Book explores lives and legacies of Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale

LOCAL HISTORY: Bruce Johnson's new book tells the story of Eleanor Vance, Charlotte Yale and the WNC companies they founded. Photo courtesy of the author

Far from household names within their lifetimes, Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale would likely have been shocked to discover people were interested in their story more than 60 years after their deaths.

“They would just roll over in their graves in Tryon if they knew that you and I were having this conversation, talking about their private lives and their personal lives and what they accomplished,” says local author Bruce E. Johnson, whose new book focuses on the pair. “They never once thought that that would ever be the case. They just never sought any attention for themselves.”

But Johnson says Vance’s and Yale’s impact in Asheville and Tryon in the early half of the 20th century is worth remembering. The two taught generations of young people in Western North Carolina practical skills like woodcarving and weaving. But their impact went beyond that.

“They often said, ‘We’re not training woodworkers, we’re training good citizens,’” the author explains. “They saw value in teaching these young men and women that there was a life outside of the textile mills.”

Johnson recounts their story in Biltmore Industries & Tryon Toy-Makers: The Lives and Works of Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale, a book 10 years in the making.

The Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum in Grovewood Village will host a book release party from 1-4 p.m. Saturday, July 22.

‘With Edith’s encouragement’

Vance (1869-1954) and Yale (1870-1958) met in 1899 while studying at Chicago Bible College, now known as Moody Bible Institute. Or maybe it was earlier — the two gave multiple conflicting accounts of where and when they met, Johnson says.

In any case, they ended up in Asheville in 1901 after spending a year in Florida. Along with Eleanor’s elderly mother, the pair moved into a new house in fast-growing Biltmore Village, the company town created by George Vanderbilt for workers at the nearby Biltmore Estate.

There they met Edith Vanderbilt, who was interested in improving the lives of the people who worked for her husband, Johnson says.

“With Edith’s encouragement, and George paying their salaries, Eleanor and Charlotte came upon the idea of starting what became Biltmore Industries in 1905,” he says. “It was during the Arts and Crafts era, when manual arts training schools were becoming popular, and so the idea was that they were going to train young men and young women to become woodworkers and woodcarvers and weavers there in Biltmore Village.”

Yale acted as business manager while Vance, who was an accomplished woodcarver, taught young people how to construct and carve walnut serving trays, bookends, bowls, picture frames, hearth brushes, fireplace bellows and more. They also taught young women how to weave wool homespun cloth.

The endeavor was an experiment that likely never turned a profit, Johnson says, an indication of the selfless spirit that motivated Vance and Yale.

“One of the things I find remarkable is that Eleanor trained for 10 years and was recognized as one of the finest woodcarvers to come out of Cincinnati, and yet she never sold a single piece of her own work,” Johnson says. “She took everything that she had learned and taught it to these young men and women, and she put herself second to everybody else her entire life.”

Many of the handcarved items created and sold at Biltmore Industries are collectors’ items today.

“The pieces are scattered all across the country, because a lot of that stuff went home with tourists who went back to California, went back to Florida or wherever,” Johnson says. “They were of such good quality that anybody who picks one up knows it’s something special.”

George Vanderbilt died in 1914, prompting the two to leave Biltmore Industries the following year. “They realized the writing on the wall that Edith was eventually going to have to sell Biltmore Industries, which she did in 1917 to Fred Seely of the Grove Park Inn,” Johnson says.

Headed to Tryon

Still in their 40s and not ready to retire, Vance and Yale decided to move to Tryon, which was then home to numerous artists, writers and intellectuals.

They founded Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers and again began teaching young men and women how to carve walnut bowls, frames, bookends and the like, along with colorful wooden toys. Over nearly three decades, the company became nationally known and created hundreds of carved items and hand-painted toys that are now collectors’ items.

One of the most popular toys, Johnson says, was the mountain home set, which included a log cabin, a mountain family, animals, a wagon and more. The company also produced Noah’s Ark, scenes from fairy tales, toy horses, spinning tops and dolls.

“The children were allowed to put different expressions on the faces [of dolls and other toys], so these are very unique,” Johnson says. “There’s no sense that these things were stamped out by a machine.”

In 1943, the pair retired and lived out their remaining years in Tryon.

Telling the tale

Johnson worked on the book intermittently over the last decade or so, traveling to Cincinnati, Chicago and other places to dig through dusty archives. But putting together the pair’s story proved challenging because Vance and, especially Yale, never sought public recognition in their lifetimes.

“Quiet, meek Charlotte is always in the background,” Johnson says. “And there are big gaps in her life when she just never told anybody where she was or what she was doing. She never acknowledged her parents or her childhood or her early training. The first 30 years of her life are still a bit of a mystery.”

And the two didn’t leave behind private letters, journals or diaries, Johnson continues, creating even more gaps. Fortunately, he was able to find financial records, drawings and other documents from the companies they ran.

“I would switch gears from biography to history depending on what information I was able to uncover,” he says. “When I hit those periods where I have no idea what was going on with their personal lives, I would write about the things that they produced and taught these young men and women to produce.”

And that worked out for the best, the author says, because the pair’s lasting legacy is the hundreds of young people who passed through their doors.

“They didn’t all become woodcarvers, and that was never the intent,” he says. “But they probably left there as better citizens … than had they not been trained by Vance and Yale.”

WHAT: Book release party for Bruce Johnson’s Biltmore Industries & Tryon Toy-Makers
WHEN: Saturday, July 22, 1-4p.m.,
WHERE: Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum in Grovewood Villlage, 111 Grovewood Road 


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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