Oakley is a place with an unforgettable history
by Rob Neufeld
An earlier time
PHOTO CAPTION: The Taylor family of Oakley: Jean, Virgil, Sadie Louise, and Dan, c. 1936. Photo courtesy Dan Taylor.
“We had hobos come to our house, and my mother would never turn them away,” Dan Taylor says of his experience growing up in Oakley in the 1940s. His mother, Sadie Louise Earwood Taylor, explained to him that any one of those hoboes “could be an angel.”
Oakley, now known as a large cluster of modest homes framed by River Ridge Mall, I-40, and Sweeten Creek Rd., had been a tight-knit, religious community in the days of steam engines and dairy cows.
Dan’s grandfather, Charles Taylor, had moved to Oakley in 1926 while he was serving as an official for the Church of God.
Dan’s father, Virgil Blanchard Taylor, “although he was not a minister,” Dan said, “considered his store (Oakley Grocery, which he built in 1948) his ministry.”
“He gave away more groceries than we could account for,” Dan continued. “One cold winter night, the phone rang about 11 p.m. A new father told dad that he had brought his wife and new baby home from the hospital that day and had run out of kerosene to heat their home and had no money to buy any. Dad got out of bed, dressed, pumped some oil cans full of kerosene oil and delivered it to that family free of charge.”
Creating a portrait and a history of a community is a work in progress, for only a fraction of the voices get to be heard. The urgency is great because the connection to the past shortens as change, especially modern change, erases traces.
This is particularly true of Oakley. As previously neglected aspects of history, such as the lives of women and African-Americans, finally begin to be cherished, other stories, distinguished by neither fame nor diversity, remain unconsidered.
Writing about Oakley brings another challenge. Many Oakley people are reluctant to tell about themselves, not out of fear of revealing their flaws or troubles, but because of not wanting to print their virtues. It goes against humility.
I insert this note to indicate that I had to get special permission to highlight my sources in the interest of a greater good, which is, providing insight and inspiration.
Let’s take a look at the Oakley community in 1939, as revealed by the Asheville City Directory, which notes people’s occupations.
I narrow my search to Onteora Boulevard, which runs from Fairview Road at what had been the Oakley School and is now the Elementary School to the cove below the Blue Ridge Parkway, now bisected by I-40.
Preston Bagwell, Deputy County Sheriff lived there, as did Maude Bryson, a local schoolteacher. Rev. Sidney Lowery, pastor at the Church of God also made the place his home.
Oakley had five churches—three Baptist, including an African-American church on Stoner Rd.; one Methodist, and one Church of God. Presbyterians were not represented.
Onteora also included a Southern Railway switchman; a Dave Steel worker; two Southern Bell repairmen; the head of a plumbing company (Charles Swink), and two employees of Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries—Hershel Edmundsen, a repairman, and Lester Worley, a pipefitter.
Less well-off bleachery workers lived in the nearby Sayles factory village, which charged about as much for rent as the laborers earned.
When the U.S. became involved in World War II, Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries provided cloth for uniforms, and was considered a war industry. At the same time, many Oakley boys fought and died for our country.
“One of my strongest memories is, during World War II, how united our community was” Taylor recalls. “If there was a casualty in a family, they put a gold star in the (family’s) window, and the whole community would come. The kids would stand in the road and the parents would go in the house and take food. Everybody knew everybody.”
Kids looked after each other. “If any child was hazed or bullied,” Dan’s wife, Betty Thomas Taylor, avows, “somebody else got in on it and got rid of the one who was doing the bullying.”
“The community was so close-knit,” Dan comments, “if we did anything wrong, there’d be a dozen parents finding our parents to tell them.”
Grocers, such as Virgil Taylor, were important influences, as was H.L. Wilson’s dad, Hobert Wilson, who owned Wilson’s Grocery one mile up Charlotte Highway.
“One family—the daddy was a fox hunter, and had many many fox dogs,” H.L. recounts. “He came into the grocery and didn’t have any money. My dad knew he had several young’uns and he delivered a bunch of stuff to his house.”
