By the 1830s, tourists, known locally as “summer people,” began to arrive in Swannanoa to escape the sweltering summer heat and insects of towns to the east and south. During this time, they arrived by stagecoach, wagon or horseback at the many inns and boarding houses that opened to accommodate them.
Even with the burgeoning tourist industry in Swannanoa, the area remained primarily a rural, farming community until the late 1870s. When the railroad was finally completed in 1879, after being stalled by the Civil War and by the difficulty of laying track up the steep grade from Old Fort to Black Mountain, it connected the western part of North Carolina with the eastern part, and new businesses began to spring up near the railroad station. Many of these businesses will be featured on the museum tour.
During the first 16 years of its existence, the Swannanoa train station was known as Cooper’s Station, the name of the old stagecoach stop at the Alexander Inn. On Feb. 6, 1895, a petition filed by the residents of Swannanoa requested a name change so that the station and the town would have the same name.
Swannanoa really began to grow and prosper when, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Charles D. Owen II, the son of a blanket manufacturer from Massachusetts, saw a 160-acre farm beside Swannanoa’s railroad tracks that was well suited for a new southern branch of the Beacon Blankets Manufacturing Co. Between 1924 and 1933, the entire New Bedford, Massachusetts plant was moved via freight train to Swannanoa. Once the plant began operations, the Owen family provided housing in mill villages, paved roadways, laid water lines, created sanitation services and offered fire and police protection to employees. Beacon also more fully developed the downtown Swannanoa business district – during the early years of the mill, a grocery and general merchandise store, a drugstore, clothing stores, a movie theater and a bank opened.
By the 1970s, the textile industry in Swannanoa began to decline, and Beacon laid off workers. With improved transportation, more people began shopping at chain stores in Asheville rather than at Swannanoa’s independent businesses. At the same time, the Owen family sold all of its stock in Beacon to a company called National Distillery. The company changed hands again the 1980s and the 1990s. Changes in ownership brought more layoffs, as more of the business was moved offshore.
By 2000, Beacon employed only a couple hundred people, far less than the 2,200 employed there in the 1940s. After years of losses, the Beacon plant closed its doors for good in the spring of 2002.
On September 4, 2003, an arsonist set the vacant Beacon Manufacturing Co. plant on fire, and it burned to the ground. The blaze, which made national headlines, brought out more than 500 firefighters from 32 different fire departments. Today, the lot that was once home to America’s largest blanket manufacturer – and in many ways the lifeblood of Swannanoa – lies vacant.
As Wade Martin, a former Beacon employee, said in a 2002 interview after the plant closed, “My name for Beacon was ‘the big red heart of Swannanoa,’ and when that heart was beating good, the community thrived, and when there were times when it was suffering a little, some people didn’t do so well.”
Still, the Swannanoa community carries on. A number of new businesses have opened in Swannanoa since the plant closed. According to Bill Alexander, old and new residents alike continue to be active forces in Swannanoa, daily working “to rebuild the economic base of our community, and explore avenues for the growth and rebirth of the town.”
By Anne Chesky Smith
(first published February 2018 Black Mountain News)
Mary Hayden, 84, with her granddaughter, Mary O. Burnette, about 1942 and two of Hayden’s great-grandchildren. Courtesy Mary O. Burnette.
This is how it was, then, for Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden.
“She used to tell me how she would have to outsmart a catamount that picked up her scent as she walked home through the mountains at night, carrying a chunk of fresh pork, her payment for a new delivery,” Mary O. Burnette said last week of Hayden, her grandmother and a midwife and herbalist renowned in the Valley.
“She would hear this animal squeal and … she would start pulling off garments. Pull off a bonnet, throw it down and she’d hear that animal stop long enough to tear that up and she’s still running. Then she’d pull off something else, maybe a vest, and then an apron, and then undergarments or even stockings if she needed to and had the time, so she could make it home.”
Often descended from enslaved midwives, midwives in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries were typically African-American women who learned the trade from their mothers. Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden of Black Mountain was no exception.
Born in January 1858 to Hanah Stepp (c. 1832–Nov. 6, 1897) on the Joe Stepp farm in Black Mountain, Mary learned to deliver and care for babies from her mother, who had served as a midwife from a very young age, having been sold to the Stepps from a plantation in Alabama when she was 13.
Though Mary O. Burnette never met Hanah Stepp, she heard stories about her. “My mother said (she) had very black skin, but not African black,” Burnette said. “And she had a strange dialect. My grandmother said she was part Native American.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, in the early to mid-1800s, when Hanah Stepp would have been practicing, slave ownership included directing treatment for sick or injured slaves. African-American beliefs about the causes of illnesses, however, often differed greatly from the beliefs of white slaveholders and their physicians, who called for treatments that were typically much harsher than the natural remedies favored by enslaved people.
