The Gospel According to Jerry: Ragtime and ruin

Jerry Sternberg


Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles offering a virtual tour of the riverfront as it has evolved over time. The first three installments were “The Birth of Asheville’s Industrial Riverfront,”  “The Ballad of Old King Coal” and “Insurrection in the Kingdom.”

And in the ’20s, the trains kept roaring through, still delivering mountains of coal to feed the generating plant and the many manufacturers who hadn’t converted to the new energy sources. The trains were also loaded with significant quantities of raw materials as well as the finished goods produced by our booming industries.

And along with the ever-increasing numbers of newfangled chariots, the trains transported the thousands of tourists and new residents who flocked to this mountain paradise. They came for our climate and scenic beauty but didn’t play in the rivers, which were known to be befouled.

The Music Man came to River City, accompanied by the Boomtown Band. His fellow musicians Euphoria, Greed and Speculation played a tune that the populace loved to dance to. For a decade, this chorus was loudly reprised throughout the land. The factories hummed, and the youngsters from the farms and rural areas came to labor in them, seeking a better wage and a more sophisticated way of life.

Land values went sky high, and huge inns were built to accommodate the visitors. The kingdom was awash in gold, and ornate schools and offices were being built at a record pace with the help of the money-changers and the naive municipal bond buyers.

What could possibly go wrong?

Then an evil, fire-breathing dragon named Depression swept through the nation and the kingdom, and his thunderous roar drowned out the music. The Music Man and the Boomtown Band fled the scene to avoid the indignity of being ridden out of town on a rail.

Depression left a dirge in his wake that was chanted by Poverty, Hunger and Despair. The population was bewildered, and the sense of helplessness was overwhelming.

Many of the factories along the river closed forever, and those that survived used a much-reduced labor force. The great money-changing houses collapsed, and it was hard to satisfy even basic needs.

The kingdom itself paid the price, as its credit was destroyed. The bondholders could not be paid as promised, and the schoolteachers were paid in IOUs called “scrip.”

The poor multiplied exponentially; bread lines and soup kitchens were not uncommon, as well as beggars seeking alms. The farmers took a huge hit, and many lost their land because they couldn’t sell their crops at sustainable prices.

In the midst of this chaos, a new prince came on the scene, supported by the struggling farmers who sought and received government protection on his behalf.

His name was Tobacco, and though he later turned out to be evil and insidious, he received a hero’s welcome: He and his handmaiden, Niko Tine, were worshipped throughout the land.

This prince was a descendant of a chief of the “Indians,” a red-skinned people who occupied the land before the white-skinned people came and did battle with them, stole their lands and put them in segregated camps called “reservations.” Long before, the Indians had discovered this pungent weed and devised an instrument called a “pipe” in which the weed was burned while the user sucked in the smoke and tasted the bliss provided by the seductress Niko Tine.

The white-skinned people, meanwhile, figured out other ways to get those benefits, such as grinding the weed into a powder called “snuff,” which they stuffed up their nose or put on their gums. Or else they chopped up the weed and chewed it. One way or another, Niko Tine always delivered her spell.

Then a new wizardry created a novel and very efficient delivery system called the “cigarette” that was an overnight success. The shredded leaves were rolled into a piece of paper, and then — would you believe it? — users would put one end in their mouth and set the other end on fire.

The farmers who cultivated this valuable plant endured great risk and heavy labor to supply it to the populace. Unfortunately, it was overproduced and so did not reward the farmer for his tremendous effort.

Because of the plant’s popularity, however, the great national empire devised a plan that prescribed the amount of acreage each farmer could devote to this crop, called an “allotment.” In exchange, the plan guaranteed a floor price that would adequately reward the farmer for his work.

This new policy had a major effect on the landscape of the river community. An imperial mandate commanded the disciples to build cavernous, shabby metal shrines to Prince Tobacco called “warehouses.” They were erected in the river zone because it offered cheap, flat land with easy access.

During November and December, the entire floor space of these massive structures was covered with bales of orange-brown leaves. One could hear the loud incantations intoned by clerics known as “auctioneers.” The merchants who bought the product transported it to the East, where it was transformed into cigarettes. The atmosphere was festive, as a huge amount of precious coin was distributed to the worshippers; this translated into great commerce for the river kingdom’s financially beleaguered merchants.

Treated with great reverence, this miraculous plant seemed to be the very elixir of life. Yet, in truth, it turned out to be a silent and addictive assassin, killing millions of subjects throughout the land.

Next time: more about all these dynasties and the post-crash era.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at


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