Mount Mitchell Motor Road

On March 3, 1915 a bill passed the state legislature to establish Mount Mitchell as the first state park in the Southeast. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern United States. Today, thousands of visitors travel to the summit via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

But when the park opened a century ago, tourists came by railroad and later they traveled along the legendary Old Toll Road.

“Now open! … the motor road to the top of the world!” proclaimed an early 20th century brochure for the Mount Mitchell Motor Road. Prior to the opening of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939, the toll road was one of the only routes to Mount Mitchell from Buncombe County. The mountain was named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a geologist and educator who fell to his death attempting to prove the peak was the highest east of the Rockies. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Mitchell’s measurements in 1881-1882 and officially named the mountain for him.

In Mitchell’s days, travel to the summit was treacherous and required the aid of mountain guides along a trail that was said to have curved like a sinuous reptile. Despite the difficulty of the journey, the marvel of the soaring peak enticed tourists throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the decade thereafter, transportation improved markedly when the Dickey and Campbell Logging Company laid a 21-mile railroad from Black Mountain to the base of the mountain. Eager tourists hitched rides on logging cars to the peak.

Fred A. Perley and W.H. Crockett purchased the railroad in 1913 and added three passenger cars by 1914. They hired Sandford H. Cohen to boost tourism to what was then quickly becoming known as the “Land of the Sky.” Civic boosters and business leaders in nearby Black Mountain were also ardent promoters of tourist access to the mountain.

An advertisement in a 1915 The Asheville Citizen newspaper invited visitors on “America’s Greatest Scenic Trip” to Mount Mitchell at the cost of $2.50 roundtrip.  Between 1915 and 1916 alone more than 15,000 passengers traveled to the summit on a bumpy three-hour long train ride to the peak, followed by a three and a half-hour trip downhill.

To accommodate tourist needs, promoters constructed Camp Alice in 1914 or 1915, three-quarters of a mile from the mountain’s apex. The bustling tourist destination featured a kitchen, 250-person dining hall, lunch counter, souvenir stand, and cabins and tents for overnight camping.

By this time, logging activity had denuded much of the Black Mountain range. Visitors voiced alarm about the environmental destruction. Gov. Locke Craig listened to these concerns and endorsed a bill to designate Mount Mitchell as the first state park.

Passenger rail service ended in 1919, when World War I increased the demand for lumber. The war depleted timber resources, and logging ceased in the Black Mountains. Cashing in on the tremendous growth of automobile ownership, tourist boosters smoothed, straightened and paved the railroad bed with rock and cinders for the 18-mile toll road from Black Mountain to Camp Alice in 1922.

Once a major tourist attraction, the “Old Toll Road” made the “apex of Appalachia accessible” for the cost of $1 per person. As many as 150 cars drove “Old Toll Road” each day. The single-lane road required motorists to depart for the mountain before noon and begin their descent by 3 p.m. The opening of the modern, paved Blue Ridge Parkway in 1939, which provided free access to Mount Mitchell, led to the road’s closure. Today, the remnants of the former toll roads remain undisturbed. The lands around them are undeveloped.


An Affrilachian Odyssey: The Stepp Family of the Swannanoa Valley

by Katherine C. Cutshall

In February, we take especially take the opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Black Americans and celebrate the month as Black History Month. African-American people have made an important impact on the history and culture of the Swannanoa Valley and western North Carolina as a whole. From their earliest documented arrival in the Valley in the late 18th century as enslaved people, all the way to the present day as politicians and civic leaders, they have shown courage, perseverance, patriotism, and made numerous sacrifices to contribute to the cultural, economic and social development of the region.

Poet Frank X. Walker coined the term Affrilachia to describe the unique cultural heritage of Black Highlanders; the Stepp family, who made their home in Black Mountain, especially represents the exceptional history of African Americans in western North Carolina and the Appalachian region. Their family history in the Swannanoa Valley is anchored on stagecoach inns, the coming of the railroad, and the story of African-American education in the Jim Crow South. Their history in the Swannanoa Valley is traced through their family matriarch, Myra.

John Myra Stepp

Myra, like the majority of blacks living in western North Carolina in the 19th century was enslaved, and according to family history was part Cherokee and born in Murphy, North Carolina. Myra was owned by prominent Buncombe County Slave Owner Joseph Stepp who was also the father of her children. According to the 1850 Slave schedules, a separate census for enslaved people, Joe Stepp owned seven slaves. His father William who lived close by owned another eight. Myra, who was recorded as 19 years old on the 1850 schedules, like many other enslaved women in western North Carolina would have been tasked with picking crops, carding and spinning wool, and other domestic tasks. According to her family history, Myra loved to cook. When each child reached a particular age, she would cook them their own cake.

Myra’s tasks were carried out on a large farm that eventually grew into one of the first hotels in eastern Buncombe County, the Black Mountain Hotel. Unlike many enslaved people in the lower south Myra and her children born into slavery did not work on a large plantation cultivating cotton, rice, or tobacco. Stepp slaves spent a great deal of time attending to travelers or “summer people” from these regions. The “summer people” traveled to western North Carolina to escape the hot, humid climate and diseases brought on by mosquitoes like malaria and yellow fever in the lower south. It is said that Myra’s children, because of their favor in the eyes of Joseph Stepp, their father and master, were allowed to take hotel guests on horse and buggy sightseeing tours around Black Mountain and often worked in the “Big house.” The skills they learned on the Stepp Hotel property were diverse; Myra’s children went on to become carpenters, contractors, brick masons, railroad workers and important community leaders well into the 20th century.