Though Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden told Burnette little about being enslaved, Burnette recalled one story that stood out. “She remembered when slavery was abolished. She told me that a man came on a horse and stood before her mother’s cabin door and read to them the Emancipation Proclamation. She was 5 years old. It would have been in January of 1863. It was one of the most wonderful things she told me.”
Mary Hayden and her mother most likely stayed in Black Mountain at the Stepp farm until the end of the Civil War in 1865, and perhaps in Black Mountain for a time afterwards, so that Mary could learn to read and write at a local school for former slaves. Hanah’s skills were not place-dependent, and she was able to help sustain the family – Mary Hayden and her two sisters, Margaret and Easter – as a midwife. The family eventually moved to Polk County.
Mary married her first husband, Squire Jones Burnette, by the time she was 18. They had many children, but only two survived to adulthood – Mary O. Burnette’s father, Garland Alfred Andrew Burnette, and her Aunt Margaret. Mary Stepp Burnette and Squire divorced, and her second marriage to Andy Hayden was short-lived. In the 1910s, Mary Stepp Burnette Hayden moved back to Black Mountain, following her son, who had purchased a small farm in town.
Hayden would live in Black Mountain for the remainder of her life and continue to support herself as a midwife and herbalist. Mary O. Burnette, who was delivered by Hayden along with her six siblings, remembered of her grandmother, “She was small. Tiny woman. Maybe 100 pounds. Very small foot, but very hearty. Tough. And a very straight nose, small mouth. Intense, stern eyes. Bushy eyebrows.
“She had long straight hair that hung below her waist. Her hair was twisted into two ropes and those ropes were twisted tight at the back of her neck. I used to stand behind her chair and comb and brush her hair, and I’d have to keep backing up because her hair was so long.”
One day, Hayden went out to pick blackberries. As she was picking through the brambles a long, black thing fell down over her shoulder. Startled, she jumped away from the what she thought was a black snake. Upon closer inspection, she declared, tossing her head back and clapping her hands, “Gentlemen, it was just a braid of my hair!”
“That was Granny’s manner of speaking when she wanted to make a point,” Burnette said.
Hayden dressed modestly, in skirts down to her ankles; rarely, if ever, buying new clothing. “She made her long white aprons by hand,” Burnette remembered. “She would sew a pocket that went all the way to the hem because that’s how she carried things. I never remember her having a purse, she would drop things in that apron pocket so she would have things handy, particularly her snuff … She would reach down and pull the hem up so she could get her hand all the way down to the bottom of that pocket.”
Inez Daugherty, a Black Mountain resident and civic leader who passed away in 2007 at age 95, remembered only two midwives who served Black Mountain – her aunt, Annie Daugherty and Mary Hayden.
Born in the High Top Colony community of Black Mountain in 1888, Daugherty delivered many of the babies born in Black Mountain, Katherine Daugherty Debrow told a local filmmaker in 2001. Hayden may have delivered the rest.
“If there were any whites, I don’t know about them,” Daugherty told an interviewer for an oral history archived at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.
Though there were a multitude of white doctors across the Valley, Mary Hayden and Annie Daugherty treated white patients as well as black ones. “It didn’t matter whether the family was black, white, willing to pay or even if they had not paid for the previous delivery, Granny would gather her supplies and ‘light out,’” Mary O. Burnette, a Black Mountain resident who is Hayden’s granddaughter, said two weeks ago. “She knew they didn’t have money.”
Daugherty and Hayden made house calls, regardless of the time of day or weather, for folks who couldn’t afford a doctor or didn’t have the time to make it to one.
The Rev. Eugene Byrd, a white Black Mountain teacher, coach and Baptist minister who passed away in 2015 at 99, talked about his birth to an interviewer in an oral history stored at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center. “I was delivered by Aunt Mary Hayden, who of course was a person who did that sort of thing, ‘cause the doctor was a little bit slow a-getting there.” The Byrd family land was adjacent to the Garland Burnette family land near Allen Mountain.
“Fortunately, Granny (Mary Hayden), well into her 80s, was present when my sister delivered her second child,” Burnette said. “She looked at the child after the doctor had left, and the child had no features. Granny was familiar with the caul and slipped her thumb under the veil and pulled it off.
“(She) was still ‘catching babies’ long after her great-grands came along. And expectant mothers would send for her after the law required a medical doctor to be in attendance for the birth.”
In the 1920s, state governments began to require midwives, who had traditionally been trained informally by a relative, to get permission slips from doctors to practice. The state required midwives have their homes inspected for cleanliness and have their moral character assessed. These new regulations disproportionately affected African-American and low-income families.
