Remembering Roseland Gardens

FREE TO BE: Dancers cut loose inside Roseland Gardens, circa 1950. The venue offered entertainment and a gathering space for area African-Americans during the era of segregation.
FREE TO BE: Dancers cut loose inside Roseland Gardens, circa 1950. The venue offered entertainment and a gathering space for area African-Americans during the era of segregation. Photo courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center

Opened in Black Mountain in 1918 by local businessman Horace Rutherford, the Roseland Gardens juke joint’s reputation for lively music and entertainment spread quickly. Soon, African-Americans were traveling from Asheville, Old Fort and Marion to socialize at the only venue in the area that was not designated “whites only.”

Rutherford’s granddaughter, Katherine Debrow, recalls Roseland Gardens as a cultural hub for the black community. “Everybody came here to dance, and I do mean everybody who lived in the community,” she says. “They came here to drink beer and they came to dance.  [I] can talk to any person in Black Mountain who’s my age, or a little bit older, and they will say, ‘Your grandfather had the best music in town.’”

Rutherford reportedly got the idea for the venue when he visited the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. He strove to emulate the style and beauty of that establishment, even outfitting his dance hall with a massive glass chandelier. Some locals speculate that Bessie Smith performed at Roseland Gardens in its heyday, and that her song, “Black Mountain Blues,” was written after a wild night at the bar. Historian Don Talley spent years researching Roseland, and while he hasn’t found proof that Smith performed there, he thinks it’s likely that she and many other blues artists graced the juke joint’s stage.

“The early blues stars were traveling the circuit throughout the South, playing anywhere they could,” says Talley. “So if they were playing in Durham, which was a center for the blues in North Carolina, and the next show was in Knoxville or down in Atlanta, they would need a stop-over. Word-of-mouth would have told them that not only was [Roseland] a place to get food, they could make a little money between the big gigs.”

Roseland Gardens may also have been a front for moonshiners. According to Debrow, patrons called corn liquor “medicine” and referred to Rutherford as “The Good Doctor.” She also recalls a sign on the door that read, “The Juke Doctor is IN” on one side, and, “The Juke Doctor is OUT” on the other.

A small building beside the main edifice had two moons carved above it, Talley says, and, “According to locals, that was a symbol for moonshine.”

Rutherford himself is described as a larger-than-life character who wore a fedora and carried two revolvers to keep the peace. “No one ever got shot,” says Debrow. “There might be some shooting in the air … before the sheriff was called.” She remembers that there were a few times when Rutherford had to pistol-whip someone.

Despite its wild nights, Roseland Gardens was also a place for the children of the African-American community during the day. In the 1930s, Black Mountain opened a whites-only movie theater, so Rutherford bought a film projector for his business. He charged 10 cents a ticket and screened movies such as Roy Rogers westerns and The Red Rider.

In 1950, the Asheville Citizen called Roseland Gardens “the largest private recreation center for colored people in Western North Carolina.” Other juke joints sprung up in the region, but none had the the staying power of Rutherford’s space.

While WNC remained segregated, Rutherford — rumored to never turn away business — wasn’t opposed to allowing white people to drink at his bar, and Roseland Gardens may have been the first integrated establishment in the region. “It was an interesting place,” says Talley. “Black and white people couldn’t go to church together back then, but they could go to Roseland and have a beer.”

The dance hall’s popularity dwindled after desegregation in the 1960s allowed local African-Americans to attend other area nightclubs. The juke joint closed in 1976, and Rutherford died in the mid-’80s. Despite attempts to get the building registered as a historic landmark, it was demolished in 2015. The original Roseland Gardens sign, as well as the movie projector, now reside at the Swannanoa Valley History Museum in Black Mountain.

 

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10 thoughts on “Remembering Roseland Gardens

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    Looks just like the Old Farmer’s Ball in Swannanowhere. Best contra dancing ever. Too bad both of them are gone.

    • Able Allen

      The building that housed the original Old Farmers Ball is still there on Warren Wilson Rd. although it’s not much to look at from the outside. The dancing of course still happens (at Warren Wilson College) even if it has gotten much more contra dance centric. The original OFB, where dances started up in the first half of the 20th century, was host to all sorts of Appalachian Mountain dance and play party games. The organization that took it back up in the Old Farmers Ball building in 1980 (’81?) also was much more versatile in the dancing including lots of squares, circles, scatter mixers, English country dances and even European couple dancing like hambos and schottisches. At least that’s my understanding. I wasn’t there for all of that.

      • The Real World

        Oh my, Able is well-versed about the dancing world. And I learned some new words today: hambos and schottisches.

      • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

        Haven’t been that way in ages. I figured it was torn down. I remember when a heavy snow collapsed half the roof and ended dancing there. Big disappointment. Leon’s dance hall in River Falls Lodge north of Cleveland SC has a lot of the same ambiance that the Farmer’s Ball had.

        • Able Allen

          Yes, the dance group down there has done some good work on it though and the dance floor is in decent shape. I heard that the lodge recently changed hands to a new owner who is a dancer. Leon died some 5-8 years ago I think.

          • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

            HE did. I was sad to hear that. He never looked all that healthy to me.

        • bsummers

          I danced at River Falls Lodge for years – fantastic place to enjoy traditional dance. They used to allow folks to camp on the lawn, so you could get up & hike up to Jones Gap Falls at the state forest just up the road the next morning. Beautiful place, great dance community.

      • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

        btw, the inside didn’t look much better. It reminded me of a of an old western saloon with a lot of funk The dance floor had a sag to it and sloped away from the stage, so after a few minutes of dancing dance lines would automatically compress towards the back wall. It was pretty funny.

        • Able Allen

          That’s not uncommon in dance halls. In the Nelson, NH hall, they do long-lines where one side goes forward and the other side goes back, to adjust for the slope of the floor. It’s pretty hilarious.

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