Oakley, like all of the communities we’ve featured this year, has seen significant changes over time with the ebb and flow of Asheville and Buncombe County’s real estate, industrial, and tourism economy. Throughout the years, the section has developed from rolling farmland to middle-upscale planned community, and over time, the apparent planning of the suburb has, in many ways, faded.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the suburban section of Asheville we now call Oakley was known as West’s Chapel. This name came from, as you might guess, the community’s strong association with one particular church, West’s Chapel, which was located on the modern West Chapel Road, off Sweeten Creek Road, near the present 1000 block. The church cemetery is still visible from the road.
The community was focused primarily on farming, as reflected in an article about a “West’s Chapel Alliance” gathering on the church grounds in the Asheville Democrat in 1889. The farmers of the section gathered together to talk shop, and eat a meal that was “spread on two long tables in the grove” until they “were ladened with the substantials and luxuries of a prosperous country home life.”
Like in many rural Buncombe County communities in the 19th century, the community grew up around the church. One of the section’s first schools was supported by West’s Chapel and the name stuck, even after the county took over responsibility for the school. That is, until 1917.
This is where Oakley comes in. As best we can tell, scouring newspapers, reading school histories, etc., the name Oakley was an invention of the principal of West’s Chapel School in the late 1910s, Elbert Bascomb Kimsey. In 1917, Kimsey recognized that the school no longer had formal relationship with the church and renamed the school Oakley after the “great oaks” that surrounded the school property.
About that same time, the real estate market in Buncombe County was about to take off. Once rural suburbs were swiftly being developed into planned subdivisions, marketed toward upper middle class white families. By the early 1920s, several developers had begun to subdivide large tracts of land for homebuilding and for investment purposes. Perhaps the largest of these firms being the Brown Real Estate Company who developed the section of town we know as Oakley today.
Part of the economic appeal for Oakley and surrounding communities for both investors and families was the easy distance to both Biltmore and the new Sayles Bleachery. In the same way Grovemont served some workers at the Beacon Manufacturing Company in Swannanoa, Oakley was an upscale neighborhood that catered to plant supervisors and managers at Sayles and Biltmore.
In 2016 the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County presented a program and developed a driving tour of the Oakley neighborhood. The program, researched primarily by Dale Slusser, investigated the connections between the community, the school, and the Sayles Bleachery.
To take a deeper dive into the history of the Oakley community, download and read through this pamphlet and take the driving tour.
PLEASE NOTE: The homes listed as “open for tours” ARE NO LONGER OPEN FOR TOURS! Please don’t walk into strangers’ homes.
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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 Oakley, Sayles Village 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.