As Joseph Stepp approached death, he offered the children born of his relationships with Myra and another enslaved woman the opportunity to purchase land at $1.00 per acre. Later, they made a return on those investments by selling the land. Her daughter Martha donated part of her land to help establish one of the first African-American churches and cemeteries in eastern Buncombe County, Thomas Chapel A.M.E Church and Oak Grove Cemetery which is as of 2009 protected on the National Register of Historic Places.

Myra’s sons Ed and John Myra went on to become important community leaders and entrepreneurs. Ed, a large man, who stood over six feet tall, first left home at 14 when Myra hired him out to a farmer, which was not uncommon at the time. As a single black woman, Myra would have had very few options to make a living, so she depended on her sons to help her. Ed was an enterprising young man and was well known for managing his time and money wisely. He was a proponent of good health, and later in life became a vegetarian and encouraged others to do the same. He spent most of his life as a builder, contractor, and mason. He recalled his work in a series of letters to the editor of the Black Mountain News in 1945 shortly before he passed away in 1950.

Ed Stepp with son Alfred

Ed’s brother, John Myra was also an enterprising man. After emancipation he worked on the railroads like many other young freedmen. Later, he was a “mule skinner” helping to drive along the mule and ox carts carrying debris away from where railroad laborers dug tunnels. Eventually, John Myra learned the skills necessary to become a veterinarian.

Education was a personal priority of John Myra, and he saw to it that his children, and all the children of Black Mountain received a decent education. He used some of the funds he had accumulated through land holdings to establish the Flat Creek School (Black Mountain’s first school for African-American children) and was elected to the school board where he served for nearly 30 years. Like his brother, John Myra lived for quite a long time, passing away in 1955 at the ripe old age of 105. According to his obituary in the Asheville Citizen he had “never once visited a doctor.”

The saga of the Stepp family is characteristic of many of the enslaved African-American people who lived in western North Carolina throughout the 19th century. Their dedicated community service is a reminder that the history of all people in our community is vitally important and worthy of preservation. At the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center, we work hard to interpret, protect and preserve the history of everyone in the Swannanoa Valley. If you’d like to learn more about the Stepp family or other African-American families or figures in the Swannanoa Valley, reach out to us. We would love to be of assistance.

This article was complied with sources held at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center. Should you have any questions please feel free to contact museum staff, we would be happy to assist you.

Half a Century in Slavery: The Long Life of Sarah Gudger

Photograph from Library of Congress, WPA Writer’s Project

By Anne Chesky Smith

Master’s brother, he said, “William, how old is Aunt Sarah now?” Master William looked at me and he said, “She is getting nigh onto 50.” That was just a little while after the war. -Sarah Gudger

When Sarah Gudger told this story in 1937, her interviewer, Marjorie Jones, might have supposed for a moment that that Gudger was referring to The Great War that had ended almost 20 years before, but Jones would have soon realized her reason for the interview—Gudger was a former slave—and remembered turning 50 right after the end of the Civil War, more than 70 years earlier.

In the 1930s, in an effort to support writers during the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Federal Writer’s Project, under which the Slave Narratives employed writers from around the country to seek out over 2,300 former slaves and record their personal memoirs.

Besides Bills of Sale recorded at the County’s Deeds Office and census records, there is little official documentation of the slaves who lived in the Swannanoa Valley, and almost nothing that records more than their first names and ages. Thus, Sarah Gudger’s account of her enslaved life near the Swannanoa Valley helps those of us who live here now to understand a little more about what life might have been like for an enslaved person in the valley.

In September of 1816, Sarah Gudger was born on a large plantation owned by the Hemphill family near Old Fort. Her father, Smart Gudger, took his family name from his owner, Joe Gudger, who owned property on the Swannanoa River near Oteen.

Sarah spent the first years of her life working for Andy Hemphill. When Andy died, she was willed to his son, William, who would remain her master until she gained her freedom after the end of the war. Sarah remembered Andy and his wife with fondness, saying, “Missie used to read the Bible to us children before she passed away.”

But Sarah was not fond of William and his wife. “Old Boss he sent us out in any kind of weather, rain or snow, it never mattered. If the Ole Boss or the Old Missie see us [resting] they would yell, ‘Get on over hear you black thing, and get your work out of the way.’ And, Lord, honey, we knew to get, else we get the lash. They didn’t care how old or how young you were, you never too big to get the lash.”

Sarah recalled working from the early morning until late into the night chopping wood, working in the fields, hoeing corn, carding wool, and spinning yarn, being fed only cornbread and molasses, and sleeping on a pile of rags in the corner.

Often she would wait until everyone was asleep and risk sneaking out, walking two miles barefoot in the snow, to eat cornbread with meat and milk at her auntie’s house.

But despite the hardships she experienced, she was thankful that William never sold any of the enslaved people from her plantation. On William’s other plantation she remembered the times the speculator would come.

“All the slaves would be in the field, plowing, hoeing, singing in the boiling sun. Old Master he come through the field with a man. They walked around just looking, and everyone knew what that meant. They didn’t dare look up, just worked right on. Then the speculator would see who he wanted. He talked to Old Master, then they slaps the handcuffs on him and took him away to the cotton country.”

Sales would separate mothers from children, husbands from wives, with no notice. And despite the threats of harsh beatings, many would try to make their way back to the plantation, back to their families. Sarah said, “Oh, man Lordy, my old Boss was mean, but he never sent us to the cotton country.”

