The joys, benefits and mysteries of friendship is a topic that writers, philosophers, musicians, physicians and psychiatrists have explored for centuries. More often than not, the matter concerns relationships between individuals. But as leaders of various local historic sites and special collections will note, camaraderie can also take the form of nonprofit friends groups. And these groups, local leaders point out, are essential for community programs and events.
Back into the community
A massive and growing historical archive is housed on the lower level of the Pack Memorial Public Library in downtown Asheville. Home to more than 400 manuscript collections, 25,000 images and a 5-terabyte digital collection, the Buncombe County Special Collections preserves nearly 400 years of history. Assisting with this work is the nonprofit group, Friends of the Buncombe County Special Collections, which supports the librarians and archivists involved with the ongoing project.
The archival material covers a wide swath of local and regional history. Some of the featured collections include official records of the Asheville Fire Department from 1893 to 1925; written records of Asheville businessman E.W. Grove‘s investments; and more than 2,000 historic images from the Asheville Post Card Co. While all items and documents can be explored in person at the special collections, an ongoing digitizing program has helped decrease barriers to public access as well.
With a $15 annual fee, the friends group boasts more than 200 members, says Catherine Amos. In 2021, Amos became the nonprofit’s treasurer and soon thereafter took on the additional role of secretary. The organization itself has been supporting the work of the special collections for more than a decade. And while Amos says that her group’s efforts are pretty straightforward, they take on many forms.
“We support exhibits, internship opportunities, archival projects and professional development for staff,” she explains.
Additionally, Amos points out, the friends group purchases all books required for the ongoing community learning circle — an initiative led by Katherine Cutshall, manager of the special collections. “Rather than being a traditional book club,” Amos explains, “we’ve put all the ‘curricula’ into circulation in the libraries, so folks don’t have to purchase those books.”
That, she emphasizes, is a nice example of how the nonprofit spends its money: by putting it back into the county.
Of all the challenges the group faces, Amos says, the biggest is letting people know that the Buncombe County Special Collections exists. “There’s such a wide breadth of history captured in that one little basement area,” she says. “A lot of folks don’t remember it’s there. But when they do, there’s a lot to be learned.”
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“Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time,” wrote Thomas Wolfe in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again, published posthumously in 1940.
Wolfe’s actual home is one of literature’s most famous landmarks. The author set many of his autobiographical fictional works in his home on North Market Street in downtown Asheville. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial (also known as “the Old Kentucky Home”) has been open to visitors since 1949, and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1972. An arsonist set fire to the structure in 1998, but after a major restoration initiative, the house opened again in 2004.
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial Advisory Committee was incorporated in 1987 as an independent, nonprofit support organization for the historical site. The advisory committee’s efforts are exclusively charitable and educational, says Anastasia Clare, board member since 2017 and president since 2020.
The nine-person committee was organized to promote interest in literature, “particularly, but not limited to, literature and writings authored by Thomas Wolfe,” Clare says. She notes that because Wolfe’s home in Asheville figures so prominently in the author’s novels, visitors “walk within the pages of a story.”
Like many other historic sites in North Carolina and beyond, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial was forced to restrict in-person activities during the height of the pandemic. That decrease in activity and lower profile impacted the work of the advisory committee as well. “It limited some of the organic interest that often blossoms into a new ‘friend,’ volunteer or board member,” Clare says.
The membership arm of the advisory committee is the Friends of Thomas Wolfe. The group, Clare notes, currently totals around 50 members (including the committee). “We develop programs, partnerships and activities to keep Wolfe’s works alive and attract visitors to the site,” she says.
During the pandemic, some of the committee’s activities were placed on hold, including an annual summer multiday teacher training program. “But with the help of our partner organizations, we pivoted some events online,” Clare says. Most recently, the annual Student Writing Contest concluded; students in grades four-12 were invited to write their own stories inspired by Wolfe’s short story “The Return of the Prodigal: The Thing Imagined.”
Come 2023, the group will partner with the Wilma Dykeman Legacy as part of its annual Thomas Wolfe short story book club. “And since the sessions have moved to Zoom, there is an opportunity to connect with readers from around the world,” Clare says.
Tom Muir is the Thomas Wolfe Memorial historic site manager; he’s also a nonvoting member of the advisory committee and works closely with that group. “In addition to generating funding, [the committee] works with me about programming and as a conduit for connecting the site with community resources,” he says.
Clare encourages anyone interested in the Thomas Wolfe Memorial to join the Friends of Thomas Wolfe. “Whether you’re a lover of literature, an aspiring historian, or someone who firmly believes in the power of place and community, we’d love for you to get involved,” she says.
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A more inclusive history
From a historical perspective, Zebulon Vance has a mixed record. Twice elected governor of North Carolina, during his life the Buncombe County native was considered forward-looking, even progressive. But in the 21st century, acknowledgment of the former slaveholder’s racist views led to the dismantling of a downtown Asheville obelisk erected in his honor.
A nuanced view of his contributions to the state — one that doesn’t shy away from the problematic side of his legacy — is part of the goal at the Vance Birthplace, a North Carolina historic site in Weaverville. And the Mountain History and Culture Group, launched in 2017, aims to support the work of the site and its site manager, Kimberly Floyd.
“The Vance Birthplace is historically and culturally significant due to the breadth and reach of the narratives that unfolded on this land that still impact us today,” says Floyd. She emphasizes that the Cherokee, Europeans and people of African ancestry all helped shape the region.
A previous support group, Friends of the Vance Birthplace, operated from 2000-22. Fundraising, however, became difficult in recent years “because they had ‘Vance’ in their name,” says Steven Nash, an associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University and president of Mountain History and Culture Group. “A second support group was necessary.”
The Vance family enslaved more than two dozen people. “The men and women of color associated with the Vance family experienced all the social, economic and political impacts of slavery,” Nash states. He says that the MHCG board “believe that the current staff’s commitment to an inclusive interpretation allows the site to continue to serve as a place of dialogue and exchange of ideas within the community.”
Like all organizations, the pandemic forced Vance Birthplace to pivot, offering online and digital programming. “And they did that in a way that allowed the site — and the MHCG — to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever,” Nash explains.
Nash says that plans for the site call for “more permanent exhibits further highlighting African American history and more programming around Native American and women’s history.”
Nash concedes that the most significant challenge facing his organization is public perception. “A lot of people in the community view the site with suspicion,” he says. “As a board, we are sympathetic to that fact.”
While the Vance Birthplace site was established as a “shrine” to glorify Vance, today Nash’s group supports the site staff’s work to present a view that takes in “the site’s full history.”
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