months of 1932, permits totaled only $67,000. Tax collections consequently declined, and collection of assessments for improvements were negligible.21

Asheville’s Central Bank [undated, 1920s], E. M. Ball Collection (ball1268), D. H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina Asheville.

Cooking the City’s (and Banks’) Books

The ugly truth was, however, that while American Enka was building its plant and hiring workers, city officials were busy cooking the books in “an attempt . . .  to bolster the largest banking house in Western North Carolina, . . . Central Bank and Trust Company [where virtually all city funds were deposited], with public funds.”  Auditors concluded that “The commissioners have perverted the credit of the city to the gain and advantage of a private institution.”  Central Bank failed, anyway, closing its doors in November 30, 1930 and taking down $4.7 million in city money with it.22

Chickens Rumored to Be Coming Home

Reaction to the news of Enka’s coming was totally positive–even ecstatic.  But city officials, bankers, real estate salesmen, and others whose jobs required watching the data, could not have been unaware of the rumblings beneath the  surface. Two years would pass before a groundswell of personal and institutional tragedies broke through: jobs gone, children out of school, unattended infrastructure deteriorating, homes and commercial buildings standing empty, city and bank officials indicted and dispatched to prison, one bank vice president and former mayor Gallatin Roberts committed suicide, and the city signing a debt-retirement agreement that would take forty years to fulfill.23

So there Asheville sat in the middle of 1928: whistling a happy tune for the public, reassuring Dutch company officials that Asheville could and would deliver what they wanted and needed, and (one would guess) hoping that it would all, somehow, work out short of a public scandal.

The Promise of American Enka: Solid, Steady, Region-wide Progress and Prosperity


Enka announcement A1

American Enka announcement, Rayon Section A, Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, A1. Click for readable full-page view.

Enka announcement, B1

American Enka announcement, Rayon Section B, Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, B1. Click for readable full-page view.


After nearly a decade of up-and-down news about the city’s also up-and-down boom (or was it actually not a boom?, or yes, a boom, but one that might not last?), Ashevillians awoke on a late September Sunday morning in 1928 to two special Rayon sections of the Sunday Citizen.  Blaring headlines telegraphed the news: American Enka (from “NK” from Dutch Nederlandsche Kunstzyde Fabricken) was coming to Asheville, and everything was going to be better–for everyone.24

What was coming to Asheville “will be the largest rayon plant in the world,” with a construction cost of $10,000,000. It was “the first great American plant” of recently-formed Dutch multi-national American Enka Corporation, “won by work . . . in competition with fifty-one other cities.”




“No more welcome news has ever been spread,” readers were told, and “Merit and merit alone secured it.”  The plant’s arrival “heralds the greatest act in the life of modern Asheville . . . a turning point in the career of this great city.”

A $6,000,000  payroll would go to 5,000 workers in “the first unit,” and land had already been bought for a possible second one.  The huge payroll would begin immediately, “work will be plentiful, every idle man here who can qualify can get a job . . . . Empty houses will fill up, business will begin to thrive and the smile of happiness and peace will be fixed on many faces.”25

Nearly a full page of comments from Asheville businessmen and officials rang enthusiastically about doubling city population, jobs “for everyone who wants to work,” boosting payrolls (former mayor), “a solution to labor problems” (a building and loan association official), “restoring confidence in business conditions” (local state senator), “lift[ing] the veil of business depression” (local lawyer), a “new sense of vigor” (local congressman), and moving beyond seasonal tourism receipts to “an all the year ’round town.”  The spirit of much of it was distilled in the terse exclamatory phrase of Asheville millionaire (and cotton mill owner) Lawrence Holt: “Hot Dam[n]!”

Asheville bankers said the city would become “the largest city in North Carolina in a very short time . . . [and] probably the best and most prosperous city in the south.” American Enka would usher in “an era of solid prosperity through industrial development,” and “industries of all sorts” could (and would) locate there.

