If you are looking for a comprehensive chronological history of Asheville and the surrounding area this is it! Lou Harshaw is a local historian, writer, photographer and a native of Asheville and has many merits to her career such as: Publicity Director of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, professional photographer, and lecturer of several classes from UNCA to Mars Hill University. I had the pleasure of working her personally assisting in teaching classes with her through Mars Hill University and I have never met a more knowledgeable person of the region in which she lives.
The book is broken down into three sections, “The Village, The Town, and The City,” and covers topics from ancient origins up to the present day modern city. This is one of the staples of my personal regional history collection and I would suggest it to newcomers and long-time residents alike. What makes this book unique is that it written through the voice of a life-long resident.
Therefore, with her voice I will close:
It might be that now, the beginning of a new millennium when so many vital decisions are upon us, a backward look should be taken with the idea of enriching what lies ahead. If we wander the pathways of the past, we might indeed discover the bright highways of the future. -Lou Harshaw
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled up to 265 Charlotte Street this past Friday night. I knew a little bit about the building, a little bit about the event, and an even littler bit about the hosting organization. I blushingly admit I was skeptical about the “Diamond Ball.” I was coming in as an outsider to a soirée thrown by a very reputable league, sponsored by a patriarchal business that has perhaps the strongest back bone in Asheville, even surviving the Great Depression. The Junior League of Asheville was founded in 1925, and Wick and Greene Jewelers in 1926. The two have been leaders in the community, often rubbing elbows, and taking charitable journeys together ever since. I knew I was entering a world of great successes Friday night, but also a world of strong community presences that reach back decades. Truth be told, I was nervous. However, I’m always looking for a reason to discover…and to wear a pretty dress, of course, so I went.
The writer in me took in the atmosphere first: the smells, the sounds, the ambiance. I got the warm fuzzies immediately. My high heel shoes clicked delightfully against the hardwoods that I knew had experienced history itself traipsing all over them. I could tell already that this was a building that knew things. The Manor Inn served as an upscale resort in the early twentieth century during Asheville’s wellness heyday. Naturally, dwarfed in size by the nearby Grove Park Inn, this building had much to prove…which it did. Architects from across the country added bits of flavor to the structure that ultimately took on a tudoresque and colonial revivalist feel. Surrounding cottages followed suit, and so did Asheville. Buildings all over downtown would idolize such architectural tastes and make for a beautiful “lost generation” stomping ground.
I felt like I opened the front door to this magical place Friday night and became whisked right into that roaring era that no one can seem to forget. I was surrounded by newsboy hats, flapper’s dresses, sequined headbands, and vibrant bow ties. I could hear big band music in the back, but with a fiddle player touting a specific style that reminded me I was in The South indeed. A genuinely-dressed flapper carried the sought after single-carat, 15,000 dollar diamond around for all to admire (donated to be raffled by Wick and Greene Jewelers). It took about fourteen seconds for me to realize these women could throw a par-tay.
I’m a huge advocate of the idea of “work hard and play hard”. I think people who give such large amounts of their lives and energies to charity and voluntarism should know how to have a ball, and do so with the community who supports them. I just wasn’t sold yet. I wanted to know how I would be received in this prestigious group, and I wanted to get to know these women on a more personal level. I was by no means trying to hold them under a microscope, yet human nature left me slightly guilty of doing so.
I set out to meet Keri Wilson, the Asheville chapter’s president. I thought I would have to ask around and seek her out. I pictured her to be surrounded by important people, finding it difficult to get away. However, I would soon find out that the bubbly brunette who ushered me in with a smile not even an Oscar winner could fake would turn out to be her. I’d never gotten such a warm greeting. She was eager to welcome me in personally, as well as the askasheville organization. She directed me where to find food and beverages, without forgetting to give Wick and Greene jewelers a chorus of praise for all they’d done. She was the first representation of the Junior League I’d ever encountered and the impression was a breath of fresh air. I wanted to meet more of these women.
