The Gospel According to Jerry

The passing of Wilma Dykeman, the grande dame of local river history, reminded me of the need to fulfill my promise to the many who read my Depot Street articles and asked me for similar recollections of the river.

Thinking back some 70 years, my first memories of the river were hardly Dykemanesque. Of course, my opinions were heavily influenced by the adults around me, who thought of the river as more or less an open sewer.

If I may wax metaphorical, I would describe the French Broad (strangers still giggle at her name) as a once-beautiful, pristine maiden whose bloodstream had been polluted by toxins dumped in her by those industries and homes that lined her banks.

I don’t recall seeing many boats on the water or people fishing. I had heard that only black people fished the river and ate the catfish that managed to survive there, and I never, ever thought of swimming in her waters.

I guess I thought of her as a nasty ole woman who would show her anger from time to time by spilling over her banks and destroying anything within reach.

In 1916, the river flooded to a mile wide, wiping out a very popular amusement park near the Pearson Bridge. I have seen her flood many times and put both the depot and Biltmore underwater. I can almost hear her shout, “If you build on my banks, be prepared to pay the price!”

My dad engaged in many businesses, but his biggest one in those days was cowhides. He bought them from butcher pens and from farmers, many of whom slaughtered their own cattle.

He salted and cured the hides in brine in the basement of the Depot Street building where he operated Consolidated Hide and Metal Co. After several weeks, they were shipped to the tanneries. One of my earliest recollections is a visit to the Hans Rees Tannery at Amboy Road and Riverside Drive (now a candle shop).

Whenever one of the trucks was going out, I begged to go along. It was exciting to see where all these goods came from and were delivered to. While the men were unloading the hides, however, I made the mistake of wandering into one of the huge, forbidding tanning rooms.

The hides were placed in big baskets and dipped in a tannic-acid solution under constant agitation. Much of the machinery was wooden, because the tannic acid corroded metal. The eerie screech of wood on wood, the chemical haze and the bizarre stench absolutely terrified me. After I was rescued, I never went back there.

I loved visiting the freight depot, a low brick building that still stands on Meadow Road near McDowell Street. In those days, most commercial transport was by rail. Most freight was shipped by the carload, but the railroad also handled smaller quantities of goods, much as UPS does today. I would ride along when one of the trucks went to pick up things like baling wire, burlap bags (known as tow bags or gunnysacks) and other business supplies.

Hundreds of wooden boxes, barrels and bales, many with foreign languages written on them, stood waiting for pickup or delivery. My imagination went wild thinking that they’d traveled from places as faraway as China or Europe. Sensing my curiosity, the freight master would make up some pretty bizarre stories about the origins and contents of these packages, but that only stoked my excitement.

Between the freight office and the tannery was an enormous building called the roundhouse—Southern Railway’s repair facility. We went there from time to time to pick up scrap metal, and I was exhilarated by the clamor of the engines moving around the indoor tracks with the steam whooshing and metal clanging against metal as they patched these behemoths amid the flash and fire of the cutting torches and welding rigs. It was an amazing sound-and-light show, a dance choreographed for very large men and huge equipment.

The riverfront was also home to several tobacco warehouses. These cavernous but flimsy structures were used only a few months a year when the farmers sold their most important cash crop. Quite often, the success or failure of their harvest and the price they were paid determined whether their children would have a Christmas, new shoes and clothes, or any luxuries at all in their otherwise hardscrabble lives.

I’ve attended many tobacco auctions since then, and I still get goose bumps when I hear the auctioneer singing out like a revival preacher, calling buyers and sellers to worship at the altar of that brown, pungent leaf.

However you feel about smoking, it’s worth a trip to one of the few remaining tobacco auctions in late November to see the sale, hear the sounds, enjoy the smells and understand the mountain tradition and culture of burley tobacco and the people who have labored so hard over it.

On the east side of Riverside Drive, near the Hill Street freeway exit, a small cluster of squalid little buildings once hid a shameful chapter in Asheville’s medical history. In these “pest houses,” people with terrible communicable diseases were quarantined by the health authorities and kept in leper-colony conditions.

There’s little history to be found about these places—I suppose it was easier just to forget such a travesty. But if anyone has any information, I wish they would share it with our readers.

In future columns, I will share more stories and remembrances of the riverfront’s rich history—and, of course, its politics.

Rest well, Wilma. We share your reverence for our river history and culture.

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