But even though none of the enslaved people from Sarah’s plantation were sold to cotton country, Sarah’s mother was sent away to the Hemphill’s Reems Creek plantation when Sarah was a teenager. Years later, when she found out her mother had died, she asked permission from William’s wife to go and see her body before she was buried. His wife replied, “Get out of here and get back to your work before I wallup you good.” Sarah returned to work in tears. Over 100 years later, at 120 years old, the Asheville Citizen published a brief quote by Gudger. Sarah said the only thing she had left to do was “to join [her] mother in death.”

At the end of the war, when she gained her freedom, Sarah spent another year with the Hemphills and then left to go live with her father and stayed with him for the rest of his life.

In 1937, Sarah Gudger lived with distant cousins in South Asheville, walking with the aid of a crutch. When she died a little over a year later, at 122 years old, the Amarillo Globe reported, “Aunt Sarah died yesterday as she has said she would – ‘propped up in bed takin’ things fair and easy ‘til the old marser calls me away.’ She was believed to be one of the oldest persons in the world. Until slightly more than a month ago when she became too feeble to ‘git aroun’ much,’ she was very active. She learned to write her name under tutorship of Works Progress Administration instructors of the adult education program.”

To read Sarah Gudger’s interview in its entirety consult Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project available online through the Library of Congress. This article was written with information gathered from the Swannanoa Valley Museum in Black Mountain.

For more in-depth information on Sarah Gudger’s life, see Museum Assistant Director Katherine Cutshall’s interactive online exhibit, Sarah Gudger’s Journey to Freedom.

The Martin Musicians and Woodcarvers


By Anne Chesky Smith

In the midst of the Great Depression, Marcus Lafayette Martin moved his family east to Swannanoa, North Carolina, where he was able to find work in one of the nation’s largest blanket mills, Beacon Manufacturing. Why, when so many others were losing their jobs, was he able to find steady work?

Beacon’s owner, Charles D. Owen, did his best to make sure his workers were happy—providing housing, shopping, and entertainment for his employees and their families. In a time before television, where few workers could afford to go to the movies or own a radio, music and sporting events were the major forms of entertainment.  So, according to local legend, when Owen heard Marcus fiddle—it was said Marcus could  “fiddle a possum out of a tree, fiddle all the bugs off a sweet potato vine, and fiddle the heart right out of your throat”—Owen offered him a job on the spot and a place for him and his boys to live in his mill town.

Born in 1881 in the Aquone community of Macon County, North Carolina, Marcus was the grandson of a Cherokee Indian Chief and a Scotch-Irish woman and as such became tied to the musical traditions of western North Carolina. Though he would be best remembered for his masterful fiddling—many of his recordings are currently housed in the Library of Congress – he was also a traditional ballad singer and an accomplished banjo, harmonica, and mountain dulcimer player.

His father, Nathaniel “Rowan” Martin, taught Marcus most of his repertoire and technique, and though Rowan himself never found acclaim as a musician, Marcus remembered years after his father’s death that he “could play the sweetest you ever heard.”

Marcus began playing publicly in his youth, often fiddling tunes at square dances around Macon and Cherokee counties unaccompanied. As a young adult, Marcus worked with his father on the farm, but soon found work in his community’s dry goods store and later became the postmaster in the community of Rhodo.

Marcus married Callie Holloway Martin, a “good five-string banjo picker” herself, and had six children – five boys and one girl. After a short stint working in a laundry in Gastonia, Marcus separated from Callie and moved with four of his boys to Swannanoa. It was here, in the Swannanoa valley of western North Carolina, that Marcus became well known as a musician.

When Bascom Lamar Lunsford began organizing the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1928, Marcus soon became a favorite of Lunsford’s and opened the festival for many years with the traditional tune, “Grey Eagle.” He continued to travel and play with Lunsford throughout his life, performing as far away Renfro Valley, Kentucky and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

During interviews, Marcus claimed that he “didn’t know a thing about music.” He never remembered learning to play. He just said, “Don’t ask me how it come to me. I don’t know for sure. I guess it was talent, if you would call it that. Just come naturally. All my ancestors were musicians, see, and I guess I took it from them.”

Marcus knew dozens of songs by heart and held the title of “Champion Fiddler” at the 1949 North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh. When at the 1950 State Fair no one had the courage to play against him, the rumor began to circulate that he would no longer compete, so that others could have their chance.

Though his music career was taking off, Marcus still spent most of his time working at the Beacon mill. In his spare time, he made fiddles to sell. He had learned to carve from his father—who “was gifted with wood” according to Marcus’ son Wade, but who had only used his skills for practical purposes, fashioning plow handles and other farming tools. Carving as an art form came later for the Martin men, when their factory jobs provided them with cash money and free time.

Marcus made fiddles and mountain dulcimers, always spending the extra time to carve the scroll at the end of each instrument. He carved reluctantly, only making about a dozen dulcimers and carving figurines only when commissioned. Several of his sons, however, were quick to learn the art of carving from their father and develop it further.

One son, Edsel, using only his pocket knife, would carve native western North Carolina birds that he saw in his yard, whittle hounds dogs, and shape the likenesses of mountain people. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. even asked him to carve a pair of each of North Carolina bird species for permanent display. The dulcimers Edsel made had their scrolls shaped into human faces, dog heads, and flowers. The songs he played, he learned from his father.  Musician and friend Billy Edd Wheeler remembered Edsel’s playing. “He grew up with these songs, heard them played by his daddy as often as he heard the birds sing, and as naturally.”

Another son, Wade “Gob” was also a prolific carver. He explained that his carvings were not measured or planned, they were simply “felt.” He said of his carving, “I guess somewhere back, my forbearers probably had something to do with that. I believe there are hand-me-down talents.” Though Wade acknowledged his father’s role in developing his carving talents, he also told another story to explain his inspiration.

