History of Transylvania County

Human history is a series of occurrences, culminating on or around certain dates, involving people and events. These occurrences do not take place in isolation but are always the result of events and precursors for other events. History is a process, a journey through time and space which is marked by clusters of memorable places, actions and personalities. Places emerge as important because of location and environment (social and natural); actions are engraved in time and memory because they derive from related events and result in life altering conditions; personalities who were responsible for and in turn are influenced by these actions in specific places, play the key rolls. Natural events which do not affect people are of little consequence for human history, at least at that specific time.


History is the study of sequencing. A random act is of less significance than acts which recur and mark patterning of behavior. Events have precursors and consequences. Persons are influenced by previous actors and their ideas and actions in turn lead to repetition or innovation. Native Americans, in this case the Estatoes, had followed the buffalo grazing routes and in time established narrow but gently graded paths. Early settlers followed these paths, particularly the Estatoe Trading Path, which linked this mountain terrain to the low lying regions.

Most of this region was claimed by the Cherokee, but as immigrant wagons moved westward, settlers reached the Blue Ridge and Davidson River. These families, who settled the upper part of the French Broad Valley, occupied tracts of 100 to 640 acres. They included those headed by Lambert Clayton, James and Benjamin Davidson, Joseph Patton, George Orr. The Hogsed and Carson families settled on the east side of the French Broad River near Dunn’s Rock, the William and Matthew Wilsons and the Kings settled near the present site of Brevard. The first land grant on Cathey's Creek, four miles west of what became Brevard, was 50 acres to William Porter on October 11, 1783.

These early arrivals, some of whom were passing through and others who remained, battled mountains, mud  and swamp lands. They cut trees and split logs to build cabins. Some were for temporary use, others for settlements. There were no nails. Door and window openings were created by cutting the logs and making wooden shutters. These could be hung on leather hinges. The fireplace became the hearth, the family center. Creating a farm was hard, keeping the family clothed and fed was arduous, and families were large. As settlers became more secure, cabins gained extensions. Most had ice “houses,” either hollowed out of the mountain or constructed to insulate the cold - Gaston Siniard had ice until July and August.

Isolation is broken by communication and contact. New ideas result in innovative behavior. In the absence of mass media these invariably follow paths and roads. By the 1830s the first generation of settlers had either moved on or were deceased. The new generation consisted of true settlers, dedicated to improving the landscape and making sacrifices to achieve these goals. Roads were slow in coming due to mountainous terrain and soggy, marshy land. Early roads consisted of two tracks of planks. In 1851 the plank road from Asheville to Greenville, S.C. was extended to Hendersonville. The Piedmont Air Line Railroad stopped in Greenville. This facilitated the extension of the Western North Carolina to Asheville in the 1870s and to Hendersonville a decade later. A post office was established there and mail came to the settlement, later designated as  Brevard, by horseback. The postman carried a trumpet and announced his arrival by a number of blasts. Farmers traveled to Greenville and further afield to trade vegetables, apples and chestnuts for lead, muslin and other manufactured goods. Iron for tools and utensils came the same way but were expensive and heavy to transport.

Due to the condition of roads and the cost of maintenance 150 years ago, there was more travel by canoes and flatboats on the French Broad River than on wagons and ox carts. As late as the 1860s, diaries tell of people going to church in rowboats. Where roads led across a settler’s land he had to maintain the road and bridges and in return he could establish a toll booth. This resulted in an easy and steady income for stockholders endorsing such a turnpike. Horse teams could travel at most about 25 miles per day and feed bills and taverns helped maintain the roadways. Roadhouses, with a grogshop, and feeding pens required fodder and corn from local farmers. A blacksmith was frequently close by for special needs of horse shoe or wagon wheel. By the end of the 1800s the internal combustion engine  changed road building and construction. Transylvania County was gradually drawn into the wider loop of long distance road transportation. By 1922 this county had only 45 miles of unpaved highway cared for by the State of North Carolina.