So, Hayden approached the county to receive sterile supplies for her work. She may have been the first African-American woman to be registered with the Buncombe County Health Department as a midwife. For a while she lived in a small, three-room house off Cragmont Road owned by the Nix family.
“Granny would deliver their babies,” Mary Burnette said, “so they let her live there until one of their children needed the house … At that house was the only time I ever remember her having a doctor. She treated herself.”
Historically, because enslaved people in North Carolina often had little choice about many facets of their lives, they tried to maintain their own medical traditions. Often concealing illnesses from slaveholders, they sought treatment from other slaves – or treated themselves – using herbs cultivated in their gardens, plants gathered in the wild, and the knowledge of their family and friends. Many remedies were also necessary to treat injuries obtained during work, including whipping wounds.
Still, by the early 1900s, “healthcare (for African Americans in the Valley) was available only through healers and midwives,” said Inez Daugherty. “We could not go to Mission or St. Joseph’s” hospitals in Asheville.
In 1927, French Broad Hospital was established in Asheville for black people, Daugherty noted. But it was 15 miles away in Asheville, and few people in the community had cars. Transportation was not the only problem. “We had no money for doctor and hospital bills,” Burnette said. And information about, and money for, insurance was limited.
Years later, in the 1940s, another hospital opened in Asheville to serve black patients. Though transportation options into Asheville and earnings had improved over the last two decades, the service at that facility was poor and the hospital soon closed, according to Burnette.
Because of the midwives’ extensive knowledge of herbal and home remedies, people through the early and mid-20th century relied on Hayden and Daugherty not only for delivering babies but also for treating a variety of ailments.
“My first cousin, she had a baby. And it had jaundice,” Inez Daugherty said. “And Aunt Mary Hayden went down to see, and she told her what to get and what to do, and it cured Daniel.”
The government, in addition to regulating midwifery in the 1920s (and fully outlawing lay-midwifery in the 1970s), also began to ban the use of herbs and poultices, greatly curtailing treatments for patients unable to afford hospital care.
“(Mary Hayden) could cure just about anything with herbs,” descendant Pearl Lynch said in a Black Mountain News story published in 2015. “She knew so much about them, and when she died (on Jan. 6, 1956), all that knowledge was lost.”
Mary Burnette is sure that some of the herbal remedies she remembers were passed down from Mary Hayden, and perhaps came from even further back. “There was Jerusalem Oak,” Burnette said, “and you could find it in our fields. A lot of kids had worms back then, and you’d make it into tea with sugar and it would kill worms.”
Jerusalem Oak, also known as wormseed, was harvested commercially through the mid-20th century for use in medicines to treat hookworms in both humans and animals. Though lower cost alternatives have been found, it is still used for fragrance in lotions, perfumes, and soaps.
“But the most common tea was ground ivy, a little vine with a fan-shaped, scalloped leaf and a little purple flower,” Burnette said. “Make that into a tea and you can drink that to help you sleep at night.” Besides use as a sleep aid, ground ivy has also been shown to be useful in treating coughs, bronchitis, arthritis, stomach problems, kidney stones and mild lung problems. It is also currently being studied for use in preventing leukemia, hepatitis, cancer and HIV.
Today, there is no licensing or certification for herbalists in North Carolina – or in any state – meaning that anyone can use, dispense, or recommend herbs. However, without an doctor’s degree, herbalists are not allowed to diagnose disease nor tell people that their treatments will prevent, treat, or cure illness. Still, many of these remedies passed down from generation to generation are in use today.
“My sister, who used to follow Granny around through the fields and knew a lot more than I did,” Burnette said, “she said Granny told her that every herb has three kinds – one is a healer, one is a just a weed, and the other is a poison. I thought that was marvelous. A positive, a neutral, and a negative.”
The Martin family contributed not only to arts, crafts, and music in the Swannanoa Valley, but in western North Carolina and beyond. Each of their woodcarvings, fiddle melodies, and hand-crafted instruments are fine examples of the Southern Appalachian style. Their history also mingles with Native American history, as their ancestor, John Martin, was ethnically Cherokee. John’s name was either Tsu-ni-tlu-ltu or Ton-tsu, but little else is known about his life due to a lack of clear records. He was possibly born in present-day Walker County, Georgia around 1740 or 1750 and married a Scots-Irish woman whose name remains unknown. Some of the traditional crafts and music the Martin family was known for likely have roots in both the Scottish Highlands and the Cherokee regions of the southeastern United States.
