My grandparents Asbury Whisnant (1872-1955) and Sarah Ella Austin (1869-1942) both grew up down the mountain, and came to the Land of the Sky as adults–he to find a job in 1900, and her in 1907 to marry him and raise a family.
Asheville was booming, and the enticements were beguiling: modernity in all its forms, new styles of planning and building, images of comfort, stability, status and pleasure on scores of postcards, in countless hotel and railroad brochures, and newspaper advertisements.
To see what the Land of the Sky might offer, Asbury left his farm on Cane Creek in McDowell County, and a job at the State Hospital in Morganton. Ella left a job there, too, when she joined him seven years later.
Asbury and Ella lived their lives quietly, with strength and determination and dignity. Some of their aims and hopes they achieved, some they did not. Some of the unachieved ones lay beyond unbridgeable boundaries (of perspective, education, income, social status); some they edged close enough to to experience bits of what lay on the other side, but never got beyond. Others (as will be clear as we move along) they chose not to cross.
Images and Boundaries:
One image of my grandfather Asbury–from early in my life and late in his–has never dimmed in my memory. I was maybe four years old, and he would have been in his early seventies. After his long work days, he could have changed into casual clothes, but he didn’t. In the late afternoon, he sat on the couch (“set-tee,” he called it) in the living room of his modest home at 60 Brownwood Avenue in West Asheville, dressed in a dark blue three-piece, pin-striped suit, gold watch chain running across his vest to a big gold Elgin watch in its watch pocket, grey moustache neatly trimmed, black high-topped shoes polished, clean white cotton socks rising above them.
Sometimes the news streamed from a tall cabinet-model radio, and on the front wall sat a polished walnut Estey pump organ, bought years before for the daughters, but showing few signs of having ever been played.
The window beside the organ opened onto a wide front porch with springy metal chairs, and through it one could see the neatly trimmed hedge that marked the street-side boundary of their lot.
Dressed as he was, Asbury could have been a businessman, a banker, or a preacher, but he wasn’t. For going on fifty years, he had operated street cars and then buses in Asheville.
Six days every week, he got up at 3:30 a.m., put on his uniform, “stropped” his
straight razor and shaved while Ella (“Eller,” he called her) fixed his biscuits, eggs and coffee. He”saucered and blowed” his coffee to hasten the process. Picking up his leather “grip” (money changer, punch for transfers, pearl-handled .38 Smith & Wesson, and brass knuckles–to the latter two of which we will eventually return), he walked down the long hill, across the French Broad River bridge, and into the “car barn” to start his run.
Some of the boundaries referred to on the home page of this blog peek through the surface of this indelible image: between life in the working class, and life as a well-dressed gentleman; between a modest home as refuge from the world, and the news of the world (not reassuring in the early 1940s) streaming from the radio; between the precision and ownership marked by the railroad watch and box hedge, and the fact that Asbury Whisnant had lived simply and worked to the will of others his whole life.
First, a wooden box he had made years before–a bridge between the first third of his life and the following two-thirds in the city.
That box, sitting on the big screened back porch, held an orderly array of his carpenter tools: a pair of metal dividers, a brass-fitted maple folding ruler, a rosewood and brass square, two razor-sharp wooden planes, rip and cross-cut saws,
My second image is of my grandmother Ella (“Eller,” he always called her) a woman even quieter than he was, who in her late thirties had given up her work as a nurse to marry him. The first of her five babies–a son born in 1908, when she was thirty-nine–lived less than a day and was (it seems) buried without a name. A daughter was born in 1910 and another in 1913. The last, my father, arrived in 1914, just before her forty-fifth birthday.
By the time I remember seeing her, her youngest child was in his late twenties, and the pace of life had slowed. She may have joined Asbury on the set-tee or front porch at times, but I remember her only as she worked quietly in the kitchen or in her garden.
Two additional boundaries at least are in play here: A gender boundary, which Ella crossed twice–early in her life in one direction to become a professional woman, and back again when she married. The latter crossing seems from this distance not to have been chafed under or contested. Asbury was her husband, and he did what husbands did; she was his wife, and she did–reliably and with a gentle spirit so far as I was ever aware–what wives did. And so (a cultural, relational, and habitual dimension here), I never saw her sit with him to eat breakfast; she stood throughout, poured him more coffee to saucer and blow, and waited for him to finish.
In their relationship, as well as in their economic and social situation, lay still another cultural and spatial boundary–both typical of the times: He trimmed the hedge, maintained the automobile, and kept the house in repair. But on the upper side of their house they had bought another lot, and that was Ella’s garden–full of fruit trees, grape vines, and rows of vegetables. It was their “farm in the city”–the best they could do to feed their family and stay connected to the farm on Cane Creek on which Asbury had built a house before he left to go up the mountain to become a streetcar conductor. He always meant to go back, but never got there.
My final memory is of the rough wood and oily smell of the single-car garage that sheltered Asbury’s first automobile: a 1923 Dodge touring car with side curtains. Later there was an immaculately maintained 1931 Chrysler sedan with fringed window shades, the sweet whining
music of whose three-speed manual transmission I have never forgotten.
The cars, the house, the extra space for Ella’s garden, the set-tee, the big radio, and the organ were all signs that at least some boundaries had been traversed, some mobility, security and leisure achieved. But other boundaries remained–peacefully deferred to in the knowledge of what lay on one’s own side.
Asbury never sold his farm or the house he had built on it, and–it would appear–never gave up hope of moving back there some day. A lifelong hunter, he never parted with the two 12-gauge double-barrel Parker Brothers shotguns he had bought about 1900, and some of my best memories are of climbing into the Chrysler and heading “down to the farm” to hunt.
And I never heard any talk of leaving 60 Brownwood Avenue, and what he and Ella had built there together.
The Earliest Junctions and Where They Led: Asheville, 1797-1900
These images and boundaries date from what proved to be the latter days of Asbury’s and Ella’s lives in the Land of the Sky. She died of cancer in 1942; he lived more than another decade –missing her, visiting with a few local “widder ladies,” trimming his hedge, and watching his grandchildren pick apples and cherries off his trees.
The junctions that had created the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Asheville, in which Asbury and Ella lived their lives together, were many: An appealingly romantic and marketable focusing phrase; modern communications, infrastructure, construction and transportation technology; new routes in and out–for goods, cultural exchange, tourist visitors and new residents.
But Asheville was already slightly over a century old when Asbury arrived in 1900, and like every landscape and cityscape, it was a historical palimpsest. Beneath the modern era’s routes and junctions lay others–some still visible, some not–that continued to exert their formative influence on the city and its people–both elite and working class. Upcoming posts will explore aspects of that history.