A meaningful tour of East Asheville
I was walking in the Beverly Hills neighborhood the other day and noticed a few things.
Turkey, crows, and squirrels populated the streets, which laced through the Municipal Golf Course’s parkland. Houses had new siding.
Several lawn signs on Kingsgate Road read, in Spanish, English and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
Back at my desk, I looked into the history of the neighborhood and found, in UNC Asheville’s Special Collections, a 1926 booklet titled “Beverly Hills: The Master Suburb,” which cited spring-fed water; aesthetic variety; underground cabling; a competition-level swimming pool at Recreation Park; the golf course; and a Beverly Hills Basketball Team.
The booklet also advertised its restrictions, which were intended to insure Beverly Hill residents “against the encroachment of undesirable building that would materially lower the value of properties.”
What comprises a community? Geographically, can it be a street, such as Kingsgate Road? Can it be something larger, such as East Asheville, which encompasses Beverly Hills, several other neighborhoods, and commercial developments?
The subject comes up because East Asheville is engaged in an important community project, the building of a new public library branch. Behind the library on Avon Road, Haw Creek residents, in 2002, worked with the city to create the Haw Creek History Trail in a six-acre park.
Land below the ridge
For newcomers to East Asheville as well as for established residents, the designation of meaningful sites and key historical episodes may be the best way to get a lay of the land and a guide to the future.
We start with the eastern boundary of East Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I choose this even though the 28805 zip code goes beyond the parkway to Riceville; and an exception has to be made for Azalea Road, one of the oldest, which starts at Rec Park and extends to Grassy Branch as it enters the Swannanoa River.
The Grassy Branch piece features a practice golf tee green behind a Tunnel Road restaurant. Access to golfing must be considered a major part of East Asheville’s character. Can golf be a people’s sport? East Asheville may be a test case.
Returning to the parkway, north of Azalea Rd., a stop at the Haw Creek Valley overlook directs one’s gaze to Town Mountain, abutting Beaverdam. Once upon a time, people walked over this ridge to visit family.
Streams pour down a bracket of slopes—Rich Knob, Meadows Mountain, Peach Knob, and, as far as I can determine, an unnamed knob— into the head of Haw Creek and the high-end subdivision of Sondley Estates, first advertised in 1981.
F.A. Sondley, George Vanderbilt’s lawyer, had built his stone house here in 1902, before filling it with his 30,000 volume library and writing his classic history of Buncombe County.
In a 1999 interview by Erin Fornoff with Haw Creek native Harry Burdette, he recalled Sondley’s godly personality. (Sondley, in his history of his family, had traced his line to Alexander the Great and demi-gods.)
When Sondley had been asked by a neighbor to borrow a tool, “he’d ask for how long,” Burdette recollected. “You’d tell him three days, and Sondley would say, ‘You SHALL have it three days.’ At the end of the loan period, you’d ask to use it another day, and Sondley would pronounce, ‘You SHALL have it another day.’”
Sondley named his house, “Finis Viae”—meaning, “end of the road”; but it is no longer quite that, though it’s beyond the subdivisions, Huntington Chase and Trappers Run, built in 1989 on land Baxter Hahn had broken up and sold. The development led to the area’s incorporation into the city of Asheville.
Just below Trappers Run, on Charlene Noblett’s property, she told me in 2001, runoff from development had narrowed the creek and made it hard for her to continue raising cattle.
The creek by her house on Maple Drive, she’d said, “was once so furious and big that kids dammed it up and made a swimming hole six feet wide by twenty feet long by five feet deep.” The water was cold. Children baptized in the flow behind Antioch Christian Church used to come out shivering.
The water was also drinkable at its source.
When Charles Speed, an Evanston, Illinois retiree, bought the Foster A. Sondley estate in 1939, he noted, “The water supply is panning out far beyond my expectations and the University of Kentucky tells me that the water used for house purposes is equal in every way to distilled water…One spring gives me about 4,000 gallons a day.”
Land of coves
Haw Creek had been—along with Chunn’s Cove, Grassy Branch and Gash’s Creek—one of East Asheville cove communities. Streams fed farmland from three sides; and residents passed each other traveling the only path to the local store at the bottom.
“It was pure country,” Harry Burnette, a Haw Creek native, told me. “If you put a ten-dollar bill in a hat and put the hat on the road, someone would come by, recognize the hat and return it with the money.” It’s the same road on which “you could lay down for half an hour and nobody would come by.”
I also once talked with Beatrice Creasman, 86 years old at the time. Growing up, she said, “my favorite thing was feeding the chickens. They were almost like pets. I’d go to the chicken house at 7 a.m., and they would all come to me and look up at me, waiting.” Her family’s breakfast was eggs that she’d just gathered.