A group of J.L. members with the diamond courtesy of Wick and Greene Jewelers (Keri Wilson, president on far left)
After mingling a bit I came across J.L. member, Melissa Kledis. This charismatic woman had a huge energy about her that lured me in quickly. After talking for a few minutes I learned that this Edward Jones advisor, school volunteer, wife, and mother of three was one of the co-chairs of the event. I had trouble imagining how such an incredibly busy woman had so much stamina left in her, but I realized after talking with her it was because she believed in every single thing she did. In that ten to fifteen minutes we talked, she spoke passionately about her job, her children, her wonderful husband, the terrific family she had married into (who introduced her to the league), and the tremendous opportunities to serve her community she would not have had without the Junior League. This woman’s busy schedule truly was her reward, and I could see her wearing it as plainly as the feathers in her hair. This woman felt empowered by her efforts, but was focused most on empowering others.
Melissa Kledis and her husband.
By the end of the night I sat thinking in a beautiful wing-backed chair by the door. I could feel the air conditioning getting fresh with my leg from the antiquated vent beneath me. I noted the air conditioner had a certain smell, like the one in the house I grew up in, which was coincidentally was built circa 1920. I felt so at ease now, with the skepticism erased, and a sense of community embracing me. I’d had a magical night escaping to my favorite era, but the bigger roar came from within the passions of the incredible women I had the pleasure of meeting. The Junior League’s Mission Statement reads, ” “The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. (AJLI) is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.” I found it to be more than accurate.
I will gladly support The Junior League of Asheville in any way I can. Their current missions have focused on helping those falling below the poverty line, which in today’s economy is far too many. Most days it is people in need that these women care about becoming important to. They have been working closely with the Homeward Bound project to put an end to homelessness in the Asheville area. They have also been cooperating with the ABCCM and Children First organizations. When the community supports the Junior League at fundraisers like the Diamond Ball they are really supporting the faces they see everyday, and making far-reaching contributions to those who need it most. These are the fruits of the grander roar these women create every day.
Everyone knows that Asheville has some sort of special “it” quality. There’s something to the food, the music, the climate, the architecture, and the people. There’s just a soul present that many other cities simply cannot contend with. Asheville has held onto a quality many cities have lost in sky-scrapers, public transportation systems, and technology. It’s funny really, because this apparition, this spirit, draws artists, celebrities, and intellectuals as strongly as a magnet lures metal. I set out to discover why.
I started researching my city a couple years ago, which prompted me to tour my own city through La Zoom Tours. After the research and the tours, I chocked up the town’s charisma to a couple different things: it’s birth, and it’s death. In the late 1700s Asheville was nothing but a convenient patch of dirt, sitting in a valley at the crossroads of a Cherokee trading route. They say real estate is all about location, location, location. This meeting place of sorts just happened to have a nice river running through it, and some trails elevated low enough for the horses to hoof it without falling sideways off a cliff. The white settlers came in, realized its potential, and noticed it wasn’t hard to look at either. We all know how the rest of that story went…luckily the hills kept their secrets and preserved a lot of that early heritage with folk art, and a respect for nature unparalleled in much of our country.
The death of Asheville was as important as the birth. What death? Some may be wondering how they missed the memo. Asheville became a huge part of the jazz age, and one of the major hubs of the 20s scene. It’s this flashy era that Asheville can trace some it’s progressive roots. The city became a regular stomping ground for the Fitzgeralds and their cronies (I think Hemingway actually made it Beer City U.S.A. back then). That on top of Thomas Wolfe hailing from here, the city was a literary hot spot. Intellectuals and writers had now entered the scene. The ingredients that make Asheville were in the pot and boiling. People were building new buildings next to the old, rubbing elbows with Vanderbilts, and mixing deep southern culture with new ideas, causing ignition. It was a city of steam, and it was smoldering from the inside out.
