Growing Up in Swannanoa in the ’50s and ’60s

by Bruce Whitaker

The majority of the Town Crier’s readers believe I was raised in Fairview. However, I was raised across the mountain in Swannanoa. My parents met at the Beacon blanket mill, where they both worked for over 40 years. My grandfather Henry Harrison Ingle Sr. (1884-1973) built a house for my parents next to his house a couple of blocks from Beacon. I thought it would be of interest to readers to learn what it was like to grow up in Swannanoa in the heyday of Buncombe County’s political machine.

The Machine

The machine was divided into two parts: the city (Asheville) run by Weldon Weir, and the county run by Coke Candler and Sheriff Lawrence Brown. All were Democrats because that was the only party in most of North Carolina. They got along most of the time but there would be occasional wars between the two parts.

I lived on my grandfather’s small farm at the eastern edge of what is called the old Beacon Village, which is the area between US 70 and the railroad tracks and east of Whitson Avenue.

I started public school in the second grade because I had to go to private school my first year because of smallpox. I did not have smallpox but one was required to have a smallpox shot to enter public school. I was born immune to smallpox, as were most of my first cousins on my mother’s side of the family. I later found out that my fourth great grandfather, Jonathan Duckworth, who lived in Burke County, NC, had died of smallpox in 1807. Apparently his daughter Jane Duckworth Nicholson had picked up enough of the disease that she passed it down to her third great-grandson.

The school board said rules had to be followed with no exceptions. Our family doctor, Dr. Clapp, went to the school board and told them, “You say he has to go to school, but you won’t let him in. The smallpox shot will not take on the Whitaker boy so you will have to let him go anyway or pay to send him to a private school.”

Troubles with Taxis

My parents then found out that if a family lived in the area called the “old village” then their children could not ride a school bus. A bus passed fewer than 300 feet from my house but I couldn’t ride it. I had to take a taxi to school, which cost $1 a week round-trip. A taxi driver picked up 10 or 12 of us at our houses and put us in the two-seat taxi. Since I lived at the end of the street I was picked up first. One kid would have to sit on my lap and another kid had to sit on that kid’s lap.

I was the only one of the kids who was interested enough to find out why we all had to take one taxi. I found out that they weren’t used to transport people. They all were used to sell whiskey for the machine. The trunks were full of moonshine.

I then started to notice taxi cabs that picked up men at their houses, charged them a dollar, and drove them around the block. When they got back home and got out of the taxi, they would always have a paper bag (in the shape of a bottle).

You could also buy ball pool tickets. What’s a ball pool ticket? Every baseball team had a number. The Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers were number two. If the Dodgers scored the most runs of any team on a given day you won. There were only 16 teams until the early 1960s, thus you had one-in-16 chance of winning. The winners got one-third of the pot, the seller got one-third, and the machine got the rest.

There were also bets placed on basketball and football games. This will make those who think high school and college sports are real very mad. The guys who ran sports betting knew ahead of time who was going to win a ball game—not all of them, but at least one or two. High school and college kids don’t make money by playing ball. What good is it to have the best-looking girl in school if you didn’t have any money to take her out? Why shouldn’t you take a few hundred to have a bad night?

Big Boss Man

Each little community had a “boss” who ran things. If you wanted to get a job at a factory, the guy that hired people had to call your community’s boss to get his OK.

My great Uncle Elmer Sales hated the Swannanoa boss until his dying day. Elmer married my grandmother’s sister, Exel Wright. Uncle Elmer was a first cousin to John Trantham, who married my daddy’s sister, Martha Whitaker. Uncle Elmer and all the Sales back then were yellow dog Democrats. Uncle John Trantham was a Republican, as were almost all the Tranthams.

Uncle John and Uncle Elmer went to Beacon to get a job. The Swannanoa boss told Uncle John he could not have a job because he was a Republican, and Uncle Elmer bent over laughing. The boss then stuck his finger in Uncle Elmer’s chest and told him he couldn’t have a job because he was a first cousin to a Republican.

Uncle Elmer would raise cane about the boss every time I went to his house. Uncle Elmer did work at Beacon later on for a few years but he asked Alfred Magnet, the plant manager, for a job.

The Swannanoa boss liked my father for some reason, and would stop by and talk a couple times a week. My father always looked very young for his age. Once, the boss brought a bunch of the machine’s candidates through the plant to campaign. One stuck his hand out to shake my father’s hand. The boss told the candidate that my father wasn’t 21 yet, and the man yanked his hand back. He and the others turned around and walked away father—who was 23.

Vance‘s House

The boss often told my father the worst thing the county ever did was to give the water system to the people ran Asheville. I will tell you something else he told my daddy. (And this is the real reason I wrote on this topic.) He told my father that the city and state wished to preserve and maintain Zebulon Vance’s—Mr. Democrat—house next to the North Fork Dam.

The North Fork Lake is still where Buncombe County and Asheville get most of their water. I read a few weeks ago that someone repeated that old story at the Swannanoa Valley Museum that Vance’s house burned down after it was struck by lightning out of a clear, blue sky. If you believe that, you believe the Easter Bunny lays hard-boiled, multi-colored eggs.

The boss told daddy many times the county machine was afraid that maintaining Vance’s house as a shrine would end up causing problems with the lake at North Fork. They thought the house would take priority over the city and county water supply. He said Vance’s house was struck by 10 gallons of kerosene and a match.

Local historian Bruce Whitaker documents genealogy in the
Fairview area. He can be reached at 628-1089 or [email protected].

Views expressed do not represent those of The Fairview Town Crier.

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