Fiddling around in Asheville

This North Carolina corner of Appalachia offers an unexpected range of traditional riches.


Burt Wolf
April 21, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

During the 1800s, magazines in the
northeastern United States began
carrying stories about the "unusual"
behavior of people in other places.
They were called "local color" stories
and tended to focus on "bizarre"
behavior. One of the areas targeted for
this type of story was Appalachia.

The Civil War devastated
Appalachia. Many people ended up poor,
isolated and uneducated, and they became
the subjects of these magazine stories.
They were presented as "backward
mountaineers living in a region within,
but not part of, modern American life."

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Of course, there were thousands of
people in the Northeast who were also
poor, isolated and uneducated, but
readers preferred imported stories of
poverty rather than hearing of their own
domestic problems. The stories about
Appalachia were distorted. They focused
on the peculiar and the outrageous. They
ignored the natural beauty of the area,
and the skilled, intelligent and
responsible people who lived there. I recently traveled
through the Appalachian districts
surrounding Asheville, N.C., to see what
this part of the world is really like.

Ancestors of the Cherokee settled in
North Carolina over 10,000 years ago.
The first European to arrive was the
Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto,
whose expedition marched through in the
1540s. Other early inhabitants were
Scottish, Irish, English and African.
During the late 1700s, wealthy
plantation owners trying to escape summer heat of the
low country began visiting
the mountains around Asheville. By the
1800s, wealthy people from all over
America were stopping in.

George Vanderbilt was one of those
visitors. Vanderbilt had inherited a
fortune from his grandfather, the
shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius
Vanderbilt, and he decided to use some
of that wealth to build a house in
Asheville. He ended up with Biltmore -- the largest private
home in America. Today it's a historic
site open to the public. The entrance
fee is $32, and believe me, even though
it is owned by descendants of Cornelius,
they need the money.

George Vanderbilt read in eight
languages and
collected over 20,000 books. The
library, his favorite room, contains a
hidden door that leads to a spiral
staircase to the guest rooms, making it
easy for Vanderbilt or his guests to
enter the library without passing
through the main part of the house, take
a book, meet fellow bibliophiles and
return to their rooms unnoticed. There
are guided tours of all the major rooms
in the home, as well as the grounds, all
well worth your time.

Biltmore was the most impressive, but
not the only, evidence that Appalachia
had been discovered. The railroads
opened up the western part of North
Carolina, and travelers came in during
the summer trying to escape the
unhealthy conditions in the cities.
Tuberculosis was the plague of the time
and people felt that clean mountain air
and recreation would help protect them.

One of the people who came to Asheville
to get away from summer in the city was
Edwin Wiley Grove. Grove was a
pharmaceutical manufacturer from St.
Louis who made a fortune selling Grove's
Patented Tasteless Chill Tonic, the
first successful use of powdered quinine
in a liquid form. Grove arrived in 1898
and immediately saw an opportunity for a
real estate project.

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Asheville was far enough south to avoid
the worst parts of a northern winter,
but high enough in the mountains to
avoid the worst parts of a southern
summer. Vanderbilt's Biltmore House
made Asheville into a fashionable
location. Grove felt that the area was
an ideal spot for a resort community.
So he went to the other side of the
valley, across from Biltmore, and
purchased the side of a mountain.

Grove had visited the Old Faithful Inn
at Yellowstone National Park and
believed that a similar resort would
increase the value of his property. The
result was the Grove Park Inn, which was
constructed and furnished in a style
known as American Arts and Crafts.

The Arts and Crafts Movement believed
that the work of the craftsman was of
paramount importance. Craftsmen aligned
with the group produced every form of
functional object, from jewelry to
architecture, but the movement always
had a special interest in household
furnishings. The ornate style of the
Victorian was rejected in favor of
uncluttered lines. The Grove Park Inn was built by
people working in the Arts and Crafts
Movement, and today the inn has one of
the most important and well-preserved
collections of their work.

