Asheville Archives: Who from our city’s past?

PAST MEETS PRESENT: As a difficult year comes to an end, local historians reflect on past figures who might have helped address our present-day challenges. Images courtesy of Buncombe County government and the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library; collage by Scott Southwick

As part of the Year in Review issue, Xpress reached out to local historians and asked them the following question: Who from Asheville’s past would have been best suited to manage the many challenges and tragedies our community faced in 2020? Responses, as seen below, ranged from medical experts to community organizers.

IN AGREEMENT: Both community historian Sasha Mitchell, left, community historian, and DeWayne Barton, CEO of Hood Huggers International, right, agree that E.W. Pearson, center, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, local entrepreneur and community organizer, would have been a welcome voice in addressing Asheville’s racial and economic challenges in 2020. Photo credits, from left, starting left, courtesy of Mitchell; courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library; by Thomas Calder

Community leader

“A leader from our past who stands out as one who could have met the challenges we’ve faced this past year is E. W. Pearson. His work establishing his Agricultural Fair brought him knowledge around food security. His business knowledge could be applied to aid the struggles of our local businesses. And his experience with living through segregation would have provided him with skills to share in local mutual aid and self-reliance. Like many African Americans who returned from military service, Mr. Pearson assumed a leadership role in the community and was known and respected throughout Asheville and beyond. I’m sure he would have encouraged mask wearing as a public duty!” — Sasha Mitchell, community historian

“I still believe in E.W. Pearson’s blueprint. Not only did he try to address the significant challenges of his time, he also created opportunities for people to celebrate and come together. He created opportunities through civic engagement, entrepreneurship and community development, all while ensuring that the youth were engaged and involved.” — DeWayne Barton, CEO of Hood Huggers International

SWAT THAT FLY: Katherine Cutshall, right, collections manager for the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library, believes Dr. Louis McCormick would have been a valuable asset were he alive today. Photo of McCormick courtesy of the North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville; photo of Cutshall by Thomas Calder

Someone call a doctor!

“Dr. Louis McCormick, Asheville’s first bacteriologist and public health advocate, would be an asset to Asheville in 2020. Dr. McCormick (of McCormick Field fame) was a pioneer in his time who led a prolific public education campaign that helped to slow the spread of tuberculosis in the city. Dr. McCormick believed the common housefly carried the disease and, with the help of Asheville Citizen cartoonist Billy Bourne, encouraged the public to ‘Swat That Fly!’ to prevent the spread.” — Katherine Cutshall, collections manager at the North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library


HARD TIMES: Kimberly Floyd, site manager at the Vance Birthplace, says Elizabeth Hempill, believed to be among those included in the photo on left, could offer residents inspiration for surviving hard times. Historic image courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina; photo of Floyd courtesy of Floyd


“Throughout her life, Elizabeth Hemphill exhibited resiliency, experiencing many of the same losses — of money, food, resources, and loved ones — that our communities have faced in 2020. From 1847-1909, Elizabeth farmed the former Vance plantation. Due to financial struggles in 1852, she faced the loss of her home at public auction. Although she raised the winning bid of $1,300, it took everything she had. But her ultimate trial was enduring the Civil War. Like other mountain residents, Elizabeth encountered food shortages exacerbated by raiding parties of soldiers and deserters. The scarcity of salt, a crucial food preservative, also kept families from building up winter stores of meat and produce. As a single mother of four children, Elizabeth persevered, keeping her family intact during the war and holding on to their home in the Reems Creek Valley.” — Kimberly Floyd, site manager of Vance Birthplace

UNIFY: Local historian Sharon Farher opines that Edith Vanderbilt possessed the traits to unite rural and urban residents. From left, photo of Fahrer by Laurie Johnson Photography; image of Vanderbilt courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville


Edith Vanderbilt was a strong, compassionate woman who took over the management of the Biltmore Estate after becoming a widow. Down to earth, community-minded and a socially progressive thinker, Edith also had a head for business, becoming the first female president of the N.C. State Fair and the N.C. Agricultural Society.  Initiatives she sponsored included literacy and educational programs and the promotion of crafts, which would enable women to support themselves (Biltmore Estate Industries). In today’s community, I think Edith’s tenacity would provide strong leadership, set goals and offer genuine empathy for those suffering from the effects of the pandemic and economic downturn. Her ties to both the rural sector and urban populations could further their unification. She would help create policies to increase racial justice and decrease police brutality.” — Sharon Fahrer, owner of History-at-Hand


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

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.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Asheville Archives: Who from our city’s past?

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    Edith Vanderbilt was really an amazing woman to have come to these parts! ‘The Last Castle’ is fantastic history of how the Estate came to be, but I don’t remember her NC State Fair presidency so that is an interesting fact! Back when social progressivism (without politics) was a positive thing …

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.