In past decades, when young people traveled, as if in a hive, toward certain cities, it was often to places like New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach. Those places have become so expensive that such restless youth now find other cities. One of them has been the unsuspecting mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, a resort area long favored by the movers and shakers of 20th-century life.
The city’s Grove Park Inn is a famous resort hotel. An image from 1917 dramatized the city’s attraction as the men who literally made the modern world gathered for a photo. The men? Henry Ford (mass production of automobiles), Thomas Edison (motion pictures, electric lighting, long distance phone calls) and Henry Firestone (mass production of automobile tires) were all photographed with Edwin Wiley Grove, founder of the resort.
The folk arts center of Western North Carolina, Asheville has enjoyed a history as colorful of any town its size in America. Named for a Revolutionary War hero, the city reached a zenith during The War Between The States. Numbering only 1,000 residents, Asheville gave the state its wartime governor (Zebulon Vance), its attorney general (Augustus Merrimon) and the president of the University of North Carolina (David Swain).
During the war, a battle took place in April 1865, days after Appomattox. Word traveled slow in those days and neither Billy Yank nor Johnny Reb were aware that the terms of surrender had been reached. And so, some senseless bloodletting took place where the University of North Carolina at Asheville stands.
With the construction of a railroad hub in 1880, Asheville now had an important link to the outside world, paving the way for it to become a tourist destination. In time, Asheville would be renowned as an intensely creative city, something that remains true today with its annual Folk Arts festival.
In 1929, Asheville native Thomas Wolfe published his autobiographical first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. The thinly-veiled effort outraged numerous residents, so much so that Wolfe did not return to his hometown for a good seven years. However, the novel was a critical success with a London reviewer declaring it to be the American South’s first great contribution to world literature. (It was published the same year as William Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound And The Fury.)
Wolfe was a highly influential writer, especially here in New York. Such postwar novelists as James Jones, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac and William Styron have long claimed a significant debt to Wolfe’s style. Wolfe was the first great writer to come from North Carolina and he also influenced writers from his own state. That included other Asheville natives, such as John Ehle, Gail Godwin and Wilma Dykeman, whose 1957 book, The French Broad, helped to inspire the modern environmental movement.
Other writers from Western North Carolina who have put their stamp on American literature include Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, Charles Frazier of Cold Mountain fame and Richard Weaver, whose critique of modernity in such books as Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and Visions of Order (1964) once made him a favorite of the traditionalist wing of the postwar conservative movement. Over the years, a Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters has been given to such luminaries as James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Edward Shils, Forrest McDonald and New York native Eugene Genovese.
Literature isn’t the only area where Asheville has flourished. Complementing Southern literature has always been musical talent in a variety of genres. From the Asheville area, contributions have come from the famed pop singer Roberta Flack, the legendary folk musician Nina Simone, Grammy-award guitarist David Holt and Warren Haynes, the leader of Govt. Mule and maybe the hardest-working man in the business.
Another first for the city came in the field of medicine. In the 1880s, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first practicing female physician in the United States. In the field of sports, the city has produced Roy Williams, the head coach of the University of North Carolina basketball squad, Division I All-American Henry Logan, 1972 Olympiad swimmer Mary Montgomery and Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, the legendary running back at both the University of North Carolina and later, with the Washington Redskins. Until his death in 2003, Justice remained one of the most beloved athletes in both his home state and the Washington, DC area, where his jersey number, 22, is among the retired numbers in Nationals Park.
Asheville is the largest city in Buncombe County, itself home to 200,000 people and seven first-rate public high schools, plus a number of excellent private schools, including Asheville Christian Academy, Asheville School and Christ School. Located south of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak west of the Mississippi River, the area is home to endless sporting opportunities, including lakes and rivers for fishing and rafting, plenty of game and during the winter, fine ski resorts at Chattahoochee in beautiful Maggie Valley.
Finally, in the fall, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. Speaking of a New York-Asheville connection, George Washington Vanderbilt, heir to the famous New York family of railroad magnates, loved the city so much that he constructed his famous Biltmore House in South Asheville, a structure that rivals the mansions of Europe and is also the largest mansion in the United States.
That’s just one of the city’s many tourist attractions, which also include the Thomas Wolfe Memorial downtown and McCormick Field, where the city’s minor league team plays to capacity crowds. In 1925, the New York Yankees stopped in Asheville to play an exhibition game. After the game, Babe Ruth scarfed down so many hot dogs that he nearly died from a stomach ache. New York tabloids showed an anxious Ruth on the operating table as the doctors performed surgery.
Dig into the history of any town and you’ll be surprised by the never-ending tales that make up the human comedy.
- Mitzi Tessier, Asheville: A Pictorial History. Norfolk: The Donning Company, 1982.
- Bob Terrell, Historic Asheville. Alexander: WorldComm, 1997.
- Joseph Scotchie, A Gallery of Ashevilleans. Asheville: Grateful Steps, 2015.