Bent Creek: The forest, the cemetery and the settlers
previously published as 4 parts in Asheville Citizen-Times
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: The Russell Pinkney Lance family c. 1908. Top, l. to r.: Lonnie, Georgia May, Maggie, Fannie, Bertha. Bottom, l. to r.: William, Jessie, Zannie, Russell Pinkney Lance, Hester Case Lance holding Lucy, Bonnie (twin of Lonnie).
Abraham Reynolds, who settled along Bent Creek in 1800, rests in a little family cemetery on federal land that descendants of people buried there want to preserve and protect. The U.S. Forest Service is considering how that might be done in light of its use of the forest as an experimental station to help save Appalachian hardwoods. That generally means keeping things undisturbed in the process of study.
The question is, can an exception be made for a house-sized plot?
Reynolds, great-grandfather of Senator Bob Reynolds, had received seven grants from North Carolina after Buncombe County had been established in 1792, Sara Reynolds Beatty states in a family history held by the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.
“The first deed in 1800,” she notes, “went from his corner—so he may have gotten land prior to 1800, when Buncombe County was Burke or Rutherford County.”
“From 1800 to 1807,” Charles Haller writes in his book, “Pushing the Indians out,” Abraham Reynolds paid 50 shillings per 100 acres” for 1,525 Bent Creek acres, which translates to a nickel an acre in Continental currency.
The forests at that time contained huge trees and little brush.
“The Old Settlers,” William Nesbitt related in his 1941 history of early settlement in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, “state that it was possible for a man to ride a horse almost anywhere he desired, even along the creeks where we now have almost impassable laurel and rhododendron ‘slicks.’”
By the “Old Settlers,” Nesbitt meant Russell Pinkney Lance, Watt Hoxed and William Pressley, three 70- and 80-year-old descendants of original settlers who were still living in the area on property adjacent to the forest. Lance's grandchildren and great-grandchildren have become the principal movers in preserving the Reynolds cemetery today.
Settlers and Cherokees had kept the laurel burned back in their use of the forest, and had enjoyed a friendly co-existence in a hunting and farming division of the economy. Whereas other communities, such as Hominy and Newfound, had block houses to defend against Indian attacks, Bent Creek did not, according to what Beatty could find out.
When the Trail of Tears had been implemented in 1838, Cherokee of Bent Creek relocated to Col. William Thomas’ protected territory in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Getting to know Abraham
Abraham and his wife Mary Leazer, Reynolds who had French and German ancestry, produced their first child, John, in 1797, perhaps in Bent Creek. By 1813, Mary gave birth to their 12th child, Barbara, and died in the process. Abraham was 45; he would live 35 more years.
We get a glimpse of him several years later, when his children were becoming adult.
“Tradition handed down in the Reynolds family,” Beatty writes, indicated that when his 19-year-old daughter, Ann, eloped with John Whitaker McAfee in 1820, “against her father’s wishes … Abraham followed them on a horse but could not stop them. He became so angry that he used harsh words, which caused him to be thrown out of the Baptist Church. So he organized a Methodist Church.”
The Abraham Reynolds cemetery is sometimes cited as the “Old Church Cemetery,” suggesting that Reynolds’ church may have been nearby.
Reynolds seems to fit the model of the Bent Creek settler who used ecological methods to maintain and manage his land. When the property called the “Abraham Randals Place” in Nesbitt’s survey was sold to George Washington Vanderbilt in 1900—after having been bought and held by Col. L.M. Hatch, a Charleston town-builder—the land was described as being in “good condition.”
Accounts of the Bent Creek settlers’ and their descendants’ use of natural resources vary. Even Nesbitt contradicts himself. On the one hand, he states that “the game birds … were very plentiful up to the time Vanderbilt took possession.” On the other hand, he reports that “shortly after the year 1900 … Vanderbilt started his game restoration program.”
Nesbitt writes about the settlers’ use of wood for lumber and charcoal, and connects that to the “drain on the forest,” in terms of billions of board feet. His deduction leaves out the distinction between those who bought land to make a profit, and those who paid to stay.