One day he was out looking for wood to carve when a tiny door opened in a nearby tree and “out stepped a little old bearded mountaineer man that was about the size of a large ear of corn. In his hands he held a tiny fiddle and a fiddle bow.”

The man gave Wade a magical knife that he promised would “promote and emulate [his] carving ability and speed to a point of uniqueness.” The tiny man began to play “Amazing Grace” on his fiddle and then other “wee folk” came out of the tree and began to sing. At the end of the song, the fiddler asked all the “wee folk” to gather around Wade so that he could have a lasting impression of them. When Wade returned home, he began to carve. Soon he had produced scale models of the fiddler along with banjo, guitar, bass, and dulcimer players. When all five figures were finished they came to life and began to play the “good old mountain music” just like his father taught him to play.

Marcus and his boys have all passed away, but their handmade instruments and carvings can still be found scattered around western North Carolina in museums, archives, libraries, and private homes.

This family history was researched using materials in the archives of the Swannanoa Valley Museum, located at 223 West State Street in Black Mountain. A version of this article was published in Vol. 29 No. 2 2014 edition of Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.

Integration at Black Mountain College


bmcImages from NC State Archives, Western Regional Office

by Anne Chesky Smith

In the early- to mid-1900s, the Swannanoa Valley, like most places in the South, was segregated. African Americans could not attend Black Mountain’s movie theater or eat inside restaurants.

Local legend has it that one of the first integrated spaces in the Valley was Roseland Gardens, an African American juke joint run by Horace Rutherford in the Brookside community – now the Flat Creek Road area.

Though Rutherford ran the establishment to cater to African Americans who could not patronize local establishments, he also had a few Caucasian customers as well. For the most part, however, full integration did not occur in Black Mountain until well into the 1960s.

And integration was not easy, even for one of the most progressive places in the Valley – Black Mountain College. The college, founded in 1933 at Blue Ridge Assembly, discussed the subject of race throughout its 24-year history, beginning in its very first year.

In 1933, a father of one of the students, who was a professor at Yale University, was traveling the South with several of his graduate students – one of whom was black. He asked the college if they could stop in for a few days.

Immediately the community began an intense discussion of whether the student should be housed on campus with every else, or (as was customary in Black Mountain at the time) whether he should be put up with a local African American family.

Though many at the college were in favor of allowing the student to stay at the school, others felt that allowing even temporary integration might be the last straw for the surrounding community, which already viewed Black Mountain College as a haven for free love and Communism. In the end, the student was housed with a local family.


The issue would be broached several times throughout the 1930s, but did not come to a true head until 1944 when the students voted two to one to admit African American students as full members of the college community, which was now located at Lake Eden.

The faculty, however, were more cautious and less idealistic – and though almost no one felt that they should exclude quality students due to the color of their skin, half of the faculty wanted to (again) err on the side of caution. They reasoned that Black Mountain College had not been set up to challenge segregation and that doing so could potentially cause the demise of the school.

At first many of the opposing faculty cited a North Carolina law that did not allow segregation in schools, but when it turned out that the law did not exist, an abundance of other reasons were found.

There was fear of violence against college personnel, arson against the college property, boycott of Black Mountain students and faculty by local businesses, increased ill-favor of local citizens, and a smaller likelihood of being accredited which would discourage veterans studying on the GI Bill (a big source of funding for the school at the time) from attending.

The integration supporters, however, had their own ideas of what desegregation would mean for the college. They listed the following in support of their goal: the satisfaction of living up to our ideals, greater respect from our students, intellectual and artistic contribution of black students, greater financial support from approving individuals, and an already approved $2,000 from the Rosenwald Fund.

In the end, the school made a cautious compromise and agreed to allow a well-qualified, graduate-level African American woman – Alma Stone Williams – to attend the 1944 summer program at the college. Williams would later say of the college, “It is important to recognize Black Mountain College’s role in the history of integration in America… It was willing to take a risk to bring me into the community…they gave me the freedom to learn beside them and to be myself.”

There was little backlash from the community, and only one student left the college in light of the decision to cautiously integrate, so, in 1945, the college invited Carol Brice and Roland Hayes to teach at the summer institute, and enrolled Sylvesta Martin as Black Mountain College’s first full-time student.

In 1947, eight years before Chief Justice Earl Warren would declare “separate educational facilities…inherently unequal” and order the desegregation of schools, Black Mountain College was fully integrated.

Despite this progressive attitude, however, few African American students would choose to attend Black Mountain College, perhaps one of the many factors that contributed to low enrollment and indebtedness in the late 40s and early 50s that would eventually led to the school to close its doors in 1957.

Despite its short history, Black Mountain College remains an inspiration for progressive education and art around the world.


A Murder on Bull Creek

bee tree creek

by Anne Chesky Smith

Recently sold to the developers of Sovereign Oaks, the nearly 160 acres of Craigsfield Farm in the Riceville community had been owned by the same family—descendants of John Craig—for over 200 years.  John Craig married Hannah Davis in Augusta County, Virginia; and, in 1789, the couple purchased a large land grant from Joshua Williams for property that lay on both sides of Bull Creek, a tributary of the Swannanoa River.  John, Hannah, and their children built a residence, a distillery, and a corn mill on the land and went about daily life on the farm until March 15, 1808 when it was reported that John was ambushed and shot by a neighbor. [However, discrepancies in the account exist and it may well have been John’s brother, James, who met an untimely death by ambush. See Rob Neufeld’s account below.]

