Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Working Class Family Behind the Big House: Asbury, Ella, and Their Children: 1907-1918

Asbury Whisnant and Ella Austin on their wedding day, Avery Building, State Hospital at Morganton, November 6, 1907. Image enhancement by Evan Whisnant.

Asbury Whisnant and Sarah Ella Austin on their wedding day, Avery Building, State Hospital at Morganton, November 6, 1907. Image enhancement by Evan Whisnant.

Living Large and Small: Class and Difference on an In-town Estate

This post examines the place where Asbury and Ella lived with their family for fifteen years after 1907, and seeks to employ the resulting narrative–which arches across race, class, and culture–to understand a few elements of working class and upper class life, popular culture, and the aesthetics of domestic spaces, in Asheville during the first and second decades of the twentieth century.

Presumably Asbury and Ella  lacked money to buy a house when she arrived in the latter weeks of 1907, but boarding did not appeal, either.  Somehow Asbury learned of a rental house at 44 South French Broad, on a very large plot owned by bank president D. C. Waddell, Jr.  The house was small, but in a good area among some larger homes.  There was room for a garden and for children to play, and it was close to the “car barn” of the street railway where Asbury worked.

Who, one wonders at the outset, was D. C. Waddell, and how did he come to own such a large spread inside the city limits? What sort of house did he and his family live in?  What about the rental house? How did the two families interact with each other, if they did?  How did a working class family of five live in a four-room house?  What did that house look like on the inside? I don’t know all of the details, but I have managed to locate a few key ones.

The Waddell Family in Asheville

Waddell family roots went back to pre-Revolutionary Virginia and North Carolina. D[uncan] C[ameron] Waddell, Jr. (1869-1950) was the son of D. C. Waddell, Sr. (1843-1916), and grandson of Hugh D. Waddell (1799-1878).  Grandfather Hugh was born on the North Carolina coast in Bladen County (Elizabethtown), and died not far away in New Hanover (Wilmington), where he had met his wife Susanna (1804-1879).

Over the years the family gravitated west. D. C., Jr.’s great grandmother Sarah Nash Waddell (1773-1837), the daughter of a Revolutionary general Francis Nash (1742-1777), died in Chatham County, in the Piedmont.  His father D. C., Sr. was born in Hillsborough (Orange County), but migrated further west to Flat Rock (Henderson County, in the mountains), where his son D. C., Jr. was born.

Harriet Sawyer, Asheville or the Sky-Land (1892).

Harriet Adams Sawyer, Asheville or the Sky-Land (1892).  HathiTrust.

At some point after the Civil War and the birth of his namesake in 1869, D. C., Sr. moved to Asheville.  Junior attended Venable (later Montford) and Bingham [military] schools there.  By the mid-1880s, D. C., Sr., his wife, and  (it appears) three children were living at 159 Merrimon Avenue.

Buncombe County deeds and Asheville city directories show that the family pattern of being movers and shakers in Asheville business and development started early and lasted for decades.

Asheville City Directory, 1890; front fly. "Sr." is not appended to the D. C. Waddell name, but it would have had to be Sr., since it is unlikely that his then 21 year-old son would have been a bank president.

Asheville City Directory, 1890; front fly. “Sr.” is not appended to the D. C. Waddell name, but it would have had to be Sr., since it is unlikely that his then 21 year-old son would have been a bank president.

By 1884, Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory listed D. C., Sr. as a bank cashier, but the 1890 city directory (“Queen City of the Mountains”) listed him as Treasurer of Asheville Park & Hotel Company, and President of National Bank of Asheville.  He sold his first 500 acres or so of land near Asheville in 1874, and by his death in 1916 he had completed nearly 200 transactions.

National Bank of Asheville, 1892. Harriet Sawyer, Asheville, or the Sky_Land (1892). HathiTrust.

National Bank of Asheville, 1892. Harriet Sawyer, Asheville, or the Sky-Land (1892). HathiTrust.







Continuing his land trading and other commercial activities, Waddell, Sr. joined the Board of Directors of the new (1891) West Asheville and Sulphur Springs Streetcar Line.  In 1894, he joined business partners Joseph Sluder and Francis X. Coxe (of the wealthy Coxe family) to found Waddell, Sluder, Adams & Co., whose business plan “was to draw upon the insurance experience of Mssrs. Waddell and Sluder along with the [Pennsylvania anthracite] coal assets of Mr. Coxe.”