John’s great-great grandson and the patriarch of the Martin family, Marcus Lafayette Martin, was born on August 2, 1881. He married banjoist Callie Holloway, who gave birth to their five sons and one daughter: Fred, Quentin, Wade, Kendall “Wayne,” Edsel, and Zenobia, in Macon County, NC. After the Great Depression forced many Appalachians like Martin to find work outside of their homes, he moved with his sons to Swannanoa to take a job at Beacon Mills. This blanket factory, originally based in New Bedford, Massachusetts, relocated to Swannanoa in 1923 after mill owner Charles D. Owen, Sr., decided to move it to an area unsympathetic to labor unions (Anne Chesky-Smith, “Martin Music: Keeping Rural Traditions Alive in Urban Centers”).
While at Beacon, Martin became renowned for his swift, distinct, and even mesmerizing fiddle tunes, which won him the “Old Timey Fiddler’s Convention” Championship in Raleigh in 1949. According to legend, Owen offered him a job at Beacon so that he could entertain residents in Beacon’s mill villages and prevent them from wanting to unionize. Marcus eventually attracted the attention of Peter Hoover, a songcatcher from Pittsburgh who came to Swannanoa in the fall of 1959.
Hoover recorded 54 of Marcus’ songs, many of which are available in the Southern Folklife collection at UNC Chapel Hill. His repertoire contains standard old-time dance tunes like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and ballads like “Sally Goodin.” However, he also recorded rarer, more exotic, and lesser-known tunes like “Snowbird” (possibly a Native American melody), “Lady Hamilton,” and “Sandy River” – the latter of which is likely an original composition. Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a local performer and attorney, recruited Marcus for the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, where he opened with the old-time tune “Grey Eagle” (“Martin Music”).
Marcus Martin plays at the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Library of Congress.
Nathaniel, Marcus’ father, and Manco Sneed, his mentor, encouraged Marcus to foster his musical talent. In fact, Marcus told Hoover that he learned “a number of tunes” from Sneed, including “Lady Hamilton.” However, when asked about where he got his knack for the fiddle in a 1974 interview, he answered, “Don’t ask me how it come [sic] to me. I don’t know for sure…All my ancestors were musicians, see, and I guess I took it from them.” Regardless of where he obtained his musical skills, Marcus’ recordings demonstrate his distinct melodic style.
His attachment to Beacon led his sons Wade and Quentin (“Pepper”) to join the Beacon staff and the Industrial Baseball League, a popular form of sportsmanship among factories during the mid-20th century. Marcus’ sons – Wayne, Wade, and Edsel – all served the United States during World War II. Fred did not serve in the Armed Forces, but was a private detective for 35 years. Wayne received a Purple Heart, while Wade, a certified parachutist, was honorably discharged in 1946. Edsel served in the Navy and the US Federal Civil Service. After the war, each of the brothers took up woodcarving and started their own businesses.
Wayne Martin carved the lives of ordinary mountain people, often infusing his sense of humor into his craft. (Ramsey Special Collections, UNCA)
Wayne became deputy sheriff in 1974. After his nomination, he joked he was “the only dulcimer-playing sheriff on earth!” Like his father, he gracefully played gospel and old-time fiddle tunes like Amazing Grace and What a Friend We Have in Jesus. (He also carved “mountain folk,” 24 of which are on display at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain. There is also a collection at Ramsey Library in UNC Asheville, valued at around $10,000.)
Wade – nicknamed “Gob” – had a remarkable gift for storytelling. While in the woods, he said “a little old bearded mountaineer man that was about the size of a large ear of corn holding a fiddle and a bow” taught him his moral code. The man gave him a “magical Barlowe knife,” which “blended together” with his own “into one knife.” He ordered him to make his “religeous [sic] faith” the center of his carvings. After the man disappeared, Martin effortlessly carved a small bluegrass band, which then “came alive and began to play ‘the good ol’ mountain music” (Wade H. Martin, “Woodcarving Mountaineer Style” 11). He then sold these figures in Asheville so he could buy Christmas presents for his family, but only after the miniature fiddler smiled approvingly “as if to say, ‘You’ve done well, Gob!’” (“Woodcarving Mountaineer Style” 13). Today, Wade’s mountain people and animals can be found in Pack Memorial Library in Asheville and Ramsey Library at UNC Asheville.
Edsel carving a dulcimer in his workshop (DuPuy Collection, Swannanoa Valley Museum)
Edsel also carved wooden figures. However, unlike his brother Wayne, he primarily focused on birds, banjos, and dulcimers – often shaping them into human, dog, and flower faces. Like his father, he was a talented musician. West Virginian musician Billy Edd Wheeler once remarked Edsel grew up hearing these songs played “as often as the birds sing, and as naturally” (“Martin Music”). Wheeler would later become great friends with Edsel, calling him “one of the best all around dulcimer players in the world” (“Billy Edd Wheeler, “Appalachian Dulcimer Music 1). He even played some of his dulcimers for his albums, and wrote “The Ballad of Edsel Martin” to honor his fellow musician.