John Craig’s death was widely reported around North Carolina because of his position in the county (Craig was one of the founders of Buncombe County and its first treasurer) as well as the sensationalized events surrounding his murder. A local reporter from Asheville covered the murder for the Raleigh Minerva. He wrote that on Tuesday, March 15, 1808, as Mr. Craig worked alone at his Bull Creek mill his dogs began to bark as if they had tracked a deer. Curious, Craig walked towards the mountain laurel thicket the dogs had disappeared into on the opposite bank of Bull Creek. Before he could cover the approximately 60-foot distance to find his dogs, a man crouching behind the laurel pointed a rifle at Craig and fired.

The lead ball hit Craig just above his stomach, knocking him backwards, and pierced his body through so that the ball could be seen poking from the skin of his back. Despite his mortal would, Craig saw the man rise from the thicket and run off away from the mill. When he was found, he told those who tended to his wounds that his assassin was daughter’s fiancé, Henry West.

On April 28, 1808, Henry West was sentenced to death by Buncombe County Judge, Mr. Locke, based on purely circumstantial evidence. After the end of the trial, however, another man—Thomas Rogers—became a suspect in the death. The bullet pulled from Craig’s corpse matched the barrel size in Roger’s rifle, but not West’s.  Rogers had also been involved in a long and bitter lawsuit against Craig. Once this evidence came out, one of the original jurors felt so strongly of West’s innocence that he led a petition to the governor to pardon West.  The citizens of Buncombe County rose up in West’s support. On May 6, West’s execution day, the crowd—gathered to watch West swing—rumbled with rumors of rescue attempts. West made a final declaration of his innocence from atop the gallows, but before the trap could be thrown a rider arrived from Raleigh with the reprieve that spared his life.

After Craig’s death, his wife, Hannah, managed Craigsfield Farm, plowing and planting with the help of her neighbors and children. When the Civil War broke out, her sons and grandsons joined the Confederate forces, and one by one, Hannah received word of their deaths on the battlefield. With no male heirs, the approximately 1,000-acre Craigsfield property was left to her granddaughter, Harriet Elizabeth Rhea (daughter of Jane and Elderidge Melton). Harriet’s sister, Mary Jane Coggins, was given 1,000 acres on Bee Tree Creek. Because Harriet had no children, both Craigsfield Farm and the Bee Tree land would eventually pass to Mary Jane’s children.

The 156-acre tract that was until recently known as Craigsfield Farm was the portion that was inherited by Mary Jane’s son, Henry Allen Coggins, (who would become known as the unofficial mayor of Bee Tree and also managed Asheville’s first baseball team).  When Henry died, Craigsfield was split between his children, all of whom sold their parcels to their brother, George (who most notably would develop the West Asheville landmark, Westgate Mall), and his wife, Margo. Upon his death, he passed Craigsfield to his daughter, Craig “Copper” Coggins (named after her great great great grandparents)—the current owner. Until it was sold, about 2/3 of the land, much like 200 years ago, was still forested. The remaining 100 acres of rolling hills were cleared for pasture and cows still lazed beneath the centuries-old trees.

UPDATE: “Nearly 200 rural acres with links to Buncombe County’s founding are slated to become an unusual housing development. Developers hoping to build a subdivision with agricultural features have a contract to buy the wooded and pastoral land next to Warren Wilson College. The Riceville property was first surveyed in 1794 by county founder, John Craig, and has remained in family hands for more than 200 years. Current owner Craig “Copper” Coggins has called the decision to sell difficult for her and neighbors and declined to be interviewed.”

UPDATE:  “With [the] $4.1 million purchase, the 169 acres known as Coggins Farm ceased to exist. For the property — and for the conflict over its future — a new chapter began. For the broader issue of preserving open space and farmland, it was a familiar story that still offers lessons for the future. Now called Sovereign Oaks, the property will become a 99-lot subdivision with trails, a common area, a neighborhood garden and access to Bull Creek.”

For more on the Craig murder, including clearing up some discrepancies in the centuries-old account see Rob Neufeld’s article at the link below:

Rob Neufeld on a man’s escape from execution in 1808

March 23, 2014

“The narrow escape of this innocent man,” the Raleigh Register editorialized in 1808 regarding the near-execution of Henry West, “will serve as a caution to jurors against too lightly convicting persons of murder on circumstantial evidence.”

Three weeks ago in this column, West’s name came up in connection with newly unearthed Patton family papers. One document showed that, on Dec. 8, 1807, West deeded a parcel of land in what is now Haw Creek to the business partnership of James Patton and Andrew Erwin.

That prompted a reach into an old book. Hadn’t F.A. Sondley told a story about West in his “History of Buncombe County”?

The column then went on to relate Sondley’s tale — how West had been convicted of the murder of his arch-rival, John Craig, based on a footprint that matched his misshapen foot; and how James Patton and his sister, Jane Erwin, had obtained a pardon from Governor David Stone just in the nick of time.

The truth?

The Pattons did indeed help get a pardon for West. But as documents uncovered by the murdered man’s descendants show, some of the facts in the account Sondley collected are inaccurate.

Inaccuracies in history, like false convictions in law, don’t go away easily. Therefore, I cherish opportunities to flush out truth by means of public history, epitomized by the process of newspaper publication and responses.

Rush to judgment

First of all, it wasn’t John Craig who was murdered, but James Craig, believed by genealogists to have been his brother.

We know this not only because of contemporary newspaper accounts, but also because Jean Benfield, a Craig descendant, discovered a transcript of an 1847 trial in which two brothers, called “children of the murder victim,” contest responsibility for the Bull Creek acreage of their father, James Craig.

It was on this property, in the spring of 1808, that James had followed the sound of his barking dogs, which had crossed the creek into a laurel thicket, and was shot by someone in hiding.

