For decades, the North Carolina State Archives has maintained a huge trove of documents and photos from Black Mountain College. But the records on the influential hive of artful experimentation were stored in Raleigh, almost 250 miles from the site of the former college. Now, they’ve returned much closer to home.
On Aug. 10, the State Archives will open its first western regional archive, relocating WNC-related records like the BMC collections from the state capitol to Asheville.
The archive, on the top floor of a former nurses’ dormitory next to the Charles George VA Medical Center in Oteen, is a dream realized for local historians, genealogists and public-records enthusiasts.
Previously, the State Archives had only one other regional branch: the Outer Banks History Center in coastal Manteo, which opened in 1978. It’s fitting that the mountain area host a similar facility, argued Jeff Futch, western regional supervisor for the state Office of Archives and History, in an interview with Carolina Public Press in May 2011.
“We deserve something like (the Outer Banks History Center) here in Western North Carolina, too,” Futch said; at the time, it was unclear whether the western archive would secure the funding it needed to open. “Our history is just as pertinent as their history.”
The funds came through, and this spring Futch’s office hired a full-time archivist as other state workers began shuttling relevant collections from Raleigh. The archivist, Heather South, was a longtime preservation specialist with the South Carolina Division of Archives and History until budget cuts eliminated her job late last year.
In an interview at the archive, South said that she prefers the weather in her new locale, and her eyes widened when she talked about what’s yet to be found in the shelves full of records she now oversees.
“I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what’s in all these boxes, and it’s like uncovering treasures,” she said. “For me, it’s fascinating to be behind the scenes, to see how the stories come out of the documents.”
Bringing Black Mountain College back home
Of the 42 individual collections moved from Raleigh so far, 32 are focused on BMC’s unique history (click here to download a PDF listing). They include the college’s administrative records and newsletters, the papers of noted students and faculty members, hundreds of photos, files collected by BMC historians, and even original artworks produced at the college during its 1933-1957 run.
Many famous names in the files will be familiar to those who are aware of BMC’s legacy. But the collections, South stresses, also shed light on lesser-known figures and facets of the institution for those who are willing to do a little digging.
The first scholar to dig in at the new facility was David Silver, an associate professor of media studies, environmental studies and urban agriculture at the University of San Francisco. Last month, Silver visited to research BMC’s on-campus farm for a book he plans to write on the topic.
There’s been almost no scholarship on the role of the farm, Silver said in a recent interview. But he’s found that it was a vital part of both BMC’s work program and the college’s drive to become self-sustaining.
When he showed up at the archive, Silver said, he didn’t know if it would yield much useful information about the farm. He needn’t have worried.
The archive, Silver said, provided him with a series of “eureka moments,” such as finding a student’s original planning documents for the farm and pinpointing exactly when the college’s chickens started laying eggs (just a few months after BMC opened in September 1933, as it happened).
The textual records revealed much, but Silver found other revelations in the photos showing BMC’s farm.
“There’s something about the visuals that made it so much more real compared to what I’d read,” he said.
“To see those artifacts — to see the building of the barn, the milk house, the silos — that really hit home with me,” he continued. “It not only made me excited about the farm, it made me excited about what my students are doing to build our own structures, whether it’s building media or building our urban garden at USF.”
The proximity to the former college site was an added bonus, Silver said, as he was able to make his first visit to the site during a break from his research.
“I’ve been an academic now for about 15 years, and this was, without a doubt, the best research trip of my career,” he added. “I’m a Black Mountain geek, and to go to this archive was like going to the promised land.”
Silver credits South for making his time in the archive especially fruitful.
“Heather was a researcher’s dream,” he said. “She was very excited about the project, and realized immediately that it was kind of new territory. Each day she was giving me hints, and by the end of my visit she was assigning me homework.”
How the mountain region was safeguarded
There’s much more to the new archive than Black Mountain College’s storied history. Some of the other main collections, for example, document watershed moments in the long process of preserving WNC’s natural resources.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, was established in 1934. But its genesis can be traced to 1899, when a group of regional leaders gathered at Asheville’s Battery Park Hotel to form the Appalachian National Park Association.
The association’s official records, one of the collections moved to Asheville, detail the earnest and ultimately decisive campaign to preserve wide swaths of the mountains.
Among the papers is a remarkably detailed transcript of that first, fateful meeting at the hotel, which opened with remarks from Narciso Gonzales, co-founder of the Columbia, S.C., newspaper The State.
“You all know the object of this meeting,” Gonzales told the assembled notables. “(It is) the starting of a movement to have the United States government establish a great national park in these beautiful mountains, and we are here to form a permanent association whose business it shall be to see that this is accomplished.”
A more modern collection is the records of the Upper French Broad Defense Association, a grassroots group that overpowered a 1960s-era plan by the Tennessee Valley Authority to dam the river in 14 locations.
The plan, the group argued in public forums, advertisements, petitions and other initiatives, would have devastated several local communities and ecosystems.
“The struggle for control of our river and of the future of our river valleys pitted defiant citizens against entrenched official Establishment from Brevard to Washington,” the group’s historian, Martha Gash Boswell, noted in an account included in the files, which is presented in its entirety below.
“Many stories of our local Davids are already lost, but I hope to preserve available stories of individual and mass effort against the TVA Goliath,” she wrote.
Want to go?
The western regional archive, at 176 Riceville Rd., in Asheville, will host its first public event, an open house, on Aug. 4 from 1 to 5 p.m. An official ribbon-cutting will take place at 10 a.m. on Aug. 10. To RSVP for these events, or to schedule a visit thereafter, contact archivist Heather South at 828-296-7230, ext. 232.
Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted a word from one of David Silver’s quotes. He said, “It not only made me excited about the farm, it made me excited about what my students are doing to build our own structures, whether it’s building media or building our urban garden at USF.”