“They planned for their families to live on that land forever,” Keith Hamlin, Russell Pinkney Lance’s great-grandson, says about the settlers.
Graves and ancestors
The mountain bikes that sometimes ride through the Old Church cemetery pass the burial ground of not only Abraham and Mary, but also Robert P. Lance and an N. Lance, who’d died in 1898.
Both names are mysteries for me at present. I find no Robert P. Lance in any record. A family notation states that Robert’s stone had been moved to another cemetery before a 1986 survey. The Lance-Case cemetery in Sandy Bottoms, about three miles east; and the Bent Creek Baptist Church cemetery, located between the two, show no Robert P.
N. Lance’s stone indicates an infant death. In the United States in 1890, half of all deaths were of children under the age of 2. The bereavement was no less painful than now. One stone in the Lance-Case cemetery reads: OUR PET LOYED, July 1907-May 15, 1909.
In the 1750s and 1760s, four brothers Lentz, who’d become Lance by the 1800 census, had fled persecution in the Palatinate region of Germany and arrived in three different ports. They’d all fought as Patriots in the Revolutionary War and moved to present-day Mecklenburg County in 1785. Peter and his wife, Flora, had moved to Buncombe County with their sons as the next generation came along.
William Pinkney Lance, Peter’s great-great-grandson, occupied Bent Creek land originally owned by Abraham Reynolds. Lance names associated with Bent Creek tracts all hark back to Reynolds purchases.
The Bud Lance Place, Tract No. 46, contained the cemetery.
“The Old Settlers tell the story,” Nesbitt recounts, about how Abraham Reynolds, a lay preacher, “was cradling wheat at the present cemetery site when he found a bare spot in the shape of a grave or coffin. He decided then and there that the ‘Hand of God’ had shown him the spot for his family grave yard which he proceeded to set aside at once for that purpose. After deciding on the location, he reserved and used it for that purpose, even after he traded farms and moved away from Bent Creek.”
Reynolds lived in a time when both nature and ancestors were sacred; losses were mourned; religious ardor was a discipline; and pioneer families followed the Biblical injunction to go forth and multiply.
Place names as well as gravestones memorialized community history.
Beaton Branch was so named because “during the spring mating season, ruffled grouse were continually ‘beating’ or drumming,” the Old Settlers said. Hickory Top, because of its nuts, was “a favorite place for the local people to go squirrel hunting.” Truck-Wheel Mountain was where settlers went “to cut black gum sections for building a crude type of farm truck.”
A number of settlers—James Case, Wilson Boyd and Russell Pinkney Lance among them—built mills, which powered saws, ground corn, and provided social centers for a community that grew to 104 homes.
The mill was a powerful engine, and also a life-giving boon.
One time, when Doyle Cook, Russell Pinkney Lance’s grandson, had been three or four and sick with fever, Dr. P.B. Orr from West Asheville had told Doyle’s mom, “he won’t be here in the morning.”
“That night, I dreamed I went down in that mill,” Cook recollects, “and water was coming in over the top, and I got down in that water. I was hot. And all of a sudden, that water starts stirring up. I thought I was gone. I was holding on to the top of that rail … Anyway, I made it through the night,” and when he woke up, he stuck his head in a bucket of water.
No place like home
“I remember when I was small, they didn’t put up a Christmas tree one year,” Harold Lance, another grandson of Pinkney, recollected at a 2017 gathering of Lances, Cooks, Cases and Hamlins— fellow Bent Creek kin.
His grandma, Hester Case, had “cut a thorn bush (perhaps a hawthorn), shaved it a little bit. She put it in a can, and put sand in it.” She put the tree in the sand, and the can “on the table and put a red cloth around it, and I got to help her. We decorated that with those little different-colored gumdrops, and that was the Christmas tree.”
Hester and Russell "Pinkney" Lance, had kept things going through the Great Depression. They had both descended from the original German-American settlers of the area now operated by the Bent Creek Experimental Forest Station. Like the Cases and others, they'd bought their steep cove land from first grantees, Abraham Reynolds and David Allison, and had developed a self-sufficient community of farmers and millers.