The first sign of commerce in western North Carolina was the water wheel: it allowed for the use of the mill and the forge. The first three forges at Mills River, Hominy Creek and  Reems Creek were developed for early iron production and the Phillip Sutton Iron Works gave rise to the naming of Forge Mountain. These workers produced knives, hatches and axes, and also smaller items like chisels, augers, bolts, horseshoes and nails. This development also allowed Jacob Byler to start the production of gun powder. At this early date John Gillespie, a pioneer gunsmith, lived on Boring Creek, one of the tributaries of the East Fork of the French Broad River. Settlers all wanted or owned guns and Gillespie employed a mill powered by the fast flowing waters to clean the bores of rifle barrels. When he died in 1822, his three sons William, Mathew and Robert carried on the business and in turn taught their offspring. There were 12 gunsmiths in North Carolina and Georgia making the Gillespie rifle which lost its appeal in the 1890s as mass-produced rifles became available.

Early settler Benjamin Davidson settled at the headwaters of what became known as the Davidson River. His brother William, of King’s Mountain, started a water powered saw mill. In 1792 Davidson was given permission to establish a grist mill near his saw mill. Operators of gristmills and saw mills received 50 acres in land grants plus exemption from taxes and service in the militia. Millers were not paid in cash. Their fee was one eighth of the corn ground. The Merrills of Little River maintained a tub mill which operated on fixed days of the week. On these mill days they would open a sluice and the gushing water turned the wheel. It is recalled that customers lined up with their containers to take their turn.

Settlers in the upper French Broad River, influenced by these developments, started black- smithing and repairing tools. Carrying on with these developments, George Shuford in the 1850s established the Davidson River Iron Works. Iron ore was mined on Forge Mountain close by (overlooking Mills River) and carted down Boyleston Road by teams of oxen and mules. Those involved were Charles Moore, James W. Patton and Thomas Miller. In time the mill fell into disuse but at the outbreak of the war the Confederate Government appointed Eli Patton to oversee production. The mill had a huge hammer operated by water power and was also employed by the newly established county for non-military manufacturing. Iron products were used by Confederate armies. Local transportation of iron ore represented a good income for locals. Shortly after the end of the Civil War the Iron Works closed down for the last time.

Schooling always was a priority. The emphasis was on reading, writing and arithmetic. Paper was scarce and ink was made from pokeweed berries. More economical was the ubiquitous slate. Thus developed neighborhood schools. These could meet in private homes, barns or church buildings. There were no academic standards, no qualified teachers, and a school year that depended on cattle or hog drives or farming and the harvesting of crops. Girls frequently had to assist with the care of younger siblings. These schools were variously referred to as “old fields” (actually constructed on level land which were old fields) or “blab” schools. Many an itinerant teacher visited farms and taught as much with the rod as with the word. There were teachers who dedicated themselves to teaching using whatever means were available. Others unfortunately confirmed the ignorance they were hired to dispel. Frequently the same space used for services on Sunday was used for classes the next morning. In later years church buildings made provision for school rooms on the second floor. This inevitably involved a religious basis as in the early years the Bible might be the only printed matter available. Teachers boarded or lived with farm families and many of these teachers walked to serve a number of “schools”. The first known private school, Davidson River Academy, was established in the 1820s by the Davidson River Presbyterian Church. While the Presbyterians had long been served by visiting preachers the Davidson River Presbyterian Church  was formally established in 1828.

Five years after Transylvania County was established children in the Toxaway district still had no school. In 1866 a dedicated frontier teacher, Henry P. Thomas, convinced the local settlers that a school was necessary. He encouraged a number of local boys to roll logs from two abandoned cabins and thus the new schoolhouse-and-church was constructed. On this same site the present Lake Toxaway Baptist Church now stands. Children are said to have walked miles, even from Whitewater and Gloucester, to attend school. As teaching aids, Thomas employed the Blue Black Speller and the Bible. The first schools were constructed at Quebec in 1879 and at Gloucester in 1900. Earlier schools existed around Estatoe Ford. A name well remembered in this area was that of Charles W. Henderson (brother of the well-known T. C. Henderson). Another person who taught at Estatoe Crossing in the period between 1890 and 1900 was Leon F. Lyday - son of Dr. Lyday the pioneer in medicine - who lived at the Lyday residence in what is now Penrose and rode his horse to school. As was the case with all the teachers of the day, he received a paltry salary in addition to frequent housing and meals.         

