by Rob Neufeld
On Christmas Eve in 1928, Maria Taylor Beale, mistress of Arden House, instructed her family to bring her downstairs in her bathrobe for she would not miss the last Christmas party of her life. For 56 years, she and her husband, the author Charles Willing Beale, had been throwing Christmas parties for the South Buncombe community, and had gained fame for them. As the holiday approached in 1928, Mrs. Beale, afflicted with pneumonia, made it known that the tradition should not stop even if she were laid in her coffin Christmas Eve Day; and it should not stop in the years following her death.
Maria Taylor was 14 when her family had fled Richmond as Federal troops were burning it down. She carried painful memories of creaking wagon carts, loaded with limbs, leaving the hospital into which her family’s home had been transformed. Her widowed mother, Mary, had married Major William Brown, having met him at the hospital, and moved to the Brown estate (where Rosscraggon was later established) along the Buncombe Turnpike.
Soon, Maria was combining woodland objects, food treats, and small packages to fashion Christmas parties for neighbors, servants, and family members. Although, as time proved, she approached this activity with unmatched dedication, parties and country crafts were typical activities for girls in the mountains. Jenny Fleetwood Westfeldt, granddaughter of Swedish vice-consul and coffee importer, Gustav Adolphus Georg de Westfeldt, grew up at Rugby Grange near Fletcher and played hostess in the woods with her sister, setting up a small walnut tea table “to decorate it with every sort of pretty thing, mosses, feathers, leaves, flowers, and pebbles,” she recalled.
Charles Willing Beale came to Western North Carolina to raise sheep. Inquiring about land, he met Maria Taylor outside the Brown house. In 1872, the two married. They moved to a house that Maria, a Shakespeare lover, named Arden and they built Arden Park Hotel, the best and largest accommodations in the Limestone area. Woodrow Wilson stayed in one of the hotel’s cottages (later named the Wilson Cottage) on both his honeymoons. Teddy Roosevelt sojourned at Arden Park; Sidney Lanier visited.
Beale was an intense character. When he was four, he was sent to live with a rich aunt and uncle in Philadelphia while his siblings stayed behind in Alexandria. Consequently, his granddaughter, Margaret Ella Youngblood, admits, he was spoiled. When his aunt and uncle bequeathed most of their money to an animal hospital, Beale, searching for a livelihood, discovered that, despite his engineering degree, he did not excel at much of anything except running.
The stories about Beale’s running feats spread throughout the mountains. When Youngblood’s parents went on their honeymoon in the Pisgah Forest, they encountered a mountain man at a backwoods cabin who, when he learned of the connection to Beale, exclaimed, “Isn’t he the one that did that running?”
Once, when Beale had been criticized for racing his horse from his home to Asheville, he defended himself by saying he wouldn’t have the horse do what he couldn’t do. To prove it, Beale and his horse were placed on a starting line back in Arden and, in the reenactment of the route, legend tells, Beale won.
Charles Willing Beale was also the author of several books, including the very popular, “The Ghost of Guir House,” in which an innocent man accepts an invitation to an old house where a centuries-old mystic tries to get him to marry his half-ghost daughter.
Beale loved to tell stories—including scary Wild West tales from his post-university experience as a surveyor; and fantasies using puppets he’d collected. So did other members of his family.
The Beales’ daughter, Margaret “Daisy” Beale Fletcher, told her children about the headless horseman who rode up and down the main wagon road. It’s a famous story—a Union soldier died before overcoming the prohibitions of his sweetheart’s Confederate father. It sounded like something real that Daisy had experienced. Once, her daughter, Margaret Ella, spotted a horseman as the family Model T passed what is now Oak Park. “That’s him,” mother said.
Aunt Bootie (Daisy’s sister, Bertha Beale) was a spiritualist. She communed with the spirits and spoke in foreign voices. She dressed all in white and, foreseeing World War I and its rationing, stocked up on white, rubber-soled tennis shoes, the only kind of footwear she’d use.