Although Wayne, Wade, Fred, and Edsel’s carvings are the most renowned, for the artistic Martin family, woodworking was a family affair, as it supplemented their factory wages. Even their sister Zenobia whittled a few figurines. Most family members eventually joined the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, an organization created during the 1930s to foster the production of arts and crafts in the Southern Appalachian region. Warren Wilson College and John C. Campbell Folk School continue to educate woodcarvers with techniques similar to those the Martins used over 50 years ago.
The Martin family was fiercely proud of their heritage. Their family hymn, “Battle Hymn of the Martins” (sung to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) expresses their loyalty and commitment to keeping their traditions alive:
The House of Martin cherishes traditions of the past, With the world’s great movements they have all their fortunes cast; And when they pledge their honor they are loyal to the last. The clan goes marching on! Together, the Martins represent Swannanoa’s long history of fostering local arts, crafts, and songs, and the Valley is grateful for their talent.
Throughout the mid-1800s, one-room school houses dotted the Swannanoa Valley, but these schools only served white students. It wasn’t until around 1886, when John Myra Stepp, who was born into slavery, provided funds to establish the Flat Creek Road School that the first school in Black Mountain for African-American students opened.
Little else is known about the Flat Creek Road School; however, the March 3, 1899 issue of The Asheville Register reported that, though three schools served the 331 white students in Black Mountain, “the necessity for erecting a suitable house for the negroes prevented the committee from having any school taught for the negro race this year (in Black Mountain).”
By the early 1900s, however, there was at least one school serving Black Mountain’s black students. In 1912, Buncombe County School superintendent A.C. Reynolds indicated that the Black Mountain Colored School teachers received $35/month salary, and taught five months of the year. It is uncertain whether Reynolds was referring to the Flat Creek Road School or a new two-room log school building that had recently been constructed on Cragmont Road.
The Black Mountain Colored School appears to have operated out of the log structure until 1942 [Note: according to Mary Othella Burnette, the rock school – Clearview – was built prior to 1937 when she entered first grade there.] when a larger stone structure replaced it. According to Sylvia Stepp Carpenter, who attended the stone school in first and second grades, it was always referred to as “the old rock school.”
“I went to the old rock school and we had first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh grade,” Carpenter said. “First, second and third was together, fourth and fifth was together, and the sixth and seventh was together. We didn’t have but three rooms and we had the potbellied stoves. And the outhouse way down.”
In 1950, the school board began taking construction bids on a modern brick building to replace Black Mountain’s aging stone structure. Plans for the new building contained five classrooms, a kitchen, cafeteria, toilets, an office, a store room, and a boiler and fuel rooms. If funds sufficed, the plans also included the addition of an auditorium.
“I was president of the local PTA. We had teas and we raised enough money to (buy) all of that equipment up there in the kitchens. I don’t remember what we did about the table, but everything in that kitchen and that dining area we paid for. It was about $3,500. Now, that really belonged to us. But see, after integration came, the state came in and took over (and) took it all out. I don’t know what they did with it, but we paid for that.”
A State Highway Patrol sergeant talks about road safety with children at Carver Elementary School in 1954. (Photo: Swannanoa Valley Museum/DuPuy Collection)
In November 1953, The Asheville Citizen reported, in an article about plans for improving area schools, “Carver children must now stand outside waiting to go on stage in dramatic productions, (so) new dressing rooms were recommended. The (plan) said that the patrons of that school have already gone into debt by $1,850 to provide cafeteria equipment.” The next year the only recommendation for improvement to Carver was “paper holders needed in toilets.”
The same year, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared separating black and white public school students unconstitutional, thereby overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing segregation. However, the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling did not provide any method for desegregation, and the follow-up 1955 decision provided states only with the guideline to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
In Buncombe County, limited desegregation did not occur for nearly a decade after the first ruling, and the measures put in place earlier were merely attempts to forestall the full integration mandated by the federal government.
In the meantime, Carver’s teachers and staff put in extra effort for the school’s children. A March 1955 article in The Asheville Citizen-Times reported on the activities of Mrs. Robert Pinkston’s first-grade class at Carver. “Students … thought that milk came from bottles and that bacon ‘came from the store.’ However, that was before Mrs. Pinkston began a study of animals that gave food. Now the students are interested in cows, pigs, hens, sheep, squirrels and rabbits. They have made pictures and clay models of the various animals, and also of the food which they provided. As a close to the unit, they plan a field trip to a dairy where they can see milk, cream, butter, cheese, and of course ice cream.”