Pinkney had started life fatherless. He’d been born after his father, William Pinkney Lance, had died at the Battle of Nashville at the end of 1864. Still, Pinkney continued the Bent Creek pioneer tradition. When he’d been just a teen, he’d built a dam, sawmill and blacksmith shop on Laurel Branch, according to William Nesbitt’s 1941 history of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest.
He got his timber from two tracts he owned up high, above where Long Branch drains the run-off from Cold Knob and Truck-wheel Mountain. He didn’t sell his wood on the market, family members point out, but used it himself, or bartered it. He built a grist mill and took ground corn as a fee.
He probably had help from neighbors in building his sawmill, which followed the pattern of William Boyd’s 1820 mill at the top of Boyd’s Branch; and of James Case’s mill, constructed in 1808 on lower Bent Creek (along the present-day road to the Arboretum).
Bent Creek mill builders used a flutter-type water wheel, smaller than an overshot wheel and best suited to steep streams, where rapid turning could power up-and-down saws.
Setting up a shop was a Herculean enterprise.
First you had to build an earthen dam that holds fast water; then, construct a 100-foot sluice out of logs, build a mill house and manufacture a water wheel. Gears, shafts and belts would be your next challenge, and if you set up a gear shift, you could power flour grinders on one side of the wheel; and saws, a planer, a sharpener and a lathe on the other. If you needed a planer head, a bracket, or a router bit, you went to your blacksmith shop and made the part. Your bellows could be water-powered.
“The early settlers displayed surprising ingenuity and self-reliance in the construction and operation of their manufacturing enterprises,” Nesbitt wrote. “From materials hewn from the forest and a few essential parts, which had been brought in, they were able to construct their sawmills, planning machines, blacksmith shops, furniture factories and grist mills.”
Memories of grandpa
Pinkney grew crops, raised pigs and chickens, and hunted game. “He’d be working in the field or at his grist mill,” Doyle Cook recalls, “and he’d come back home of an evening, and if he wanted to, he’d shoot a deer and throw it in the wagon.”
One time, after the Forest Service had taken over, Cook recalls, Pinkney learned that the ranger had placed two boys in trees to look down on Lance’s wagon as it returned home.
“So he got some sawhorses, set them up in his wagon. He shot him a deer the next day after he found that out,” and laid it under the sawhorses, and “the game warden never did say nothing to him.”
“It was his land and he’d kill a deer,” Doyle’s wife, Louise McFarland Cook adds.
Nesbitt, who’d spoken with Pinkney in his old age, related how “Lance kept his mill and shop in operation until 1910, when a severe rainstorm occurred on Upper Laurel Branch, washing away his dam and mill-race, which he never rebuilt.”
Lonnie Lance, Pinkney’s and Hester’s sixth child and first son, had been 12 at the time. He inherited the self-sufficient Lance outlook.
“I remember Granny talking about Lon,” Keith Hamlin, Lon’s great-nephew says. “When they started switching the time with Daylight Savings Time, Lon (had said) ‘Well, I ain’t fooling with that. I’m going to leave this clock just like it was’ … It used to drive Granny crazy. ‘If you want him over here at 12, (she said), you better tell him to get here at 11.’”
Bent Creek’s first miller, James Case Sr., had received a state grant of 100 acres “on a large branch” (that is, Bent Creek) in 1798, his great-great-grandson’s wife, Mrs. W.W. Case, writes in a family biography.
James’ brother, John, had been granted the same amount of land on Wolf Branch, one tributary up.
This was 30 years before the Buncombe Turnpike would bring the November livestock traffic past their farms.
James had been 16 at the time he’d become a farm manager; and had had John, age 28, there to help him, if need be.
“Jim” Case married Jane Lance; and built a grist mill, sawmill and blacksmith shop. He may have built the mill first and then married Jane. The genealogical record of their offspring is a puzzle.
It states that Jane, born in 1785 or 1788, had given birth to James Jr., “Jimmy,” when she’d been 40 or 43; and to Thomas, when she’d been 43 or 46. She’d been 32 or 35 when Jesse had been born; and 19 or 22 when her first son, William, had arrived.
When Jane had been 25 or 28, according to a WikiTree page, her husband James had fathered a son named Laxton Thomas by a different woman, a Cherokee named Younacha, or Unaka.