D. C. Waddell, Jr. seems to have followed his father’s lead.  In mid-1890, as a twenty-one year-old, he  purchased his first piece of Asheville property, and he continued to buy and sell regularly for nearly sixty years (more than seventy transactions).  He and his wife bought and sold dozens of parcels in the Main Street / Eagle Street / Valley Street / Depot Street area and elsewhere in Asheville.  In 1907 he was (it appears) owner of Citizens’ Coal Company.  He was  also listed as propr[ietor?] of the sumptuous Battery Park Hotel, where, the city directory advised, he also “bds” [boards].  In any case, by 1928 he had followed his bank president father in becoming President of Asheville Industrial Bank.

The Big House: All in the (Waddell/Johnston) Family

By some means or other, and at a somewhat uncertain date (which I triangulate below), D. C. Waddell, Jr. moved his wife and family into a very large house (with several outbuildings) on a downtown Asheville lot that ran from Grove Street all the way through to South French Broad Avenue (large lot with four buildings on map below):

Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map (1913).

Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map of Asheville (1913), p. 25.

Using a scale on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map (follow link to a set of Asheville Sanborn maps)  shown above, this lot encompassed just over two and a half acres–equal to the eight lots lying to the north of it.  From its 55 Grove Street position all the way up to Patton Avenue, there was little that compared with it.

From scant available records, it seems likely  that the imposing house at 55 Grove Street had been built in the mid-1880s by Waynesville-born Thomas Dillard Johnston (1840-1902).  Johnston arrived in Asheville in 1853 and attended Colonel Stephen Lee’s school in Chunn’s Cove (1846-1879)–the site, appropriately enough, of class/cultural conflict between the boarders (Town Boys) and non-boarders (Lowlanders).

After four years under the tutelage of Stephen Lee (a slave owner, one notes), Johnston attended UNC briefly (1858-1859), studied law for some months, and was admitted to the bar before enlisting (despite his pre-Sumter unionist sentiments) in Zebulon B. Vance’s Rough and Ready Guards in May 1861.  Ill health following severe wounds at Malvern Hill led him to resign from the military.  He returned to Asheville, and opened a law office on the Public Square.  He served as mayor (1869), two terms (1870-1874) in the state House, in the Senate for some years, and in the U.S. Congress (1885-1889).


Thomas Dillard Johnston (1840-1902); Van Noppen, Biographical History of North Carolina (2008), via NCpedia

The Grove Street (“formerly known as William street”) listings in the earliest available Asheville city directory (1883-1884) include Johnston, but without a street number.  The 1887 directory lists him, his wife Fannie, and his two daughters Lelia M. and Eugenia as living at 55 Grove–a plausible cutoff date for the construction of the big house.

Hmmmm, I say to myself: I think I recall seeing that D. C. Waddell Jr.’s wife’s name was given in the city directory as Lelia J[ohnston, it seems likely]. So maybe D. C., Jr. didn’t buy 55 Grove Street.  Maybe (since I was unable to find an actual deed) it was a bequest from Congressman Johnston (who died in 1902) for his daughter Lelia (1880-1924) and her new husband.  This seems all the more likely since Johnston’s wife Lelia Bobo Johnston also died–a few months before he did–in 1902.

Johnston’s death was an occasion of a formal address  by local historian John Preston Arthur before the Bar of Asheville.  The assembled group resolved that the state had lost “one of its most useful citizens”–a proud descendent of the “old Scotch blood” of clan Johnston and the most notable “pioneers of this section,” who long before the railroad arrived

subdued the forests, . . .  built the roads . . .  established churches and schools ; and, although cut off from the world by almost impassible barriers . . .  maintained their civilization, their religion and their traditions unimpaired for more than a hundred years.

So what sort of house had Thomas Johnston built on his large Grove Street acreage? Its footprint, according to the Sanborn map, was slightly more than 2600 square feet, not

Residence at 48 Grove Street, built ca. 1900. Some features may resemble those of 55 Grove Street house. Special Collections, Pack Memorial Public Library, A487-4.

Residence at 48 Grove Street, built ca. 1900. Some features may resemble those of 55 Grove Street house. Special Collections, Pack Memorial Public Library, A487-4.

counting covered porches.  Assuming it likely had at least two (maybe 2 1/2) stories, as would not have been unusual at the time, it probably had between 5200 and 7500 square feet.  “A tremendous house,” my father called it years later.

Unfortunately I have been unable so far to find either a photograph or anyone’s detailed recollection of it.  I came across, however, an  architectural drawing for a large (footprint of about 1800 square feet) Grove  Street “cottage”designed in 1897 by famed architect Richard Sharp Smith for Junius T. Smith (no idea whether they were related or not)

Richard Sharp Smith design for Grove Street "cottage" for Junius T. Smith, 1897. Pack Memorial Public Library

Richard Sharp Smith design for Grove Street “cottage” for Junius T. Smith, 1897. Pack Memorial Public Library.  Click on image for larger file.

