by Fred McCormick, Black Mountain News
April 10, 2019
The history of the Swannanoa Valley can be traced back 12,000 years, when the first known inhabitants hunted and fished its rugged terrain. A year after America gained its independence from Great Britain, the first white settlers crossed the Swannanoa Gap and established Buncombe County on the land below.
Nearly a century would pass before the railroad brought the rest of the world to what are now recognized as Black Mountain and Swannanoa.
For the last 30 years that history has been collected and displayed at the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center, which opens its doors for the season on Saturday, April 13.
Founded in 1989, the county’s primary museum of local history occupies a brick building that was designed by the supervising architect of the Biltmore Estate, Richard Sharp Smith. Built in 1921 to house the Black Mountain Fire Department, it was restored in 2016.
“The museum started with a group of volunteers who saw a lot of our history being lost,” said director Anne Chesky Smith, who stepped into her current role in 2011, after starting with the museum in 2010. “They saw neighbors moving, people dying and all of their things being tossed out. There were several people involved in getting it started. Harriet Styles is the one we always think of because she was the first unofficial director, as a volunteer, and she went door to door collecting items.”
Many of those items can still be found on the second floor of the museum today in a permanent display that explores the general history of the area. “Pathways from the Past: Swannanoa Valley Through Time” includes exhibits focusing on the plants and animals that inhabit the region and the Cherokee, who utilized the land around the Swannanoa River until 1785.
Several exhibits on the second floor examine the lines of transportation that have long brought tourists seeking their own mountain experiences.
The Swannanoa Tunnel, 1,800 feet of track that brought rail service to the Valley, resulted in the 125 deaths, changed Western North Carolina forever. Not only did its completion in 1879 fuel a burgeoning tourism industry, it brought industry to what had largely been a farming community.
Local legend has long held that Charles D. Owen had much of his Beacon Manufacturing plant disassembled, brick-by-brick, and moved to Swannanoa by rail. The history of the factory, which operated in the community for the better part of a century, is the focus of the exhibit that will be presented in the museum’s first floor gallery this season.
“The exhibit begins where Beacon began, in New Bedford Massachusetts in 1904 with Charles D. Owen,” Smith said. “We follow that history through its move to Swannanoa, which resulted from it being a lot cheaper to do business down here. That’s really what brought the textile industry to North Carolina, it was a lot cheaper to do business.”
Beacon, which was once the largest blanket manufacturer in the country, set up an operation in Swannanoa in the 1920s before moving the entire business there less than a decade later.
“Beacon Blankets: The Mill,” this year’s major exhibit that will occupy the first floor of the museum through November, chronicles the history of the company that employed generations of Swannanoa Valley residents until it closed in 2002.
“So many people moved down here to work for Beacon,” Smith said. “And so many people came here from other areas in Western North Carolina, where they had been farming because the farming economy was becoming more unpredictable.”
Many of those folks settled into the mill town that surrounded the massive factory, which burned down in 2003.
“They found not only consistent pay, but benefits like company housing and everything else they provided,” Smith said.
Its closing created a “huge hole” in the community, she continued.
“To quote (longtime Beacon employee) Wade Martin, it was the ‘big, red beating heart of Swannanoa,'” Smith said. “He went on to say something to the effect that when it was beating strong the community is strong and when it’s not the community falters. It certainly was the lifeblood of Swannanoa for a very long time.”
The exhibit is the fourth temporary installment to be featured by the museum since the renovation, which was funded by over 230 contributions totaling around $1 million. The campaign to fund the renovation, which was completed in two phases, was launched by the 18-member board in 2006.
“We were not only able to renovate the building and save a historic structure, we also made the building much more suitable for a museum,” Smith said. “We have climate control now, which is huge for a museum that is preserving objects, and we also made improvements that make the museum more comfortable for guests.”
An elevator was not added during the remodel, but the board voted in January to raise money for one.
“We’re on schedule to break ground on that in November, so we’ll be closing slightly early this year to install a lift,” Smith said. “That will allow us to provide access to the entire museum for everyone.”
More than 10,000 visitors passed through the museum doors in 2017 to view “Palaces for the People.” The exhibit focused on the work of Rafael Guastavino, an architectural engineer who was commissioned to work on the Biltmore Estate and ultimately retired in Black Mountain on the property that is now home to Christmount. Nearly 9,000 came in last year to see an exhibit that explored the relationship between the people involved in Black Mountain College and the Swannanoa Valley.
“Our budget now is around $100,000 a year,” Smith said. “The budget was around $5,000 per year when the museum started, so it’s a much different organization than when it started.”
Events like the popular Swannanoa Valley Rim Explorer Hiking Series were the biggest source of revenue for the museum last year.
“We do the event program for a couple of reasons,” Smith said. “They’re fundraisers and they bring in around a third of our budget, but the other reason the were initially offered is because we don’t have a lot of space in here for programming, so our board decided that a great way to show people the history was to take them to it.”
The series includes 11 hikes, led by knowledgeable volunteers, that explore the mountains above the Valley. The longest hike of the series is a strenuous 8.2-mile excursion to Blue Ridge Pinnacle and back.
“Our hike series is definitely our most popular program,” Smith said.
The museum also hosts a book club the second Friday of each month, excluding January. A series of historic documentaries will be screened at the museum the third Thursday of each month from May – August. Both events are free and open to the public.
The History Café is a new program being introduced by the museum this year. The events will take place the fourth Monday of each month and free for members and students with valid identification. There is a suggested donation, on a sliding scale between $5 – $15, for non-members. Experts will hold lectures and workshops focused on the history of the area for up to 40 people each month and advance registration through the museum’s website is required.
The museum, which has more than 700 members, is staffed by Smith, assistant director Saro Lynch-Thomason and a team of dedicated volunteers, who contributed over 5,200 hours last year.
“We always need new docents,” Smith said. “We do all the training and you can learn all kinds of history about the Valley. We also do docent field trips where we go on some behind-the-scenes tours of other museums in the area.”
The support of the community has played a crucial role in the success of the organization, according to the director.
“Besides preserving the history of the Valley, we really think of the museum as the center of the community in the area,” Smith said. “People who come to the museum and participate in our events are people who show up again and again and people get to know each other. It’s really built a sense a community that we didn’t expect.”