Better yet, the confidently expected effects would extend far beyond the city’s borders.  As “far and away the biggest enterprise that has ever been brought to the state or to the South,” the plant would bring “the salvation of Buncombe County” and lead to “a revolutionizing influence on . . . Western North Carolina.”  The day’s editorial envisioned the Swannanoa and Hominy valleys converging into “the Ruhr of the Piedmont South.”26

A bit of browsing this and earlier (and later, in the case of the Blue Ridge Parkway) newspapers reveals what one might call the Persistent Apocalyptic Vision of Asheville leaders regarding a decades-long string of promising comings and openings: the Battery Park Hotel (1886), the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House (1895), the Langren Hotel, the Grove Park Inn (1913), the new Battery Park Hotel and the Grove Arcade (1924), and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1926). These moments–mostly related in some way to the tourism industry–have been endlessly commented upon and celebrated.27

With regard to Enka and the “miracle fiber” rayon, retail business owners shared the optimism. Men’s clothing store owner Coleman Zageir envisioned a “year round town” instead of the seasonal tourist one.  Druggist John Goode cited the growth generated in east Tennessee after the German rayon Bemberg plant opened in the early 20s. The only retail advertiser enough ahead of the curve to submit an ad for Asheville’s September 23 special rayon edition of the newspaper was the decades-old Palais Royal on Biltmore Avenue (“Your Money’s Worth”).

Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, p. 25.  Click for expanded image.

It ran next to a column reminding “the women” that the future of rayon depended upon their buying rayon clothing. That was true, and remained true for many years to come. And buying it was by no means the only way the new miracle fiber depended upon women. But that is a subject for a future post.

Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, p.25

Private and Public Investment for Corporate Needs and Demands

The excitement of the coming of the Dutch rayon plant to Hominy Valley was widely and confidently shared, but bringing it to pass was a complicated challenge.  Dutch officials–“men who knew their business,” as Asheville’s lead negotiator F. L. Seely described them, “knew what they wished to have, must have and would get.” To ward off uncertainty about the intentions, Seely observed, the “highly educated and skilled gentlemen raised their money in Holland and brought it with them.”  They had sent an 18-item list of what they wanted to all 50 cities they were considering: a large site for a plant, with plenty of water, sewerage, transportation, an “equitable tax rate,” suitable labor supply, good climate, adequate transportation, and nearness to markets.

Asheville newspapers frequently mentioned that many other cities were being considered, but none were mentioned specifically. If one rummages a bit in

Knoxville Journal, September 23, 1928, p. 1.

now digitally available newspapers, one comes up with some names: Knoxville, Richmond, Chattanooga, Elizabethton, and others. Their numbers dwindled as the early months of 1928 passed, and cities’ hopes waxed and waned.  Knoxville had apparently done its best to check off all the items on the list (including a large farm south of town as a site), but it wasn’t enough.   Finally, on the fateful September Sunday morning, the Knoxville Sunday Journal announced that Asheville was the last city standing.

In view of the city’s emerging fiscal instability in mid-1928 (and Buncombe County’s, as well, but that seems not to have been much remarked upon), putting such a package together required a carefully negotiated  formula that blended public and private investment, as well as public and private interests .  “No section can furnish any better natural advantages,” the city’s negotiators declared, citing “abundance of water power from rushing streams of the mountain region . . . nearness to raw materials, . . . adequate transportation to markets in all parts of the country, and intelligent native born workmen.” And to back up their broad claims, Chamber of Commerce staff assembled reams of data.

Negotiations extended over five months said the newspaper’s Rayon Section, in what Seely called “the most intensive fight that has ever been waged for something we believed Asheville needed.”28  There had been “no inclination to work secretly,” he said, but “these Dutch gentlemen let it be known that they preferred to handle the matter without publicity.” In any case, early talks “occurred in private Pullman car,” and the Dutch group repeatedly asked “that just one gentleman accompany us when difficult matters [were] to be discussed.”

Who the members of the negotiating group were is not–and was not then–fully clear.  The “Rayon Section” of the newspaper said it consisted of F. L. Seely as chair, “members” of the Chamber of Commerce (including chair Dan W. Hill), the Asheville Real Estate Board, and the Asheville Merchants’ Association.

It appears that perhaps a floating group assembled around a core consisting of Seely, Hill and various city and county officials: Central Bank & Trust Company president Wallace Davis (“representing the interests of Asheville,” reports somewhat puzzlingly said, since CB&T was then busy fleecing the city–and citizens–of Asheville); CB&T vice  president Charles A. Taylor (ditto); Asheville city attorney S. G. Bernard; local leader and Hominy Valley farmer Church Crowell, who helped facilitate land purchases among his neighbors; A. F. Lodeizen, chief counsel for all of the Enka companies; Enka vice president and chief engineer Dr. A. J. L. Moritz, and other Dutch officials.