According to a contemporary issue of the Raleigh Minerva, found by another Craig descendant, Lucien Holt Felmet Jr., Craig survived his fatal wound for three hours.

He “retained his senses to the last moment of his life,” the account stated, and “said he saw the man, who he supposed shot him, run off from the thicket, and fully believed the man to be a certain Henry West, who lived within a small distance of the mill.”

That was enough to send West on his way through what functioned as a justice system at that time. “This crime,” Felmet, a Lillington County attorney, stresses, “was perpetrated on March 15, the trial was held on April 8 and 9, and the execution was scheduled on May 6 … What took 55 days in 1808 would consume a decade today.”

Furthermore, there was no state penitentiary — incarceration was expensive. The Quaker notion of penitence had not yet been put into practice, nor had the use of prisoners for hard labor been institutionalized.

Corporal punishment was the customary remedy, whether it was hanging for horse theft or a severed ear for perjury.

New evidence, last-minute reprieve

On May 6, 1808, West climbed the steps to the gallows — after having been escorted, according to the Sondley story, by his advocate, James Patton — and made his dying declaration.

“I had no part in the murder of Craig, either in thought, word or action,” West was reported to have declared.

Patton knew there was a reprieve on the way.

New, exculpatory evidence had been discovered. And one of the jurors who’d convicted West had generated a petition and traveled to Raleigh to delay the execution until June 3 so the case could be reconsidered.

The Raleigh Register got hold of the breaking news and, on May 5, published the following:

“Since the trial … another man is suspected to be the murderer. The deceased was evidently shot with a rifle, as appeared from the ball which was extracted from his body.

“West is stated to be a poor man who was never possessed of a rifle. The man now suspected has a rifle which carries a ball the exact size of that which shot the deceased.

“No enmity is said to have subsisted betwixt West and Craig; on the contrary, West lived in the family, and was engaged to be married to one of Mr. Craig’s daughters.

“There was a quarrel and a long impending law suit betwixt the man now suspected and the deceased.”

The reprieve came through with miraculous timing. It was followed a few weeks later by a pardon.

I am not going to name the person who’d become the new suspect, though it’s in the records of the day. As of now, I have not found any information about whether he was convicted.

Then and now

I would like to know more about Henry West. Was he, as Sondley says, “a sailor who had deserted from his ship at Charleston,” and was he a “personal enemy” of Buncombe’s first treasurer, John Craig?

Did he have a malformed foot? Why did James Craig think he saw him running from the shooting?

If this story were to have its greatest impact, we would need to see more of the human side of the tragedy.

Thanks to Anne Chesky Smith, writing for the Swannanoa Valley Museum website, we can follow up on the Craig part of the episode.

“After Craig’s death,” Chesky relates, “his wife, Hannah, managed Craigsfield Farm, plowing and planting with the help of her neighbors and children. When the Civil War broke out, her sons and grandsons joined the Confederate forces, and one by one, Hannah received word of their deaths on the battlefield.”

The family estate, called Craigsfield, passed to Hannah’s granddaughter, Harriet Elizabeth Rhea, and then to the children of Harriet’s sister, Mary Jane Coggins. The portion of it known as Craigsfield Farm eventually resided with Mary Jane’s grandson, George Coggins (builder of Westgate Mall), and upon his death, with his daughter, Craig “Copper” Coggins.

In 2013, Copper Coggins announced that she was selling the land to a developer, David Case, builder of sustainable communities, such as Civano in Arizona. Case’s Old Coggins Farm project is going through a governmental review process.

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. Contact him at or 505-1973.


Holt Felmet’s and Jean Benfield’s research appeared in “A Lot of Bunkum,” the publication of the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society.

Annie Daugherty: Black Mountain Midwife

by Anne Chesky Smith

“[Annie Daugherty] was the midwife of the entire town. She delivered most of all the children in [Black Mountain] for the people who couldn’t afford to go to the hospital or have a doctor no matter if they were black or white. That was my grandmother,” Katherine Daugherty Debrow told a local filmmaker in 2001.

An African American woman working and raising her own children in the early 1900s, Annie Daugherty provided vital services to mothers in the Swannanoa Valley who otherwise may have had to go through childbirth alone. “I remember stories about her being gotten up in the middle of the night in snowstorms and riding mules and everything else to go to a house to deliver babies,” Katherine continued.

Since being brought to America as slaves, African American women have historically provided midwifery services to both black and white women. According to a study at Kenyon College, “Before and after Emancipation, African American women relied upon one another for medical care…. In caring for themselves and their families, these women developed relationships with strong church, neighborhood, and family ties.”

Born in the High Top Colony community of Black Mountain on April 3, 1888 to parents Robert Morehead and Hannah Carson, Annie Morehead became part of the Daugherty family around 1900 when she married an older man from her neighborhood, Benjamin Daugherty.

The Daughertys have been a presence in the Swannanoa Valley since its beginnings, and the Daugherty name shows up in the valley as early as the 1850 census, but also on early land grants and in the 1858 upper Swannanoa tax scroll. The first African American Daughertys most likely came to the valley as slaves in the late 1700s or early 1800s, but records dating back to that period, especially records of African Americans during the 18th and early to mid-19th centuries, are difficult to track. Ben’s mother, however, according to oral tradition, was a slave of a Caucasian Dougherty family in the valley at the time of his birth.

In 1920, Ben was 70 years old, and he and Annie, who was less than half his age, had seven children—the oldest, Lillie, was 19 and the youngest, Charles, was 5.

