The Martins: Swannanoa’s Musical, Storytelling, Woodcarving Family

By Spencer Andersen, SVM Intern

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.