Voters, represented by 26 subscribers living on the east side of the newly created Jackson County, sought partitioning and wanted to join Henderson County. At about the same time there was a petition circulating among residents of western Henderson county. This group was lead by A. F. England and 125 other signatories, including: A. and James Banks; E. B. and J. W. Clayton; T. C. and B. W. Galloway; L. S. Gash; Robert Hamilton; Braxton and W. S. Lankford; A. I. and Adam Lyday; Charles, John and William Patton; W. P. Poor; Jesse Owen;  J. C. Owenby; John J., Edward and John Shipman; and W. M., J. L. and L. S. Siniard. There was no coordination, or even assumed contact, between these two groups due to the sparse population and geographical isolation. History books record a social and legal event on May 20, 1861. This was the first meeting of the new county court which convened in B. C. Lankford’s home on Boyleston Road. Joseph P. Jordan, who had presented the bill creating the new county, specified that it be called Transylvania and that the county seat be named Brevard, honoring Colonel Ephraim Brevard, a famous  Revolutionary War physician. The town was to be located on 50 acres donated by Alexander F. England, Leander S. Gash and Braxton Lankford. At the time of surveying it was simply designated as the “Town.” Transylvania County was established, but commercial ventures, industrial innovations, and outstanding men and women filled with ideas and plans and adventure continued to emerge.

Industrial development picked up when steam replaced the water wheel. The major factor being the arrival of the railroad at Brevard in 1895 and in Rosman in 1896 These were in fact the only population centers in the new sparsely populated county which in 1880 had a total population of only 5,339 of whom 4,822 were white. Subsistence farming was common and the home tannery is said to have been an outgrowth of home butchering. This produced leather for shoes and softer material from various animal skins. Early on there emerged the McMinn Tannery and the Charles Patton Tannery in Brevard as well as the Ashworth Tannery in Little River.

Native forests were abundant. Two new industries requiring lumber and tannin extracts reached for the same rich resource, namely the forests. Joseph Silverstein started to tap native trees for tanning liquors. These involved the wood of the Chestnut and the bark of the Chestnut Oak. Other trees were also involved. These tannins were employed in the treatment of hides and skins. Thus the Toxaway Tanning Company was established in 1902 in a small town south of Brevard. It was called Toxaway but over the next three years the name changed to Eastatoe, French Broad, Toxaway again and finally Silverstein changed it to Rosman. The tanning company was a major local employer, offering mill housing and diverse jobs. In 1910 the Gloucester Lumber Company emerged with its spin-off the Gloucester Company Store, and in 1912 the Rosman Tanning and Extract Company. In those years people from small town Brevard went shopping in Rosman.  The lumber industry came in with the bandsaw and logging started in earnest. Logging camps were established in the western forests, horse teams and local trans moved massive logs, and these small towns started to prosper. Others involved in the lumber business, influencing conditions in the new county were Luigi Caria (of the Carr Lumber Company), Gifford Pinchot and Carl A. Schenck (at George Vanderbilt’s estate) and  J. Frances Hayes (Brevard Tanning Company), the Blackwood Brothers and Moltz’s Lumber Companies.

In 1915 the Silversteins had decided to move to Brevard. They oversaw the establishment of the Transylvania Tanning Company and the following year the construction of Silvermont which they occupied in 1917. In that year Joseph Silverstein also changed the family name to Silversteen.

Before the Civil War Robert Poor built a home later called the Red House. It housed the first Post Office and was the first hotel in town operated by William Moore. In 1895 Fitch and Sarah Taylor opened the Epworth School, a small school for girls. They moved into the Red House and eight years later it became the Brevard Institute (a high school) which was taken over by the Women’s Home Mission Society who also acquired adjacent land which now houses Brevard College. In 1933 two older Methodist Episcopal Church related institutions (Rutherford College established in 1853 and Weaver College established in 1854) were merged with Brevard Institute. On September 17, 1934 Brevard College, under its first president, Dr. Eugene Coltrane, opened it doors to 385 students.