“I’ll never forget it,” H.L. emphasizes. “As we were walking in the driveway, I would say ten dogs ran out from under the porch. We carried the groceries in, and (the man) was thanking us for the groceries, and my daddy said, ‘There’s one thing I want you to do, get rid of some of those fox hounds. I’m not going to come back next week if you have 14 dogs coming at me.’” Dogs ate earnings; the man agreed.
Those were the days when an Oakley person could run dogs up on Busbee Mountain, and there was some wilderness around.
“My dad was president of the PTA,” Wilson says, and one day, the sheriff wanted to make his dad a deputy to patrol the “rowdy people” in the cove above the store.
Hobert wouldn’t do it. The sheriff said, “Well, we’ll furnish you a motorcycle.” My dad said, “I would fight you as long as I could hold up before I ride a motorcycle.”
Oakley’s boundaries were not only geographical, but also social. It was a well-cared-for, largely family-related society in the midst of what was seen as some outlaw enclaves.
H.L. Wilson is kin to the Dotsons, and had many cousins. Taylor’s mom had many Earwood and Reed cousins, descendants of early settlers in Oakley.
Virgil Taylor’s reach went beyond his extended family to include all of Oakley, including the African-American families on Stoner Rd. His “ministry” became so large, he sold his store to E.E. Huntsinger in 1952 because, one day, he was unable to provide pork chops to a local restaurant in need.
“If anyone came in that store and needed something and didn’t have money,” Dan says, “one of two things happened. He either gave them stuff or he would set them up an account...When he sold the store, he did not sell accounts receivable because he did want the new owner to go after those people.”
Country ways, trains, and miracles
“In the first grade, we didn’t sit at desks; we sat at tables that had four children on each side and two at each end. Here I am, a little first-grader, probably scared to death. He opens the door to my room, walks up to my table and—he had bought a little nickel cake of some kind (from the lunchroom)—and he just kind of throws it and it slides across the table right up to me. It made me so proud!”
The Oakley School, which had included kindergarten to 12th grade classes up until 1955, when A.C. Reynolds High School incorporated Oakley students, had been an extension of the community. The principal, Martin Nesbitt, Sr., who lived in Oakley, acted like a father.
Floyd Bailey recalls Nesbitt coming up to him and his pals while they were pitching horseshoes on the school grounds.
“I was smoking a cigarette,” Bailey says, ‘and he told me, ‘Put the cigarette out.’ It was after school and I thought, ‘He’s got no authority on me now,’ so I took a puff. He slapped the cigarette out of my hands. That was 65 years ago. I still remember it as if it were yesterday. And I appreciate his discipline.”
Bailey was a boy’s boy. He carried a shot gun in his ’36 Dodge pickup; cleared and plowed fields with his dad; built homes with his neighbor, Bert Williams; mowed hay where the closed Bi-Lo now sits on Fairview Road; and hunted quail in the corn fields now occupied by Home Depot.
One day, Nesbitt nabbed him and his cronies shooting raisins with rubber bands at girls in the cafeteria. Nesbitt ordered the boys to spend Christmas break cleaning the lunchroom floor. Bailey didn’t show up. “I had rabbit-hunting to do, and rabbits were galore,” Bailey says. Nesbitt expelled him for the term.
The following fall, Nesbitt allowed Bailey, who, on occasion, plowed Nesbitt’s garden on Oakley Rd., to combine the latter half of 11th grade and 12th grade so that he could graduate.
Bailey’s career came to include owning and running the Oakley Food Center from 1970 to 2012, maintaining, in the age of supercenters, the village spirit started there in 1948 by Dan Taylor’s dad, Virgil.
The Southern Railway played a big part in Oakley lives. At age ten, Bailey was riding his dad’s horse, loaded with shelled corn, to the mill at the Farmer’s Federation building on Old Fairview Rd. A train came by, the horse panicked, and Bailey rode the side of the horse for five minutes without the corn spilling.
