Tuesday History: Asheville, the Switzerland of America

THE VILLA: Opened in 1871, the sanitarium was the first of its kind in the country. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

Tuberculosis has gone by many names: consumption, white plague, lunger, TB. In the 19th century it’s estimated that the disease killed seven million people per year. It wouldn’t be until 1882 that Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus. This, paired with the introduction of immunotherapy, offered possible methods of treatment.

There were several earlier pioneers, however, who sought cures for the disease prior to Koch’s 1882 discovery. These doctors believed in the climatic theory of treatment, which said rest, combined with cool, pure mountain air was key for recovery.

In 1871, Dr. H.P. Gatchell opened The Villa, the first TB sanitarium in the country. Its original location was in the village of Forest Hills (the Kenilworth section of Asheville), but Gatchell would relocate the facility to Haywood and College streets.

As part of its marketing, Gatchell put together a pamphlet describing Asheville as “The Switzerland of America.” In it he claims, “The mountain air is pure and bracing, there is a large proportion of sun-shiny days when out-door exercise — so important for those who suffer from lung disease — can be indulged in.”

As further evidence, Gatchell goes on to cite the low number of Asheville residents who are infected by consumption. He writes, “The following table gives the ratio of consumption in several sections of the country. The figures indicate the number of deaths from this disease in every one thousand cases:

Northern New England (nearly) . . 250
Minnesota and California . . . 150
Kentucky and Tennessee . . . 100
WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA 30”

To further his case, Gatchell offers personal testimonials. Below is an account that he describes as “[o]ne of the most noteworthy cases of recovery in this climate.” The writer is Mr. F.A. Hull, formerly of Michigan.

Thanks to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial for its assistance in researching this piece. For the pamphlet in its entirety, click here: avl.mx/2zl

Mr. F.A. Hull writes:

In 1878 I was taken suddenly with haemorrhages [sic], had them repeatedly for three months, and was reduced from 185 to 103 pounds during the time. I suffered from cough, night sweats, as well as partial loss of voice. I made a trip to Colorado and traveled through the mountains for some time, but received no benefit; if anything my condition grew worse. I moved back to lower country, Western Kansas, but receiving little benefit returned to my home in central Michigan, from whence I made a trip to the mountains of Western North Carolina, making Asheville my head-quarters [sic], where I had been in former years when in perfect health.

By riding in the saddle every day, no matter what the weather, I commenced to gain flesh and strength, and the cough, which had been my constant companion from the first, left me. After roaming over these mountains for three months I found that I had gained twenty-four pounds, felt like a new man, and returned again to my home; but in a few days I found that I was getting into my former condition.

Waiting till October before determining to leave home I formed the idea of making the trip overland in the saddle, but was taken suddenly with haemorrhage and confined to my bed. But as soon as I was able to sit up I ordered my baggage sent by express to Asheville, and I followed on horse-back. I left Michigan on the 23d [sic] of October and reached Asheville about the middle of November; making a trip of over one thousand miles in the saddle and gaining ten pounds on the way. When I started I was so weak that I had to be helped into the saddle.

And I did not cease to ride after reaching this place, but kept it up daily in all weather. This I did for six months, and to-day I am as strong and possess as much lung power, if not more, than ever before in my life.

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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 “Tuesday History: Asheville, the Switzerland of America

  1. bsummers

    Gol-durned outsiders. Why didn’t we build a wall to keep these disease-carrying newcomers from screwing things up for us native Ashevillians?

    • Negrodamus

      Negrodamus say: “Because money rules. One day, though, their money will fail, they will be gone and the mountains will remain.”

  2. Just Sayin'

    “After roaming over these mountains for three months I found that I had gained twenty-four pounds”

    So it’s not all the fantastic cuisine of this the “foodtopia” of Asheville or the hearty ales that runneth from the taps of all of the breweries here that hath caused my 24 pound weight gain…

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