Christmastime in the Beale household was a special affair. Arden House—which burned down in 1921 and was replicated when rebuilt—had a large ballroom that was designed in one corner to accommodate the twenty-foot tall holly tree that Aunt Bootie would haul from the woods. Decorating didn’t start until the day before Christmas. Holly, mistletoe, and galax covered rooms that already bore the stamp of an artistic family. The Beales clipped real candles to the tree; and had a ladder, water buckets, and firewatchers on hand to prevent a disaster.
In 1905, Edith and George Washington Vanderbilt, whose estate was nearby, began the practice of attaching real candles to their tree. They also attached 1,500 presents to give to the children of their employees. Maria Beale herself gave out hundreds of presents, as children of the black community, then the white, and then her family’s special friends came to her party.
Mrs. Beale and Vanderbilt shopped in downtown Asheville, going into stores and buying dozens of certain items at a time. Margaret Ella Youngblood recalled that her mother had gotten a speeding ticket going 26 miles per hour along the newly paved country road once, and that she (Margaret) had thus been deprived of new shoes until Cornelia Vanderbilt heard the story and helped out.
The Beales were a little bit more country than the Vanderbilts. Maria Beale had a habit of raising motherless piglets and nursing them with a bottle, Margaret recalled. Once, Edith Vanderbilt, paying Maria a visit, was confused by a grunting sound in the house, until a movement of her skirt betrayed the wandering animal’s snuffling snout.
Six-thirty in the evening, Christmas Eve at the Arden House: the presents were stored upstairs; the sliding doors of the ballroom were pulled to. Dozens of guests entered in fancy dress. Members of the African American community arrived singing Christmas carols. The doors slid open to reveal a crackling fire and a table spread with oranges and candy for the community children.
Santa Claus came up the hill in a buggy bedecked with bells. Daisy Beale Fletcher’s daughter, Bertha Holland, recalls that Santa smoked the same pipe tobacco that Grandfather Beale smoked. Children open presents. Margaret Ella Youngblood relates that she opened her big presents on Christmas Day, but she had smaller ones to open with the other children. Her most memorable present was a modest one: a black-skinned doll from her father’s brother’s wife. “I just loved it,” Youngblood reminisces.
Bill Nye, the most popular humorist of the day, and a Skyland resident, once gave his son, Frank, a pair of gold cuff links that he had wrapped in a nest of several boxes that took much effort and faith to remove. Fathers liked playing games with their children. Charles Willing Beale paid his grandchildren, Margaret and Beale Fletcher, a penny for each match they picked up from the ground after he had discarded them in repeated efforts to light his pipe on the porch. Grandpa Beale was also a little fearsome, examining his watch a half hour before Christmas and Sunday dinners, impatient of lateness; and engaging in arguments with people who supported Prohibition.
After presents, a 15-piece brass band got folks dancing. Daisy Beale Fletcher was an expert tango dancer, and her husband, Robert Walter Fletcher was a buck-and-wing dancer. In 1927, he called the square dances at Asheville’s first Rhododendron Parade. Their son, Beale Fletcher, loved to perform for the family’s guests, and also danced to the rhythms the African American dairy men played while squirting milk into pails. Later in life, Beale Fletcher established the famous Fletcher School of Dance. His daughter, Maria Beale Fletcher, was crowned Miss America in 1962, after having done a tap dance for the talent portion of the competition.
Christmas dinner proceeded from 9 to 11:30 p.m., after which folks went to Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher. At Arden House, dinner was served buffet style, and people sat wherever they could, including up the winding stairs. The Christmas menus of the Vanderbilts have been preserved and readers can vicariously experience oysters on the half shell, clear soup, custard and spinach blocks, deviled spaghetti, roasted turkey with chestnut stuffing, and five other courses.
Departing was no easy affair at these Christmas gatherings. Bertha Holland recalls that it was rare that someone didn’t get stuck in the mud driving out. Frank Nye recalled in “Bill Nye: His Own Life Story”: “In 1892 this turnpike was paved with good intentions and bright red clay, which in the rainy season had the consistency of underdone molasses candy.”
The old wagon road has become Hendersonville Road, more or less. Arden Park and many other properties were sold to developers and industries. Cars no longer get stuck in the mud. The Headless Horseman hasn’t been sighted in years. The great Christmas parties linger as sweet memories.
Welcome home, Maria Beale Fletcher, Miss America 1962, in parade; from Jim Coman collection