One (perhaps floating) member whose name turned up several times in the rayon issue of the newspaper was Fred L. Weede, who had only recently


Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, B7.

arrived in Asheville from Miami’s boosterish Chamber (which had helped, along with a hurricane, to drive the city into into a bust) to take a job as Manager of the Chamber of Commerce.29 Identifying other members, floating or not (or knowing how many there were) is difficult, however. There were “some thirty others,” an editorial said (but did not name).

The bundle of enticements the city and county assembled blended public and private contributions.  The major public ones appear to have been:

  • The city and the county each promised to put up $250,000 for water supply, access roads,  and plant entrances.
  • Buncombe County created a new water district in Lower Hominy.
  • “Fire apparatus and men will also be sent from Asheville as needed for Enka.”
  • “Assessments for taxation” were to be “the same as for other industries.”
  • Hominy Creek would provide 5,000,000 gallons of  process water per day, a large new dam to be constructed would provide a 150,000,000-gallon reserve, and city water mains would also be extended to the site, supplying 8,000,000 gallons per day at the “reasonable rate” of 12 cents per gallon.

Private (i.e., corporate) contributions included:

  • Power lines from a new dam that Carolina Power & Light was building on the Pigeon River at Waterville would be run to the plant.
  • Southern Railway agreed to “build a new station at the site to be called Enka, and will provide necessary shuttle train service to and from Asheville.”
  • Bus lines were to be extended “from the end of the street railway in West Asheville” to Enka.
  • The telephone company would also extend its lines.

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

The day before the big Enka announcement broke in the Sunday Citizen, the official group gathered (oddly, it seems) at Central Bank & Trust for the signing.30

Expectations for quick results ran high. This is an “entirely new branch of industry,” they proclaimed (although there were already four rayon plants operating next door in Virginia). American Enka “will attract other plants.” And the construction contracts were ready to be signed the next day.

An editorial from the Sunday Citizen declared that the “obvious thing now is for Asheville to put on a vigorous campaign for other such industries,” which could be done “without interfering in any way with the city’s continued development as a great resort center.”

Short Startup Curve: Buying Land, Putting the Plant On the Ground and Into Operation

Having deliberated and negotiated for months before signing the contract, both parties were eager to move ahead with construction. Steam shovels will be “on the ground in a few days,” the newspaper reported, and they were–the following Thursday–from the Cleveland OH contractor which was already lined up.

The Land and the Crowell Family

Asheville City Directory, 1883, p. 3In the years following the coming of the railroad in 1880, Asheville land was a hot commodity. Walter B. Gwyn’s agency was selling land for timber, tobacco farms, and mines, but also for “mills,” as he was to continue doing for decades to come.

The rush for local land (and any other real property) persisted and hit a peak during the great Asheville boom of the 1920s. When the Dutch company American Enka announced it would build a $10 million-dollar plant in Hominy Valley, they wanted to buy about 2,000 acres.

Who owned that land in Hominy Valley, and who was available to help the company buy it?

The Asheville city directory for 1883 carried a list of the “principal farmers” on Hominy Creek (where the American Enka plant was to be situated 45 years later) and the acreages they owned. The largest owners were the Davises, Candlers, and Morgans (1,000 or more acres each), the Brookses, Luthers and Gastons (500-999), and the W. W. Crowells (455).

For a local connection, they turned to Church Crowell, “a prominent farmer of the Hominy section” and a tax assessor in the county, to help them secure the land. Crowell had been long acquainted with the people and families of Lower Hominy. As a long list of Buncombe County deeds show, he and other members of the extensive Crowell family had been buying and selling land in the area since 1896. As a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s Industrial Committee he was also familiar with what the Dutch site seekers wanted.

Crowell therefore proved to be a highly effective operative for the land-seeking effort, securing “more than a score of options on tracts . . .that were required.” 31 And when it came time to exercise the options, county deeds show that on March 22, 1929, American Enka bought,in its largest single transaction, 2073.91 acres in Lower Hominy Township.32

As Crowell himself admitted, a lot of farm land was lost, but he believed that creating what he was confident would become a manufacturing hub for all of western North Carolina amounted to a good trade.

