Monday, January 8, 2018

The Icy Winter of 1876-1877

It has been bitterly cold here in Swain County for the past 7-10 days, so much so that many small streams in the area are completely frozen over in places, and the rivers appear to be on their way. I have been watching ice floes float down the Tuckasegee River for several days now. During this week, I was reminded of an account I had read in a family history book that pertained to a particularly cold winter in Swain County, and wanted to share it with my readers. I hope that you will enjoy this little sojourn into the past.

Ice on the Tuckasegee River at Governor's Island, 1/5/2018
Wendy Meyers

The late John Reid Ashe (1908 - 1988) and his wife Wilma McHan Ashe (1914 - 2004) were prolific researchers, writers, and promoters of family and county history. In fact, one of the original driving forces for the Swain County Heritage Museum was Wilma Ashe, and it is very unfortunate that she did not live to see her dream come to fruition. The paternal side of John Ashe's family ran deep in the Judson area, and he wrote about his family and the history of the area in a very comprehensive book entitled "Ash-Ashe-Stillwell, A Genealogy and History". In the book, he records the story of the winter during which his grandparents, David (1856 - 1926) and Candace ([nee' Stillwell] 1862 - 1939) Ashe were married (they married on December 28, 1876).

David Reed and Candace (nee' Stillwell) Ashe
Source: Ash-Ashe-Stillwell

"Dave Ashe married Candace Stillwell in 1876. In those times the newlyweds usually lived with the parents of the groom until a 'Log Rolling' could be planned and a cabin of their own built. This winter turned out to be one of the coldest on record. All streams were frozen over solidly. Holes had to be cut in the ice daily to obtain water for survival."

Amos Ashe (note: father of David Ashe) had a roller mill powered by water. On sunny days all men pitched in and chipped ice from the millrace and the overshot wheel. Only a small amount of grain could be ground before it refroze and this was divided among those who needed it most. 
Amos Ashe Millrace, 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives and
Western Carolina University Special Collections
Amos Ashe Mill, 1909
Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives and 
Western Carolina University Special Collections

On their first trip home to visit her parents after they were married, they rode horses. They crossed the Little Tennessee River twice and 'Never a hoof broke through the ice'. Spring came early. Gardens and field crops were planted when the spring thaw came. Huge ice jams formed and backed water and ice floes into the fields and gardens. At that time, the streams were lined with virgin timber. This ice chipped the bark and wood from them and many of the huge trees were completely destroyed."

Ash-Ashe-Stillwell: A Genealogy and History by John Reid Ashe (Note: this book is available for viewing at the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives
Swain County Marriage Register
Western Carolina University Special Collections

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A County-wide Christmas in 1929

I found the article that follows while perusing It truly seems to echo the values that I hold most dear about the Christmas holiday.  I hope you'll all enjoy it and have a blessed holiday season.

On Christmas afternoon at 3 o’clock, a community Christmas tree was held at Bryson City for people less fortunate than others. Long before the hour arrived hundreds of people over the county kept gathering. There was snow and ice on the ground and the exercises were held in the courthouse from which the tree, standing high with hundreds of colored lights, and 10 feet above it a star, its five points lighted, shining to guide people to the place, could be seen. It has been a joy to all who have seen it for the past week and will stand in the square until the New Year.
The Bryson City Christmas Tree, circa 1920s
Bryson City is a small town with about 1,500 inhabitants. Just what has been done will be of interest to other small towns. About three months ago Mayor E.C. Bryson, the youngest mayor of the State, expressed the idea of a community Christmas tree to G. C. Dugas, vice president and manager of the Smoky Mountain Power Company. Mr. Dugas went to work. Others became interested as soon as it was announced and for six weeks untiring efforts have been expended by about 20 people.

Edwin Constant Bryson, Mayor of Bryson City in 1929
Source: UNC Yearbook, 1925 (
Graham C. Dugas
Source: user JDugas

The story has been told far and near to those who have, and there was a response that has been wonderful from these unknown and unseen friends, who have given of material things which they manufacture, food stuffs, toys, overalls, socks, children’s stockings, coffee, candy oranges and money, which, with the gifts of money here and of material things from merchants, made this tree possible and a success.