The first floor plan may be suggestive of design features of the time.  The 1900 city directory lists a J. T. Smith living at 68 Grove Street, where “Phillips intersects”– hence across the street from 55, still occupied by T. D. Johnston.

The two much smaller buildings at center left on the map were for “servants” (upper) and automobiles (lower).  The servants’ house (about 17 x 35 ft.) amounted to about 595 square feet; the garage (not counting what might have been a roofed storage area) was about 865 square feet.

When did D. C. Waddell, Jr. and his  wife and family move into her former congressman father’s 55 Grove Street house?  Not right after his death, for sure.  The 1902-1903 city directory lists only Miss L. Ma[r]ie Johnston and Miss S. Eugenia Johnston as living there.  Two years later, in the 1904-1905 directory, there are again two residents: Miss L. M. Johnston and W. J. Cocke, who soon moved to Pack Square South, leaving Miss L. M. in the old home place by herself (1906-1907 directory). It seems reasonable to surmise, then, that the Waddells moved into 55 Grove Street sometime in 1907, since the 1907-1908 directory lists them as living there.

Meanwhile, this directory still listed Asbury (alone; not with Ella) as boarding at 172 South French Broad.  He and Ella first turn up living together at 44 South French Broad in the 1909 directory (presumably updated and printed late in 1908).  So they must have rented the house from the Waddells in late 1908 or early 1909–at least a year after their marriage.

And what do we know about this now long disappeared house?

The House Behind the Big House

To at least partially answer this question, I am able to combine guesswork with some Sanborn map measurements and some detailed verbatim contemporary accounts.

44 South French Broad was a roughly 800 square foot, single-story (according to Whisnant family recollections) structure, not counting about 360 square feet of porches at front and rear.  On the map above, it shows up as markedly smaller than most houses in the area–“the only real small house in the neighborhood,” my father recalled years later. This house was home to Asbury, Ella and their children (three of them by 1914) for about sixteen years.

One of my relatively few frustrations about doing this blog has been that I have too frequently had to infer the micro from the macro (as in my earlier post Ella, Asbury and the State Hospital at Morganton: From Social and Institutional to Personal History).  I am still having to do some of that here, but fortunately it occurred to me thirty years ago to record long interviews with my father (almost a decade before he died) and his two older sisters Azile (AZ-ah-lee, a palindrome on Ella’s mother’s name Eliza) and Bertha. The rest of this post, and much of the one that follows, draws upon what turned out to be fairly fine-grained interviews.  I have rearranged some of the responses to create an understandable sequential narrative.  

I include detail from these interviews not because it is dramatic or unusual (in general it is not).   Instead it is because the circumstances, daily life and (ultimately) memories of a white working-class family living within close daily proximity to with an upper-class family (but not as employees) seem to me to be marked more sharply by that proximity than they probably would have been had the Whisnant family lived in a working-class white neighborhood.  

Asbury, Ella, John [L], Bertha [C], and Azile [R] about 1915.

Asbury, Ella, John [L], Bertha [C], and Azile [R], 1915 or 1916.

Ella and Asbury’s first months together were a challenge: marriage in early November 1907, Ella’s move to Asheville and her first pregnancy (before year’s end), their first weeks and months of living together (perhaps initially with the Simses at 172 South French Broad, where Asbury had been boarding, and a search for new quarters.

Infant Whisnant gravestone, Riverside Cemetery. Photo by David E. Whisnant, November 20, 2015

Infant Whisnant gravestone, Riverside Cemetery. Photo by David E. Whisnant, November 20, 2015

By September 1908 they were in the Waddell rental house at 44 South French Broad. Their first child, a son, was born on September 9.  Riverside Cemetery records show that he died the same day.  His small headstone said “Infant Whisnant.”

Daughter Azile was born in January 1910, perhaps–records are unclear–as a twin with a second daughter, Mary.  Unaccountably, Mary appears in the 1910 census, but not thereafter.  Azile does not appear until the 1920 census (and thereafter).   Another daughter (Bertha) came along in 1913, and my father in 1914.  Ella was thirty-nine when “Infant Whisnant” was born/died, and forty-five when my father was born.  Between thirty-six and forty-five months of pregnancy, five (likely, it seems to me) births, and at least one death (possibly two) in six years.

As I pointed out in a previous post (Mid-Course Correction: Ella Goes to (Mid-Course) Asheville 1907), it was in any case “late in the day” for Asbury and Ella to embark upon the family project.  “I imagine,” Bertha reflected many years later,

he was waiting until they could get enough to kind of get started on.  We rented the house, and the best I can remember, back in those days I think they started out paying about $12.00 a month in rent.

