Swannanoa: 52 Weeks, 52 Communities

I volunteered this week to create the post for Swannanoa in part because it has been my home for the majority of my life. I was educated in grades 1-12 in “the Valley” (as you will hear natives often call the community including Black Mountain and Ridgecrest). In the 20th century, Swannanoa was transformed by the move from New Bedford, Mass and growth of Beacon Manufacturing lead by a series of businessmen named Charles D. Owen.

Colorized Postcard “Asheville, NC Looking up the Swannanoa Valley” AA924.

The Owen family had a long history in business and textiles. In 1904, three family members acquired the defunct New Bedford, Massachusetts, Beacon Manufacturing Company, that had manufactured yarn from waste. Initially the company of 20 made “bathrobes, house robes and regular bed blankets”. By the end of 1919 the company had become the “largest blanket manufacturing company under one roof in the US”. In 1923, Charles Owen II was traveling through WNC by train on the look-out for an additional factory location to meet growing business needs. Owen liked and “… purchased 160 acres of farmland, 12 of which were level”. Over time an additional “…1300 acres from the top of the mountain to the Swannanoa River valley” were purchased. By 1925, a new plant was built and “25% of the New Bedford equipment had been shipped by train to Swannanoa.” The activity involved in building the plant had an immediate impact on the Swannanoa community. On April 5, 1925, The Sunday Citizen observed that Swannanoa had gone from “a tiny village  … [to] a young town … Numerous new stores have been erected, filling stations have sprung up and on all sides are signs of business and industrial activity.” In 1933 Charles D Owen III convinced his father to move the entire New Bedford operation to Swannanoa. This was dubbed, ‘Owen’s Folly’ by other textile executives but in time they too saw the advantage to locating plants within proximity to water, cotton, plentiful electricity and cheap (non-union) workers. The move involved all the machinery and inventory in addition to many Beacon plant executives, managers and skilled workers and their families. This migration introduced many new families to the community. Names like Magnant, Lemieux, Atkinson, Martiniano, Lazotte, Oliver, Fontaine, and Vaillancourt became as familiar in the community as long time inhabitants. 

The Beacon Manufacturing Company, Swannanoa, NC. AA611.

In the 1940 US census, we find Albert J Magnant and his wife, Pearl living at 110 Whitson Avenue, in Swannanoa, the street that runs in front of the entrance to Beacon Manufacturing. His occupation is listed as Blanket Factory Superintendent. Their neighbors include Ezna, a blanket factory employee and wife, Letitia Atkinson, both born in England and five years earlier residents of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ralph Magnant, a designer at Beacon, had been a New Bedford resident along with his wife and 2 daughters prior to living in Swannanoa. Magnant is a common French Canadian surname in Massachusetts but I was unable to confirm that Albert and Ralph were related. Pauline Fontaine moved to Swannanoa from New Bedford along with her son, a Beacon automobile mechanic and two grandsons, the oldest a weaver at the mill. The Lemieux family moved from New Bedford to Swannanoa’s Morgan Avenue. Alma, the head of the family, her son George, a loom fixer at Beacon, a daughter Rheta 17 years old and working at the mill as a folder and a 9 year old daughter, Theresa. Just a block away on Dennis St lived the Martiniano family with Portuguese heritage and jobs as spinners at the mill. In the segregated Buncombe County white Swannanoa High School 1947-48 yearbook, The Cygnet, a visual stroll through the Beacon community multiculturalization minus the African American community is possible. The Senior class photos include Bob Bastarache, the son of a napping dresser at Beacon beside Blankenships, McMahons, Whitsons and other family names commonly found in the Swannanoa Valley before and after Beacon’s move. These sources illustrate the industrialization of Swannanoa via (Beacon) and how the next generation was “propelled” into the middle class.

Whitson Ave. at Hwy. 70 in Swannanoa, taken from Patton Cove Rd. about 1990. Bob Ruiz collection, MS256.004ZC

     Searching census records within the mill village (both new and old) African-Americans were employed by the mill but they were relegated to the lowest paying menial jobs, listed as a “Laborer” in the 1930 and 1940 census. Segregation policy included requiring black families to provide their own housing and no allowance for mill village housing. Browsing the 1930 and 1940 census by community and race identifies names of the janitors and day laborers at Beacon including Lytle, Gardner and Dougherty in African American communities in Lytle Cove, Buckeye Cove and Craigmont Road. Rebecca Williams, documentary film director of Blanket Town: the Rise and Fall of an American Mill Town has documented the Beacon and Swannanoa story. She shared the experiences of William Marvin Hamilton, son of a Beacon janitor who also worked as a Beacon janitor until the early 1960’s when he was hired as a receiving clerk in the Beacon supply room, the first African American in a non-janitorial role in the plant’s history. Mr. Hamilton told Williams stories of blacks and whites separated at  lunch times and Christmas celebrations when white employees would “gather around the table and fix their plates … we (blacks) couldn’t come to the table. So they bring us a dinner around the corner. We couldn’t sit at the table with them.”

2019 another momentous development occurred in Swannanoa. The former Beacon property has been sold with great hopes for development and revitalization after the empty buildings burnt to the ground in 2003. Affordable housing is under construction and new families will call “the Valley” their home along with long familiar names and families. The dreams of these families mixed with traditions and multicultural heritages will once again meld to continue the history of Swannanoa. What will the 2030 census reveal to future researchers about the Swannanoa of 2020? It is not too difficult to imagine children playing youth league games together, mothers chatting while shopping and families enjoying community trails amid mountain breezes and the variety of dinner smells of wafting through open windows.

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 Swannanoa, Black Mountain, Montreat, 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 Tammy Young, a Friend of The North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.


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