In 1850, according to the census, Thomas, 19, and not yet married, was living with his parents. And his older brother, Jimmy, age 22; Jimmy's wife, Sarah Magness, 21; their two-year-old boy, William; and Sarah’s mom were living in a home next door. Both Jimmy and Thomas were listed as laborers.
Ten years later, the census shows everyone—including Thomas and his young family—living with the old folks, except that Sarah was missing. She had died after the birth of her and Jimmy’s fourth child, Buck.
One year later, President Lincoln called on North Carolinians to fight South Carolinians. The Cases had South Carolina kin, whose ancestors had followed a German migration to the Spartanburg area a century ago.
On Oct. 28, 1861, nine Bent Creek Lances and Cases enlisted in the Confederate Army. They mustered at Camp Patton (on present-day Chestnut Street across from the site of Fuddruckers); and, on May 19, 1862, officially became Company D, the “Highland Grays,” of the 39th NC Infantry Regiment under Col. David Coleman, a prominent politician and U.S. Naval Academy graduate.
Those who fought
To understand the enthusiasm of the mountain men who had enlisted in the Confederate Army, I go to Christopher Watford’s book, “The Civil War in North Carolina: Soldiers and Civilians’ Letters and Diaries: 1861-1865, Volume 2: The Mountains.”
Never is there an indication, in these self-expressions, that the soldiers had been fighting to support the institution of slavery. In fact, the only mention of the word, “slave,” is when Henderson County private John H. Phillips tells his cousin that “we will never be slaves to a licutious (sic) corrupt nation as our would-be Yankee rulers wish to see.”
Maintaining slavery had been the goal of the ruling slavocrats; and that truth co-existed with the truth of Northern imperialism which, to everyone, it seemed, had progressed to an invasion.
After a few months of guarding bridges in the Cumberland Mountains, the 39th retreated to Lenoir Station, 20 miles southwest of Knoxville, where 31-year-old James O. Case, miller Jim’s grandson, died, like many others, of a bacterial disease. The experience sobered and worried his uncles, including Jimmy Case, three years older.
Jimmy and James O. were probably best friends.
The regiment would fight at Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and at the Battle of Resaca, near Atlanta, about which a regimental historian wrote: “We went as a double-quick across a field,” fell down to “get our breath,” went forward and “in a few moments we were in the thick of the fight, and in less than half an hour it was so dark we could not see.”
After several campaigns and battles, the 39th NC Regiment’s survivors—including James M. and Jesse Taylor Case, sons of the son of Unaka; 18-year-old William B. Case, Jimmy’s son; and A.H. and James M. Lance—were captured, Apr. 8, 1865, at Spanish Fort on Mobile Bay. A month later, they were released and returned home.
But Sgt. Thomas D. Case, Jimmy’s younger brother, had been wounded at Chickamauga; and again in the 1864 Atlanta campaign, when he’d lost an arm.
Tolliver Lance, William Pinkney Lance’s brother, also wounded at Chickamauga, was then captured at Kennesaw Mountain, and sent to the deadliest of all POW prisons, Camp Douglas.
William Pinkney had also been wounded at Chickamauga; and died at the Battle of Nashville, Dec. 15, 1864.
“My Dear Wife,” he wrote Nancy Jones Lance on March 8, 1864, “You wanted me to tell you when I would get to come home.” He expected to get a furlough when some other companies return to battle.
He must have gotten that furlough in the fall, for he never came home after that, and yet Russell Pinkney Lance was born.
The time of change
When Doyle Cook of Bent Creek had been a child he’d sit on the lap of his grandfather, Russell Pinkney Lance, and watch the old man smoke his pipe.
Pinkney grew tobacco, and when it was ripe, crumbled it into the bowl of his pipe.
“He’d light his pipe,” Cook said, “and it had a little red spot on the bottom, and I asked him what that was, and he’d say, ‘Aww, it’s just a decoration.’ He admitted it wasn’t no good, it didn’t do anything.”
“He’d sit there and smoke that pipe and put that pipe up on the mantle, and that’s all he’d touch that day. That was the oddest thing I’d ever seen. I hadn’t seen people do that.”