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

November 1910 issue of The Motorman and Conductor, official journal of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America (A. A. of S. & E. R. E. of A.), of which Asheville workers were Division No. 128.

If $12.00 per month is correct, it was not an inexpensive rental.  In 1911, Asheville street railway employees with more than three years’ service (Asbury had seven by 1908) were paid about 21 cents/hour.  At that rate (or maybe less), Asbury would have worked 57 hours for $12.00–or  nearly seven days at his usual nine hours/day.

My father’s memory of the house was fairly detailed in some respects: “It was probably the poorest house in the neighborhood,” he said,

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 818

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 818. This rather baroque model is not an exception.  Cook stove designs in this catalog  frequently featured elaborately-cast decorative fruits, flowers, trees, vines and other natural motifs.  Depending upon size, this stove weighed 360-460 lbs.

but it was a good neighborhood to live in. [It] was a three-room house.  It had one room that everybody slept in, you might say lived in.  It had two beds, and I slept with Daddy and the two girls slept with Mother.

 And it had a big kitchen that we ate in and cooked in and so forth.  And it had a little bathroom on the back porch.  You had to go out on the back porch and kind of turn a corner and then you went into the bathroom.  And of course the bathroom was nothing more than a toilet.  So bathing was done in the kitchen, using a washtub and water heated on the kitchen stove.  And we bathed in the washtub. 

Interestingly, his sisters’ memories were more detailed than his own–perhaps partly because they were about ten and thirteen years old when the family moved out of this house, while my father was about nine.

“The way I remember it,” Bertha said after more than seventy years,

it was built as a home for the servants of a family who lived on Grove Street, whose property was right next to ours. . . .  [It] had a lovely big back yard, and mother had a huge garden that bordered on the sunken tennis court that belonged to these people from which we rented it.  But we were never allowed to . . .  play tennis or anything like that.

My mother loved the outdoors, and she raised all the vegetables that we ate, summer and winter, practically on this little garden plot. And the [back?] edge of the lot

as Bertha phrased it rather poetically, was

surrounded by lilac bushes,

and they were huge;

they just screened the view

of everything beyond that.

And they were white and purple.

Google Images

Outside to Inside

44 S. French Broad house footprint

44 S. French Broad house footprint from Sanborn map above.  Narrow dimension on both large legs of the L is about 15 feet.

Bertha called the house as “a comfortable little . . .  frame bungalow.”  As you entered, she said,

from the front porch after coming up two flights of real steep rock steps from the street,  there was a 

Remaining rock wall at 44 South French Broad Avenue, ca. 1890. Social Security Building in background. Photo by David E. Whisnant

Remaining rock wall at 44 South French Broad Avenue, Waddell estate, ca. 1890. Social Security Building in background. Photo by David E. Whisnant (2015)

 little entrance hall that was three-sided, and to the right was this room I’m speaking of, and to the left was a bedroom, and from that bedroom you went into the dining room, and from that room you went into the kitchen.

And from the dining room, there was a doorway out onto the porch, and the house was built in 

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903). Both the $20.00 and the $30.00 deluxe model featured the pull chain.

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903). Both the $20.00 and the $30.00 deluxe model featured the pull chain.  Decoration vaguely echoes wall art in a Roman villa?  In any case: high art deployed for a quotidian purpose.

 an L-shape, and this door came out onto the back porch just to the left of the L.  And right at the end of the L to the right was an outdoor toilet.  We didn’t have a bathtub, didn’t have a shower,  just had this little outdoor toilet.  We had to pull a cord to get it to flush. 

And there were two windows, one off the front porch and one to the side, and it had rather pretty floors . . . . They were great big pine . . . floors, but they weren’t refinished particularly nicely, But it was a comfortable, warm house, as far as I can remember.

So how was this “comfortable little frame bungalow” furnished?  I am not sure.  Only one decorative item that I know of survives.  A few letters and possibly a few purchase receipts may also remain, but they are not available to me.  So what follows is my best guess.

Most of the illustrations of furniture items I have included here come from Sears Roebuck catalogs of the period.  Whether Asbury and Ella actually ordered from Sears Roebuck, I have no idea.   The 1907-1908 city directory lists twelve furniture dealers, and newspapers carried display advertisements for a number of dealers (most without images), so local sources were available.

In any case, elements of the dominant design paradigm (e.g., oak–or sometimes ash–wood, shallow machine carvings hinting at luxury and opulence, turned legs, probably a bow-front drawer in anything that had drawers) are easily recognizable.  Such items (from Sears Roebuck or not) were ubiquitous in the period.

Asheville Citizen-Times, December 22, 1907, p. 11.

