Sex, Lies and Bloomer Dust: Local resident recounts Asheville’s past

Bill Hagan has worn many hats: publisher, licensed North Carolina auctioneer, pro-wrestling promoter and former peanut pusher, to name a few of the businesses he’s been involved in over the years. With all these experiences under his belt, the Asheville native – with the help of his daughter Judy Hagan Babbit – has written a collection of stories recounting some of his memories.

The book is Sex, Lies and Bloomer Dust. For those unfamiliar with the third item on the list, Hagan offers a definition in the book’s opening page.

“Bloomer dust: noun (bloo-mur-dust): A substance or influence, with an apparently magical effect. Brought to America from Ireland, centuries ago, it renders Irishmen, in general, and Hagan, in particular, to fits of childish behavior, such as: waking up naked in cornfields in the wee hours of the morning, howling at the moon, leaving their wives and families for butt-ugly women with peanut butter legs and other acts of deprivation. Folks believe they’ve been ‘Sprinkled by the fairies with Bloomer Dust.’ There is no known cure for it; only time may help. Ex. That poor old man was hit with the Bloomer Dust.”

The collection is a combination of personal and local history, ghost stories and debauchery. Readers interested in a first-person account of Asheville in the 1950s and ’60s will find plenty within the book’s 168 pages. Hagan is quick to point out, however, “You won’t find a glossary in the back of this book, because it’s entirely compiled from memory and I don’t know how you’d ever fact-check an old fart’s memory.”

These memories include Hagan’s early childhood growing up on the former site of the Bingham School, where his father worked as the caretaker. The vacant buildings functioned as Hagan’s playground. These memories also bring readers back to Asheville’s old stockyard before it became “just concrete slabs and old memories.” Tales of winos, baptist preachers and the former Glen Rock Hotel and its “hot-sheet operations,” find sections within the book, as well.

Hagan admits early on that he is not a fan of what he considers the “PC crowd,” lamenting the fact that in 1989 it was this very group that “raised its ugly head” to change Buncombe County’s motto from “Men to Match Our Mountains,” to “People to Match Our Mountains.” Hagan notes the change was done out of fear of “offending the fair sex.” He adds, “Rumor has it that it’s going to be changed again in the near future to appease the ‘Tutti Frutties’ and quite a few Democrats.”

This is to say, Hagan’s writing is unfiltered at best, with the potential to greatly offend. Yet there are poignant and revealing moments, if you can get beyond some of the author’s perspectives. In one story titled “Asheville, in Black & White,” Hagan recalls segregation:

“I remember the colored drinking fountain and “whites only / colored only” bathrooms in Kress’s and on the Square. One day, I got a drink out of the Colored fountain in Kress’s just to see if it was different. It wasn’t, but people sure looked at me funny. I told mama what I’d done and asked her why everyone didn’t drink out of the same fountain. I never did get a straight answer. She told me not to do it again and to never go into their bathroom.”

In such moments, readers sense Hagan’s own struggles with and desire to understand race relations in our country. Later on in that same story, Hagan recounts bringing rocks with him when he wandered the streets of downtown Asheville, as a means of protection against black teenagers.

The story shows a side of Asheville’s history that is often glossed over. But it doesn’t question why this hostility between blacks and whites exist. Instead, Hagan offers simple explanations like, “Most black folk were ok and I got along fine with them, but the young ones ran in packs and loved to torment small, white boys. … I know people are people, anywhere you go, but growing up during De-segration in Asheville was rough. You needed a pair of fast tennis shoes, a pocket full of rocks and eyes in the back of your head!”

Obviously, Hagan’s collection wasn’t written with the intent of analyzing Asheville’s complex past or to offer solutions to issues that its citizens still face. But it will leave some readers wishing for moments of greater reflection in-between its lighthearted chapters of winos, stockyards, hayrides and weenie roasts.

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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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3 thoughts on “Sex, Lies and Bloomer Dust: Local resident recounts Asheville’s past

  1. Negrodamus

    Ah yes, the memories. The downtown water fountains that were simply a 1/2″ galvanized pipe embedded vertically in a masonry pillar and which flowed like an artesian spring 24/7; the smell of the tobacco warehouses down by the river; living amongst kindred souls who moved to Asheville to get away from the kinds of people who now have overrun it; $75 per month for a 3-bedroom house in Montford, living in harmony with my many black neighbors, not knowing what racism was (I did drink from a water fountain marked ‘Colored’ once because I wanted to see what the colored water looked like, but that was a different time in another place); the interesting buildings on the north side of Pack Place before it was razed and replaced by the sterile abomination of Akzona; the good mountain folks.

    • Phil Williams

      Oh – so many buildings gone….I don’t know what drove so much demolition – that whole block where the Imperial Theatre, Belks, the Man Store, etc used to sit on Patton was torn down in the early 80’s and has been a flat parking lot since – I don’t recall the buildings being overly dilapidated – and it parking lot don’t provide a huge amount of parking….the whole neighborhood of Southside is gone now, also a lot of nice buildings in Montford were taken with the construction of I-240 and also so much destroyed by the Beaucatcher Cut – and the old train station torn down in 1971 was a beautiful old building – and noted that the classic old RR roundhouse demolition was completed only during the past year – of course, the RR’s decisions are usually made in boardrooms far from the communities and areas once served by these structures. I reckon it is called Progress…”Old Asheville” was by no means perfect but we sure used to have a lot of nice old architecture that is no longer around….

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