Since the early days of settlement, the sylvan beauty, calm lakes, gushing waterfalls and temperate weather had attracted visitors from the south and north. They came as tourists, seasonal residents and people set on recreation. Around the turn of the century these included Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, R. J. Reynolds and others. Brevard attracted a growing number of tourists leading to the construction of the Franklin Hotel,  the Athelwold, McMinn House, Henning Inn, the Hotel Brevard and in time about thirty hotels, inns, and boarding houses. At the same time Lake Toxaway emerged as a site for a luxury resort. In 1902 J. Frances Hayes established a company which blocked the Toxaway River thereby creating the first artificial lake in the Appalachians. They built the Toxaway Inn which fronted on the new lake and advertised accommodations in the “Switzerland of America”. The summer of 1916 was wet, very wet. Rivers and creeks flooded their banks causing a great deal of damage. Toxaway Dam was filled to capacity. On the night of August 13, 1916 the dam gave way and masses of water flooded into South Carolina. In 1946 the ghost resort was raised to salvage lumber for resale.

If the beauty and serenity of these mountains attracted settlers and tourists, they also were a prime choice for summer camps. Such summer camps have been present for most of the past century. These include camps for girls, camps for boys and for both genders. Some were designated for specific groups such as Girl Scouts, Jewish Girls, and others. The oldest camps for which we have documentation were Camp French Broad for Boys which began in 1913, Camp Sapphire for Boys in 1914, and Camp Keystone for Girls in 1916. Through the years children and young people have looked forward to camp and in 1989 there were 20 active camps. The number has slightly decreased in recent years, but the quality and enthusiasm is the same.

One such summer camp was established by a young music professor at Davidson College in 1936. His name was James Christian Pfohl. In 1946 the Brevard Music Festival, supported by prominent Brevard residents, was initiated. The Brevard Music Center is located on 200 acres of beautiful grounds and comprises 140 buildings of various sizes and uses. The auditorium’s capacity was enlarged to 1,647 in 1973. A full-time staff operates all year on the grounds and increases as a professional staff gathers for the six-week summer Festival. Outstanding performers participate and gifted students are attracted from around the world. A number of deserving students receive scholarships. Audiences gather from throughout the southeastern states.

As the presence and influence of Native Americans faded there emerged a new presence, namely the African Americans. The first who came were slaves. The latter are frequently referred to as indentured laborers but that connotation implies a contractual agreement binding one person to work for another for a given time. In this case the “contract” was between slave seller and slave buyer, not the slaves themselves, with no time limitation. In 1862 there were 447 slaves and three free Negroes in the new county. Slave owners lived in Estatoe Town, Gloucester, Cathey's Creek, East Fork, Brevard, Davidson River, Little River and Cedar Mountain. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect in North Carolina (a “state in rebellion”) two years after the establishment of Transylvania County. Gradually those freed and other free Negroes had to acquire land where they could establish homes, develop gardens and earn an income.

On the streets and in stores segregation was subtle, but it was quite dominant as regards the attendance of institutions of learning. The best known school was Rosenwald (named for the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald) which opened its door in 1920 as an expansion of the Brevard #2 Colored School. Through the years poverty influenced the operation and supplies of the school, though there was empathy and support from whites. In 1941 the school mysteriously burned to the ground. Children attended classes in three churches, but those of high school grades had to be transported to Hendersonville. For lower grades this lasted through the fall of 1948 when a new $61,000 school was occupied. High school children were bused to Hendersonville until 1963.

All these years separate cemeteries existed for African Americans. Cathey's Creek and Cooper’s were the oldest Negro cemeteries, both dating back to 1862.

The early history of African Americans evolved around the church, school and personalities associated with these. At the turn of the century business undertakings emerged, none as important as those created by James P. “Jim” Aiken. A grocery store established by Jeffries F. W. “Jip” Mills operated on Mills Avenue for almost 40 years. Brevard streets still echo the bell ringing on Jim Aiken’s fire truck, women bustling around the Mary C. Jenkins Community Center, the sonorous choirs of Bethel and Bethel “A” Baptist churches, the lilting voice and laughter of Loretta M. Aiken better known as Jackie “Moms Mabley” and the dedicated voice of the “steel-willed angel” Selena Hall Robinson.

The high mountain peaks and rich filtering forest have always produced cool clear water. These waters flowed eastward down the French Broad River and the Davidson River. During the 1920s a young German immigrant named Hans Straus, living in New York, changed his name to “Harry” Hans Straus and embarked on establishing a rich array of business ventures. The most important was the Champagne Paper Corporation in 1930. At this date the depression was affecting almost every household in North Carolina. More than 100,000 were unemployed and the same number scrambled for part-time jobs. In 1932 one sixth of all workers were on relief. Conditions were even more depressing in rural Transylvania County. It was said that a “Deep and lasting depression had settled over the coves;” a local lawyer explained that “We were laid out: the undertaker had been called.” Harry Straus was experimenting with flax and fiber and searching for the best location to establish a paper mill. He settled on the dependable pure water of the Davidson River and in the late thirties started construction of the plant for the Ecusta Paper Corporation.

