On a Staircase in Reems Creek: 52 Weeks, 52 Communities

If you grew up in Buncombe County any time after 1960, chances are you took a trip either with your school or your parents to the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace State Historic Site located in the Reems Creek community near Weaverville. The reconstruction of a late 18th, early 19th century mountain plantation has hosted thousands of visitors since it opened to the public, and yes, you read that correctly, the buildings you see on your visit are, for the most part, a reconstruction. However, there are many elements that are original.

The main house at the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site prior to reconstruction, late 1950’s, photo by Charles Rand. E946-8.

According to site staff, the elements of the structures that are original to the time period are the slave dwelling (relocated to the site from the Bee Tree section of Swannanoa, near the Patton Cemetery), the hearth or fireplace at the center of the home, one of the earliest and largest brick fireplaces in Buncombe County (original to the home), some of the wood flooring and paneling (might be original to the home, or may be original to another Reems Creek home built slightly later), and the staircase leading from the sitting room to the upper bedrooms. The staircase, though unassuming, has some incredible connections.

Color postcard image showing the original kitchen hearth at the Vance Birthplace. AB064.

The Vance family occupied this property as early as the mid-1790s, then later moved to Lapland (Marshall, Madison County) in the early 1830s to open a drover’s stand. Over the course of their occupancy, the Vance family enslaved at least 18 individuals. You can learn more about them on the Vance Birthplace website, or by visiting the site and taking a tour of the grounds with staff.

The Vance family was not the only family to occupy the Reems Creek Valley, nor was it the only slave-owning family in the valley. That is not surprising. However, what is a more curious and exciting connection, is how, through examining the reconstructed and relocated structures on the grounds, we can remember the lives of even more enslaved people who made Reems Creek their home. 

In 1844, David Vance, Jr., Zebulon Vance’s father died, forcing the family to sell vast portions of their estate. Andrew Hemphill purchased the portion of the Reems Creek property that the Vance family still owned. Over the course of the early 19th century, the Hemphills made their way up the mountain from Old Fort, settled for a while near Riceville (see: Hemphill Knob), then as the family expanded, continued to venture west. According to documents, Andrew gifted the Reems Creek property to his sons, Benjamin and John. One of the reasons we know so much detail about Andrew Hemphill and his family is due in part to an oral history collected by the Federal Writers Project in Asheville in May 1937. This is also where the stairs come back in.

The source of the oral history is the late Sarah Gudger, a woman who claimed to be 121 years old at the time of her interview at her home, 8 Dalton St. in the Kenilworth community, near St. John A Baptist Church and the South Asheville Cemetery. Sarah, though she was born in Old Fort and lived most of her life in the Riceville/Swannanoa area, is intimately connected to the Reems Creek Valley through her mother, Lucy McDaniel.

Lucy McDaniel was probably born around 1800 and seems to have been living with Sarah for a good portion of her childhood. According to Sarah, her mother died not long before the wife of William Hemphill, Rosana Jane Hemphill. Rosana is reported to have died in July 1862. This means that Lucy probably passed away in May or June of the same year; only a few years shy of freedom. 

Excerpt from Sarah Gudger’s oral history interview, 1937. Library of Congress.

Sarah says in her interview that her mother was taken away from their home at the Andrew Hemphill plantation and taken to Reems Creek to live with “the other Hemphills,” presumably children of Andrew Hemphill. If this is true, we may be able to attach her to the staircase in the present Vance birthplace main cabin.

The stairs in the restored main house at the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace were taken from a dilapidated cabin said to have belonged to James Hemphill, the son of Andrew, (the man who owned Sarah). It appears that Lucy went on to live with James Hemphill and his first wife Hannah (and later his second wife, Salina) or John and Harriet Hemphill in Reems Creek. This is only a guess, however, they are the only slave-owning Hemphills to be found in the area in a search through the 1850 and 1860 census.

It can’t be confirmed though that these are the Hemphills who enslaved Lucy McDaniel because enslaved people were not recorded by name on census records. However, an interesting record shows a child of James and Salina named McDaniel. This record hints at the Hemphill and McDaniel family connections, which in the slave economy of Western North Carolina were the foundation of many transactions and business relationships.

The Vance House at the time it was occupied by the Hemphill family, late 19th century. Vance Birthplace State Historic Site.

There are not many existing structures in Buncombe County that we can connect directly to enslaved people so that we can better tell their stories in physical space. Documents and accounts of enslaved people in our region are also scarce. However, the reconstructed and relocated structures at the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site offer visitors (and residents) of the Reems Creek Valley opportunities to acquaint themselves with the physical space of African American people who lived most if not all of their lives as forced laborers in our county.

Though we don’t know if Lucy McDaniel definitely walked the stairs presently inside the reconstructed Vance house, we do know that she lived and labored as an enslaved person on or near the mountain plantation. Uncovering her history is an important part of ensuring we tell the story of everyone in our county.

An African American woman plows a field using a team of oxen, about 1910 (post enslavement). From “A Souvenir Directory of the Land of the Sky” M979-8.

We love sharing our collections and stories with you! We especially like when they get a good workout from researchers, the curious, and even the stray interior designer or stylist! Our 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 Reems Creek 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? 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.

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