Tuesday History: Scoping out Asheville’s prospects in 1869, part II

PUBLIC SQUARE: Downtown Asheville circa 1881-1882. It is believed that this photograph was taken from the courthouse, looking over the area where the Vance Monument now stands. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

We continue this week with excerpts from Dr. J.P. Purcell’s 1869 article “Wayside queries and Information.” Last week Purcell offered a look at the population, climate and potential health benefits of Asheville. This week, he provides commentary on the area’s grapes, as well as its cheesemaking facilities.

While Purcell’s writing was featured in the Asheville News on May 20, 1869, it was originally printed by the Wilmington Journal.

Purcell reports:

Though this is one of the best grape countries, the vine is not cultivated. It grows wild everywhere, and of every kind. … I tasted all. Some had a little too much of the bitter principle, but time will overcome that. One had a flavor not unlike the Scuppernong. The Catawba is peculiar to this country. The hilly slopes of the French Broad will be ere long clothed with vineyards. Emigration is desired. It alone is required. The settlers will blast out the rocks, and will build terraces, and their dwellings from them. The Railroad will run for many miles in the valley of this river, and exhibit on either side scenes among the most picturesque of the universe.

Besides this initiation to the pressing of the vine, we have also that of cheese making. “The Elk Mountain Cheese Factory” began its existence last Spring and made its first cheese April 28th, 1868. I ate some of this, and found it as palatable as any I saw in your city [Wilmington, Del.]. The last made was in December, 1868. The company milked during the season about one hundred and seventy five cows. Up to November they made twenty-five thousands pounds of cheese. They made three sizes, with corresponding prices. First at twenty cents. Second at twenty-five. Third at thirty cents per pound. From twelve to fifteen cows were lost during the Winter. This was mainly because the cattle had to be wintered out, and proper attention was not given them. Next Winter the company will attend to this matter, and there will be no such loss. … Cheese making here is an experiment. But it is likewise a success. The average cost of cows is a little less than twenty-one dollars. Land may be bought for one dollar up to ten per acre. Labor is not dear. It can be procured for ten to fifteen dollars per month. … The company’s farm where this factory is located is almost six miles from Asheville. It consists of one thousand five hundred acres. About eight hundred is in grass. … This property belonged originally to Mr. Woodfin. He started the enterprise. Two Summers since he was in New York, saw Governor Seymoure, who took him to some of those in which he is interested, and from him he got the idea.

Two more cheese factories will commence this year. One as far from the town as the “Elk Mountain Factory.” The other on the Swannanoa, about two miles from town. This will be known as the “Swannanoa Cheese Factory.” I understand it will be established on the Northern principle — every man who sends in milk from the surrounding region is interested. He will get cheese at the end of the season in proportion to the amount of milk to his credit. No ice is needed here in the making of cheese. The Springs are cool, and the Summer, you see, is not warmer, nor as warm as is New York, where [cheese] is so extensively manufactured. As good cheese can be made here as in any part of the States. … The land needs plenty of cultivation. Those who can come here with something to live on for a while, in other words, not hard up, will ultimately do well.

Next week Purcell provides a glimpse into Asheville’s religious institutions.


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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.

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