Dedicated residents keep dream of a regional history museum alive

STAYING THE COURSE: Ron Holland, left, and Ray Elingburg have been working to bring a regional history museum to Western North Carolina since the early 2000s.
STAYING THE COURSE: Ron Holland, left, and Ray Elingburg have been working to bring a regional history museum to Western North Carolina since the early 2000s.

When Ron Holland arrived in Oteen back in 1978, he had a mission: heading up the newly formed Western Office of Archives and History. Originally, he says, the bill that called for establishing the facility included plans for a regional museum. But the funding for that component was cut from the final version of the state law. “We didn’t have a museum, but we did all kinds of work in the areas of archaeology, historic preservation, archives and records management,” Holland explains.

Still, the idea of a Western North Carolina history museum never left his mind: Such institutions, he maintains, are the best way to educate the masses, particularly students. “Our schoolchildren are certainly shortchanged, because it’s very difficult and expensive for them to make a trip to Raleigh” to visit the North Carolina Museum of History, says Holland. “There are a number of very good local museums that interpret pieces of our history … but there’s not a single place that puts all the history in context and pulls it all together. That’s what I feel like we need.”

Holland retired in 2001, and he and some other historians and organizations have been trying to make it happen ever since. The earliest and most promising attempt came in the early 2000s, when the Western North Carolina Historical Association tried to raise $1.8 million to acquire the former Biltmore High School property on Hendersonville Road for that purpose. But the 2002 recession and other difficulties hindered the organization’s fundraising campaign, and the property was sold for private development.

Although the effort lost some steam after that, Holland and local historian Ray Elingburg, a former Buncombe County clerk of superior court, scouted other sites and conducted feasibility studies. Those efforts, however, didn’t bear fruit. Undaunted, the two men are still working on turning this white whale of an idea into a brick-and-mortar museum.

Most recently, they’ve focused on establishing a steering committee to help raise awareness and funds for the current version of the project. This time they intend to start the museum off as an independent nonprofit rather than a state-run enterprise, though they still hope to eventually hand it over to Raleigh. Holland feels a grassroots effort has the best chance of landing future support from state legislators. “We need to show that we can raise money and that there’s interest in it,” he says.

But while many in Asheville voice support for the idea, some local individuals and businesses have gone ahead with less comprehensive ways to honor and preserve the region’s rich history. And in the short term, some argue, simply strengthening the connections among the existing entities could be a way to create a kind of museum without walls.

Lifting all boats

“We could certainly handle more visitors,” says Elaine Blake, house manager at the Smith-McDowell House. Attendance, she notes, has increased slightly compared with last year’s numbers, but visibility remains an issue. “We do not have a budget for advertising beyond the Chamber of Commerce,” she explains, leaving most folks to find their way to the historic homestead on their own.

In Holland’s view, one big benefit of a regional history museum would be its ability to steer visitors to other smaller, more specialized institutions.

Jeff Futch, regional supervisor at the Western Office, agrees, saying, “I think it would bring attention to the local museums … and could help push visitation there.”

That kind of synergy makes sense to Tom Muir, site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. “Working together,” he says, “can only benefit all the cultural institutions.”

Meanwhile, back at the Smith-McDowell House, Blake aims to attract more Asheville residents as well as tourists to her facility. “There are so many local people who have never been here, don’t know what we have, don’t know what we are,” she points out, adding, “We’re trying to broaden our appeal.”

Don’t know much about history

A desire to boost local awareness of the city’s past was what inspired Marilyn Ball to write her 2015 book, The Rise of Asheville: An Exceptional History of Community Building. Ball, who moved here in 1977, says the idea grew out of an entrepreneurial conference she attended around 2010. Participants were asked to give their name, what they did and what they loved about Asheville. Many were new to town, Ball recalls, “and were talking as if there was no history — as if Asheville had just started exactly the way it is right now.”

So when Ball stood to introduce herself, she asked how many in the group had lived in the area for more than five years. When very few raised their hands, Ball took it upon herself to share stories about the city’s past. Later that evening, she says, folks approached her, expressing gratitude for the impromptu history lesson.

The newbies, of course, have continued to arrive in droves. According to North Carolina’s Office of State Budget and Management, Buncombe County’s population — 258,406 in July of 2016 — is projected to increase to 270,935 by 2020 and exceed 300,000 by 2030.

For this reason, Jack Thomson sees a regional history museum as a crucial asset. “We’re a relocation community,” says Thomson, who is executive director of The Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County. “I think it’s really important for the survival of a lot of our mountain culture that an experience with history be made available not only to future generations, but also to the current generation of folks that are new to Asheville.”

Dollars and cents

Besides serving the newly arrived, Thomson maintains, a well-designed, interactive regional history museum could help boost the area’s tourism revenue. Tourists, he says, might spend an extra night in a hotel or buy a souvenir.

A 2016 study by Tourism Economics, a consultant hired by the Tourism Development Authority, found that visitors spent $1.9 billion, which generated $2.9 billion in total business sales. But while the 10.9 million who visited the area spent an average of $107 per day, most were daytrippers: Only 3.8 million of them stayed overnight (see “2016 Numbers Reflect Continuing Strength in Buncombe County Tourism Industry,” May 16 Xpress).

Holland, too, believes a regional museum could help turn some of those one-day visits into more extended stays. At the same time, he understands the obstacles the project faces. Asheville, notes Holland, has always been a difficult place to raise money, and previous failed ventures haven’t helped.

