One of my earliest childhood memories is in a big, old house full of people gathered for Christmas dinner. In a dining room with a large table and wood floors, the chandelier lit with candles dripped down onto the table. At just five years old or so, it was a method of lighting I had never seen before. At the end of the dinner, a kind lady, who I learned later owned the house, asked me, “would you like to put them out?” She picked me up and let me stand on the table, and showed me how to reach the candles with the snuffer. Later, we stood out in the yard, surrounded by boxwoods, and saw Santa Claus right up on the roof. He came down into the house and each one of the children received a toy. My gift was “pick up sticks,” and my Pap, J.C. Settles, showed me how to play while we drank warm apple cider.
My family made the journey up “the mountain,” (or Bearwallow, which, if you are familiar with local speech patterns comes out more like Baire-walla) at least once a year. The purpose of this trip was, to the best of my childhood understanding, to eat. A lot. However, I knew this meal carried weight that other meals did not because it required skipping church, and that was something we almost never did. The itinerary was typically thus:
-Bake the macaroni and cheese that was prepared the night before
-Load the car with children, sunscreen, and coolers
-Meet my grandparents, aunts, and uncles at my grandparents’ home on Old Brevard Road and set out on a 45-minute journey along US-74 until we reached the Hickory Nut Gap. Once at the gap, we followed Bearwallow Mountain Road, a series of twists and turns up and down the mountainsides, until we reached almost the pinnacle of Bearwallow Mountain, where in a small cove, a picnic shelter, trampoline, and outhouse awaited us.
This day-long event was called “Birthday Dinner.” As a child, I never knew whose birthday it was, and never questioned it. My mother informed me that the tradition began as a celebration of all the Bradley (my Pap’s mother’s family) family birthdays at one time. The adults spent their time discussing genealogy, hugging babies, and eating. The children played games of tag and Frisbee in the wide-open field, made efforts to see who could swing the highest on an ancient wooden swing set, and tried to remember to “flush” the outhouse at the behest of our joking uncles.
These once a year trips were the beginning of my fascination with the history of western North Carolina. It was at Birthday Dinner where I learned the ins and outs of my mother’s family and got to know the place my Pap (and his Pap) called home. As I got older, the long drive there and back served as a time for asking questions like, “who is ‘so and so’? And how is it that they are related to ‘so and so’ again?”
Almost every year on the trip home, if it wasn’t too late, we would take some detours on the way back home. The most memorable, and the most important to me, were the stops at “The Clarkes.” At some point, either because someone told me, or simply some realization, I came to understand that “The Clarkes” was the big house with the candle-lit chandelier, boxwood garden, and Santa Claus on the roof. But for my Pap, it was much, much more. It was, in many ways, home.
In 1929, Osborne Filmore Settles and his wife, Cora Lee Sinclair Settles conveyed 7 acres of their 115 acre tract at the headwaters of Cane Creek, in the Fairview Township, to James Gore King McClure, Jr and his wife, Elizabeth. This land had been a gift from O.F’s father at the time of his passing, a place where O.F and his family had lived, presumably, since he and Cora Lee married in April 1896. Surveyors used two trees along the Henderson/Buncombe County border the mark the southeastern line of the property. This plot is close to where the Garren Creek fire station sits today. About the same time, Mckinley and Clinard Settles, two of O.F’s sons, developed relationships with McClure.
James G.K. McClure, Jr. moved into the Fairview section of Buncombe County with his wife Elizabeth in 1916 and purchased the old Sherrill’s Inn. The inn, now on the National Register of Historic Places, served as a popular stagecoach stop in the early 19th century. Later, it became a Civil War field hospital, and finally fell into the hands of the James and Elizabeth McClure. In 1918, James McClure held the first meeting to incorporate Hickory Nut Gap Farm, a business in operation to this day.
James McClure led an amazingly full life of accomplishments and accolades, (enough to fill an entire book, and I highly encourage everyone with any interest in Fairview, WNC, or Presbyterian Home Missions, to pick up a copy of We Plow God’s Fields by John Ager.) He and other Fairview farmers were responsible for the foundation of the Farmers Federation of Fairview. Started in 1920 as a single warehouse at the closest railroad stop to the Fairview Township, the movement grew into more than five warehouses across the county built with major investments from E.W Grove and others. McClure, having been trained as a Presbyterian minister, also started a mission wing of the Federation called The Lord’s Acre.