Asheville Citizen-Times, December 22, 1907, p. 11.

Asbury's parents Jackson P. and Eliza S. Whisnant, about 1900

Asbury’s parents Jackson P. and Eliza S. Whisnant, about 1900

One everyday item from Asbury’s family appears to corroborate my guesses: the oak (turned-spindles, surface-machined decorative back) rocking chair in which his parents Jackson Pinckney (1839-1918) and Eliza Sims Whisnant (1844-1924) were photographed probably around 1900.  The chair could well have come out of a Sears Roebuck catalog of the period:

So what might a small houseful of such objects looked like?  “One of the bedrooms,” Bertha recalled,

Sears Roebuck catalog (1898), p. 1046

Sears Roebuck catalog (1898), p. 1046.  I have failed to find the white bowl and pitcher that would have been placed here.

served as what we called a little parlor . . . .  But they had a bed in that room, and a    dresser, and it was the only room in the house that had a rug in it.  And we had a little washstand.  And we had a beautiful white bowl and pitcher that they used to use on the washstand.

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 1042.

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 1042.

It was a very attractive little room, as I look back on it.  Had a fireplace [and a] double bed. With a feather bed on top of the mattress.  Which made the bed real high. 

And [the room] had two windows in it, one of which opened out on the front porch.  And we had a rather attractive oil lamp that I still have.  [My] father had given it to my mother as a gift before they were married. The better things that they had . . . were in this room, which we seldom used.

The other bedroom had a fireplace, just back of the one in the bedroom to the right.  And this is the way the house was heated.  Later we got some kind of a coal stove heater.  I don’t know what

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 821

Sears Roebuck catalog (1898), p. 821

they called it, just a big iron stove, and put it in that bedroom.

But in that bedroom, there were two double beds . . . and a trunk that sat under the window between the beds.

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 569

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 569






And I can’t remember the sleeping arrangements in the bedroom where we had the two beds.  ‘Cause there was nothing definite about it, seemed like I can remember myself in one bed at one time and in another bed at another time.

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 1032.

Sears Roebuck catalog (1903), p. 1032.

We very seldom ate in the dining room.  We had a real nice dining room set with ladder back chairs with a cane bottom . . . . It was oak.  And we had a buffet . . . that had a large top to it with a mirror in it.

Fluidity within Stability: Who Slept Where, and Why?

Years ago I read Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, which is still on my shelf of “books that changed the way I think about things.” Through Hall I became aware of proxemics–how people define, understand, relate to, and behave toward one another in spaces of certain sorts.

As I have read these interviews over the  years, I continue to be struck by two inter-related proxemic factors: The first is that, however modest and small the South French Broad house was, the adult children after many years referred to it in candid but endearing terms.  There was this room, which (mostly) always looked like this, and was the site of certain daily activities, and there was that room, which looked another reliably stable way, and in which other activities could be expected.

But there was another factor–locations and patterns of sleeping–that the siblings reported on rather disparately, suggesting that it may have been fluid in ways that others were not.

My father recalled–unambiguously and as a fixed condition–that one of the three [sic] rooms was the one

everybody slept in.  You might say lived in.  It had two beds, and I slept with Daddy and the two girls slept with Mother. 

But Bertha recalled (convincingly) that–contrary to her younger brother’s report–there were four rooms rather than three, and that the sleeping pattern was unstable–so much so that she did not completely trust her memory.  “Let’s see,” she mused,

did we all sleep in that one room, or did someone sleep in [the] little half-bed that was in the corner of the dining room? . . .  And I can’t remember the sleeping arrangements in the bedroom where we had the two beds.  ‘Cause there was nothing definite about it. Seems like I can remember myself in one bed at one time and in another bed at another time. . . . .

Sears Roebuck catalog (1902), p. 763

Sears Roebuck catalog (1902), p. 763

It turns out that in fact no one was sure who  (or when anyone) slept in that “little iron half-bed that was in the corner of the dining room.

And they had a  little iron half bed, which one of us slept in, I don’t know which.  There was John and Azile and I, and I don’t know which one of us slept in it.

Azile, the eldest of the three siblings, recalled the arrangements as being even more fluid.  The room with the two double beds again:

My daddy slept over in the left bed, and I slept with him sometimes,  . . . [And] when the little bed was between the big beds, I slept there sometimes.  And Mama slept over here.  And [undecipherable] children slept with her. . . . John slept with Mama.  He was the youngest, you see.  . . .  But in the winter time  we all slept [indecipherable] wouldn’t we, Bertha? . . . There was a single bed in the dining room.  And I don’t know that that was an extra single bed, besides the one that was in there in the bedroom, because I can’t remember. 