Young Dale Roberts’ family in Oakley had begun discovering he had perfect pitch when he’d been able to identify far-off trains by their whistles. He became first oboist with the Greater Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra; and his life-long hobby was steam locomotives of the Southern Railway.
“We lived almost directly behind Hamrick’s Feed Company, right beside the railroad tracks” Dan Taylor recalls. “So, trains, trains, trains.” One of the big turning points in local history, he feels, was when diesel locomotives replaced steam ones, relegating his childhood to the history books.
Taylor remembers sitting on the bank behind Bill Pressley’s store (Hamrick’s) and getting acquainted with railroad crews. And he remembers the function the trains served during World War II. “Trains would come that had red crosses on them,” he recalls, “and they were bringing soldiers to the Moore General Hospital. Some of the soldiers would wave at you and some of them, they were probably too sick to look out the window.”
Like life, trains brought joy and sorrow, and one of the most sorrowful events, for the Taylor family, had been the death of Dan’s mother’s uncle.
“Connie Todd,” Dan writes in a story written for his family, “died drunk at age 48 while laying asleep across the railroad track in Biltmore. A freight train decapitated him and cut off his legs at the knees.”
If you’re like the Taylors, you love people without qualification; and Dan’s story is a loving one because he’s explaining why he has never drunk a drop of alcohol—even when camaraderie had compelled him to when he’d been an executive for CP Clare, an electronics company in Fairview.
“My religious beliefs are not the primary basis for this story,” he says about his tee-totaling, not wanting any presumptions to get in the way of his message: Uncle Connie’s shocking death can save others.
A heart-felt Christianity fills and informs the lives of many stalwart Oakley residents. There’s the charity of Dan’s mom with the hoboes; the tough love of Principal Nesbitt; the agony of Uncle Connie; and there are miracles.
“On Thanksgiving night, 1935,” Dan Taylor retells his father’s oft-told account, “they (his family) went to church, and the pastor asked, ‘Does anybody have a prayer?’ Dad stood up and said, ‘I’ve got a brother (Verlin, who gained fame as country singer Montana Slim) that’s been gone for five years, and nobody knows where he is. I just want to know if he’s dead or alive.’”
The following Monday, Dan’s dad got a postcard, which Dan still has, postmarked in Connecticut. It said, “Dear brother, just a line to let you know I’m still alive.”
Don McIntyre, a childhood friend of Dan, was 17 years old when he was found. He’d been a two-job-holding, brooding, self-sufficient lost soul and “angry young man” since fifth grade.
Though his family did not even own a Bible, he said, one day he sought out a church because he “was under a great Holy Spirit conviction.” He drove by five churches and ended up entering Oakley Baptist. “I started twice to leave. I was just miserable. But when that pastor gave the invitation, I walked down that aisle, and I said, ‘Sir, I want to be a Christian if it means that my life can change.’”
The pastor referred McIntyre to a man sitting on a front seat. It was Hall Sayles, “the man who had been my mail carrier all my life,” McIntyre relates. “It turned out, he had been praying for me for three or four years. He had marked down on a penny postcard, week by week as he had prayed for me.’”
Years later, McIntyre is serving as a professor for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s on a plane to Sri Lanka, and a man from an Eastern European country sees McIntyre reading a Bible and asks him to come into the first class section to share the Bible with the vice-president of that country.
McIntyre sits beside the vice-president and recommends reading the Gospel of John. He gives the man the big picture up to the incarnation of Christ. The plane’s about to land when the vice-president asks “to invite this Jesus into my heart.” McIntyre kneels in the aisle and the vice-president kneels at his seat for the sinner’s prayer.
“The stewardess touched my shoulder,” McIntyre recounts, “and she said, ‘Sir, we’re fixing to land and you’re supposed to be in your seat buckled up, but if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, you just stay there and go ahead.’ And we actually landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka on our knees with the man praying to receive Christ as his Savior.”