The other side of Asheville

[Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from The Underground Asheville Guidebook (Whisper Press, 2000), written by Tom Kerr (and other contributors) with photographs by Gail Forsyth-Kerr. This handy reference source plumbs the heights and depths of our city with a mix of wry insight and reverent aplomb. Available at local bookstores beginning in mid-June, the pithy tome has already provoked this observation, from local author MariJo Moore: “[This book] is a trip, even if you take it sitting in your living room arm chair. This is a journey worth making, and your sense of humor will thank you.”]

Great expectations

In 1939 a Buncombe County resident entered the Guinness Book of World Records.

“Big Boy” earned the international distinction of being the largest hog on record, at a whopping 1904 pounds. “Big Boy” was nearly six feet high at the shoulder. Several eyewitnesses compared him in size and shape to a Volkswagen automobile.

The couple who raised him told reporters, “Yeah, he’s a big ‘un. That’s why we call him ‘Big Boy’.”

Where Elvis had a helipad & chalet

One of the people we interviewed for this guidebook works in a hairdressing place and stays really well informed. We chose to keep our source anonymous but we will tell you that she has the strange habit of lapsing out of a mountain dialect and into a posh British one, whenever she gets put on hold on the telephone. Anyway, here’s what she said, right before she launched into some unprintable local gossip in her sexiest English accent: “I don’t know nuthin’ about Elvis shooting out a TV set in a motel room on Tunnel Road but I know for sure he had a place up on the side of the mountain and the only way you could get to it was in a helicopter. My aunt told me and she oughta know. She said it was near Black Mountain and that Elvis would go there to get away from it all.”

We asked if her aunt had ever visited the hideaway and she said, “It’s possible, knowing my aunt and how much she loves Elvis. But I can’t say for sure. So, am I gonna be in your book or what?”

We tried to get directions, but like the woman said, you can only get there by helicopter, and we don’t have helicopter money in our research budget.

Good for what ails ya

Over 200 years ago, Congress imposed an excise tax on distilled spirits. But many folks in the mountains ignored the legislation and continued perfecting and selling their homemade liquor.

Nowadays, Asheville-area moonshine is primarily sold to markets in the urban Northeast, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It sells for around $35 a gallon. But a goodly amount stays in this neck of the woods. If you attend enough bluegrass festivals, you’ll sooner or later encounter it around a campfire.

The liquor is usually distilled from sugar and a blend of grains used to fatten pigs (oats, rye and corn). But the best quality moonshine is made primarily from corn. During harvest time, apple or peach brandy is the drink of choice, and consumers are willing to pay an extra 20 bucks or more per gallon to get it.

We know a city-dweller who used to make moonshine for personal consumption, in his apartment. He used a portable apartment-size still connected to the kitchen sink. The high-tech copper cooker was given to him by a New Englander who created it from scrap metal.

Our most colorful moonshine story was told to us by a family-practice physician who lives near Asheville:

“I work in a rural county medical center. If I get sick and can’t see my patients, it’s a real hardship for the community because I’m the only doctor for miles. One day I called in sick, during a flu epidemic. Within hours the local deputy sheriff showed up at my doorstep with a jar of clear liquid which he said would cure me. It was moonshine. He delivered it while on duty, in uniform, in a marked patrol car. He said, ‘I keep a jar of it in a file cabinet at the office for emergencies’. I drank it, slept all day, and was back at work in the morning, feeling fine.”

But moonshine doesn’t necessarily cure what ails you. All homemade liquor contains enough alcohol to fuel a drag racer, and alcohol poisoning can be lethal. Some batches contain lead, at levels high enough to kill you.

You’ll wish you’d stuck with microbeer when your leaded blood starts setting off metal detectors. And if you’re the kind of passenger who likes to smuggle a flask of moonshine onto the plane, you don’t need the unwanted attention from airport security. They’ll spot you soon enough.