Another Asheville Citizen-Times article from October 1958 noted, “It is no secret that students in Carver School, Black Mountain, are fond of gingerbread, and it also is known that Mrs. Margaret Gragg, lunchroom manager at the school, has her own secret recipe for making the treat. … She serves it to the children cut in thick squares, because Mrs. Gragg insists that gingerbread must be cut in thick pieces to taste good.”
The article continued, “It is whispered that some of the gingerbread may be on sale at the food bar during a Halloween carnival to be held this month at the school.”
Despite impending school integration, in 1962 Carver School went through an extensive renovation that included the addition of a library, classroom, kitchen, teachers’ lounge, extra restroom facilities and remodeling of the school’s cafeteria.
The following year, the county gave black families with children in grades 1-3 the option to apply for their children to attend formerly all-white schools. A year later, the option opened to 4-6 grades.
That year, however, only 22 of 150 county school black students in grades 1-8 (out of 20,000 total students) applied to transfer to Haw Creek Elementary, a formerly all-white school. Only 12 of the black students were admitted, (school overcrowding was cited as the reason). Unhappy parents filed a lawsuit against the county schools, and in April 1965 the court ruled that “General overcrowding … cannot justify the … exclusion of Negro pupils when the much more numerous white pupils are all accommodated.”
Daugherty remembered of the beginnings of integration in Black Mountain “… the school superintendent … came out. We had a meeting and he said that we could integrate or we could stay (at Carver). Well, we said would integrate for this reason: our children were not getting the same education as the white children were getting. That’s why we voted to go ahead and integrate, (but) there was no more drama classes or anything like that done after that.”
At the start of the 1966-67 school year, Carver Elementary consolidated with Black Mountain’s primary and grammar schools. The Asheville Citizen reported on Sept. 2, 1966 the consolidation was ultimately caused by “a federal court edict that requires youngsters residing in a particular school attendance area … go to school in that area.” Besides Carver, the only other school serving black children had been Shiloh Elementary in the southern part of Buncombe County, making for long commutes for some students.
Sixty-five former Carver Elementary pupils enrolled at Black Mountain Elementary in 1966 and another 25 at Swannanoa Elementary, thereby closing Carver. Shortly after the beginning of the school year, all principals at the consolidated schools reported that the integration was working out, with no disciplinary problems noted.
“As far as I could tell, and my children were in school at the time, there wasn’t any real friction; it seems to me that it went along pretty well. There weren’t any police incidents,” Harriet Styles, one of the founders of the Swannanoa Valley Museum, reported.
There was never a high school in Black Mountain for black students. To continue their education, students had to attend school in Asheville. Lillian Lytle Logan remembered, “my aunt (Lizzie Wells) drew up a petition. … She collected money to get us a bus to go to Asheville to school after we finished the seventh grade. And I mean fifty cents, dollars, and all this until they got enough to get a bus.” In eighth grade, Logan attended Hill Street School in Asheville, followed by Stephens Lee High School for ninth.
The petition, dated Aug. 24, 1935, reads, “We, the patrons of the Black Mountain Colored School, want our children to continue their studies in High School, and in order to do this we need a bus to send them to Asheville. The Siperintendent (sic) of Public Instruction of Buncombe County informed us that it took $800.00 to buy a bus and that the State would furnish $600.00 of the amount and the County $50.00, provided we would raise $150.00.” Many Black Mountain citizens, white and black, contributed to the fund.
Styles recalled that “five black men in the Swannanoa/Black Mountain community … went together and bought (the) bus. One of the men drove the bus so that black students could go into Stephens-Lee High School.” Black families sending their children to school in Asheville also “had to pay the difference in school tax between what the city people and the county people paid, which I thought was very unfair,” Styles said.
When discussing possible integration of the high school 30 years later, the major point in favor of sending black Black Mountain students to Owen High School rather than bussing them to Stephens-Lee ended up being the absurdity of the bus passing right by the front doors of Owen (which was located where the middle school is now) on its much longer journey into Asheville.
(Anne Chesky Smith is director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum.)
Built as an elementary school for African-American students in the early 1950s, the Carver School off Cragmont Road in Black Mountain has lived many lives and seen many changes. Tucked into a corner of Black Mountain, Carver Community Center has seen everything from elementary school musicals penned by award-winning artist Billy Edd Wheeler to a stage for a federal court battle promoting speedy desegregation in the Jim Crow South. How did this unassuming building play host to this whirlwind of changes over the course of just over 50 years?