Even as the options on land were being exercised, the sprawling L-shaped plant began to rise from the ground, and as a local farmer could see from horseback, it happened quickly.

Enka plant under construction, photo by Frank J. Austin.

With operation scheduled to begin in mid-summer 1929, finding and hiring an anticipated 600 workers in all skills was a major challenge. By July 1, the plant was adding large numbers of employees daily, and the parking lots were full of cars.

Enka advertisement, 1929. Reproduced in Mashburn, Hominy Valley: The Golden Years, p. 278.

Enka plant parking lot, ca. 1929. M058-5, Buncombe County Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library.

How Good Were the Early Guesses and Projections?

It was a mighty plan, with a long list of confident projections and a few heady guesses. Some answers were immediate and positive, others were slow in coming, and others didn’t pan out so well.

  • The plant got built in amazingly short order.  Three thousand jobs materialized by 1939, and even more were added as World War II approached. But the goal of 6,000 was never reached.33
  • Despite some good intentions and imaginative efforts, importing many Dutch managers, teachers, workers and their families proved more complicated culturally than had perhaps been anticipated.  But American Enka made significant and imaginative efforts in that regard.
  • Between 1919 and 1927, world rayon production grew from 40 million to 285 million pounds, and was augmented by war production in the 1940s, but for a number of reasons slowed downward thereafter.
  • Plans for an “Enka Town” of 25,000 workers and their families were scaled down drastically in 1941.
  • An Enka-augmented Asheville never became (as expected by some) “the largest city in North Carolina.”


Asheville Daily Citizen, September 23, 1928, Rayon Section, pp. A1, 2, 4, 8, B1-B7, B11, C7; Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Wilma Dunaway, Slavery in the American Mountain South (2003); Ida F. Chunn, Descriptive Illustrated Guide-Book to North Carolina Mountains (1881); Lenwood G. Davis, The Black Heritage of Western North Carolina (1983); Lou Harshaw, Asheville: Mountain Majesty (2007) John Inscoe, Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989), and Race, War, and Remembrance in the Appalachian South (2008); William H. Plemmons, The City of Asheville: Historical and Institutional (M.A. thesis, Duke University, 1935); Kevin Young, “White Hooded Mountains, the Rise of the KKK in the 1920s” (Appalachian Studies Association meeting, 2015); Darin Waters, Life Beneath the Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900 (Ph.D. diss., UNC, 2011); Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (2006); Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup, The Heart of the Alleghanies (1883);

