In the late 1920’s a group of Asheville investors, boosters, and executives (including Fred Seely, son in law of the late E.W Grove) hatched a plan to lure one of the world’s most progressive burgeoning industries to western North Carolina. Established in the early 1920s after the discovery of the scientific process for creating “artificial silk” or rayon, Nederlandse Kuntzjdefabriek (Netherlands Artificial Silk Corporation), built at least two large manufacturing facilities for rayon in the province of Arnhem, the Netherlands.
(A brief interjection… often, people use the terms “Holland” and “the Netherlands” interchangeably in the USA. However, the Netherlands is the most appropriate title for this small northern European country that shares a border with Belgium and Germany. Holland is simply one province in the country, so using “Holland” to refer to the whole of the
nation would be like calling the USA “New York” and being OK with it. The people of the Netherlands can be described as Dutch, and they speak Dutch, a language similar to German).
So where does the phrase Enka originate? Well, as you might imagine, Nederlandse Kuntzjdefabriek is, even for some Dutch folks, quite a long word to say all the time. So, the name of the company was shortened to its first two initials and their proper Dutch pronunciation: EN-KA. This week, we decided to have some fun and test our Pack Memorial Library staff members’ language skills to see if we could master Dutch pronunciation… listen to the audio below to see how it went:
(On behalf of the Pack staff, I apologize to the Dutch people. Part of the issued challenge was “No practicing!!!” Despite our butchering of this remarkable language, it was a lot of fun to try!)
In 1928, the same year Enka completed construction on their newest facility in Ede (pronounced Aye-da), Arnhem work began on Enka’s very first American plant. The company purchased 2300 acres of property in southwestern Buncombe County within close proximity of roads that led to other nearby municipalities like Canton and Hendersonville. The plant itself, by the time it was complete, would be a total of 72 acres, and have the capacity to employ as many as 3,000 individuals. In short, American Enka was to be the largest rayon manufacturing facility in the world. In rising to this status, the 2300 acre spot that once served to pasture cattle and grow tobacco and other market crops became the subject of chatter not only in Buncombe County and Arnhem, but also Austria where the Enka Corporation maintained a business office in a Vienna business district called Seidengasse. Today, their building seems to be empty, but Ford Motors is next door.
A recent acquisition shows five gentlemen standing out front of the still-under-construction American Enka plant in August 1928. It came alongside an envelope that mailed from the Vienna offices to the Asheville offices in 1936. Here is some translation from the German:
Vienna, 7th Ward, Seidengasse 28
Dept: Model Export
Paid in Cash
Drucksache- “Printed Matter”
The new American facility was a scaled-up copy of the newest Ede factory. In fact, while researching this post, we thought we had discovered long-lost footage of the earliest years of American Enka, but in fact, we had stumbled upon a “tour” of the Ede, Arnhem plant instead. Check it out:
Some of the women you saw in the video may very well have come to the United States to train American women for their new positions. According to the company newsletter, the Enka Voice, 18 young Dutch women traveled to the US for a period of six months (some stayed even longer) to serve as supervisors and trainers for American Enka’s newest employees. While they were here, the ladies had the full “Land of the Sky” experience complete with their full participation in the Rhododendron Parade. To honor their cultural heritage, the young women created a float shaped like a large wooden clog and dressed in traditional Dutch costume.
The new expansive American Enka facility used many of the same practices for employee management as they did in Europe. For instance, American Enka sported playgrounds for workers to use on break time, tennis courts, a country club, and their own transportation services for workers who lived outside of Enka Village (housing built by the company and made available for rent to employees).
The transportation system was impressive, and important to staffing the facility. The Enka bus lines ran throughout Buncombe County and beyond, some busses running all the way to Canton and Hendersonville. The provided transportation system proved vital to staffing the mill, and classified ads for housing all over the county boasted Enka bus line access.
By the mid-1930s Enka had built up into a full, thriving community surrounding the textile mill. Because of some of its unique Dutch and industrial influences, Enka had a character and sense of community all its own, a truly unique place in the mountains of WNC.
This is only a fraction of Enka’s story. To learn more about the Enka community, come by and visit the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. Our staff can help point you to resources in our archives and in other local repositories to help you learn more about the amazing and unique history of Enka.
Curious about the history of Enka abroad? You can find out more about the fate of Enka at Ede here (TIP: if you view this page in a Google Chrome browser, it will translate into English!): http://www.ondernemenopenka.nl/historie-enka/
We love sharing our collections with you! We especially like when they get a good workout from researchers, the curious, and even the stray interior designer or stylist! These images and collections are as much yours as they are the library’s. That’s what public libraries are all about!
Come on in and take a look. You never know what you might find!
As a reminder, this post is a part of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series. In this series, we are covering a different Buncombe County community each week. Do you have materials related to Enka or some other Buncombe County community you’d like to let us know about? Do you, your parents or grandparents have a good story to tell? Please let us know!!! We want to hear from you! The North Carolina Room is Buncombe County’s Public Archive, we want to help preserve and make accessible the history and culture of Asheville and Buncombe County for all its residents.
This post was authored by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, a librarian working in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.