Beatrice’s father, John Baxter Creasman, had managed to acquire the family’s 31 acres by working off the $900 price on John Berghouser’s poultry farm. Beatrice’s brother, Theodore, supported himself doing odd jobs in fields and at the Antioch Christian Church.
Theodore went to church every Sunday—sometimes with a supporting quartet—to lead the singing of the same hymn every time, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” Mae Allen had to slow down or speed up her piano playing depending on whether she wanted to accompany the voices of the congregation or of Creasman, who was often an earnest half-beat behind.
Asheville’s Episcopal Church provided a school for local children in the early 1900s. George Bell, a circuit-riding preacher, did the teaching.
Bell was fluent in seven languages. He rode around on a horse and was often muddy. He used his New York connections to bring barrels of toys and candy into Haw Creek at Christmastime, Alan Carscaddon recalled.
In the classroom, Bell kept five or six black gum switches behind his desk for disciplining purposes, according to the memoirs of Robert Reese, whose grandmother, Penelope White, had married Bell after her first husband’s death.
In 1913, the children switched to a public school, Haw Creek Elementary, built on the site of the now-closing Beaucatcher Cinemas. That school, in turn, was replaced by a new one off Bethesda Road in 1977, though there's a mystery, a 1961 article reporting a new Haw Creek Elementary School. (See commentary ate end.)
Today, the school website reports, “We were the first elementary school in Buncombe County to receive a 3D printer and the only school which has an interactive STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) nature trail open not only to our school but the public.
The wilderness and modern science come together in Haw Creek education. Is there a way that liberal world-widening can combine with traditional close-knittedness? Does the current local food movement indicate a return to farming, at least on a small scale?
And what about the communality that comes with church life?
Robert Reese told of shape note teachers who had stayed with his father, Burgin Reese, three generations ago when they’d come to give lessons to local folks in the Southern Appalachian choral form.
It no doubt affected the tenor of the Reeses’ church, Bethesda Methodist, where, according to Robert Reese, one man became so enamored of salvation, he climbed a tree to jump into his Savior’s arms.
THE PHANTOM SCHOOL
Originally, my column stated that Haw Creek Elementary School, built on a site now occupied by Beaucatcher Cinemas, was replaced by a new school, located on Bethesda Road, in 1961. I have corrected that. The present school was built in 1977.
Yet, an Aug. 13, 1961 article in the Citizen-Times reported on the completion of a new Haw Creek Elementary School, but not on the site of the 1920s school located where Beaucatcher Cinemas is now. Michael Freeman, architect of the 1977 facility, notes that his children had attended the old school a decade later than 1961; and that there had been no other building on the Bethesda Rd. site. What was that article referring to?
I had help in researching the schools from Chase Willis Johnson, a 5th grader at Haw Creek Elementary School, whose documentary film, “The History of Haw Creek,” will soon be posted on the school website.
The tour, continued
We resume by following the Parkway to the Swannanoa River, and then head up Gashes Creek as it flows from Reynolds. The creek, heading toward its mouth, pushes through the Blue Ridge and creates a basin for the highway interchange and River Ridge Market Place.
In 1970, construction started on the I-40 section from Asheville to Azalea; and in 1977, Asheville Contracting Company blasted three million cubic yards of one billion-year-old rock from Beaucatcher Mountain to make way for the I-240 loop.
These highways define the southern and eastern sides of East Asheville. Before them, there was Route 70, which achieved a route through the mountain in 1929 with the Beaucatcher Tunnel. Before that, one had to go over the mountain on a windy road off which a truck recently toppled.
Gashes Creek is named after Martin Gash who, on Nov. 27, 1793, bought land along the tributary after having migrated from the Abingdon, Va. area and first trying Rutherford County.
His acreage reached up the Swannanoa from Gashes Creek to the present sites of Lake Craig Dam, Rec Park, the Western North Carolina Nature Center, and Azalea Road wending its way to the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex.
Martin passed his main holdings to his son John, who, in his life, his obituary noted, had “shunned rather than courted observation.”
John added more land, and sold parcels back and forth with the Pattons; the Gudgers (his in-laws); and his own father and brother. His spread supported 15 people in 1820, including three male slaves over 45 years old, and one girl under 14.
In 1794, John, serving on juries, made John Kellor give up a mare for trespassing on the property of Nathan Bryan; and Ebenezar Faine pay Lambert Clayton two pounds for saying certain words. There was an established order.
We don’t know much about the Gashes in this area.
John’s children moved to Missouri. He, his mother, and wife are buried in the Newton Academy Cemetery adjacent to Mission Hospital. Other Gashes are buried behind Gashes Creek Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1856. The view from that cemetery today is dramatic: old gravestones on a hill look past the church, which, in turn, gazes down on the knot of Interstates 40 and 240.
