A history of this area’s working people develops
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: Asbury Whisnant and Henry Thompson stand in front of Car 18 at Asheville Depot. From the collection of Richard and Elaine Whisnant.
“The full and complicated history of Asheville must be (and is slowly being) written,” David Whisnant, former history professor and noted author of “All That Is Native and Fine,” writes in his new blog, “Asheville Junction.”
He’s focusing, he writes, on “those who had neither money nor position nor power,” and revising “the oft-told, romantic, elite-class-bounded story of Asheville by laying upon it an alternative narrative about my (mostly) working-class grandparents and parents.”
Whisnant speaks in the Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies at Mars Hill University, Thursday at 7 p.m.
Working class heroes
The following stories from “Visiting Our Past” columns acknowledge and build upon the subject that Whisnant is devoting himself to developing: the history of the working class.
Whisnant’s father, John K. Whisnant, worked at the Enka rayon plant for 27 years as an engineer. The Dutch company had been a lifesaver during the Depression, creating about 3,000 jobs, both for workers who lived in the village it built and for others who lived outside it.
One of the commuters was
Fletchman Smith, father of Jessie Nell Coleman, the “Asheville Living Treasure” who grew to play key roles with the local Head Start program and Mountain Housing Opportunities.
“My father,” Coleman said in a 2011 UNC Asheville interview, “worked at Enka (as) a janitor. He wore a suit to work. He changed and put his uniform on, and then he changed again and wore a suit home.”
That picture of dignity evokes Whisnant’s of his grandfather, Asbury Whisnant, who, with his wife, Ella Austin, left their Cane Creek farm in McDowell County to move to Morganton, where he got a job at the State Hospital; and then moved to Asheville, where he began a long career as a streetcar driver.
“One image of my grandfather Asbury—from early in my life and late in his–has never dimmed in my memory,” Whisnant writes in his blog, “Asheville Junction.”
“After his long work days, he could have changed into casual clothes, but he didn’t. In the late afternoon, he sat on the couch (‘set-tee,’ he called it) in the living room of his modest home at 60 Brownwood Avenue in West Asheville, dressed in a dark blue three-piece suit, (with a) gold watch chain that ran across his vest to a big gold Elgin watch in its watch pocket.”
His “grey moustache (was) neatly trimmed, (and his) black high-topped shoes polished, clean white cotton socks rising above them.”
Whisnant recalls how his grandfather arose at 3:30 a.m., stropped his straight razor, and shaved while Ella made biscuits, eggs and coffee.
In due time, Asbury picked up his leather grip, containing his money changer, punch for transfers, pearl-handled .38 Smith & Wesson, and brass knuckles, and “walked down the long hill, across the French Broad River bridge, and into the ‘car barn’ to start his run.”
Family to support
Less romantic than stories about worker pride are ones about missed opportunities and life regrets, even when dignity and steady job benefits have co-existed.
When Debbie Williams applied for a job at Enka, she’d already graduated Candler High School and gotten a teacher’s certificate at Teacher’s College in Cullowhee.
“The office was full, but only two of us were hired,” Debbie Williams Hall recalled about her application experience when I spoke with her in 2001. “A man interviewed me for about thirty minutes. He asked about my education. I think he had all the names of my family.”
Williams was the oldest of seven children in her family. Her mother had died of typhoid fever when Debbie had been nine. Her father left his farm so that his children could walk to and attend Candler Academy and then newly built Candler High School.
At the high school, Debbie had been a member of its championship, barrier-breaking women’s basketball team, while she filled the position of mother at home.
She especially remembered caring for her tiny baby sister, Thelma, nicknamed “Cricket.” “I gave her a bath and took care of her,” Hall said. “I cut her hair ‘til she was in high school.”
One of the things I remember about my time with Debbie Williams Hall 14 years ago was her description of the routine factory work, her non-complaining realism, and the shadow of sadness on her face when she spoke of her teaching dreams.
Enka was a model of a paternalistic company, which took care of its workers, was involved in the community, and stayed for a long time, unlike extractive industries, which customarily stay as long as needed natural resources hold out.
Sayles Bleachery, which operated from 1927 to 1991 on the site of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Bleachery Blvd. in Asheville, like Enka, built a village for its employees.
In 2002, Helen Jones Rice, her brothers, Mac and Don Jones, and her sister, Jeanette—children of Hubert “Pappy” Jones, a Sayles plant foreman—recalled childhood memories in Sayles Village.
Arthur Van Horn, the company’s financial manager, they related, projected movies onto an outdoor screen in a field that now accommodates businesses on Wood Avenue.
On Fridays, Horn would drive a clutch of boys, including Mac and Don, to downtown Asheville in a Pontiac outfitted with a special accelerator to compensate for his injured right leg. They’d lunch at the S&W and bowl in the basement of what is now the Downtown Development office.
“Mrs. Van Horn used to sing a song all the time,” Don remembered, “even washing dishes.”
The children recalled how hoboes chalked the curb in front of their house because the Jones’ mother, Bonnie, was known to give them good food without fail. “Pappy” often sat with them while they ate.
“Parents sat on their porches and watched the children,” Jeannette Jones Thomas recalled. “You had eighty-one mothers in the village,” Mac said.
Sayles Village was full of lovable characters: the “stick man,” so named because he went around mysteriously poking things, looking for termites; the man who got dressed up in a suit to watch TV; the guard who let himself be tied up on Halloween so that kids could roll garbage cans.
Mrs. Babe Parsons, a relocated Chicago English teacher. had no children and “really liked us,” Helen related.
“Mrs. Parsons made us a huge pan of fudge. We eagerly bit into it. ‘Oh my goodness! Fish oil!’ we said. She had put fish oil in it because it was good for you. She asked mother ‘How did they like the fudge?’ ‘They loved it,’ mother said. From then on, we got fudge with fish oil regularly.”
In 2006, Helen Jones Rice published a book about Sayles and her family, titling it “Greige Bales and Village Tales.”
“Greige” is the word for unbleached cloth.
The whole story
Generally, it’s the happy memories of being part of a community and family that arise from workers’ stories. Industrial aspects emerge less frequently; and even rarer are accounts of economic struggles and health hazards.
Yet, they’re there—in the history of the Asheville Cotton Mill, for instance, where child labor was practiced, and people contracted lung diseases; and in the lumber and railroad industries, two of the most dangerous occupations in existence in the 20th century.
The history of working people reveals the ways in which community and individual welfare intersect with the need to keep an area vital through profit-making enterprises.
David Whisnant, Ph.D. presents the talk, “Blogging at Asheville Junction: Family History, Class, and Community in the Land of Sky,” 7 p.m., Thurs., in the Ramsey Center, Renfro Library, Mars Hill University. For more information, visit Whisnant’s blog at http://ashevillejunction.com/ or call Hannah Furgiuele, Ramsey Center Program Coordinator at 689-1571.