I am unsure what to make of these few sketchy facts about the interior of the house, particularly with regard to sleeping arrangements.  Four factors seem perhaps to have been involved:

  • The house was too small to have private sleeping spaces for five people, even if the girls had doubled up.
  • With single-room fireplaces and a small coal heater the only means available to heat the house, winter-time heating was a challenge. Exterior walls were likely not insulated, since such insulation was rare before 1940. Heating only one space, especially at night, would have been the obvious choice.
  • As Bertha recalled in an interview many years later, both she and my father suffered somewhat chronically from asthma, which could have influenced sleeping locations (especially during heating season, when coal smoke would have been a factor).
  • Asbury had grown up in a (no doubt) small house as the second of six children, and both his parents as sixth of ten.  Ella similarly had six siblings,and her mother was one of twelve.  Hence the normative social and cultural experience within their families of origin was likely that sleeping spaces (probably not even clearly delineated by walls and doors) were occupied by multiple members of the family, and that assignments to them fluctuated.

This last factor is partly corroborated by a brief bit of my interview with my father.  I asked him about the house on Cane Creek (the edge of McDowell County, near present US 64) where my grandfather had lived when he was in his teens.  It was, he said,

really a two-room house.  They lived in one room, and the kitchen or the . . . they called it the “little house”– the “big house” and the little house.  The little house was a kitchen, and they were joined by a back porch.

Thus whatever comforts and conveniences the members of that family had, a separate,  regular and private sleeping place for each was not one of them.  And their recollections of living in their small house make clear that they noticed the proxemics of those arrangements.

Class Difference and “Nice People”

As early as the 1887 Asheville city directory, “colored” cooks and servants were employed at a number of Grove Street residences.  In 1910 (after Asbury and Ella had moved to 44

Asheville city directory, 1907-1908

Asheville city directory, 1907-1908

South French Broad, the Waddell family staff included at least (say city directories) a cook, a “domestic” [servant], and a chauffeur.  And a number of houses in the area already had garages–at a time when automobiles were still rare and expensive.  One could buy a Model T Ford in Asheville as early as 1908, but it was costly:$700 (about 18,000 2015 dollars).

The class markers between the main house at 55 Grove Street and 44 South French Broad were many and unmistakable: home ownership vs. renting; large house vs. small one, large and elaborately landscaped grounds vs. small vegetable garden, automobile vs. no automobile, high-paying job vs. wage labor, and servants vs. no servants.  Recalling one of the daily reminders, Bertha later said that the Waddells had

a huge garden that bordered on the sunken tennis court that belonged to these people from which we rented it. But we were never allowed to . . . play tennis or anything like that.

My father recalled the servants.  The chauffeur, he said,

had rooms – he and the maid had a separate little house up there, or two maids – I don’t know how many they had – on the property.

The class markers that most fascinated my then elementary school-aged father were the Waddells’ two Cadillacs, housed in a big double garage.  They were “touring cars; they weren’t sedans.”  And they were both bridge and barrier. He spent hours talking with the chauffeur and looking at the cars:

I remember his chauffeur very well. We used to go up to his garage and hang around and talk to him. The called him N—– John. That was his name. That’s all we ever knew him by, was N—– John. He was a chauffeur and wore a uniform and kept up those two Cadillacs.

Model 30 Cadillac Touring Car, Model 30 (1912). Wikimedia Commons. First car with electric lighting and starting. Cruised at 40-45 mph with 30 h.p., 4-cylinder engine. Cost $1,890 (=$47,250 in 2015 dollars). Mr. Waddell owned two of them. Wikimedia Commons.

Model 30 Cadillac Touring Car, Model 30 (1912). Wikimedia Commons. First car with electric lighting and starting. Cruised at 40-45 mph with 30 h.p., 4-cylinder engine. Cost $1,890 (about 47,250 2015 dollars). Mr. Waddell owned two of them.

The garage was, it seems, something of a liminal space: a chauffeur whose very name was a racial epithet, but who nevertheless wore a uniform, had responsibility for two expensive automobiles that he got to drive frequently, and welcomed the company of a young and curious white boy.

Aspects of that life the Whisnant children experienced as benefits.   They could wander at will on at least some of the Waddell property that lay between their own house and the big house.  They could walk to school through that lot, and Asbury was always free to “trespass” each time he walked to and from work:

[He] could walk out of [our] back yard and across another man’s property–the big Waddell estate there–and be at the streetcar barn in five minutes, which was just across one more street.

Hence a “tremendous” house (my father called it years later), two Cadillacs and a sunken tennis court notwithstanding, my interviews revealed no ill feeling, resentment, or anything of the kind on the part of the Whisnants with regard to the Waddells and their privileged life.