“Another thing,” Doyle said, “I used to walk over there, and there was an old rooster that would come out and flog me every time. I (told grandpa), ‘if you don’t get rid of that rooster, I ain’t never coming back.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.’ Next Sunday, we eat that thing for dinner.”
Chickens were a big part of family life; and a rooster was a lesson in pride. It might be the king of the roost. It might even lay golden eggs, against all nature, like the one in the Jack tale, “Jack and the North West Wind.” But when Jack’s big talk about his rooster goes flat, mama tells Jack, “You made a bobble of it,” so “they killed the rooster and eat it for supper.”
“My mama,” Deborah Hamlin, wife of Pinkney’s great-grandson, Keith, recalls, “used to take (the chickens) to the clothesline, tie their feet, and go through and chop their heads … You’d get off the school bus, and you’d come in, and there would be a whole line of chickens just flopping, blood everywhere. There was about ten years I wouldn’t even touch a piece of chicken.”
Paula Blankenship, another great-grandchild, remembers her maternal grandfather killing a chicken, dipping it in hot water, and handing it over for plucking. “That would be Sunday dinner you’d be getting ready,” Paula says. The preacher might be coming.
Though life at times was grim, and work hard, communal time was praise to God.
“Their social activities were of many and varied forms, which allowed the inhabitants to get together at frequent intervals,” William Nesbitt observed in his 1941 history of land use in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest.
“The community activities were composed chiefly of school and church work, shooting matches, ball games, dances, wrestling, log-rollings, fence-building, house raisings, quilting contests, and corn-shucking meets.”
After the war
Earlier, we'd left the Lances, Cases and other Bent Creek families as they were recovering from deaths and injuries in the Civil War.
Just after the war, in 1866, Col. Lewis M. Hatch, a Charleston entrepreneur, came to Bent Creek after having bought a big piece of land from Wilson Boyd, an early settler after whom Boyd’s Creek is named.
Boyd owned over several hundred acres. In 1858, he sold 200 to Zebulon Vance—something to research later.
In 1864, he sold 520 to Samuel M. Stevens; and, since no Hatch sale appears in the county records, and since the dates match, I’m assuming Stevens had been Hatch’s agent. I haven’t yet been able to confirm that.
Boyd had established Bent Creek’s “second manufacturing establishment” in 1820, Nesbitt states. It had been located at the site of today’s Lake Powhatan Dam. He'd modeled his mill after that of James Case.
The Civil War years had devastated the Boyds.
“I and Matt went to Henry Boyd’s burrial,” Cornelia wrote in her journal on Sept. 14, 1864. Three of Wilson Boyd’s family have died in about ten days. One of his sons was killed in Tenn. & Sam died of fever, so did Henry. He has another son sick with fever.”
Yet, Boyd’s mill “was kept in operation,” Nesbitt reported, “without major change, until 1865 at which time the property was sold to Col. L.M. Hatch.”
“Colonel” was not an honorary title. Hatch had been the chief military engineer for South Carolina throughout the Civil War. He was 50 years old, 28 years married to his Charleston wife, Emily Bell Hatch. They established a church at his new place and became civically active.
The Hatch daughters—Sallie, Susan and Emily—taught Sunday school at the mission Hatch had set up and named Glencoe Mission, an extension of the Ravenscroft Theological Training School and Associate Mission, an Episcopal effort to improve lives.
“It seems,” Dale Wayne Slusser writes in “The Ravenscroft School in Asheville,” that the mainstay of the church at Glencoe was the young ladies’ Sunday school, as church attendance had been numbered in 1875 at 10, “but yet the Sunday school was reported to have ’80 scholars.’”
Hatch’s Glencoe included “unusual facilities for work both in stone and wood,” the Rev. Dr. David H. Buel, Ravenscroft principal, had observed in 1872.
He was referring to the manufacturing complex Hatch had created.
“Col. Hatch,” Nesbitt documented, “first moved (Boyd’s) dam further down the stream from its original location so that the present lake site could be used for cultivation purposes.” He then built homes, a school, a store, a mill and workshop, and went into the wagon and furniture-making business.
