Excitement burst forth at Montford’s advent
by Rob Neufeld
If you were visiting in 1890, you would have attended to the big welcome mat leading from downtown Asheville to what has become Montford.
Much of the land for this charming neighborhood came from Richmond Pearson, whose father, Richmond Mumford Pearson, had left his heirs what they determined was “unproductive” property, “not susceptible of an advantageous partition among the residuary legatees,” according to one correspondence.
But that was in 1879, one year before the railroad reached Asheville. It took a decade, but, like a stop-motion film, farm life began yielding to the charmed life of suburban dream homes.
Pearson bought up his siblings’ shares and joined several local partners to lay out lots and streets under the auspices of the Asheville Loan, Improvement and Construction Company.
Its first sale was to Walter B. Gwyn on Oct. 23, 1890. There’s no image of his deed online.
Gwyn was the president of the Asheville and Craggy Mountain Railroad, which was about to lay tracks up Sunset Mountain. He was also a realtor whose ad stamped just about every issue of the “Asheville Daily Citizen.”
Gwyn lived on Grove Street, according to the 1896 City Directory, so I’m inclined to think he did not have a house in Montford.
Two months passed before the Montford company sold its second lot to Charles Hartshorne, on Dec. 23, 1890.
Hartshorne was a lumber dealer, and he’s harder to track than Gwyn. In 1890, he was living in a boarding house. In 1896, he’s listed neither in the main section of the city directory, which includes some Montford addresses, nor in a separate name-only list of Montford residents in the back.
A.J. Lyman, to whom Hartshorne sold a Montford lot—perhaps the one in question—in 1893, shows up in 1896 as living on Merrimon Avenue; and his name is like a revolving door in Buncombe County’s records of land purchases and sales.
All this digging leads to the meagre conclusions that we cannot easily anoint a first Montford homeowner; and that the first responders to the Montford good news were speculators.
Montford had been a bold and new idea whose time had come in 1890.
It may not seem that its location was very distant from downtown Asheville. Yet, the Oak Street Inn at Oak and Woodfin Streets—much closer to downtown—appealed in ads to boarders who desired “a nice, quiet place, away from the hotels...with no dust or noise.”
It also offered the “latest improved methods for treating chronic diseases of the lungs, throat and nose by the inhalation of vaporized and atomized fluid.”
Getaways have been the attraction in Asheville throughout its history, but the nature of them has changed.
Passing into the 20th century, suburbanites supplanted consumptives; and weekend visitors outnumbered summer residents. Edwin Wiley Grove became a major force in both these trends, creating the Grove Park neighborhood in 1908 and the Battery Park commercial hotel in 1924.
The excitement about Montford went along with an unprecedented amount of optimism about the new, industrialized and cosmopolitan South.
The Inter-state Immigration Convention met in Asheville on December 17, 1890. You should have heard the rhetoric.
Representatives from Virginia to Texas—350 of them filling the Opera House on Patton Avenue—resolved “that the war between the sections is ended and all bitter remembrances thereof are forgotten.” They issued a call “for 500,000 sturdy sons of toil and 500,000 manufacturers of the north and west, to make their home with us and to join in the development of this land of ours”
Now that the railroad had opened the area up to industry, commerce, and settlement—that is, to prosperity, profits, and polite society—many Ashevillians were giddy about the pending marriage to outside investment.
A blizzard greeted convention delegates the first day, and Governor David Fowle poeticized, “North Carolina has met you dressed in the garb of a bride. She has put on her snowy robes in your honor.”
In the meantime, the city was looking to clean up its act. Editorials decried the Opera House for its “cheap-john shows.” There was a movement afoot to make primary and secondary schooling compulsory. An Asheville editorial, condemning the lynching of an African-American man in Rome, Ga., noted that that state “is anxious just now, as all the Southern states are and should be, to attract emigrants.”
The transition to modern Asheville expressed itself in many ways, including war between owners of dogs as lovable pets, on the one hand; and, on the other, owners of hunting dogs, allowed to roam free to keep them in shape.
But it wasn’t all conflict in the convergence of country and city, and of northern and southern ways. There were some commonalities.
Hunting, for instance, was a passion that Southerners of Daniel Boone stock and Northerners of Teddy Roosevelt mentality shared. George Washington Vanderbilt had had a hunting preserve foremost in his mind when he’d first envisioned his estate.
And you couldn’t make a trip to the mountains without roughing it a little bit.
“Howard P. Sweetser, a prominent banker of New York, and F.P. Love, of this city,” the “Daily Citizen” reported on Dec. 5, “returned from a three days hunting trip to Sandy Mush last night. They report having brought back 5 wild turkeys, 75 partridges and a number of rabbits.”
In Montford, the union of lifestyle preferences flourished beautifully in domestic architecture.
A late Victorian upper class style combined with the Arts & Crafts cottage style to produce a wide range of homes that featured wood, native stone, craftsmanship, and organic shapes.
Montford became, and remains, a museum of creative solutions.
“What is remarkable about Montford,” the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County states in its book, “Historic Montford,” “is the rich combination of...various influences...The neighborhood mirrors in subtle ways Asheville’s cosmopolitan character at the turn of the century.” Inclusion of the ideas of national architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and others puts the neighborhood in a unique class.
On July 4, 1890, Richmond Pearson—Yadkin County-born, Princeton-educated, both internationally and locally celebrated as a consul to Belgium and then a North Carolina assemblyman—decided to throw a huge party for local and visiting folks at Montford Park, below his newly developing Richmond Hill estate.
Here’s how you would have attended if you’d been there at that time.
Go to Public Square and take a streetcar to the train depot; then take the train to the Owenby trestle. There, the Asheville Band will play while you gather to follow marshals to group photo ops at scenic locations.
Food, non-alcoholic drinking, fireworks and dancing will follow the fun of participating in a public works enterprise.
“One thousand men will grade in one hour,” the organizers announced, “a half mile of road on either side of Lake Marjorie,” the recreational location to be formed by the construction of a dam. (The lake and park would, in 1916, be wiped out by the Great Flood.)
The celebration, the announcement concluded, is “given under the auspices of the Asheville Loan, Improvement and Construction Company by Mr. Pearson in consideration of the privilege which the company have allowed him in naming the new park Montford, the family name of his grandmother.” (This revelation may resolve the mystery of how Montford got its name.)