BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: This look at Asheville during World War II is the seventh in a series of articles offering a virtual tour of the riverfront as it has evolved over time. The previous installments were “The Birth of Asheville’s Industrial Riverfront,” “The Ballad of Old King Coal,” “Insurrection in the Kingdom,” “Ragtime and Ruin,” “Hard Times and Cheap Thrills” and “Cataclysmic Change.”
And the trains came. Like steely steeds clacking their iron hooves almost in military cadence, and their shrill whistles blowing constantly like bugles sounding the charge, they pulled the war wagons to and from the battle.
It seemed that the whole world was at war, and the tiny river kingdom of Asheville was neither exempt from the traumatic effects nor absent in playing an important integral part in its prosecution.
While the kingdom did not suffer the terrible effects of direct battle, the war effort had a traumatic effect on almost every man, woman and child. The absence of family members and the tragedies that befell their love ones who were wounded — or worse, had perished — was lost on no one.
The populace found that many commodities that had been taken for granted were all of a sudden in short supply. Many of these products depended on water transportation to bring them to our shores, and enemy submarines wreaked havoc with our supply lines.
Prince Petroleum had marched to war and taken all his products with him to power the war machines, making for huge gasoline shortages for the modern chariots.
Old King Coal’s soul became merry again because coal was still cheap and readily available right here on our own shores and was used in immense quantities to power out trains and factories.
Metals, rubber, textiles and many food items were made scarce as everything was being diverted to the war effort.
Gas, meat, butter, tires, sugar, coffee, shoes and many things depending on metal were in short supply and even rationed in order to make sure our troops on the fighting front had all the necessities to fight the war.
The river kingdom was the front line for recycling.
My father, who was in the hide and metal business on Depot Street, volunteered for the military and was turned down because it was necessary to for him to serve on the home front to keep essential industries going.
He opened many recycling businesses in order to make as great a contribution as possible. He bought and recycled rubber inner tubes; he operated a vulcanizing plant that refurbished old tires. He built a rendering plant for animal offal that produced grease from animal fat. This product was used to produce glycerin, which in turn went into high-explosive bombs and shells.
Because of government-imposed ceiling prices on many of these products, there wasn’t much profit in recycling, but he was determined to make as big an impact as he could to support the front line.
He also opened a sewing room and bought used and discarded Army clothes, repaired them and sold them in the civilian market, as it was hard to get good clothes in these times — especially wool shirts, pants and overcoats.
As we know, World War II was a watershed moment for women who entered the workforce to replace the men who had gone off to the war. They were hired to do what (up until the war) were considered men’s jobs.
My father recognized the potential of women workers when he visited a textile recycling plant that was one of the few places that African-American women in the South could get a factory job sorting rags and textiles.
He began to hire these women and was able to get high school graduates who were fast learners. They liked factory work because the only other jobs available were as maids, nannies or service workers, which paid less money and quite often required them to be out of the home at night and away from their children.
As many other manufacturers found out, women made better assembly-line workers than men as they could maintain a longer attention span and were more meticulous. And very few smoked, so it wasn’t necessary for them to take frequent smoking breaks.
Sorting scrap metal was a highly skilled job, and the workers would have to be able to identify more than 100 different metals and alloys. Putting just a 1-pound piece of the wrong metal in a 500-pound barrel could contaminate the whole barrel unless it was caught prior to the melting process. The employees’ diligence resulted in his company producing one of the best scrap-metal packages in the industry.
In time, these women eventually operated bailers, forklifts and metal shears, and did other heavy work that would have been unthinkable before the war. Eventually, they were promoted to scale operators and inventory clerks. In later years, African-American women supervised both black and white men and women with great success and acceptance. This was unheard of in the Jim Crow South until that time.
He was also very innovative. In the nearby kingdom of Waynesville, there was a plant called Dayton Rubber Co., which was producing life rafts for our ships at sea. My father bought the scrap cuttings from the company, which were beige, yellow and green for camouflage purposes, and manufactured aviator helmets, which had originally been made out of leather and were very popular with kids. Today they are known as “Snoopy helmets.” He also made children’s waterproof book bags from the same material.
The river kingdom bustled with manufacturers such as the Owen family, whose company produced Army blankets; Hans Rees Tannery; Asheville Cotton Mill; Dave Steel Co., which fabricated steel for the many military installations nearby; and National Casket Co., which, sadly, was running around the clock.
Many local companies played a critical part in keeping our war effort going and supporting our country during these most trying times. Those included textile recyclers owned by the Slosman, Ness and Gradman families; Asheville Waste Paper, run by the McMahans; and auto salvage yards and scrap yards run by folks including the Harrisons, Bells and Longs.
The auction chant was still heard annually in the tobacco palaces in the fall, allowing Prince Tobacco and the seductress Nicotine also to play a part in the war effort. Their patriotic benevolence consisted of providing as many cigarettes as possible due to the shortage of labor for manufacturing to all these brave young servicemen, quite often for free, while civilians were reduced to rolling their own. As it turned out, they were truly a fifth column, and their efforts over time caused more illness and death for the “greatest generation” than the war itself.
The seers who tried to plan the river kingdom failed again, but this time their crystal ball was clouded with gun smoke.
Next time: “Thank God it is over” and the aftermath.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.