“It has been related that Hatch kept three wagon-teams busy hauling his articles to market and bringing supplies back for the store.”
Glencoe ended around 1887, apparently when the girls went their own way, or, as Slusser suggests, after “some type of social upheaval in the Glencoe community.”
Sallie married James Hardee Lee, 15th child of Col. Stephen Lee, a major figure, and the couple moved to Asheville. Col. Hatch likewise moved to Bailey Street, now Ravenscroft Drive. Susan became a teacher; and Emily, the first librarian at the new Asheville Public Library.
At the time of Glencoe’s undoing, young Pinkney was building a sawmill and shop on Laurel Creek; and John Powell was constructing a gristmill on Rocky Cove Branch. Other furniture makers, lumber suppliers, millers and blacksmiths operated within Bent Creek, some for the community and some for the exploding market.
And then there was the Case case, which involved 400 acres now part of the North Carolina Arboretum.
In 1880, a large piece of land owned by “Jemmie” Case went the way of obsolescence when a mortgage turned into what family members called a theft.
“The Case heirs lost possession of the property to Sam Brooks,” Nesbitt recounted, “through what the Old Settlers called a ‘fraudulent mortgage’ foreclosure.” It developed into “a court fight that lasted until Vanderbilt obtained title by paying the court fees.”
A 1901 Asheville Citizen-Times article reported on the trial over ownership.
“Some 50 years ago,” it stated, “Captain James Case gave to William A. Case (his eldest son) a deed of trust to secure a debt of $400.” Years later, the mortgage was transferred to W.L. Henry, who, after the Civil War, paid a debt to George Brooks with the Case land.
Brooks got the sheriff to sell the land to him, which the Case family contested, and then there were two more transfers of the mortgage. A judge put the property up for sale, and the buyer, Thomas D. Johnston, strove to get a legal title.
The Cases lost top Johnston, ultimately.
Sam Brooks had been a noteworthy figure in the community. He'd been postmaster at Hatch’s Glencoe mission for a short period before Hatch had taken the job back over for an undetermined reason. And he'd purchased a number of properties in Bent Creek, including Sam Lance’s place on Laurel Branch. The Old Settlers in Nesbitt's report remembered him. They also remembered the period of increased interest in Bent Creek's resources.
“Russell (Pinkney) Lance,” Nesbitt relates, “estimates that he made an average cut of 50 thousand board feet log scale per year from the area over a thirty-year period, while he was in the lumber business.”
At the same time, wilderness was preserved for hunting. Beaton Branch reverberated with the beating sound of mating grouse. Sleepy Gap comprised the area where a hunter fell asleep on a stand.
“The game birds such as wild turkeys, ruffled grouse, quail, and wild or passenger pigeons, were very plentiful up to the time Vanderbilt took possession,” Nesbitt wrote. There were vestiges of the deer, bear and wild boar populations.
At one point, Pinkney raised deer in pens. Doyle Cook has preserved his grandfather’s recipe for the best sausages in the world, an inter-grinding of pork and venison. Family members have preserved a wagon wheel in a lamp; and a barn door in a storage shed.
Bent Creek land flipped in 1900
The pop-up village of Glencoe marked the middle point in Bent Creek history between its first 70 years as a self-sufficient community and its current status as a U.S. experimental forest. Col. Hatch had named Glencoe after a legendary glen in Scotland where the Celtic Fingalian people had hunted.
Hatch's Glencoe lasted 21 years
In 1887, Hatch and his family relocated to Asheville, nearer to Ravenscroft, the mission’s headquarters. Glencoe’s mill, workshop, factory, school and church were abandoned.
Remaining Bent Creek families tapped the new lumber market, if they wished. Residents also sought to preserve the forest and its herbs, mast and game.
In the 1890s, the forest attracted George Washington Vanderbilt, looking to attach a game preserve and hunting grounds to his estate. He started buying hundreds of properties in what would become the Pisgah National Forest.
On June 26, 1900, heirs of Col. Hatch, who’d died three years before, sold 1,383 acres in Bent Creek to Vanderbilt at $5 an acre, the market price.