Owing to the snow which made many county roads impassable, not as many children were here as was hoped, but treats and toys have been sent as far as possible. Preparation for 1,500 children was made and over 100 baskets were fixed. Into the baskets were put a sack of flour (24 pounds), three pounds of meat, three pounds of beans, three pounds of coffee, five pounds of sugar, salt, soda and soap. Added to this were the overalls, underwear and stockings with many baskets having shoes, some with clothes and sweaters, and every thing that was available for little children where the need was greatest.
Pillsbury Flour Sack
A goal of $1,500 was set at the first meeting held. It seemed preposterous. Many said that if $500 was raised it would be a great success but by the generosity of all, the gifts of material things and money reached $2,000 (note: this is just over $28,000 in 2016 currency). The festival of Christmas is primarily for children. Their hearts ache if they do not have a visit from Santa Claus and it was decided to place a toy in the hands of children under 10 whenever possible. Over 1,500 toys were gathered together over 1,500 treats were fixed, and 1,800 oranges used.
There wasn’t room for one other person in the courthouse when the hour arrived. The galleries and floor space were filled. Mayor Bryson explained the movement and spoke of the many unknown friends who had heeded the call. Dr. R. L. Clear opened the exercises with prayer and a chorus of singers sang some of the lovely Christmas carols. Judge T. D. Bryson spoke for a few minutes and then the children were called for and girls passed on one side and boys on the other of long tables laden with the toys, which had been arranged separately, as other people handed the bags of candy and an orange to the little folks.
Liberty Coaster circa 1923

1929 Effanbee Doll
The baskets were then given out and those who were not here for theirs, were either taken by others to them, or were carried by Bryson City men to the different parts of the county. Many other names have been reported since Christmas Day and foodstuff and some clothing have been purchased for them.

Special mention should be made of the work of the executive committee, and other women who left their homes for days to get the toys, treats, and clothing assembled to Santa Claus who was busy for many days, of those who got the tree, of men who labored hard, of the kindness of the men in the A.&P. store who ground and sacked the 440 pounds of coffee given by Westfeldt Bros. of New Orleans, and a bag of sugar, which was a gift, and of others whom it also impossible to name, for their cooperation in this move.

It is a Christmas that will long be remembered. There are many who had a real Christmas joy on December 25 because these people made it for them. If there is another town in the state with a population of 1,500 people which has cared for as many families in the county as Bryson City, and furnished toys and treats for 1,500 children, it has not been reported.  This is the first time that a community tree has been held in Swain County. It may be the last or it may not but for one time a happy feeling entered the hearts of those who received and in those who gave, who remembered how Christ said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive”.

Asheville Citizen-Times, December 29, 1929

Asheville Citizen Times, December 29, 1929

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Election Day in Swain County - 1884 (Another scandalous election!)

In what is sure to be one of most scandalous elections in history, I thought it might be interesting to get a view of what an election looked like in Swain County in the 'Old Days'. This account comes from the observations of a traveler coming through Swain County on Election Day, November 4, 1884. But first, a little background......

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)
Source: Library of Congress
James Blaine (1830 - 1893)
Source: Library of Congress

The race for the presidency was a very tight one, waged primarily between the Democrat nominee, New York governor Grover Cleveland and the Republican nominee, former U.S. Senator James Blaine of Maine. It was also an election notorious for partisan mudslinging. Below is a brief look at the papers of the day (I've put some links for further reading in blue).

