Exploring Asheville’s Archives

The assignment for this blog post was to find out what we could about our local archive that may have information about migration or immigration in our locale. Asheville, North Carolina is home to three locations that we needed to look into: University of North Carolina-Asheville’s own Special Collections (housed at our university), the Pack Memorial Library, and the Western Regional Archives of North Carolina. I investigated the first two online while visiting the third. UNC-Asheville’s Special Collections contains a couple of different collections that I found particularly interesting. The Agudas Israel Synagogue Collection pertains to the Jewish Synagogue located in Hendersonville, a town not too far from Asheville. I was not aware of a sizable Jewish population in this area even though I was born and raised here. Special Collections also has two related collections that I would like to explore: the Black Highlanders Collection and the Heritage of Black Highlanders Collection. Both of these collected works concern African Americans in Western North Carolina. Finally, perhaps the most sensitive, is the William Dudley Pelley Collection. Pelley was a pro-Nazi individual who was a member of the Silver Shirts, a pro-Nazi organization that was present in a few states. Pelley also founded the Galahad College in Asheville, a short-lived institution that espoused Pelley’s beliefs. I had no idea that such a thing existed within my city! What is even more surprising to me, Galahad was founded in 1933… the same year that Black Mountain College (BMC) was founded in the neighboring town of Black Mountain. BMC could not have been more different from Galahad. Where the latter supported racist ideology, the former believed in complete equality. Where Galahad was pro-Nazi, BMC took in refugees from Nazi occupied countries. The fact that these two establishments existed so close to each other is very interesting.

I found the Pack Memorial Library’s collection size to be absolutely intimidating. There was over 400 pages on the website containing information on collections! I did find some content that could be used as supplementary information to support collections housed elsewhere. Pack Memorial houses Buncombe County Pamplets, some of which advertise Pelley’s Silver Shirts and his Galahad College. Others information that I located supported a topic that we came across at the Western Regional Archives, and so could be used to support researching concerning this subject, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I will explain more detail below.

In the end, however, Liz and I visited the Western Regional Archives (WRA for short) and, after speaking with lead archivist Heather South, unearthed multiple subjects that fascinated us. We are particularly drawn to three of them. Heather suggested we look into the German internment camp that was located in Hot Springs, North Carolina. German migrants came into this area prior World War I. After war broke out, these individuals were rounded up and placed into an internment camp located in Hot Springs. Because of this gathering and placing of so many Germans into one area, the town of Hot Springs was created with a strong German influence. This year is the centennial commemoration of WWI and the internment camp, so Hot Springs will be having multiple events happening from September 15-17.  These events include documentaries, guest speakers, panels on relevant topics, exhibits of internment camp and military memorabilia, and tours of homes and locations related to the camp. Heather believes there may be a sizeable collection with which we can create a robust website.

The second topic that we were interested in was the Alexander Family Collection at the WRA. The Alexander Family settled in Swannanoa (another nearby town located in between Black Mountain and Asheville) and opened up an inn among many other things. They were entrepreneurs whose businesses acted as one of the few stopping points for travelers before roads and railroads ran through the area. Anyone coming across nearby mountains would need to stop for a rest and to replenish supplies. Liz and I felt that the Alexander family played a big role in enticing those migrating to or through the area to stop. In addition to the substantial amount of materials at the WRA, Alexander Inn is still standing and inhabited by the Alexander family! This could give us a chance to talk to descendants of these entrepreneurs who helped to alter the local economy and culture. Perhaps they could give us special information that no archive could have, such as personal stories that were passed down generation to generation. This collection also had some really cool guest lists from the inn as well as ledgers from the other Alexander businesses. The guest lists even included where each guest traveled from. So… pretty awesome.

The third and final area that we considered focusing on was perhaps my favorite—the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although the Parkway is an inanimate object, its very presence here has and continues to change the local economy, politics, and culture in so many ways. To begin with, the creation of the Parkway displaced many locals (some of who are still unhappy about having their family’s land taken away…). It brings in thousands of tourists each year (including leaf-lookers in the autumn, cyclists, runners, bikers, and water/land conservationists). It is the filming location of more than a few commercials and movies and serves as a conduit that connects various towns, parks, and points of interest. The Parkway plays an instrumental role in local music, architecture and crafts. Basically, it is a place where all migrants—regardless of whether they remain or just pass through, of whether they are new to the area or their families settled here long ago—can gather regardless of ethnicity, interests, culture, background, or beliefs. This one particular road has completely altered how migration takes place in Western North Carolina and it is for this reason that we hope to focus on the Blue Ridge Parkway for the website we will be creating. Also, full disclosure, we have already begun looking at other histories of the Parkway. For the most part, they all focus on the Parkway itself and not on the people that the Parkway brings to the area.

So. This blog post was a little longer than the required length. In my defense it was a really exciting day! I love the feeling that I get once the initial overwhelming sensation of a new project has worn off and I begin to find a sense of direction. I am utterly enthusiastic about the rest of the semester and confident that Liz and I will turn out a great project.

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