  1. Chase, Asheville: A History, 29-30, sees the boom as a single, 50 year-long one (1880-1930), and it can legitimately be viewed that way as well.[]
  2. By 1920 it would nearly triple to slightly more than 28,000, and by 1930 it was not far from twice that (50,193).[]
  3. I choose several for brief comment here, but there were others, depending upon what one classified as a “hotel,” boarding house, residential hotel, or some other category.[]
  4. A brief article on the hotel can be found here, and a more detailed one here.[]
  5. Eagle Hotel date from John Inscoe’s brief biographical article on Scottish botanist John Lyon. For my earlier posts on Christian Reid’s novel The Land of the Sky (partly situated at the Eagle Hotel), see  Asheville as “The Land of the Sky”: The Novel, and a Phrase That Stuck; “The Land of the Sky”: A Brief Guide to the Novel and Its Moment; and The Land of the Sky”: How a Phrase Went So Far, So Fast, and Lasted So Long.[]
  6. On Coxe, see NCpedia entry and the Description and Biography entries in his collected papers at the UNC Asheville library (M1983.3), which has links to important related collections.[]
  7. See my three posts on The Several Lives of West  Asheville: Part I: Sulphur Springs as Proto-Land of the Sky, 1827-1861; Part II: Edwin G. Carrier Before West Asheville, and Part III: Edwin Carrier in West Asheville.[]
  8. Asheville, 39[]
  9. Helen Wykle, George Willis Pack (June 6, 1831-August 31, 1906): A Name That Will Endure (a Virtual Exhibit). Wykle discusses many projects the civic-minded Pack undertook in Asheville.[]
  10. Asheville Democrat, May 14, 1891.[]
  11. I forego an image here, since photographs of the house are ubiquitous online. Googling “Biltmore House” brings 413,000 results in 0.62 seconds.  Harshaw’s Asheville: Mountain Majesty, pp. 125-144, has many photographs of the  enterprise, and an extensive–although mostly uncritical–account of it.[]
  12. Chase, Asheville: A History, p. 80.[]
  13. Fortunately this neglect has begun to be overcome through the seminal work of several scholars, the building of archival collections, focused study and documentation projects, and in other ways. See especially studies by Nan Chase, Wilma Dunaway, John Inscoe, and Darin Waters in References. For a brief reprise of these and other emerging corrections in Asheville history, see my earlier post How’s That Again?: Some New Angles on Asheville and Western North Carolina History.[]
  14. UNC Asheville student Homer Carson III wrote his UNCA undergraduate thesis on “Penal Reform and Construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad 1875-1892.”  Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger has recently excavated the slave deeds, digitized them, and made them available to the public.  See also “Some Notes on Slavery in Asheville and Buncombe County,” Heard Tell, Pack Memorial Public Library (2017).[]
  15. Chase, Asheville, 40-41. Many black caricature images appeared in Lindsey & Brown’s Descriptive Catalogue of Photographic Views of the Land of the Sky (probably 1890), Class Z images “Character and Comic”.[]
  16. Young, “White Hooded Mountains”; Davis, Black Heritage of Western North Carolina (1983). See also Waters, Beneath the Veneer (2012), 85, 186f., 199, 206.[]
  17. For discussion of that strike, see  previous post.[]
  18. For further details and photographs, see Chase, Asheville: A History, Chapter 5, “Fever,” pp 82-110.[]
  19. William H. Plemmons, The City of Asheville: Historical and Institutional (1935).[]
  20. Plemmons, City of Asheville, 239-240.[]
  21. Plemmons, City of Asheville, 239-241.[]
  22. Plemmons, City of Asheville, 241-243.[]
  23. For these and further details, see Chase, Asheville, 111-121.[]
  24. Unless otherwise indicated, most of the information and quotations here come from the Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, pp. A1, 2, 4, 8, B1-B7, B11, C7.[]
  25. “Man” was generic here, but actually two times more women than men were to be hired. We will return to this crucial aspect of plant operation later.[]
  26. Germany’s 136 mile-long Ruhr River valley was at the time its main industrial valley.  The French Broad River and its Swannanoa River tributary totaled 250 miles, but the two valleys were nowhere near as industrialized as the Ruhr.[]
  27. Industrial openings, of which there had also been a fair number, are attended to in a previous post.[]
  28. Projecting forward, one is inclined to think about how, many decades later,’s search for a new headquarters engendered inter-city bidding wars.[]
  29. Weede seemed especially suited for the job of helping to reinvigorate Asheville’s sagging tourist industry. He began almost immediately to play a major role in fomenting two tourist-boosting events in Asheville: the wildly popular Rhododendron Festival (see a section in my previous post) and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.  For an illuminating account of Weede’s involvement 6 years later in Asheville’s campaign to pull the Tennessee portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway route back across the mountain and near Asheville, see Whisnant, Super-Scenic Motorway, 54-56 and passim.[]
  30. Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, A1[]
  31. Asheville Daily Citizen, September 23, 1928, B1 and B7.[]
  32. Buncombe County deed book 406, p. 412[]
  33. At least one subsequent post will deal more in detail with labor issues, complicated as they were by race, class, gender, and labor/management interactions.[]

3 thoughts on ““The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville

  1. Pingback: A New Vision for Old Hominy Valley: The Coming of the Enka Plant (Part 1) | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

  2. Danny Bernstein

    Hi David:
    I read your blog post – more like the start of a book – and found it to be very thorough and exhaustive. I look forward to your other posts. Are you blogging a book?
    But a bigger question. You chose Enka because I noticed that one of your family members worked there; he had the same last name.
    Are you planning to look into other WNC manufacturing?
    After my success with DuPont Forest: A History, I am curious about other manufacturing, past and those still around.
    Author of “DuPont Forest: A History” The History Press 2020

  3. Pingback: American Enka Corporation Was a Dutch Company: Did It Matter, and If So, How?: Part II - Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

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