Asheville Archives: Instagram account brings 1940s Asheville to life

USO TROUPE: On Aug. 9, 1945, Estelle Berkowitz and her fellow USO troupe members visited soldiers at the former Moore General Hospital in Swannanoa. Photo courtesy of Capps

In 1998, freelance writer Emily Capps was antiquing in Atlanta when she came across a pair of boxes. Inside, Capps found hundreds of images of a woman named Estelle Berkowitz. As Capps flipped through the collection, captivated by the subject’s smile and attire, it became evident this was a pictorial history of Berkowitz’s adult life.

For several years, Capps played around with ways of showcasing the collection. At one point, some of the images hung from a pair of old window panes inside her home. Later, she dedicated an entire room to the pictures. More recently, she created the Instagram handle, @theestelleburke.

The project, which launched in 2017, is a fictional account of Berkowitz’s life. But in the process of creating and sharing her story, Capps caught the attention of a former high school friend and researcher, Lee Howard. Intrigued by the series, Howard says he began looking into Berkowitz’s past as a way to provide Capps with “some anchors to build this mythology around.”

What the pair now know is that Berkowitz (who also listed her last name as Borke and Berke) was born in Rochester, N.Y., on July 22, 1912. In the 1940 U.S. census, she noted her profession as a “speciality dancer.” Throughout that decade, she traveled the country and world as a member of the USO.

On Aug. 9, 1945, Berkowitz and her troupe performed at the former Moore General Hospital in Swannanoa. Photographs from the collection also show the group exploring parts of Asheville, including downtown and the Grove Park Inn. On Aug. 14, 1945 — the troupe’s final day in the city — The Asheville Citizen’s headline read: “Tokyo says Japs to accept surrender terms; Second World War over if broadcast is true; no allied confirmation likely before 9 a.m.” The following day’s headline confirmed the news.

Capps’ collection totals more than 1,000 images. Along with her Instagram account, she is currently considering writing a book about the series. For Howard, the Berkowitz photographs speak to the hidden treasures that too often are ignored. “People might have an archive in their attic or basement,” he says. For folks who do, he encourages digitizing their personal histories. “It’s part of our collective cultural memory that we all share,” he says.

For additional images, follow Emily Capps at @theestelleburke.




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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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3 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Instagram account brings 1940s Asheville to life

  1. boatrocker

    Me loves some Calder articles.

    In this hypersensitive online culture, however, if these women played a gig
    in 2018 they would have a 2000 word write up about being independent and
    empowered for singing Andrews Sisters type material for a lack of female music
    in town and featured on the next print cover.
    Bob Hope would be quoted as to their musical

    If any of these women posed for a picture such that they were summarily
    painted on the side of a B-17 bomber flashing a bit of ankle, they of course would
    be treated as but objects.

    Lesson learned? Talk to your grandparents.

  2. WP Ashevillan

    I applaud Emily Capps recognition of the treasures these photograph are…Much Too Often Individuals personal histories end up in the landfill.. . Think for a moment about it. so many hours and spaces and treasured moments in someones life saved and tucked away to look back on .just tossed our or given to goodwill or some other organization…to be regarded as oddiittes?…These are the moments of a persons life ..what if all the moments you hold in your heart and head were just tossed in the trash?… Remember We Will Never Pass This way again

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