BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: This is the fifth 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” and “Ragtime and Ruin.”
It seemed to be all uphill as the trains laboriously chugged through the 1930s, dodging the flotsam and jetsam of the economic carnage brought on by the fire-breathing dragon called Depression.
Just to heat their homes, the legions of the poor fought over even the smallest lumps of coal that fell from the overloaded cars as they traveled through the rail yard. To get their hands on a few pennies, people scavenged and peddled scraps of metal, rags and used goods.
The black population suffered the most: Their educational level was minimal, and ever since their emancipation, they’d been the last ones hired and the first ones fired. Only the women could really find jobs: low-paying but at least steady work taking care of the white man’s houses and children.
The men, meanwhile, were reduced to desperate measures, catching catfish out of what they knew was a dangerously polluted river in order to put food on the table. Hunters and trappers decimated the populations of coon, beaver and mink to make ends meet.
Even many of the formerly rich and educated could now be seen trudging along the river roads and in the Depot Street area dressed in their best suits, begging for jobs — no matter how debasing — with those businesses that remained open. Much of the river commerce had been reduced to recycling plants for metals, waste paper and textiles. The riverfront was peppered with open yards selling used chariots and so called junkyards selling used parts for repairs.
Those who couldn’t afford the newfangled powered chariots still depended on horse-drawn wagons. A livestock yard was opened near the tannery; besides serving those who came to trade horses and mules, it was a market where farmers could sell or trade the cattle, hogs and sheep they’d raised.
There was always a bustle of activity on Friday, which was sale day: In the lively atmosphere of a huge bazaar, farm products, crafts, handmade clothing and pocketknives were bought and sold in a cash-only market.
Street preachers shouted religious admonitions in exchange for alms. Within earshot of their warnings that the devil was watching, however, the kingdom’s male subjects might be spied hiding behind a wagon, surreptitiously tilting up a fruit jar to taste the popular restorative elixir distilled from corn.
And amid the gloom and doom, the River District provided entertainment venues for the struggling masses. The big excitement was when, from time to time, a circus came to town and pitched its big tent in one of several large, flat lots along the riverbanks. The whole town would turn out down at the team track behind Roberts Street to watch as exotic animals large and small, including many that the populace had never seen before, were unloaded from the rail cars.
After that, there’d be a parade through the village, the streets lined with cheering spectators. Watching the huge elephants lumbering along, swinging their massive trunks, was breathtaking. Seeing the big, caged lions and tigers prancing and roaring was both frightening and awe-inspiring. Watching the clowns cavort in their hilarious outfits and floppy shoes, spraying water and confetti, brought big smiles and peals of laughter.
The big show was magical, with animal acts, acrobatics and music. It left the population with a warm feeling and some respite from the misery of those terrible times.
The merchants, meanwhile, were happy to find a temporary market for their goods and services. However, they quickly learned an old reality: When you do business with the circus, you’d better collect your money up front, because once it leaves town, the only things left will be “peanut sacks, wagon tracks and fond memories.”
All sorts of fairs and carnivals also found the vacant lots a favorable location for their midway. Barkers touted many kinds of rides, and booths with games of chance, mostly rigged, were there to take the suckers’ last quarters. There were also “freak shows” featuring what were then called midgets, giants, Siamese twins and tattooed ladies. “Over her left kidney was a bird’s-eye view of Sidney.”
Of course there was also the hoochie-coochie pavilion — a little tent where the menfolk would congregate. Inside, exotic princesses who traveled from kingdom to kingdom would titillate their audiences by performing in various stages of undress dictated by the palace guard’s scrutiny or lack thereof.
Itinerant holy men would also pitch their big tents to hold ritualistic revivals wherever a flat piece of land could be found. They were great family affairs. Shouting and screaming, the oracle would proclaim his healing powers, promising to deliver his mesmerized congregants from their ailments and misery and save them from an eternal hell that was far worse than the one they were already living in. All they had to do was repent their sins and place a few coins in the collection plates — inverted tambourines often proffered by scantily clad, ethereal princesses, some of whom appeared to be moonlighting from the hoochie-coochie show.
Next time: Cataclysmic changes.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.