Sadly, Asheville couldn’t hide from the stock market crash in ’29. Asheville had the most debt per capita of any city in America. There was no money left, and the charming streets once filled with trolleys, bootlegged liquor, and new money had no more hustle and bustle. Blood stains from self-inflicted wounds sadly decorated the walls of too many banks, and too many bedroom walls in the upscale Montford neighborhood. For the next 50 years much of the city looked like a ghost town, a shell of what once was. The city had died.
Now for the triumphant part. Here in Asheville, we believe in ghosts. We believe that the soul of the city that hosted so much life would not go gently into the night. A city that produced singers like Roberta Flack, war heroes like Kiffin Rockwell,and awe inspiring evangelists like Billy Graham would not simply succumb to becoming a “once upon a time”. This was a city with too much presence. People started pouring in, enamored with what was left behind. The city was like a beautiful, intricate bees nest preserved by time, built in a season that thrived. However, those bees work was done, and they had laid down their duties. They became Zelda Fitzgeralds dying in fires on a knoll in Montford, or artists knowing moonshine all to well, or angels knowing they could never go home again. They didn’t thrive, but instead left legacies in the form of art deco buildings, great literary works, soulful music, and museums. We were left untouched French gothic buildings, art deco masterpieces (one of the greatest collections in the nation), and the largest privately owned home in America; ours to tour. Why? We couldn’t afford anything else, so we held onto that abandoned space and filled it with art, breathing sweet honeysuckle scented life back into its spirit, and gave birth to this town once again. If you ask me, this Mecca of art and humanity should be one any bucket list in the world.
I got more acquainted with this when I toured my own city on a La Zoom tour, and feel I’ve truly tasted it now. La Zoom is a comedic tour featuring all the hot spots I mentioned. Tours run daily, and meet on Biltmore Avenue right outside the French Broad Food Co-op (which is a great place to buy your local beer to take on the tour)! After this tour you’ll have a lengthy list of places to visit time and time again. Bring a change of pants though, in case your pee yourself laughing!
The best way to tour a city is to know it, actually meet it, date it, and learn its history. Don’t we see new places for that very reason? Don’t we travel to become part of something charming we’ve been bored for, and to find something steeped in a past we’ll weave a connection to?
I’ve had that priviledge, here in my own city. A 3 mile ride over a once abandoned railroad track did it for me. It wasn’t the ambiance of the French Broad trailing beside me, or the delightful park we stopped at to picnic and pose for family pictures at, though those places were among the highlights. For me it was the story. It was learning the track had sat there for nearly 60 years awaiting a promise. The track had been useful once, told it would feed into bigger better tracks, and become a part of what Asheville was at the time; a city of railroads leading to industrial dreams, or just public transportation. The Craggy Mountain Line was promised it would be part of the buzz that eventually had no room for it. People forgot.
However, a man was born on August 10, 1964, that would save the railroad. This man rode out of the womb on a steam engine with a dream as long as the track itself. An avid trainlover, with a passion bordering insanity, his destiny would be to fulfil this railroad’s promise. It would be a functioning part of Asheville one day. Even better, it would be saved in the ninth hour, preserving the last of Asheville’s trolley , and usher in an era of old to the new generation. It would bring joy to the smiling faces of children and train enthusiasts everywhere. It would become more than hoped for, and would stand the test of time unlike the more prestigious rails that once thrived downtown. It would carry those cars on its tired rails and reign once again. It would become the little track that could.
My blessing? I married into this dream, wedding the son of that man gifted to the lonely track. I get to become a part of this history up close and personal, sharing my knowledge of it with the world. This is as much a part of Asheville’s quaint history as anything I’ve seen.
A work in progress, the track will hopefully be open full time in the coming months. Now, however, keep your eyes peeled for special holiday events, birthday party opportunities, and Saturday night rides. Taste history, and become it’s family. You’ll feel the dream when you first step foot on this line, the hallmark of perseverence.