Vanderbilt had already started taking people on trips to the Pisgah forest down to the Pink Beds.
On the road with George
“To all the native folk near and far,” Col. Fred Olds, one of Vanderbilt’s party, wrote for “Forest and Stream,” “Pisgah Forest is ‘Mr. Vanderbilt’s place.’”
Olds stopped and asked a local elder about Vanderbilt, and the source responded, “He is a mighty common man; real common,” a compliment in local lingo.
Olds asked another passerby if Pink Beds had been named after rhododendron flowers. (Other theories are that the name comes from swamp pink, growing in boggy beds; or Carolina phlox, pink and growing in the cleared meadows after pasturing, Dan Pitillo, eminent botanist notes.)
“I don’t rightly know where the name comes from,” the mountain man said. “but I have heard ‘em say a man one time had a cow here named Pink, and she got bogged up in a ma’shy place and died there.”
One wonders if the mountaineers had been playing with Olds.
Olds proceeded to the hunting part of his excursion.
“Though Mr. Vanderbilt is not a sportsman, but a student” Olds observed, yet “all things are made ready for him … On his last visit he only caught one trout, nor did he fire a gun. His wife was with him. She is a good horsewoman, and rode a pony up and down the steepest trails.”
On July 4, 1900, Dr. E.M. Berry of the Louisville College of Medicine came home after 36 years to address “his old-time friends of antebellum days” in the Bent Creek/Avery Creek area.
The Asheville of his youth has “nearly all disappeared” and become an “Aladdin’s palace,” he observed. “As my old-time friend and school mate of boyhood days, Major Rollins, and I were driving through the splendid streets of Biltmore I was reminded of the saying of the wise King of Israel: ‘A feast is made for laughter; and wine maketh merry; but money answereth all things.’”
When Berry had seen “several hundred hands busily at work upon (Vanderbilt’s) splendid estate,” he’d exclaimed that Vanderbilt “should be loved and respected for his benevolence to the poor.”
Pisgah was a visionary vista, Berry noted; and Southern Appalachia was God’s “great treasure house” of stone and minerals, he added, mixing metaphors of pleasure and business.
It was a mix that Vanderbilt had known. There had been enough drama, both joyous and difficult, in his life in 1900 to overfill Downton Abbey.
He’d been buying land in Transylvania County in the 1890s, and then, in 1900, focused on Bent Creek, starting with Boyd’s place and properties adjacent to it.
He bought 191 acres from William Cothran at $5 an acre. Apparently, Cothran continued to live there, for the land around his “house site on the east tract,” Nesbitt says in his 1941 report for the Forest Service, “was continued under cultivation until 1920.”
Cultivation is an important issue. Bent Creek farm families used methods intended to support generations of subsistence. This included land management, home economy, some cash-making, and wilderness conservation.
Pinkney Lance, Deborah Hamlin says, “had a self-sufficient farm. They didn’t sell wood. They kept what wood they needed for their own purposes, to build their houses, to help their neighbors. It wasn’t a company. They had their reason for doing everything up there, and the government come in and made them move, so they moved everything down here to Wesley Branch Road.”
“Lance,” Nesbitt’s report documented, used an uncleared area for a “stock range and as a timber source to supply the saw mill.”
Pinkney “never had a saw mill,” Keith Hamlin says. “He had a grist mill to grind corn … The first Bent Creek Lake is where he put his grist mill, and when he moved off of it, he moved it right down here at the bottom of the hill in the little creek.”
Nesbitt said Lance “planted corn on his dam for the grist mill.”
“So, it went from saw mill to grist mill,” Keith observes with bemusement.
“He planted corn on his own dam,” said Nesbitt.
“He didn’t have to grow corn,” Keith says. “He would grind (people’s) corn for a portion … He got paid off that way, and he didn’t have to grow corn.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore landscape architect, writing to architect Richard Morris Hunt in 1890, said that the soil was “extremely poor and intractable.” A planted landscape, he said, would have to be made “out of whole cloth.”