One recent example is the Health Adventure’s ill-fated attempt to build a $25 million facility in Montford. “More than 100 donors contributed $8 million to the proposed 39,000-square-foot project, which was supposed to go up off Broadway. All of that has been spent,” the Asheville Citizen-Times reported on April 17, 2011. Derailed by the Great Recession, declining donations and escalating expenses, the project foundered: the Health Adventure filed for bankruptcy that year, and the property was subsequently acquired by UNC Asheville.

Nonetheless, Holland believes that if not for the 2002 recession, the plan to turn the Biltmore School property into a museum would have succeeded. He also notes that the fundraisers offered to return all financial donations made to the project. “The money that people did not ask to be given back was used by the Western North Carolina Historical Association,” Holland reports. “A lot of it helped maintain the Smith-McDowell House,” which the nonprofit operates.

Bite-size pieces

Meanwhile, some local history buffs have found other ways to channel their passion for the region’s past. Sharon Fahrer of History @ Hand offers walking tours of various parts of the city, including downtown, Biltmore Village, Riverside Cemetery and Montford.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: Sharon Fahrer, author and founder of History @ Hand, has created and installed over 30 interior and exterior history panels for area businesses, as well as UNCA. Photo courtesy by Laurie Johnson Photography
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS: Sharon Fahrer, author and founder of History @ Hand, has created and installed over 30 interior and exterior history panels for area businesses, as well as UNCA. Photo courtesy by Laurie Johnson Photography

Since the early 2000s, Fahrer has also created and installed over 30 interior and exterior history panels for area businesses, as well as UNCA. More recently, she and a small team of local artists, designers, researchers and community members installed four panels at two bus shelters on Montford Avenue that highlight former buildings, residents, activities and events in the historic neighborhood.

Fahrer considers her work a museum without walls. Other such efforts include the mural at Triangle Park on The Block, which celebrates key moments in local African-American history, and the Asheville Urban Trail, whose 30 outdoor stations scattered around downtown honor notable people, places and events in the city’s history.

More recently, UniGuide, a free app offering audio tours of many U.S. destinations, has begun generating and hosting free content for local museums and nonprofits. So far, the company has completed projects for The Asheville Radio Museum and the Urban Trail, and local content coordinator Lauren Bacchus says audio tours are in the works for the Vance Birthplace and the Basilica of St. Lawrence (in reference to the church’s architect, Rafael Guastavino).

But Fahrer is concerned about the disjointed nature of these efforts. “If we’re going to make this a museum without walls,” she argues, “all these different places need to incorporate information that people can follow in some sort of order.”

Connecting the dots

Tour guide DeWayne Barton, who founded Hood Huggers International, sees possibilities and difficulties in both approaches. For a museum without walls, he says, the challenge is finding ways to connect the dots — and then keep them connected. One way to do this, he notes, is simply by making more effort to promote one another.

And while a regional history museum could increase the visibility of these other organizations and projects, continues Barton, “It’s got to be inclusive and tell everybody’s stories.” Too often, he asserts, certain histories get excluded. “That’s the whole reason we did Hood Huggers: We weren’t seeing people talk about and try and highlight the African-American presence here.”

Local author and public relations consultant Elizabeth Sims shares Barton’s concern, citing women and Native Americans as other underrepresented groups. Sims, who worked on this summer’s Urban Trail relaunch, says that given the long-standing pattern of exclusion, as well as the region’s considerable diversity, trying to capture the complete narrative in a single museum would be “a real challenge.” And in the meantime, she advocates strengthening the connections among the existing institutions and projects. “I’m not coming out against a brick-and-mortar facility,” stresses Sims. “I just think we could do a better job with the resources we have.”

Multiple models

Jim Stokely is president of the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the noted local author’s core values: environmental integrity, social justice and the power of the written and spoken word. Run entirely by volunteers, the organization has no physical location — and that, says Stokely, who is Dykeman’s son, eliminates a wide range of potential headaches. “We don’t have to worry about clogged gutters, wet drywall and the thousand other maintenance issues that can arise,” he points out.

That freedom, he continues, means the group can focus on research and development. One key strategy is establishing mutually beneficial partnerships. “We can piggyback on a facility and their established audience while we provide the specific programming,” he explains, citing ongoing relationships with the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and the Asheville High School Speech and Debate Club.

As Stokely sees it, there is no single best way to preserve and present history. If anything, having multiple models fosters interdependence and connectedness, making the overall community stronger. “I really think the combination is better than just relying on one,” he says.

The money hunt

And whichever way future efforts may go, “It takes local folks with a passion for local history to keep the dream alive,” says Jeff Futch from the Western Office of Archives and History. Holland and Elingburg, he notes, have “had so many meetings with folks, and I know it can be extremely frustrating for them, but they’ve steadily plodded along. … I think they feel like right now is such a wonderful time, because Asheville is growing. … There are so many in the area that aren’t native but come to have a real interest in the history.”

INTERACTING WITH HISTORY: Darin Waters, assistant professor of history at UNCA, is not opposed to new methods of teaching history, but believes traditional brick and mortar museums “allow the visitor to engage history and historical artifacts in a way that you just can’t do online.” Photo by Peter Lorenz

That, of course, still leaves the question of money. But Darin Waters, an assistant professor of history at UNCA, sees various possibilities for raising the needed funds. “There are grants out there that can be pursued to build this museum,” he says. Based on his recent involvement in talks between the university and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Waters believes the federal agency might be interested in helping facilitate such a project.

He also maintains that while a grassroots effort is the best way to launch, major institutions like UNCA might be conduits for future grant proposals. And as a special assistant to the chancellor for community outreach and engagement, Waters could serve as a point of contact for Holland and Elingburg.

“I would be one of the people to help facilitate that conversation with the chancellor,” he points out, adding that community engagement “is a very large piece of our strategic plan. I know the university would be interested in these conversations.”

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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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