On August 6, 1939 the first trial sample of cigarette paper was produced. Local people were employed wherever possible. The income rejuvenated the town and the local citizenry. In 1939 there were approximately 1,330 industrial workers earning a total of $1,081,457. The children could go to school, dress decently and buy books; the homemakers could plan ahead to purchase necessities; workers could repair their old vehicles or afford the “bus” service. “The Echo” was established to bind and inform members of the working community and it produced “a family”. The plant had a nurse on duty and Dr. Charles Newland made daily visits. Based on the belief that productivity increases when people “who work together also play together,” a rich array of activities from sport teams, and dances to bands and musical education emerged. Central to these activities were the lovable “Old Buzzard” Fritz Merrill and “Mr. Music” John Eversman. Harry Straus had purchased an adjacent camp which was soon converted to sporting facilities and the location for the annual picnic. It started out as catering to about 300 workers and their families and in time grew to become the Fourth of July event of the year for the public.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor many workers were drafted or joined the forces. Straus stressed that these persons were considered to be on leaves of absence. Their jobs were secure, their families continued to be covered for medical needs, and when these workers were de-commissioned they would be entitled to continuous service toward securities and bonus. For those who remained here, the “Victory Gardens” gained central attention. Most of the Ecusta workers received encouragement and support in this regard. In addition to 95 workers tending 50 acres adjacent to the plant, it was estimated that another 1000 gardens were maintained at the homes of employees. In fact, the local paper estimated that in 1943 there were 2,597 Victory Gardens in the county.

In time the plant was taken over by Olin Industries who soon merged with the Mathieson Chemical Corporation. There also was an agreement between Olin Industries Inc. and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company regarding the production of cellophane. The DuPont plant opened in 1957 on 440 acres in the middle of Buck Forest - a 10,000 acre state forest - to produce silicon. In its heyday the X-ray film plant in Transylvania County employed more than 2,000 people. It was sold in 1997 as demands for its products declined. The AGFA plant which attempted to carry on the business faltered due to a declining market. When Olin turned its interests northward, Ecusta became a step-child. The plant was briefly rejuvenated by P. H. Glatfelter but in the absence of modernization it too ran out of support from locals and interest for outsiders.

In the meantime, the county had attracted another industry, namely American Thread, which built their Sylvan Plant in 1964. At the time it was the first all-electrical spinning plant in the world. It was fully air conditioned and employed devices of waste disposal that assured clean floors and pure air at all times. In 1991 Coats & Clark, Inc. Joined with American Thread to become Coats American. The company employed 302 workers.

The beginning of the new millenium came with disastrous developments for Transylvania County. Within the span of one year all three the major industries closed. In August 2002 RFS Ecusta ceased production (laying off 600 employees), followed in the same month by AGFA (laying off 270 workers), and finally Coats American on September 30, 2003 (laying off its 228 employees). It should be kept in mind that laid off workers represented families, school children and taxpayers. Many of these people were forced to take early retirement or relocated elsewhere to find employment. The county was reeling!

The rich collage of our ethnic and cultural mosaic continues to change. Over the past decade there has been a slow but steady influx of Latinos, mostly from Mexico, Colombia and Central America. Currently they number about one thousand. Their presence can be seen in landscaping, construction, restaurant work, housekeeping, agriculture, and the hotel industry. They have inspired the interest of non-Latinos in their language, music, dance and food.  

As you enjoy the richness of our natural environment, the forests, mountains, and waterfalls and as you participate in the diversity of rural and urban development, look back! Look back in appreciation at the early settlers, those who developed the county, the roads, the farms, and the towns. Turn your kaleidoscope as it shows nature’s beauty, the colors, the cultural richness, the ethnic diversity. This is our home and we are thankful and proud.

By Brian du Toit - Transylvania Sesquicentennial Steering Committe
Historical photos are courtesy of the Rowell Bosse North Carolina room, Transylvania County Library

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