Hence one might describe the relationship between the rentor/renter families as an amicable and peacefully demarcated distancing.  In none of my interviews did anyone offer any description of either the Waddells themselves or any aspect of the inside of their grand house.  No one recalled a visit with Mr. or Mrs. Waddell, as my father did with the black chauffeur.  I have no proof that such things did not occur, but also none that they did.  The Waddells, my father said, “were nice people; they were nice to us all the time we lived there.”

Of what the niceness consisted one can only wonder, but whatever it was, some of it crept into the children’s memories of their rented house.  There was a “real nice dining room set,” some “better things” in one of the rooms, and a “beautiful white pitcher and bowl” on the wash-stand.

Some other bits of evidence suggest that perhaps the house at 44 South French Broad was itself something of a liminal space, proximate enough to the big house to benefit from the estate grounds, and maybe even–in their own view–to place the Whisnant family slightly above where they might otherwise have been as a workingman’s family of five.

It was after all, as my father recalled, “a nice neighborhood”:

The one, two, three [houses] above there on the same side of the street, and the ones across, were very nice houses, big two-story houses, and not well-to-do people, but they certainly weren’t paupers lived in those houses.

Census data from 1910 about family size and occupation confirm a boy’s impression: Walking from 44 South French Broad up toward Patton Avenue, one encountered at No. 40 a broker and his wife and four children; at No. 36 a lawyer and his wife and three young children; at No. 32 a painting contractor (from Ohio); at No. 22 a tanner and his two elementary-aged sons; at No. 16 a 58 year-old man who told the census enumerator he was “a Capitalist,” sharing the house with a marble and tombstone dealer; and at No. 10 a young farmer and his wife from West Virginia.  Bertha also recalled some “railroad people” close by.

Brief Concluding Rumination on a Life Maxim: All Bags Are Mixed



To begin with the demographically obvious: Asbury and Ella and their family were fortunate to have the situation they had at 44 South French Broad.  Asheville’s population had grown by over 700% since the railroad arrived in 1880, and a high percentage of city directory addresses during this boom era included “bds” [boards].  Asbury had boarded for seven years, as I have previously reported, but his family did not have to take the “bds” route around the housing shortage.

Asheville had not been inattentive to the need to develop infrastructure to keep pace with the dramatic rise in population.  As historian Douglas

Muddy Patton Avenue, looking toward the Square, 1879. Pack Memorial Public Library

Muddy Patton Avenue, looking toward the Square, 1879. Pack Memorial Public Library

Swaim summarizes reformist mayor  Charles Blanton’s efforts (1889-1893), some of the muddy streets had gotten paved, some sidewalks built, wide-open Asheville’s houses of prostitution got shut down, and a new Board of Health was given broad powers.

Moreover, it turned out that the huge lilac-adorned Waddell lot was something of a social, cultural, environmental and technological oasis within a fast-growing, somewhat turbulent

Asheville City Water Works, ca. 1883. E. E. Brown Collection, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

Asheville City Water Works, ca. 1883. E. E. Brown Collection, D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

city. It was in a centrally located neighborhood with city water and sewer (introduced in the early 1880s).  Yes, you had to pull the chain to flush the back porch toilet, but the tank refilled on its own.

As for electric power, D. C. Waddell, Jr. himself had been an officer of the North Carolina Electric Power Company, headquartered in Asheville, since its formation in 1899.  In 1910, NCEPC absorbed the W. T. Weaver plants on the French Broad and Ivy rivers, and was installing auxiliary steam plants that would boost its total capacity above 12 megawatts.  One may safely assume, it seems, that a few kilowatts found their way down to the Waddell estate.

Asheville City Directory, 1906-1907

Asheville City Directory, 1906-1907

To conclude (as this section began) with the obvious: The Whisnants were white, and 1910 (our sample year) was in the midst of the Jim Crow era, whose legal strictures and cultural norms were pervasive and entrenched in Asheville.  The city had its black business people and professionals, to be sure, but vastly more blacks worked as cooks, maids, laundresses, porters, laborers, janitors, and in similar occupations.  And the Blanton-era reforms had barely risen even to the level of “separate but equal.”

But how did this mixed-bag framework and situation sort out for the white working class Whisnant family on the Waddell estate?

However they felt about it, it was a landlord/tenant arrangement.  The racial and class divides were well marked, if selectively permeable in a few respects.  Keep the kids off the sunken tennis court.  The toilet is on the back porch. Chop wood and buy coal to cook and keep warm.  Bathe in the washtub.  Don’t forget the ice for the refrigerator.  Walk to work (seven days a week), to school, to church.  Do the laundry in the laundry/bathing tub.