"Mr. Simeon in this city, and being approached on the subject of New York politics, said, "Yes, I know Cleveland, perhaps better than any man living. Maria Halpin is my sister-in-law. The story told in the newspapers is literally true, and the half has not been told. Grover Cleveland did seduce my sister-in-law under a positive promise, while she was living in Buffalo. This I know to be true, and Cleveland afterward paid the $500 to me for Maria Halpin when legal proceedings were about to be instituted against him......about six weeks ago, Cleveland wrote me a letter urging me to make a statement showing that he had always treated Mrs. Halpin well, and promised me anything I would wish in case he was elected."
The Leavenworth Weekly Times, October 9, 1884

'Another Vote for Cleveland' political cartoon by Frank Beard
Source: 'The Judge' (New York), September 27, 1884

"The man to withdraw, if anybody, is Mr. Blaine. The propriety of his withdrawing is no longer a matter of argument. The missing Mulligan letters printed this morning showed that he used his high office in the House of Representatives to advance his personal interests, that he peddled information of contemplated legislation to speculators, the understanding being that he should share their profits.........he begged his partners in business in the most humiliating terms to spare him the penalty of an exposure - in fine, that he knew when he did it that if the fact were to become public it would ruin his political fortunes forever." 
The New York Graphic, October, 1884

James Blaine Political Cartoon by F. Oppen

Considering the geographical isolation of most of the men of Swain County at the time (the reader is reminded that women did not have the right to vote until 1920), it can't be known to what extent these scandalous charges might have influenced their decisions. Regardless, they turned out to play their role in an historic election, as noted in our traveler's account (and drawing), which was printed in 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper' on November 29, 1884.

'North Carolina - Scene at a Mountain Election Precinct in Swain County'
Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 29, 1884
"The polling-places of such out-of-the-way districts as Nantahala precinct, Swain Co., N.C. (note to the reader: this would have taken place at Judson), where our sketch was made on the day of the late Presidential election, are not provided with all the modern conveniences, nor are the honest voters addicted to vain pomp and personal display. The sacred privilege of the franchise is exercised in an old wagon-shed, adjoining a corn crib. The 'judges' - he is a small man, indeed, in that section of the country, who bears a less important title than that of judge or colonel - seated on a bench, are the inspectors of election. Each guards a tin coffee-pot, which serves for a ballot-box. Occasionally a judge leaves his seat and circulates amongst the crowd, electioneering, coffee-pot in hand. Refreshments, in the form of ginger-cakes and cider, are to be had on the premises, and such a thing as a drop of blockade whiskey is not, we presume, wholly unobtainable. The gathering is a mixed one, and includes a paroled convict in uniform, who probably is employed in the construction of a railroad in the vicinity. There is not much style about the balloting up there in the mountains, but in the great national result the votes count just the same as though they had been cast in a crystal and nickel-plated ballot box in a brownstone-front polling place in the city." 

A total of 10,060, 145 voters across the country (and 268,356 in North Carolina) turned out for the vote. Over 60% of Swain County's electorate (I do not have the voter numbers at this time) voted for Cleveland, contributing their share to North Carolina's 11 electoral college votes that went to the Democrat. Cleveland won the popular election by relatively little (48.85% of the electorate, compared to Blaine's 48.28%) but won in the electoral college by 37 votes (219 to 182). The election proved historic in that it was the first time a Democrat had been voted into the highest office in the land since the election of 1856.  

Graphic of 1884 Vote by County (Swain is the eagle-shaped county on the Tennessee border)
Source: by Tilden76 (located on Wikipedia)
No matter what your political leanings or possible disgust with the current candidates, if you've not already done so, get out there and vote. November 8, 2016, should be just as interesting as November 4, 1884.

An interesting note for the reader: Apparently the 'judges' in the Nantahala district decided that tin coffee pots were no longer suitable for voting after the 1888 election. On January 7, 1889, the Swain County Commissioners provided Amos Ashe (most likely one of the 'judges' described in the short article as he lived in Judson) $4 for making election boxes. 

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 29, 1884
Getty Images (
Library of Congress
National Historical Geographic
"Presidential Ballots, 1836-1892" by Walter Dean Burnham. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955, pages 247-57.
Swain County Herald, January 10, 1889
'The Judge' (New York) September 27, 1884
The Leavenworth Weekly Times, October 8, 1884
The New York Graphic, October, 1884
Wikipedia (