I was raised on Depot Street. No, I didn’t say that I lived on Depot Street — I said I was raised there.
My dad used to take me to work with him when I was no more than 5 years old. He had a small business in an old, dirty, rickety building at the corner of Depot and Lyman streets at the railroad crossing.
He dealt primarily in cowhides and furs and scrap metal. When he bought fur pelts such as muskrats, minks and foxes from the trappers, they were turned inside out and stretched onto wooden boards to allow them to dry out from the skinning process. My first job was to help with removing the furs from the boards, tying them in bundles so that they could be shipped to the fur manufacturers.
I am not sure whether the purpose of my employment was to take advantage of the economic rewards of child labor or to keep me out of my house so that I would not torment and harass my 3-year-old sister.
My first vivid memory of the street was watching, with a child’s fascination, the little old man who stayed in a little shack next to the railroad crossing and hand-cranked the crossing gates up and down when the many trains passed through the city.
I also remember people with gunny sacks standing out by the tracks to pick up coal that fell off the cars when the trains slowed down as they came into town.
In about 1937, our business was moved to 365 Depot St., a group of buildings that were built by my grandfather. One of them still stands — directly across from the Bartlett Street intersection.
We worked the hides in the basement; on the main floor, we processed scrap metal. We also handled furs and herbs such as May apple, sassafras and ginseng. We bought wool, inner tubes and lamb fat (which we rendered into tallow).
While many of these products might seem interesting to the average person, the processing was hard, dirty work, and I was constantly sneaking away to get out onto Depot Street.
There was no street in Asheville that was more fascinating to a young apprentice in commerce. The closest competition might have been Lexington Avenue, but Depot Street was my street — and besides, we had the railroad and the river.
The most interesting time of the day was around noon, when the No. 9 train from New Yawk City would come blasting into town in a great flurry of steam and smoke and a cacophony of sounds: the bell, the whistle, the screeching of brakes, and the clanging of the cars as they came to a stop.
We stood on the platform and waited while the big-city folks were discharged from the long, green cars. The men wore double-breasted suits and sported handsome gold watch chains; the ladies dressed as if they were going to a ball, wearing large, colorful hats. They were shepherded off the train by obsequious black porters hoping for generous tips.
The big baggage carts were loaded with great steamer trunks; huge stickers on the sides told of all the exotic places their owners had visited throughout the world.
There were also the “drummers,” salesmen who were trying to collect all their sample cases and arrange for a livery to deliver them to their hotels. There they would open sample rooms to display their wares to the local merchants. Sometimes I would get an extra dime for helping to carry these cases out to the crowded street, full of taxis, trucks and even a horse-drawn wagon or two.
It was always an exciting day in the business when we shipped a carload of metals or hides. One of my frequent tasks was to take the bill of lading to the freight office. I was constantly lectured and admonished as to what a solemn responsibility I had to make this delivery posthaste.
These were still Depression times, and money was scarce. It was only after I’d delivered the bill to the freight office that the switchman would be notified to pull the car away from the siding, attach it to a train, and send it to some faraway place to be unloaded. Only after all of that would money be sent back to refill the company coffers.
I was always awestruck as I approached the depot. It appeared to me as a huge cathedral rising out of the smoke and pervasive soot that were constantly disgorged from the bellies of the “pufferbillies” ever moving up and down the tracks in back.
The building seemed cavernous. On the first floor was the passenger waiting area, carefully segregated so that the “coloreds” shouldn’t mix with the whites. The only blacks allowed in the white waiting room were the nannies for the children, which always seemed strange to me.
To enter the freight office, I would proudly climb to the second-floor balcony — a young, scrawny, dirty-faced kid in bib overalls who was a critical cog in the wheels of industry.
After delivering my precious document, I would stand on the balcony and enjoy a full view of the scene below. When a train was announced, it would echo from the high-vaulted ceiling, causing the parishioners to scurry as if it were a call to prayer urging them to worship the iron horse.
By now I am sure that you are wondering why is Gospel Jerry writing all this hysterical stuff about Depot Street. The answer is that I have learned that after many years, Depot Street is going to experience a renaissance. I thought you might appreciate the exciting future if you knew more about its exciting past, so this is the first in a series of articles that I plan, to tell you more about Depot Street’s rich history and the promise of great things to come.
Just keep picking up the Xpress and Gospel Jerry will fill you in. After all, the price is write.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years.]