Annie was well known in the Black Mountain community not only as a midwife, but also as a Sunday School teacher. The neighborhood children would meet at her house on Sunday mornings to walk with her the two miles from High Top Colony to the church. Annie’s dedication to the community’s children and mothers made her highly respected within the town.

“I can remember going into Black Mountain when I was a little girl,” Katherine Debrow began. “And people that she had delivered babies for, they would always give me money: pennies, dimes, nickels, quarters. I would come home and I’d have two pockets full of money.” Katherine continued, “And they called her Aunt Ann, black and white,” explaining that calling someone who was not a relative “Aunt” or “Uncle” was a sign of respect.

The hospitals that admitted African Americans were located over 15 miles away in Asheville, and thus were used little by black women in Black Mountain. Though there were a multitude of white doctors in the valley at the time, and Annie was delivering babies during the Jim Crow era, she also attended to white women.

Inez Smith Daugherty (1912-2007), Annie’s niece, explained that she only remembered two midwives in Black Mountain—Annie and another woman, Mary Hayden. Both Annie and Mary were black, so for folks—black or white—that couldn’t afford a doctor or didn’t have the time to make it to one, Annie or Mary made house calls regardless of the time of day, weather, or race of the mother.

Historically, midwives were not only called upon for deliveries, but also sent for during times of illness. Inez Daugherty, who was delivered by a midwife in Burke County, recalled in 2001, “If they got sick, the whites sent and got Aunt Annie. And not always just for delivering a baby. They would call her for a lot of other things.”  In a 2003 interview, Inez remembered, “My first cousin, she had a baby. And it had jaundice. And Aunt Mary Hayden went down to see, and she told my cousin what to get and what to do, and it cured the baby.”

But in the 1920s, state governments began to require midwives, who had traditionally been trained in the craft by one of their female relatives, to get permission slips from doctors to practice, have their homes inspected for cleanliness, and have their moral character assessed. Around this time, the government also began to ban the use of herbs and poultices traditionally used by midwives, severely handicapping what relief midwives had been able to offer their patients.

These new regulations disproportionately affected African American and low-income families. But Annie continued her practice. She began frequenting the town pharmacy for a tincture of opium called paregoric that eased the pain of childbirth.

Sadly, on March 28, 1959, as restrictions on lay midwives continued to debilitate the traditional practice, Annie Daugherty passed away in a tragic house fire that also took the life of her son, Benjamine.

By 1970 lay midwifery had been outlawed completely, thereby severing many of the strong bonds that had been built between the town’s two African American midwives and the women—black and white—in the community.  Now women were forced to pay the steeper prices for doctors and midwives had to attend modern licensing courses or give up the traditions they had been practicing for generations.

Social Justice at Blue Ridge Assembly

Educator, author and religious leader Willis Duke Weatherford surveyed surveyed the original boundary line of the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly conference center in 1906.

As a student at Vanderbilt University, Weatherford became involved in the student Young Men’s Christian Association. Traveling to the Blue Ridge Mountains by horse and buggy in 1906, he sought a permanent location for student training sessions he arranged. When he reached the present site of Blue Ridge Assembly, between two steep forested ridges of the Swannanoa Mountains two miles from Black Mountain, he exclaimed, “Eureka, we have found it!” The enterprising educator raised half a million dollars to finance the construction of the Blue Ridge Assembly.

In addition to acting as the conference center’s president until 1944, Weatherford was the president of the Y.M.C.A. Graduate School and faculty member at Fisk University and Berea College. Weatherford’s travels to college campuses across the South in the Jim Crow era made him acutely aware of race relations, and in 1910 he published the widely distributed “Negro Life in the South.”

In subsequent years, he organized interracial conferences on social issues attended by college students, faculty, clergy, and politicians from both the North and the South. In 1964, Weatherford reflected on the inroads initiated during his tenure and the legacy of Blue Ridge Assembly.

“We were doing something about the whole race problem,” he said. Slavery “left a dirty mark on Southern life … We set ourselves deliberately to break that prejudice down. Blue Ridge has been one of the forward-looking institutions … willing to take a step forward, even though sometimes it might not be popular … We knew it was right.”

In a fitting tribute to the social justice ideas promoted by Blue Ridge Assembly’s founder, Robert E. Lee Hall, the architectural centerpiece of the grounds, was renamed Eureka Hall in 2014. Designed by New York architect Louis Jallade, the three-story neo-classical revival building hosted the experimental Black Mountain College from 1933-1941.


The Flood of 1916

Museum takes a look at devastating 1916 flood

“On Sunday morning, the clouds were low and the tempest was raging,” Burnette, who was living on Vance Avenue in Black Mountain at the time. “I walked out on the front porch; I heard a snapping sound, and I was a blue flame of fire on the corner of Blue Ridge Road near the Episcopal church. There was a big pond of water a part of it was boiling hot. The twenty-three hundred (electrical) line was down.”

In mid-July of that year, the remnants of two hurricanes collided over Western North Carolina, inundating the mountain region and the western Piedmont with historic rainfall. The result was catastrophic.

Landslides wiped out whole families. Currents ripped babies from their parents’ arms. Rivers washed away thousands of jobs. When the water finally receded, at least 50 people were dead. Damages totaled in the millions of dollars, and a thick, black sludge remained where crops once stood. The scope of the devastation was almost inconceivable.

One hundred years later, the storm remains one of the worst ever experienced in the Tar Heel state. To commemorate the event, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History has developed a traveling exhibit that will visit 12 venues throughout the region over the course of the next year.

The exhibit, entitled “So Great the Devastation: The 1916 Flood,” opened at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center on Nov. 1 and will run until the museum closes for the season on Saturday, Dec. 10. The museum, open Tuesday–Saturday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m., is hosting a story that is amazing as it is tragic.