In the 1960s African-American parents in Buncombe County were out of patience. The County school board’s plan of gradual integration was moving at a snail’s pace and placing their children at schools that were unreasonable distances from their homes. Originally, the county planned for integration to be gradually implemented ending in the 1967-1968 school year. However, frustrated parents filed a federal lawsuit that ultimately sped up the County’s proposed plan. Prior to the desegregation of Buncombe County Schools, there existed only two elementary schools for African-American children in rural Buncombe County. Most black students were bused to segregated schools in the Asheville district. Carter Elementary was built in 1951-1952 to serve rural eastern Buncombe County. After a federal court battle that pit parents against the Buncombe County school board, forced integration finally merged the school with Black Mountain Elementary two years earlier than originally planned, in 1966.
For the next ten years the relatively new school building found little use. For a few years the building sat vacant after a $17,000 renovation performed just before desegregation. Buncombe County Schools discussed the idea of leasing the building to Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, however, that plan never came to fruition. By 1968 the Mills Chapel Baptist Church was leasing the space as a community center for homecomings and wedding receptions. However, by 1975 the building was in a bad state of disrepair and needed renovations to ensure the county’s investment remained intact. By that time, allowed to sit open and unattended, the school remained a shell of its former self. At a school board meeting in May of that year, it was recommended that the school be repaired and the county explore installing an open concept school at Carver.
The idea of an open concept school quickly became popular and parents from across Buncombe County endorsed the idea. A group of parents in Black Mountain began hosting a study group to explore other open concept schools across North Carolina to educate themselves and others about new trends in education. The group toured schools in Lenoir, Charlotte, and Asheville’s own Newton Elementary School. An exploratory committee was established by the Buncombe County Board of Education, and by December 1975 the board voted unanimously to approve taking applications for the school in January for the 1976-1977 school year.
Carver took applications from children across Buncombe County, however, the majority of interest came from students in the Owen district because the county did not provide transportation to the new school. Like many charter schools today, students were selected via a blind lottery system; their applications placed in sealed envelopes labeled “boy” and “girl” and chosen every other one until their capacity was reached.
Unlike most typical schools, Carter relied on an open-concept educational model, allowing children a more self-guided learning experience. In a letter to parents in the Black Mountain News, the school emphasized that “Each activity is designed for the needs and abilities of the child and therefore, learning becomes a joyous and challenging part of his life.” In a similar press release to the Asheville Citizen-Times, the school also stressed tenants like openness, creativity, volunteer participation in the classroom, and multi-age classrooms as part of a “renaissance in theories” for education in the 1970s.
On stage performing in The Star Wars Encounter in March 1978 as R2-D2, C-3PO, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and the Bartender are former Carver students Tim Robinson, Jenny Morris, Josette Heller, Chris Connley, and Felisa Neuringer, respectively.
Certainly, many of those who attended Carter or who had children there praised the school and its educational model. Famed singer and songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler was a major proponent of Carver Optional School, writing along with his wife, Mary, an advertisement for the Asheville Citizen-Times entitled “Carver School Offers Challenge” citing all of the reasons one ought to enroll their child at Carver. Wheeler was a very involved parent, he even donated his creative services penning two musicals for the school, The Star Wars Encounter and All God’s Critters. Both shows received rave reviews from the local papers and conveyed themes of friendship and environmentalism.
Before long, the optional school began to struggle. Enrollment at the school began to drop off, and the Buncombe County Schools Superintendent N.A. Miller began eyeing the school for closure in a time when the district was going through a period of new building and consolidation. One idea was to move the optional school into another elementary school that had space. The school PTA came together to fight the decision, asking for a yearlong study. However, by 1987 the study had not been completed and Carver was closed for good. The 63 students who remained at the school were transferred to the schools closest to their home.
Carver parents, students, and families participate in a school wide square dance in the late 1970’s
Almost immediately after the school’s closure concerned citizens began meeting about what ought to happen with the Carver School property. By 1989 Carver was purchased by the Town of Black Mountain for use as a multipurpose community building. The town had high hopes to utilize the building as a “model community center.” The first organization to reside in the building was Children and Friends preschool. Since then the building has been home to the headquarters for the Town of Black Mountain Parks and Recreation which continues to host various group activities and classes and provides space for the Swannanoa Valley Montessori School to operate inside the center’s walls.
This post was written using sources from the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.
In this photograph by Edward DuPuy, actors at the Silo Circle Playhouse rehearse their lines accompanied by a bovine friend.