We’ve observed folks under the influence of moonshine whose behavior was downright peculiar, at best. Barking at the neighbor’s dogs, wearing nothing but a bearskin toga to church, and trying to instruct a sofa to play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the banjo are among the warning signs that you’ve gotten hold of an award-winning batch of corn mash.

Good quality moonshine is similar in taste to agave tequila. It has an unforgettable aroma, like magnolia blossoms soaked in rainwater and then marinated in witch hazel. Most folks drink it “neat”, like single malt scotch.

Here’s one piece of advice passed along by a seasoned old timer: “Shake the jar real good a time or two, not too vigorously, just enough. If little champagne bubbles rise to the surface, that’s an indication of good liquor. Sip it, don’t slam it back like a shooter. And give it time to get into your sysem or you’ll wind up drinking way more than you bargained for. Don’t drink anything else with it or you might get sick, and that would be a terrible waste of good moonshine. Don’t even think about driving a car or tractor and don’t take your electric guitar into the shower with you, no matter how good it sounds at the time.”

The Wrap (of 11 blocks of Asheville’s historical architecture slated for bulldozing)

In the year 1980 much of Asheville’s most unique old architecture was nearly bulldozed because of a short-sighted urban development scheme. It would have been a loss not only locally, but nationally, in terms of the destruction of historical property.

A developer proposed to build an indoor shopping mall encompassing 11 blocks of downtown’s historical district. To some it seemed like a progressive idea. Other cities around the country, especially those in cold climates, were erecting indoor shopping plazas to ensure year-round commercial activity without interference from Mother Nature. Asheville’s city officials were sold on the idea too, and proceeded with plans to permit the demolition.

The development would have destroyed an area enclosed by approximately two miles of sidewalk. It would have disrupted the rhythm of life in the heart of the city while creating a monolith shopping mall of monstrous proportions. The city’s historical character and personality would have been smothered in the rubble of the old town. The potential aesthetic ramifications were inconceivable.

The project proposed to raze such landmarks as our Art Deco masterpiece, The Kress Building. The T.S. Morrison Store, a general mercantile store in business since 1891, was slated for destruction. Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop on Broadway (circa 1903) and the whole of lower Lexington Avenue (all the way from College St. to the 240 bypass behind the Civic Center) would have been demolished, on both sides of the street. Walnut Street and its handcarved granite curbstones, from Haywood Street all the way to Broadway, would have been laid to waste by wrecking balls and bulldozers. Some buildings that had just been painstakingly restored by a local architect were going to be leveled. Carolina Lane, where Thomas Wolfe used to deliver newspapers as a boy, would have likely become the location of the indoor mall’s food court.

Thanks to a spontaneous grassroots effort organized by a handful of conscientious residents, the controversial project was halted in its 11th hour.

As part of the effort, artist Dana Irwin produced a colorful poster to inspire citizens, artist Jean Penland made badges with the slogan “Asheville — Love it don’t level it,” and filmmaker Al Ramirez made a documentary about how the project would displace people who lived downtown. University art major Peggy Gardner decided to raise public awareness by creating a living work of art involving 200 humans holding up about 3000 yards of cloth.

She acquired a city permit allowing her to “wrap” the area in question with a piece of “ribbon.” Then she stayed up all night tying together 4 x 5-foot-large placards of cloth donated by the Slosman Corporation, a local rayon recycling plant. On a Saturday afternoon, 200 volunteers posted along the route held up the cloth to form a perimeter of people and a cordon of colorful fabric.

The demonstration (which was described by Gardner as “not a protest but an educational event … “) lasted only 10 minutes. But the publicity generated by the “Visual entertainment to honor the artist Javacheff Vladinirov Christo” (who became famous by wrapping monuments in Italy with cloth) gave Ashevilleans a graphic wake-up call. It allowed citizens to visually conceptualize the scope of the proposed destruction.

An ensuing firestorm of protest forced city officials to reconsider and cancel the project and saved 11 blocks of antique architecture from destruction.

[Author’s note: Special thanks to Danielle, Dana and Peggy for their help in researching this story].

copyright 2000, Tom Kerr

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