Asheville Archives: ‘These innocent little unfortunates’

MAKE ROOM FOR THE KIDS: Frances "Fanny" Patton played a key role in the creation of the Buncombe County Children's Home, which operated from 1890-1952. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville

On Nov. 28, 1895, Frances “Fanny” L. Patton offered a brief history of the Buncombe County Children’s Home in the Woman’s Edition of The Asheville Daily Citizen. The institution opened five years prior, on March 11, 1890. According to Patton, the concept for it came about in November of 1889, during a meeting with J.E. Rankin, chairman of the county commissioners. Patton wrote that she had originally sought Rankin out “to get admission to the almshouse for a poor woman and two small children.”

This initial request, Patton explained, led to a conversation concerning the need for a more suitable living space for impoverished children. She wrote:

“Committed to the almshouse, surrounded by pauper influences, under the charge of no one whose business it was to train them in habits of self-respecting industry, these innocent little unfortunates naturally grew up paupers and vagrants, if no worse. The better class of citizens shrank from receiving into their homes these children with their diseased bodies and minds, and with no protection from annoyance from the parents. But while the need was thus urgent the legal obstructions were most discouraging, our State being far behind others in the Union in good laws for the protection of this class of her citizens. Determined, however, to surmount all difficulties, the committee decided to ask only a small appropriation of $600 from the country and call to their aid the good citizens of Asheville, who on this occasion, as ever before, responded promptly and heartily. A public meeting was called at the Y.M.C.A. rooms and addresses made by prominent citizens.”

Public interest and support for the project was evident in early newspaper accounts. On Jan. 23, 1890, The Daily Citizen reported the beginning stages of the home’s erection, noting that Capt. J.A. Tennent “has kindly given the use of his services in its construction.” Upon its completion, the two-story frame building would stand adjacent to Mission Hospital.

On Feb. 6, 1890, The Daily Citizen included a commissioners’ report concerning the future home. The report highlighted the generosity of Mission, stating that the clinic’s physicians would offer their services to the children, in order to keep costs down for the new institution. The report added, “We are also assured that in any emergency the matron, nurses and cook at the Hospital will lend a hand to the Home.”  Two weeks later, on Feb. 20, 1890, Patton wrote to The Daily Citizen declaring: “The house is now completed and we are ready to put in the furniture and open the home.”

In 1891, the Children’s Home committee (composed of Patton, Rankin, Mrs. E.S. CarmichaelJ.P. Sawyer and G.S. Powell), produced a report, summarizing the organization’s first year. It was published in The Weekly Citizen on March 5, 1891. The home admitted 40 children in 1890, with an average of 23 housed at one time. Other stats included: number of deaths (4); children reclaimed by parents (10); and kids transferred to other asylums (4).

The summary clarified that the four deaths “occurred a few weeks after admission; all were under four years of age; three were hopelessly ill when admitted[.]” The committee also offered a detailed account of the 10 children reclaimed by their parents, noting that “one was stolen by its drunken father.”

Five years later, in her Nov. 28, 1895, article concerning the home’s history and early success, Patton provided updated numbers. Within its first five years, the organization had housed 159 children, “of which number only 14 have died, a very remarkable record, considering their miserable physical condition when committed.” Patton continued:

“No more satisfactory work has ever been done, or public money better expended, than in building up these characters of honest, intelligent Christian manhood and womanhood to advance the prosperity of their foster mother, the County. It has not cost Buncombe $50 to rescue each of these children and put them upon a plane of independent self-support. It is natural to suppose that, left to their miserable surroundings, they would each have cost the County hundreds, if not thousands of dollars before they sank into their pauper or criminal graves.”

The Buncombe County Children’s Home continued operations until 1952.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents. 

 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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