“I put on my fishing boots and went along the railroad bank,” Burnette wrote in his newspaper recollection. “Dawn was fast approaching. I heard a cow bawl in George Stepp’s bottom. There were three cows stranded on higher ground, holding their heads up. They were almost covered with water. They stayed there until the water receded.

“The culvert under the railroad at Tomahawk Fill was stopped up and there was a lake a big as the Sea of Galilee! On Monday morning, the 17th, Sam Coggins, Mack Watkins, Frank Many, and I walked on the railroad to Asheville. Communications with the outside world was zero; the old Swannanoa Valley was a sight to behold. Debris was piled up on good farms; three to five feet of top soil was gone; the railroad track was all gone, but the rails were still hanging.

“There were box cars, engines, and other railroad equipment, houses, livestock, and farm equipment piled up.

“The Walker girls were nurses at the Biltmore hospital; also a Mrs. Lipe. They were all drowned in Biltmore Plaza. They climbed trees during the night and became exhausted and fell out, and were drowned.”

The great flood of 1916 is still probably the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Western North Carolina.

From Depot to Mountain House, explore the trail intrepid travelers did

In celebration of Mount Mitchell State Park’s centennial this year, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will help hikers experience firsthand the journey that those before them made to Mount Mitchell’s peak. The museum has permission to small group of hikers on daylong hikes through the off-limits Asheville Watershed along the Old Mitchell Trail to the Mountain House. The hikes will be on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4-5.

The strenuous, 6-mile round trip will ascend almost 2,000 feet to an elevation of 5,240 feet at the Mountain House. That’s a steep climb, especially on a rocky trail that hasn’t been kept up in 113 of its 180 years.

One early account of the trek to Mount Mitchell was recorded in 1901 in a journal by Mrs. S.P. Taber Willets. Mrs. Willets came from New York City to the “wild backwoods” of Western North Carolina specifically to take a trip from Black Mountain to the top of Mount Mitchell.

To begin the journey up the Old Mitchell Trail, many tourists stayed with Jesse Stepp and his family. Mrs. Willets was no exception. Stepp, a local farmer with a good deal of land, built cabins in the 1850s on his property at the upper end of the North Fork valley to accommodate the many tourists to the area.

Mrs. Willets was greeted by the Stepps with “generous hospitality,” she wrote, adding that the “traditionary courtesy of the Southland had not vanished. … After the generous supper of biscuit and new butter, applecrust and apple jam, fried chicken, and coffee, we sat upon the front steps watching the stars and exchanging views of matters and things until the chilly night air warned us into the house.”

As Stepp’s visitors acquired guides and horses to make the strenuous trek up the mountain, Mrs. Willets wrote, “My host had kindly offered to furnish me with a sure-footed mule and himself as escort to conduct me to the foot of Mount Mitchell, five miles beyond — from which place the ascent is made.”

From the Stepps, Mrs. Willets traveled to a cabin known as the Depot. The museum will start its hike there, among its ruins. The cabin was one of two erected in 1850 by William Patton, a merchant from Charleston, South Carolina. To reach the cabin by horse and buggy, Patton had his men – most likely slaves from his South Carolina plantation – extend the primitive road cut through the North Fork Valley.  Enslaved people, such as Samuel Drymond, also served as a tourist guides for Patton.

The 20-by-50-foot, two-story cabin was a rustic structure built from rock and balsam logs readily available around the property. Though the cabin was most likely originally built for his personal use, by 1854 Patton had opened it to tourists. Over the course of a summer and early fall season, several hundred guests would pass the threshold and secure a bed for 35 cents a night. For a time, French champagne and Scottish salmon were popular menu items.

William Patton died in 1858 and the Mountain House fell into disrepair. Years later, Alf Tyson would take over operations. The Tysons were famous for the variety, quality and quantity of their “vitals” most of which were homegrown and processed on the place – canned, dried, preserved or salted down.

“Mr. Tyson, the proprietor of the Mountain House,” Mrs. Willets wrote, “furnished me a guide on short notice, as I was anxious to reach the summit in time to see the sunset, remain overnight for a view of the sunrise, and return to the Mountain House next day in time to reach Black Mountain Station for the return to Asheville.”

For several years, the trail from the Mountain House extended only to Clingman’s Peak. But the trail was extended an additional three miles to Mitchell’s summit in 1855, when the peak was beginning to be discussed as perhaps the highest peak in eastern North America. It was this trail that Mrs. Willets followed in 1901.

“Guide Joseph Allison and I had been joined in our upward climb by two gentlemen, who had intended spending the night on the summit,” she wrote. “One was Senator Vance’s stepson, Mr. Martin, owner of Gombroon (in the North Fork valley), the other Mr. Bryant from a Charlotte, NC, paper. So they shared with us (a) cave-like shelter across whose front were laid the fir logs that crackled and blazed and sent showers of sparks against the black rock ceiling.”

Unlike the Mountain House, food on the mountain was brought and prepared by the visitors, and though Jesse Stepp built a small, primitive cabin in the late 1850s to accommodate guests near the summit, many travelers chose to instead sleep under a large overhanging cliff like Mrs. Willets and her companions.

She continued, “The coffee pot steamed over the coals, and its contents soon added comfort to the inner man, for the night dews were falling and made us draw near the campfire. Guide Joseph laid the resinous balsam limbs across the ground for beds.”

Sleeping near the summit was necessary for visitors to awaken at dawn to journey the short distance to the peak to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains that could be seen to the north, south, east and west.