By 1922, O.F Settles and his children became deeply involved in the Farmers Federation and the operation of Hickory Nut Gap Farm. Altogether, Osborne and his wife Cora Lee had five children, and according to the 1930 census and family history, most of them were working at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in some capacity or another. Their departure from what has been described as “Settles Hollow” was the beginning of a special, decades-long relationship between the Settles and McClure-Clarke families.
One of Osborne Settles’ youngest sons left his father’s farm and went to work at Hickory Nut Gap Farm shortly after the Farmer’s Federation was in full swing in Buncombe County. According to an interview with Maggie Lauterer, a long time Asheville Citizen-Times history and culture columnist, Clinard Lee Settles, left his father’s farm at 16 years old. Annie Clarke Ager (granddaughter of James McClure) believes that Clinard may have come to Hickory Nut Gap Farm as young as 12. Clinard’s primary job on the farm was as the heavy truck driver, the keeper of the corn, and “surveyor.” He was a wage-earning farm laborer, and a portion of his wages was paid in free rent on a home on the farm. He and his wife, Ruth Bradley Settles, moved into the home after they were married and lived there for the whole of their lives together. According to Annie, when Clinard passed away in 1987, “No one knew where the boundaries of the farm were anymore!”
Clinard apparently used the farm truck to haul large numbers of people to the Farmers Federation Picnics, winning the “most people in one vehicle” contest on multiple occasions! The Settles’ were mighty famous at Federation picnics, as O.F. and his sons were well known to sweep the “bald headed man contest,” as well.
Clinard’s older brother, Mckinley, or “Mack” lived on Sugar Hollow Rd. and worked as a chauffeur for the McClures. Mrs. McClure never learned to drive, so it was up to Mckinley to get her around. Clinard and Mack’s sister, Dottie, worked as a housekeeper and cook on the farm as early as 19 years old, while her sister-in-law Nanny, became a nurse to the children of Elspeth McClure (James and Elizabeth’s daughter) and her husband, James M. Clarke. Closer to Fairview proper, Lola or Lowly Settles operated a craft shop on 74 and worked on and off as a carpenter and stonemason on the farm. His daughter Lola Mae eventually took a job with the Imperial Life Insurance Company of Asheville in the home office located on Rankin Ave.
The Settles raised their families on Hickory Nut Gap farm alongside the McClure-Clarke children. Clinard and Ruth Settles had two children, J.C (James Clinard) and Elizabeth Ann. (This is where I come back in.) J.C, my grandfather, lived the grand portion of his young years on the farm. Though he never worked for the Clarkes in any official capacity, as another capable pair of hands on a busy working farm, he was expected to pitch in. One of the ways he helped was in the dairy. Before school each morning, he would go to the dairy barn and attach the cows to the milking machines. If the power was out (which it was more often in those days) he milked the cows by hand. Mrs. Clarke would also pay him to weed her flower beds, and to work at the roadside apple stand in the fall.
J.C left the farm to enter the US Air force immediately after graduating from A.C Reynolds High School. He married Lorraine Houck in 1964 and the couple took their honeymoon at Hickory Nut Gap farm. They stayed for several nights in a home built for Jamie and Elspeth Clarke, then empty, that had been fixed up by Nanny Settles specifically for their wedding trip. Lorraine said that “Aunt Nanny” as she was known, “Had put little bouquets of flowers in every room… it was just really sweet.”
The Settles have continued to enjoy a special relationship with the extended Hickory Nut Gap farm family. I remember that Annie Clarke Ager and her husband John were present at my great grandmother, Ruth Bradley Settles funeral at Bearwallow Baptist Church cemetery. My family still visits the farm at least once a year. We, like everyone who visits the old Sherrill’s Inn, are treated like old friends. We roam around the property and my mother and aunt recall their childhood days spent playing around the old springhouse. Typically, we do not leave empty-handed, whether it is with eggs, apples, or some other goodies. The Agers have honored the work of the Settles family in a number of ways. Most prominently, are the portraits of my great grandparents that hang in the event space near the site where their home once stood.
If you haven’t put two and two together by now, that very early childhood memory was a Christmas Eve Dinner at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in 1998. The very kind lady who allowed me to snuff out the candles in the chandelier was Annie Clarke Ager. Here are some photos of the gathering that day:
And of course, here is a photo of Annie and me snuffing out the candles:
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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 Fairview 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? Interested in learning more about Fairview? Please let us know, and be sure to check out the Fairview Oral History Project, the latest of our Community-Based Archives projects! 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.