At the start of COVID-19, local historian Mary McPhail Standaert had no intentions of authoring her next book. But like many people, she felt cut off and isolated from most of her friends and family. In response, the Montreat resident began sending out emails to a select group, featuring regional history and trivia.
As the pandemic dragged on, her project evolved, eventually finding a larger audience via Facebook. Now, more than a year and a half later, Standaert’s digital endeavor has transformed into her newly self-published book, Buncombe County Name Game.
Land of the Sky
No stranger to the region’s past, Standaert is the co-author of two previous works: Montreat (2009) and Swannanoa Valley (2014). Using her background knowledge to inform her latest project, Standaert sent out her first pandemic email on March 19, 2020. In it, she traced the origin of the region’s slogan, “Land of the Sky,” to Frances Christine Fisher Tiernan’s 1876 romance novel, The Land of the Sky. Additionally, she explained how the call letters of Asheville-based television station WLOS are a nod to the phrase.
The email, she explains, “was just a way to keep people connected.”
Subsequent entries followed. Each subject line was numbered, and each message included a notation marking how many days had passed since social distancing began. Both features were in response to a common complaint Standaert heard in the early days of COVID. “People were saying that they couldn’t keep track of time.”
One of the project’s most endearing features came along within a few weeks of its launch: Along with her trivia tidbits, Standaert started scanning historical postcards she and her husband, Joe, have been collecting for over 40 years. The visual additions were a hit among her email recipients.
“People like seeing vintage images,” she says.
Very quickly, these emails became as essential to Standaert’s well-being as wearing a mask and maintaining 6 feet of distance.
Greetings from Asheville
Accomplished photographer Herbert Pelton, notes Standaert, photographed much of Western North Carolina in the early 1900s. His images were subsequently used on postcards produced locally at Asheville Postcard Co., a former manufacturer established in response to the region’s enduring status as a tourist mecca. For many of the postcards’ original recipients, these images were the only way to see the region’s notable landmarks.
Today, many of the places featured in Buncombe County Name Game have either been razed or substantially changed. But thanks to the book’s tight focus on the Swannanoa Valley, Montreat, Black Mountain and Asheville, the publication stands as a time capsule, documenting a period when horse-drawn carriages, and subsequently trolley cars, lined the roads of WNC.
Standaert observes that the postcards’ heyday ran from roughly 1900-20. With a photograph on one side and space on the reverse for an address, stamp and short handwritten message, postcards combined communication with the sharing of something that had souvenir value.
Following the format’s lead, Standaert imposed restrictions on her own written entries, allowing herself only 170 words to describe each postcard — though the author emphasizes that the words and images complement each other, while also standing on their own.
Sharing is caring
Standaert’s final email (entry No. 197), was sent out on March 20, 2021. Soon thereafter, she began work transforming the posts into Buncombe County Name Game.
At one point, the author remembers, a friend asked her if she’d intended the online project to evolve into her latest publication.
“I did not,” she says, “but the joy has been in the sharing and connecting.”
To order a copy of Buncombe County Name Game, visit avl.mx/a3e.