Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

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

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

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

The Rudisills Before Asheville: Brief Reprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, readers learned that

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

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

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

The Whisnants: Stability at 60 Brownwood Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by David E. Whisnant, June 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asheville Citizen, May 21, 1921.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday morning headline, November 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did the lack of work cause trouble between her parents?

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

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

Gastonia, ca. 1926. Click to enlarge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Outcomes in Two West Ashevilles

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

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

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

Crocheted doily. Paper Lantern Store

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

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

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


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

14 thoughts on “The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Whisnants and Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951

  1. Ron Schon

    David – Your research, graphics and clear writing style create a sense of place for those of us non-natives that is rarely found in the work of historians. Thanks for sharing your families with us.

    1. David Whisnant

      I’m glad and that it works for you, Ron. This current post is about the 25th or so since the beginning in early 2014. Your email address in the SUBSCRIBE box will bring notifications about future posts. And all previous ones are listed.


    I enjoyed this post “bigly.” You obviously put a lot of effort into it and I learned a lot detail that I didn’t know or forgot. It also gives me a greater appreciation for mother and what she overcame to be what I consider a very admirable woman. What a handsome couple Pearce and Pearl were in their young days. Hard work and deprivation seems to have take a toll on them. I’ve never forgotten going to Pearl’s funeral service with mother. It was definitely a small crowd and I think I remember “How Firm a Foundation” being sung (or maybe a similar hymn). Daddy didn’t go.

    I would like to take time to read the KKK document that you referenced. I just looked at a page or two that you posted.
    I am not sure that your spelling of “Adlean” is the correct one. Somehow I remember it as “Adilene” or something like that.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      You could be right about the spelling of Adlean, but I do have a clipout from the photo album that gives “Adlean” as the spelling. In Pearl’s hand.

    1. David

      Cindy: I’m sorry, but I just saw this. Glad you want to subscribe. Just go to any post, and find the SUBSCRIBE box in upper right hand corner. Type your email address there. That will bring you a confirmation email. Respond in the email where it says to, and you are subscribed. And thank you!

      1. David

        Cynthia: This is a repeat reply–
        Sorry I addressed you as “Cindy” before. Here is previous reply, which you may have not gotten, because aI forgot to attach my websie address: I’m sorry, but I just saw this. Glad you want to subscribe. Just go to any post, and find the SUBSCRIBE box in upper right hand corner. Type your email address there. That will bring you a confirmation email. Respond in the email where it says to, and you are subscribed. And thank you!

  3. Randy Hyatt

    Very interesting article–I grew up in west Asheville-I was born in 1950 lived in Wilshire Park-My grandfather and Father lived in west Asheville-Had a business on Haywood Rd since the 30’s–enjoyed the article-brought back memories–

    1. David

      Randy: Thanks for your reply. Glad you liked the post. There are many others out there (about 25 by now), all listed and available. If you would like to see future ones, find the SUBSCRIBE box at upper right on any post, and put in your email address. That will bring you a confirmation email. Read it and follow the instructions. You will receive email notices of future posts.

      1. David

        Randy: A repeat reply, because I forgot to attach my blog address, so you may not have gotten my original reply. So here it is, again: Randy: Thanks for your reply. Glad you liked the post. There are many others out there (about 25 by now), all listed and available. If you would like to see future ones, find the SUBSCRIBE box at upper right on any post, and put in your email address. That will bring you a confirmation email. Read it and follow the instructions. You will receive email notices of future posts.

  4. Pingback: Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. WhisnantAsheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

  5. Richard Rudisill

    David Rudisll, born in Codorus Twp., York, PA, 1796, visited relatives in NC and died there around 1840. We cannot locate any inf. on him in NC.

  6. 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

  7. Pingback: "The Best and Most Prosperous City": American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.