When John was 84, in 1852, he sold 410 acres on Gash’s Creek to Bedford Sherrill, who owned and operated Sherrill’s Inn at Hickory Nut Gap.
A few transactions later, the trail of deeds goes cold; but working backward from present owners, one finds Hattie Whitson, daughter of a doctor and niece of a lawyer, selling 260 acres along Gashes Creek to the City of Asheville in 1924 for a dam and a lake.
The city agreed it would “build and construct a dam…for the purpose of developing a hydro-electric plant…and also for the purpose of developing a lake,” to be used both for “impounding water for electric power and…for pleasure and recreation purposes in connection with the Tourist Park Development…belonging to the City.”
The lake was to be fifty to sixty acres in size, including islands. A vehicular road over the top of the dam was part of the plan.
“If said project should cease to be operated and maintained as a lake,” the deed read, “said property so conveyed shall revert to the said parties of the second part, their heirs or assigns.”
East Asheville’s relationship with the Swannanoa River is a major aspect of its identity.
J.O. “Buck” Buchanan pioneered Tunnel Road’s commercial development with Buck’s Drive-In—nearly twenty years after the blasting of Beaucatcher tunnel.
The site is now occupied by Olive Garden.
Mary Singleton, a Buck’s regular in the early 60s, recalled, in a 2001 interview, that her father, B.E. Singleton, had had the opportunity to buy land on Tunnel Road around 1930, but could not get the financial backing. The economy had put Tunnel Road on hold.
During those slow years, Buchanan had managed the canteen at Beacon Manufacturing in Swannanoa and had operated the Casa Loma nightclub above Plaza Theatre on Pack Square. His new location would draw people with Iowa beef, fashioned into the legendary Buckberger; and Buck’s other famous offering, hospitality.
One morning, after a decade of indoor dining, Buchanan announced that he would borrow money and expand Buck’s to create North Carolina’s first drive-in and curbside eatery, his daughter, Anne Robinson, recollected.
Going to Buck’s in the 1950s and 60s, “you had a purpose,” Deane Johnson Nesbitt reflected, which was “to be seen and to see who-was-who and what kind of car they had.” You could visit other teens—and sometimes even switch cars—without having to make a date.
Four people to a car meant everyone had a window. After Buck’s, a group would motor to Babe Maloy’s Drive-In, nearer the tunnel, and then Wink’s across the road, and back to Buck’s, making a circuit.
By the time Buchanan’s youngest daughter, Nancy, reached her teenage years—in the late 60s—society had changed.
“I was totally scheduled,” Nancy Crane said, “cheerleading, service clubs, and much more. I didn’t go to the drive-ins that much.” But she worked and ate at Buck’s, and, later, retained a vivid memory of driving down from the bluff above the restaurant with her mother and pausing to see the cars going around and around in Buck’s huge lot.
What role does Tunnel Road play today? Residents have been opposing development further east, to the “900 block,” where the East Asheville Library is planning to build a new library on its present site.
The library’s entrance street, Avon Rd., leads to Beverly Rd.; and, just beyond that, crossing New Creek Road, to the Creekside Taphouse and the soon-to-come PennyCup Coffee Co. The taphouse advertises itself as a “neighborhood joint.” Where Beverly Road meets Tunnel Rd., Groce United Methodist Church hosts the local farmer’s market.
Is East Asheville, in the triangle of land that connects Tunnel Rd. to Haw Creek, trying to create a village?
Traveling west on Tunnel Rd., under I-240, one enters Chunn’s Cove, separated from Haw Creek by Piney Mountain.
The first pioneer of Chunn’s Cove had been Samuel Chunn, who’d owned a hotel on what is now Pack Square and a tanyard on Glenn’s Creek, near present-day Merrimon Avenue. He also owned much land on either side of Town Mountain.
1920s suburban development must have proposed a name change for the community because, in 1921, one builder submitted a map titled, “Map of lands in Chunn's Cove or Happy Valley.” (It is held by Special Collections, UNC Asheville.)
In 1926, shortly after coming to Asheville and designing the First Baptist Church in Asheville, architect Douglas Ellington built a home of native stone and wood and of salvaged bricks at the head of Chunn’s Cove.
“Architectural Digest” celebrated it as the most significant residence in the country in 1932. It entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Ellington is one of the famous people who found inspiration in the woodland settings of East Asheville.
Thomas Wolfe, seeking seclusion, stayed in the Oteen cabin of his friend, Max Whitson, during the summer of 1937, and worked on “The Party at Jack’s.” Wolfe would die of tuberculosis of the brain the next year. The Preservation society is engaged in a major effort to restore the structure and site, and add to the area’s imagination.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.