Dave Tomsky, director of communications
for Grove Park, gave me a tour of the
property. "What people really love about
the inn, initially, is its magnificent
setting," he began. "We're not in a
parking lot in an urban environment;
we're in a residential area with
magnificent views of Asheville and the
surrounding mountains. Then, once they
get inside, into the Great Hall, they
see our Arts and Crafts legacy. We have
the Roycroft grandfather clock, made
specifically for the Grove Park Inn.
It's 8 feet tall, and its scale would
overwhelm a room any smaller than the
Great Hall. We have copper,
hand-hammered chandeliers that are
designed to reflect light off our
concave ceilings for a feeling of
warmth. And finally, at either end of
the Great Hall, we have the two huge
fireplaces -- 12 feet wide, 6 feet high
and 6 feet deep, burning 10-foot logs.
That's pretty impressive."

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Because the people in the mountains were
so poor, they made all of the objects
for their homes themselves, but the
quality of the workmanship made those
objects works of art. Eventually a
group of people came together and
figured out how to turn the work into
businesses.

One result was an organization called
the Southern Highland Craft
Guild
at the Blue Ridge Parkway's
Folk Art Center. This now has about 700
members who live in the mountains of
nine Southern states; about 300 are
represented in its Allanstand Crafts
Shop. About 300,000 people visit the
shop each year. You can go home with
something for $7 or $7,000; either way,
the quality will be outstanding.

Another organization for local craftsmen
is Handmade in America. It is a
nonprofit group dedicated to making
western North Carolina a center for
handmade objects. This group has put
together a program called Cultural
Heritage Trails that directs tourists to
private studios, shops and galleries
that only sell American crafts of the
region -- I used their guidebook and
map to find Robert Steffan, a
well-respected glass blower with a
studio in North Asheville.

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I also paid a visit to the home of Diane
Mostrom and Fred Chase, who are weavers.
Mostrom was weaving a cotton rainbow
baby blanket that I ended up sending to
my daughter for future reference. The
extraordinary thing about this program
is that it puts you into the workrooms
of the artists. You can see what they
are doing and find out why. You end up
with a better understanding of the works
and the people who created them -- a
totally different experience from the
sterility of a gallery.

From the very beginning, lovers of
nature were attracted to the Blue Ridge
Mountains. Over the years the region
has become a center for mountain sports.
Some of the activities are what you'd
expect, canoeing along mountain rivers,
whitewater rafting and mountain biking,
but Lance Hardcastle introduced me to a
mountain adventure that took me by
surprise.

Lance runs a llama-trekking business, East Fork
Llamas,
that offers trips into the
woods on 60 private acres in Madison
County. They load their llamas with
specially designed pack systems and
panniers, and fill those with gourmet
food. You trek off into the woods and
lunch.

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Hardcastle told me, "One of the reasons
we're excited about doing this is
because it makes the
hiking-camping-wilderness experience
more accessible to everybody. There are
people that are older, or maybe they're
not in good shape, or maybe they have
some sort of special needs or some sort
of physical disability that would keep
them from being able to carry a pack to
get out into the woods, so that's where
the llamas help out."

The llamas are some of the more recent
immigrants to arrive in Appalachia, but
the most influential group were known as
"Ulster Scots." During the 1700s over
250,000 of them immigrated to North
America. North Carolina reminded many
of them of their homes in Scotland and
they settled here. Among the things
they brought were ancient traditions in
music and dance.

Laura Boosinger is one of North
Carolina's most talented singers and
instrumentalists. Her husband, Timmy
Abell, is a national concert performer,
recording artist and songwriter. If you
get to Asheville, keep an eye out for
their traditional Southern Appalachian
Mountain music concerts -- bluegrass is
something that came along later and is
considered more commercial. Bluegrass
developed during the 1930s; mountain
music came in with settlers from
Scotland, Ireland and England.

Boosinger has a great knowledge of local
music history and told me why the violin
was always central to the music. "You
have to think about what you could bring
on a ship coming over here. It had to
be something pretty small. And of all
the things you could carry, the violin
was the most social instrument; it was
used for dancing, it was used for parlor
music and it was easily transported. And
there's an interesting correlation
between violins and banjos, because
banjos came here from Africa. You can
just picture Thomas Jefferson's
plantation -- African slaves playing
banjos and Thomas Jefferson fiddling."

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I agree with Boosinger. These days it's
easy to picture Thomas Jefferson
fiddling around, especially during a
long weekend holiday in Asheville.


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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