Trolleys in the Land of the Sky, p. 4.

Bailey, Canfield and Cox, Trolleys in the Land of the Sky, p. 4.

Nevetheless, Asbury had a stable union job, there was space to grow much of he family’s food, the house was “warm and comfortable,” and a streetcar line ran conveniently from the Depot (down by the river) up South French Broad, turned through Philip Street (bordering the Waddell estate) and then up toward the Square.

44 South French Broad was, then, a mixed bag in a number of respects.  But the benefit/cost ratio was enough greater than 1.0 for them to continue renting from the Waddells for more than fifteen years.

In my next post, I will inquire into the patterns of daily life that spun themselves out within this venue.


Asheville city directories (1883-1910); David C. Bailey, Joseph M. Canfield and Harold E. Cox, Trolleys in the Land of the Sky (2000); Buncombe County Register of Deeds; Joshua Darty (Director, Riverside Cemetery), Riverside records research, assisted by cemetery Director Jason Darty; Find-A-Grave; Sears Roebuck Catalog (1898, 1902, 1903); Ali Marshall, “Working on a Building” [on Richard Sharp Smith’s work in Asheville], MountainXpress (2008);  “North Carolina Electrical Power Company,” in Moody’s Manual of Railroads and Corporation Securities 1921); Proceedings of the Bar of Asheville, July 28, 1902, upon the Death of Honorable Thomas Dillard Johnston; Douglas Swaim, Cabins & Castles: The History & Architecture of Buncombe County, North Carolina (1981); David E. Whisnant, Interviews with John K. Whisnant, Bertha Whisnant, and Azile Whisnant Boone (1984-1986).

7 thoughts on “Working Class Family Behind the Big House: Asbury, Ella, and Their Children: 1907-1918

  1. bob gelder

    I read your report about living in the small house behind the big house with great interest. I was the president of Waddell, Sluder, Adams and Co for many years and did some similar research on D C Waddell, Jr. I have some pictures of the big house if you are interested in seeing them. The garage was torn down only about 15-20 years ago.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Thank you so very much for your comment. I would be delighted to see the photos you have of the Waddells’ “big house” on Grove Street! I searched a great deal for such a photo, online and at both Pack Memorial and UNCA libraries, but never found anything at all. If you also by chance have other photos of the family, etc., I would love to see those, too. I hope you have enjoyed whatever posts you have read. By now there are about two dozen of them out there.

      I am following up this brief comment with an email to you.

  2. Michael Arrowood

    A fascinating article. Thank you for your research! It appears that we are related. Jackson Pinkney Whisnant and Eliza Sims Whisnant were my great-great grandparents. My great-grandfather was Charles P. Whisnant, and he worked his his brother Asbury on the Asheville streetcars circa 1902-04. There is a photo of them posing with the streetcar crews in one of the Asheville history books. But Charlie Whisnant soon returned to his home in the Cane Creek section of Rutherford/McDowell counties, where he lived until his death in 1969 (I knew him when I was little). I still have his Asheville streetcar conductor coat, well preserved. Your article provides a great deal of new information to me about “Uncle ‘Bury”, whom I frequently heard about from family members. Thank you!

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Michael: Thank you for your comment. The connection is certainly there. I knew Charlie worked for the street railway company (I think there is a comment to that effect in an earlier post, and I think he was in the photo there, but don’t know which one he was. If you know, I would appreciate your input.) We also went to hunt down “on Cane Creek” a number of times, and always visited “Uncle Charlie” and the others along the road, especially Herman and “Loly” who still holds the record for the best biscuits I ever ate. If you could lay the motorman’s jacket out on some neutral background and take a reproducible photo of it, I would love to add it to the blog (with proper credit, of course). Also: If you have any information/artifacts relating to Frank, I would be interested to learn of them. Please feel free to share out the posts as you encounter them. I like to have as many subscribers as possible. Thanks again– David

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  5. Michael Arrowood

    Hello, David! As you can see, I’m a terrible procrastinator. However, I do have photos of the motorman’s jacket that I inherited from Charlie P. Whisnant. Two photos – one a general photo of the jacket, and a closeup of the brass buttons inscribed with APL Co. (Asheville Power & Light, I assume). Here’s the deal: I would like to give you the jacket outright. I think you could do a better job of preserving and protecting it than I can, and you’ve done such great work on Asbury’s history, that I think the jacket belongs in your collection of artifacts. If you’re interested, please give me a call at 828-290-3180 or email me at Who knows, this could be the only Asheville motorman’s jacket still in existence, especially from 118 years ago! Condition is pretty good, given the age.

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