In 1774, Penelope Barker led America’s first documented women’s political protest, known as the Edenton Tea Party. Barker and 50 of her female friends gathered in Edenton, N.C., and, while sipping infusions brewed from local herbs and mulberry leaves, signed a statement supporting the colonial boycott of imported British tea.
The resolution was not ignored. Newspapers in the colonies applauded the women, while the British press mocked their efforts, according to the Western North Carolina Historical Association’s Infused in History: A Tea Exhibit, which opens Wednesday, April 24, at the Smith-McDowell House. The exhibit, which runs through the end of September, joins an upcoming event from the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center in showcasing both camellia sinensis and the history of Western North Carolina.
Although an import from China, and later India, tea is tied, both as an economic commodity and a social ritual, to Asheville’s past, says exhibit co-coordinator Lynn Karegeannes. In the early 1800s, when the brick mansion now known as the Smith-McDowell House (then called Buck House) was built by wealthy landowner and businessman James McConnell Smith, “taking afternoon tea was very popular in this area,” she says.
A history buff and tea blogger at mylifeintea.com, Karegeannes dreamed up the Infused in History exhibit with WNC Historical Association education coordinator Lisa Whitfield. Together they tracked down old local newspaper ads showing that tea was sold by Asheville merchants at the time. “It was for sale [in Asheville] in the early 19th century, but it was expensive,” says Karegeannes.
“Green tea ran anywhere from $1 to $1.25 a pound, and black tea ran from 75 cents to $1 a pound at that time,” adds Whitfield. (A dollar in 1840 was equivalent to about $29 in 2019, according to officialdata.org’s inflation calculator.) Several pounds of green and black tea were recorded among Smith’s holdings at the time of his death in 1856, Karegeannes notes.
The exhibit will unfold throughout the rambling house, which devotes its rooms to historic representations of specific decades between the 1840s and 1890s. Each room will contain one or two vignettes featuring antique and reproduction tea sets from the appropriate time period, some from the museum’s large collection and others donated by local residents. Sheffield silver, Blue Willow china and Meissen porcelain are just a few of the varieties on display.
Karegeannes recruited tea business owners from Asheville and from farther afield to research a range of topics for the vignettes. Among them are Kym Brown of A Southern Cup Fine Teas in Hendersonville, who wrote about the evolution of afternoon tea.
Jill Wasilewski of Ivory Road Café and Kitchen in Arden researched tea etiquette. (Spoiler: Lifting your pinkie when drinking tea has never been considered socially acceptable, she writes). And Karegeannes herself dug into the preparation of tea at the Smith-McDowell House.
And of course, there’s the part about Penelope Barker and her groundbreaking political activism, which was written by 3 Mountains and Tima Teas owner Sara Stender. “I was looking for women in tea in the U.S. who made an impact, and she inspired me as an early pioneer and entrepreneur,” says Stender, adding that she found the project particularly interesting as both the owner of a business that sources teas directly from growers in Rwanda and as the founder of the nonprofit Africa Healing Exchange. The research “tied together how tea came to be in the U.S. and the connection to how Africans came to be in the U.S. It was all related and was rooted in corporate profit-seeking,” she says.
All the information was fact-checked by tea historian Bruce Richardson of the Kentucky-based Elmwood Inn Fine Teas. As part of the exhibit’s programming, which includes a variety of events (see sidebar for details), Richardson will present a lecture on Saturday, May 11, at Brunk Auctions followed by an appraisal fair to benefit the Smith-McDowell House.
Meanwhile in Black Mountain, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center is set to host its second spring tea event in two years, A Tea With a View: Far Horizons. As the name suggests, the event will take place at Far Horizons, the historic home of Blue Ridge Assembly founder Willis Weatherford Sr.
As with all SVMHC programming, the idea behind this event was to create an opportunity for people to visit a historically significant location within the Swannanoa Valley that is usually not open to the public, says SVMHC Executive Director Anne Chesky Smith. “Last year we did it at Whitemont Lodge [in Swannanoa], which is privately owned but was originally built off the books as a gentlemen’s club during the Prohibition era,” she explains.
Far Horizons, which is on the campus of the Blue Ridge Assembly, is a log house constructed as a retirement home around 1939-40, according to Weatherford’s granddaughter, Julia Weatherford. At that time, she says, her grandmother, Julia Pearl McCrory Weatherford, was in a wheelchair, so the home was designed on one level with easy-to-navigate slate walkways. “He built this house with a gorgeous view with her in mind because she couldn’t get out and about,” says Weatherford.
The tea will feature savory and cherry scones — “a secret recipe that was very popular last year,” says Smith — with local honey and clotted cream. There will also be two courses of savory and sweet finger foods, all prepared by volunteers and served on a variety of fancy china that’s been donated to the museum by members of the community for the occasion.
Weatherford will give a talk about the history of Far Horizons and her grandfather’s legacy, and will additionally perform some Scottish tunes on the cello with another musician on fiddle. Although it’s not required, guests are encouraged to get into the spirit of an afternoon tea by dressing up “with white gloves and spring finery,” says Smith.
WHAT: Infused in History: A Tea Exhibit
WHERE: Smith-McDowell House, 283 Victoria Road, wnchistory.org
WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday, April 24-Sept. 28, $9 adults, $5 children ages 8 and older. Tea is offered at the end of the self-guided tour.
WHAT: Tea lecture by Bruce Richardson and appraisal fair
WHERE: Brunk Auctions, 117 Tunnel Road, wnchistory.org
WHEN: Lecture at 2 p.m., appraisal fair 3-5 p.m., Saturday, May 11. Lecture is free, appraisal fair costs $10 per item or $25 for three items with proceeds benefiting the Smith-McDowell House.
Additional events for the Infused in History exhibit include a Teacup Fairy Garden tea party for children on Saturday, May 18; an Afternoon Tea Party on Friday, June 7; and a tea silver lecture and appraisal on Saturday, July 13. Visit wnchistory.org or call 828-253-9231 for details.
WHAT: A Tea With a View: Far Horizons
WHERE: Far Horizons, YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, 84 Blue Ridge Circle, Black Mountain
WHEN: Seatings at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Saturday, April 27. $25 members, $35 nonmembers. Advance purchase is required. avl.mx/5w7 or 828-669-9566