Olmsted is talking about a fraction of Vanderbilt’s land, the part closest to the main road. His characterization does not include the Pisgah National Forest, whose virgin timber was so remote that Carl Schenk, Vanderbilt’s forester, starting in 1895, had proclaimed, “Forestry is a problem of transportation.”
And it does not include the Bent Creek settlement, which, according to Nesbitt, showed few signs of exhausted or eroded soil, even in the most cultivated portions.
Salaries, turkeys and juries
In 1900, Schenck went to Vanderbilt to tell him he had to return to Germany, though Schenck’s house on the estate had just been completed. Regrettably, his country had told him if he didn’t return, he’d lose his citizenship and pension.
Vanderbilt raised Schenck’s salary to cover losses, and gave him a life insurance policy plus, Schenck wrote in his memoir, “the sum of ten thousand dollars to my wife, should I die while in Vanderbilt’s employment.”
Vanderbilt initiated a game restoration program in 1900. It resulted in more deer and fewer turkeys. “The Old Settlers assert that the absence of woods-burning,” Nesbitt relates, had stopped the fires that had destroyed “insects which would prey on and destroy the ‘turkey-chicks.’”
An important court case came to trial in September of 1900 just a few weeks after the joyous occasion of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s birth.
“The case under trial,” the “Brevard News” reported, “was supposed to settle the status of all title within the boundary” where possession by habitation “had not followed on securing a title.” After three days, the judge took the case from the jury and ruled in favor of Vanderbilt.
The Vanderbilts, north and south, were automobile enthusiasts and leaders in the Good Roads Movement. The approach road to the Biltmore House was one of the first macadam paving jobs in Asheville. Vanderbilt also helped fund the paving of South Main, between Asheville and the Biltmore Estate.
“Instead of having spring fever this year, Asheville seems likely to have a beneficent attack of paving fever,” an “Asheville Citizen” editorial proclaimed on April 7, 1900.
By this time, the Vanderbilts had taken up permanent residence in the Biltmore House, except for a winter vacation, when according to reports, baby Cornelia could be seen being perambulated around Manhattan’s Central Park.
Sellers and stayers
Vanderbilt paid good prices for Bent Creek land. Schenck was one of his agents, and the Old Settlers objected to his methods of enforcing contract language to force evictions.
“I have yet to find any occasion where there was coercion, strong-arming or unfair dealings,” historian Bill Alexander says. Schenck’s wrongdoing, he surmises, was not letting sellers renege on options Schenck had secured but not acted on.
One of Vanderbilt’s dealings had been with a widow with a small home place and three young children, Alexander relates. Charles McNamee, Vanderbilt’s primary agent, Alexander says, “bought her a 17-acre property in the Beaverdam section of North Asheville.”
By the time Vanderbilt had completed his purchases, around 1909, there had been seven Bent Creek hold-outs. After the Federal government bought the Pisgah Forest land for an Experimental Forest Station in 1925, there were three.
Today, several households of descendants of early settlers live on land adjacent to the forest, carrying on family traditions.
They’re engaged in talks with the Forest Service about the protection and maintenance of an old church cemetery in the Experimental Forest woods.
Keith and Deborah Hamlin teach wilderness, farm and traditional skills to teenagers.
When the ice storms hit the east on New Year’s Eve, Louise Cook and members of the Bent Creek Baptist Church provided lodging to three busloads of stranded students.
Threats persist—not just clear-cutting, but also roads and developments, high density and exclusive.
The N.C. DOT is forging ahead with a Highway 191 widening that would eat into a large, old family cemetery in Sandy Bottoms. The community is trying to restore the Venable Community Center, a mile north on 191, and make it a community asset.
Keith Hamlin recalls his great-grandfather Pinkney’s last mill location in Bent Creek. “I remember the barn standing, when I was a kid, beside the creek,” he said. “They (his great-grandparents) were done dead and gone, and the mill was gone.” But a cemetery serves as a touchpoint for a surviving ethic.
Thanks for putting this into one document. I've been following the narrative in the Citizen-Times. I find it an added resource for my next writing project. In 1910 my husband's grandfather (1866-1947) showed up in Missouri and said his family back in Burke County had died. I've discovered that he, in fact, had two wives and five children.
Nancy Werking Poling