Work hard, play hard, was the way of Biltmore boys
by Rob Neufeld
Read Part 1, about Biltmore boys in 1930s
Read Part 3.
Motorists on the Biltmore Estate approach road in the early 1940s “would stop in amazement,” when the Austin boys took their dogs to the swamp to chase rabbits, Mark-Ellis Bennett wrote in the “Biltmore Beacon.”
Harold and Ruel, sons of the estate’s Chief Ranger, Claude C. Austin, had a menagerie in tow, Ruel recalled in an interview with Bennett. Their pets included “a fox, an opossum, a tomcat, a pair of shoats, and raccoons,” and their favorite companion, Jim the deer, whom they’d bottle-fed from fawnhood.
“At home,” at the “kennel site” (named for the lodgings in which Edith Vanderbilt kept her purebred Saluki dogs), Ruel noticed how, on his porch, when it started to rain, Jim would chase his Great Dane away “to keep himself dry by the front door.”
At age 13, after Ruel’s family had moved into the Biltmore House, Ruel went to work. First, he did farm chores for $1.25 a day. Then, he mowed lawns as a member of the “Grasshopper Gang”; and when a flu epidemic sapped the estate staff, he stood in for them, punching a time clock hourly as a night watchman.
In Biltmore, during the lean years before the post-war boom, kids lived the country life, though also preoccupied, at an early age, by adventures in town and the lure of job opportunities.
One adventure involved Tommy Koontz, a village resident, at Reed and Abee concrete plant on Warren Ave. (the company was acquired in 1958 by Asheville Concrete Materials; and in 1983, renamed Southern Concrete Materials).
“They would dump their sand and rock into chutes, and the chutes went down into big hoppers that mixed concrete,” Koontz told me in a recent interview with him and his childhood friend, Winston Pulliam. “The concrete trucks would back in under those things, and they’d open the holes in the mixers, and the rock and sand would go down in there.
“One day, my brother and I and Billy McCoy (later killed in World War II) were playing on that chute, and they opened that lever down there, and that stuff started going down through there, and we started going with it. There was a trough, and the only thing that saved us was a bar that went across that thing to level the sand and rock out. We caught that bar, or we’d have gone down into that mixer.”
Though not working on a farm, like Ruel, Tommy kept farmer’s hours.
“When we ate dinner,” he recalled about his family, “within about an hour, we went to bed. There were no cokes, no ice cream, no chocolate cake; you didn’t sit down around the TV. When we finished eating and got cleaned up, and brought the wood and kindling in for the stove the next morning, we went to bed”—around 8 o’clock. “Everybody was in the same situation.”
“There was one thing we knew as kids,” Koontz continued, reflecting on hard times and built-in aspiration, “when you went south on Hendersonville Road, people on the right side (in Biltmore Forest) were different. You knew that those people over there had things you didn’t have. Because when I worked on the laundry truck, when I would take laundry to the door or pick up laundry, I never saw the owner of the house. It was a maid.”
“And if the maid wasn’t there,” added Pulliam, who lived in Oakley and played and worked in Biltmore, “you’d go in the house, and leave the laundry or milk.” Delivering milk for Biltmore Dairy was another job boys had.
“We had a funny saying,” Koontz recounted. “They’d say, ‘Son, where do you live?’ and we’d say, ‘East Biltmore Forest.’”
At age 11, Tommy went to work for Arthur Scott, a delivery man for Asheville Cleaners and Dyers. Pulliam did likewise, making 25 cents a day. At the interview, the two made a discovery about a fate they had shared.
“I fell out of his laundry truck one day,” Pulliam said.
“So did I!” Koontz exclaimed.
“I fell out in Kenilworth.”
“That’s where I fell out,” Koontz said. “We were coming off of Tunnel Road, coming in through Kenilworth on the steep curve. I was cold, and they had a heater under the dashboard, and I was sitting there leaned up against the door. We went around that corner, the door went open, and I went!”
Pulliam remarked on how much Scott, a relief man, who took jobs when regular drivers were off, had watched his pennies.
“The first day I helped him,” Pulliam related, “we went to West Asheville. There used to be a Saucy Sandwich Shop. He ordered beef stew, I ordered beef stew. I ordered everything he ordered (and Scott paid). The next day, he made himself a cheese sandwich.”
“I can’t believe you fell out of that truck,” Pulliam repeated. “I did, too. I wound up in a ditch.”
Tommy had had his hand in his pockets because of the cold when he’d been thrown. “I got one hand out,” he said, “and this scar that’s on my hand right here, that’s where I hit. I was out there in the ditch, scared him to death.”
“He left the laundry one time and went to work for Biltmore Dairy Farm,” Pulliam noted. “I helped him on the milk truck, too. I could drink all the lacto buttermilk I wanted.”
Stories of the struggles and pleasures of hard times and community in Biltmore Village go to illustrate the ethics and energy with which its graduates sallied forth into the age of opportunity. “There was something in people then,” Pulliam remarked.
Next week, this column chronicles that rise to success.
Claude C. Austin, Biltmore Estate chief ranger in the 1930s and 40s, plays with Jim the deer. Photo courtesy Mark-Ellis Bennett and Ruel Austin.