More Backstory on the Industrial Leagues: The Sportswomen
by Rob Neufeld
“Mama read a lot and was interested in languages,” Florence Cathey, her ninth child, once said, reflecting on her childhood in Candler.
Florence’s father, James Thaddeus Cathey, and mother, Ida Lou Eva Wright, had left their productive acreage along Pole Creek to rent land from Eva’s brother, Zeb, on Justice Ridge Road in 1923—just so their children could walk to Candler Academy, an early school.
Eva Cathey was 50 years old at the time of the move. She had eleven children—the youngest, age ten. Her oldest three children had left home years before; and her fourth, Mary Lee, a dainty girl, had assumed the role of assistant homemaker because of her lameness, brought on by osteomyelitis.
Daughter of Marion Wright, biggest landowner in Pole Creek after the Civil War, Eva had had a tantalizing taste of education herself when she’d been a girl. She had accompanied two brothers to Weaver College (forerunner of Brevard College) in Weaverville to serve as their housekeeper as they studied.
Florence recalled hearing her mother say to her father on numerous occasions, “We have to do better for these children.”
It was at Candler Academy and then at the newly built Candler High School that Florence had become a basketball star.
Basketball was new for girls and was another symbol of changing expectations for women. Industrial teams had already initiated the idea to instill morale in their villagers.
Florence recalled how her first coach, Ed Warrick, had looked at her long legs and big hands, had run her around the Academy grounds a few times, and had said, “you’re in.”
The Academy girls were so motivated, they bought their own uniforms, which included pleated bloomers. At Candler High School, where the girls’ team won three championships, Florence at center had been the Michael Jordan-like leader.
“I shouted the whole time,” Cathey said. “I wanted to win every game.”
Later on, Beacon Mills picked her up for the Industrial League, where she played on a team that introduced short pants and tops with no sleeves.
In her seedling days, Florence had gotten a start playing one-on-one basketball with the same fellow with whom she’d go to dances—Coke Candler, a future basketball coach and county commissioner. Cathey lived on a road which, according to local lore, would one day be named “Girlfriend Road,” allegedly by Coke Candler in honor of Cathey.
With her cousin, Jennie Cathey Robinson, Florence joined the Candler High School championship girls’ basketball team, playing from 1923 to 1926.
Jennie, like Florence, credited her country parents’ aspirations. “There wasn’t a word in the vocabulary they didn’t know,” she said. Maynard Fletcher, a neighbor, “used to come by regularly to hear my father read the ‘Asheville Citizen’ aloud.”
Robinson’s father, Robert Lee Cathey, carted produce, dairy products, and eggs to market twice a week. He also ground sugar cane for molasses and manufactured tool handles. Jennie’s job, as a child, was churning butter. “I tried to knock the bottom out of that churn because I hated that job,” she recalled.
Going into the Depression, Jennie married C. Floyd Robinson, worked, played basketball, raised a family, and paid off the house his father had built, and they had bought.
Florence left high school before graduating to grab a precious job in the sorting department of the newly opened ENKA plant.
In the sorting room, four rows of women spent all day running their hands through skeins of rayon silk, rejecting those in which they found flaws. “You had to work hard to make the quota,” Cathey says. “You had to have your eyes constantly on this bright light.”
Florence stopped working in the mill and playing basketball in order to study at Cecils Business College.
Some of her teammates on the champion Candler High School team went to work for years at the ENKA plant, and participated in games against other factories.
In 1937, the ENKA factory’s women’s basketball team, the Rayonettes, came within one point of winning the national Industrial League championship.