Between 1958 and 1961 a Black Mountain barnyard found new life as a Broadway-style theater during the summer months. A summer stock theater in the Swannanoa Valley was first proposed by young actors and producers Tinka Crawford, Norman Kean, and Dale Meador to the town of Black Mountain in 1958 and aimed to be “fresh in scope,” and “imaginative in ideas.” The fledgling company considered a number of locations for their theater, including properties like old barns and the Black Mountain Airport Hanger. Finally the trio settled on the state-owned cattle barn off highway 70 with a large silo attached to the side. The property once served for many years as a state test farm. The young producers bought and renovated the barn adding lights, a stage and seating areas. Thus, the Silo Circle Playhouse was born.
The small summer theater was one of the first theaters in the country to feature arena-style seating, that is, a 360-degree view of the actors as they played. Radio advertisements from WWNC encouraged listeners to visit the theater in its first season emphasizing that, because of arena style seating, audience members would be a part of the “the intimate make-believe circle of new and exciting adventures,” taking place in “an authentic ‘Old Red Barn!’” Despite its rustic feel, the barn was also cool and comfortable in the summer heat, and according to documents like playbills and posters, vices like smoking and spitting were strictly prohibited.
Tinka, Norman and Dale worked together to bring professional actors in from all over the country and mingled them with the local talent. They wanted the Swannanoa Valley community to feel as though they had a sense of ownership over the theater. In their proposal to the town of Black Mountain they stated their first desire was, “to give and to become a part of the community by being a part of its business enterprise and be contributing a unique facet of its culture!” Each season they put on a play written by community members, and every Wednesday afternoon held a marionette puppet show of The Wizard of Oz for children.
The lobbying of Anne “Tinka” Crawford was essential to bringing the theater to life in the Valley. Tinka lived a large portion of her life in the Swannanoa Valley and graduated from Black Mountain High School. Later, she attended Western Carolina University and graduated from the University of Denver School of Theatre where she met Norman Kean and Dale Meador. She then moved to New York City to pursue a career on Broadway. She acted in children’s and adult theaters and learned how to operate marionettes and sang folk tunes in Greenwich Village. She played with several different theater groups and her career eventually brought her back to western North Carolina in the mid-1950’s when she joined Asheville Community Theater.
After working to open the Silo Circle Theater, Tinka helped produce plays for two seasons at Silo Circle alongside Dale and Norman. Despite some questions over whether a summer theater would do well in a small town like Black Mountain, the Silo Circle was a success for several seasons. The company put on seven shows each summer, selling tickets for $2.00 each, or season passes for a discounted rate. Many well known community members and members of the press held season passes and were sustaining members of the company, including community doctors and well known business owners. These included Stuart Nye, the silversmith, known throughout the region for his beautiful dogwood brooches and pendants, and the owners of local shops like Black Mountain Hardware.
Patrons came to see all manner of plays and to hear music before during and after shows. Plays ranged from comedies to dramas, some written by amateurs while others were written by the great playwrights of the twentieth century like Tennessee Williams. Often local jazz bands supplied entr’acte entertainment. The opening night of the theater, the “Waynesville Jazz Rats” performed for theater-goers. The theater also featured a small art gallery and sold paintings and photographs as a means of fundraising. In 1959 the gallery featured Black Mountain photographer Ed DuPuy.
Unfortunately, after four summer seasons, the theater ran into financial problems and shows could no longer go on. However, for the short time that the Silo Circle Theater was active, it brought professional theater to the Swannanoa Valley. As the first arena-style theater in the state, it was innovative, and creative. It sought to be accessible to the community and to vacationers alike. Now, where the old red barn once stood is the Owen Community Pool.
Tinka went on to many adventures, first to Indiana to get her Master’s degree, where she met her husband, Jim Lauer. Together they traveled the globe. Her globetrotting eventually brought her back to the Swannanoa Valley where she opened a tea parlor and antique shop on Cherry Street and became involved with a number of community organizations and clubs. Fortunately, Tinka held onto her records of the Silo Circle Theater. Her records are some of the only surviving historical evidence of the playhouse, save articles published in local newspapers like the Asheville Citizen and the Asheville Times.
After Silo Circle, Norman Kean went on to become a major Broadway producer. He produced one of the longest running shows on Broadway, “Oh! Calcutta!” in his own theater. However, his life ended in in a tragic murder-suicide in 1988 when he killed his wife, Gwyda DonHowe (whom he had met while working on the Silo Circle project) and then himself. Dale Meador, his college buddy and fellow Silo Circle producer, went on to work in minor film roles throughout his career.
This post was written using sources from the Silo Circle Theater Collection housed at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center. They were donated to the museum by Jim Lauer in 2007. If you would like to use the collection for research you can explore the finding aid here.
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.
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.
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.
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.