Today’s guest post was written by Don Casada.
Pictures of our people and place
This will be an introductory piece of what I hope Tipper’s readers will enjoy well enough to make it a series – sharing of photographs taken of people, places and events in the first half of the last century by three men who are buried in the Bryson City Cemetery, on a hallowed hill overlooking the place that they and I call home: Bryson City, Swain County, North Carolina. The images reflect a sense the nature of the people and the time of the early 20th century, not only of southern Appalachia, but small towns and rural communities across the fruited plain.
Over the last few years Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery (FBCC) has helped facilitate the donation of the photographic collections of Frank Emmett Fry (1877-1939), Irving Kip Stearns (1895-1942) and Kelly Edmond Bennett (1890-1974) to Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library Special Collections. The three photographers knew one another and I suspect exchanged insights on photographic matters with one another. They are buried in a triangle which occupies less than a tenth of an acre.
The donors of the Frank Fry, Stearns-Grueninger, and Kelly Bennett Collections at Hunter Library include two of FBCC’s members, Jean Douthit (granddaughter of Frank Fry) and Carl Grueninger III (great nephew of I.K. Stearns). The Bennett collection was donated by Dennis Anthony, honoring the request of his stepfather William Jay Swan, a grandson of Kelly Bennett who takes his rest in a plot near his grandfather in the Bryson City Cemetery.
I believe Tipper has in mind to do a little piece on the work of FBCC later this year, so I’ll not delve into our overall efforts here other than to say that our role in getting these and well over a thousand photographs into the public domain, and providing annotation support in the process, is one of the most important things we’ve done as an organization.
Introduction out of the way, let’s get to the photos. The group covered here is centered in and immediately around Bryson City, NC. Captions under the photos from the three collections noted above provide links to the full-size images at Hunter.
There are several features of note in this Frank Fry photo of the bridge across the Tuckasegee River in Bryson City. Steel truss bridges were fairly common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and were installed in other communities throughout the area and state. They eliminated the need for understructure support and were relatively inexpensive. There had been a wooden bridge previously installed here; I’ve found no records to confirm or refute my suspicion that the wooden structure was lost during one of the floods which sporadically ravaged the river bottom. It might be noted that the bridge is about seventeen feet above the normal water level. In August 1940, a flood reached several feet above the base of the bridge.
A sign at the right end of the bridge is outlined in red. Although the wording can’t be made out, even at the full size image level, we know exactly what it said. The reason is that in 1897, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law which began “That if any person shall willfully ride or drive any Persons ride or drive a horse, mule, or other animal faster than a walk over the Iron bridge across the Tuckaseegee river at Bryson City, Swain county, he shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be fined not less than five dollars, nor more than fifty dollars, or imprisoned not exceeding thirty days.” However, the law stated that there would be no prosecutions for this until a sign had been posted for thirty days “embracing the following words, shall be written or printed in large and plain letters, to wit : “All persons are hereby forbidden to ride or drive over this bridge faster than a walk.” Interestingly, there had been a similar law passed in 1885 which applied to the previous wooden bridge.
Anyone who has ever walked across a swinging bridge will immediately grasp why the law was established. The same type of statute was applied to other bridges.
The building on the right side of the bridge was built around 1897, and as the full-size image shows, was home to a Grocery and Dry Goods store on the ground floor. A few years after it was built, it was acquired by Charlie Wilhide, and became known as the Wilhide Building. Author Horace Kephart rented an office space on the second floor of the building. I don’t know what the rental rate was, but when he died in a car wreck in 1931, he owed the Wilhide estate $212 in rent; that is equivalent to almost $3900 today. The Wilhides, like Jenny Angel who ran the Cooper House where Kephart lodged and owed $551 in room and board, apparently cut him considerable slack.
The next photo was taken from near the south side of the Everett Street Bridge, near the right end of the bridge in the previous picture and has as a central element the original First Baptist Church structure, erected in 1890. Frank Fry, a Methodist, and Mattie Pender, an Episcopalian, were married in the church in 1900. Perhaps the Baptist Church was something of a geographical compromise. The Methodist Church stood a couple hundred on the south side of the Tuckasegee River (seen in the photo, which is looking to the northeast). If you ran a line from the Methodist Church to the Episcopal Church, the Baptist Church would be at almost exactly the half-way point.
The photo illustrates that Frank Fry had a fine eye for photography – picking a location which framed the church nicely while capturing reflections in the river and the surrounding homes and other structures. I suspect that this photo was taken in period between 1905 and 1910. One indicator is the steam rising on the left side of the picture, which I’ll discuss in a bit below. Several of the homes and outbuildings have hand-rived shingles for their roofs, even though this is in a town which had been served by rail since 1884. Other than a couple of clusters of pine trees, the hill in the background (which my father and others of his generation told me the hill was called Pine Hill in their youth) is bare. The side of the hill below the large home is fenced in for pasture. Although it can’t be seen in this photo, much of that hill top was used to grow corn at the time; later, there was a 9-hole sand green golf course there. The Leatherwood home was built around 1890 by attorney Robert L. Leatherwood and his wife, Fannie. It is still there and was carefully restored in recent years by a young man who grew up next door to us and is himself an attorney, Jonathan Mattox.
The donor of the Frank Fry Collection, Mrs. Jean Sandlin Douthit, who taught business classes at Swain County High School when I was coming along, prepared a biographical sketch of the Fry family; it is posted HERE on the Friends of the Bryson City Cemetery website.
The steam seen in the photo above came from the Bryson City Pump Works plant, originally located between the train depot and the Baptist Church. One of their product lines was upscale models of the lever-operated hand pumps you see in old westerns, as shown at left below, and of course that’s the source of the company’s name. But by far the largest portion of their early business came from manufacture of turned porch, or veranda, columns like those shown at right below. A principal factor in locating the plant in Bryson City was the availability of native tulip poplar trees. The plant in Bryson City shipped these throughout the country according to newspapers of the time.
Hand pumps and porch columns manufactured by Bryson City Pump Works
Source: Pump Works catalog, personal collection
Poplar logs were first hauled to the plant by wagon. In the first photo below, the wagon, drawn by mixed tandem teams of mules/horses and oxen, is crossing a bridge at the mouth of Deep Creek, about half a mile from the plant. The lad who is sitting second from the left is young I.K. Stearns (1895-1942). The large building in the background was the Bryson mill, built by the namesake of the town, Thaddeus Dillard Bryson. In the second photo below, taken at the same location, I.K. appears to have a bow in hand, with the mill dam and flume just behind him. Further in the background are the Smoky Mountains. The two noted peaks are both on the boundary line of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Kelly Bennett Peak was named for the same Kelly Bennett whose photographic collection is currently being processed by Western Carolina. Both photos below will eventually be a part of the Stearns-Grueninger Collection at Hunter Library.
Load of logs on the bridge over Deep Creek, headed for Bryson City Pump Works
Source: Carl Grueninger III
I.K. Stearns and the Bryson mill dam and flume
Source: Carl Grueninger III
A couple of decades later, Kelly Bennett would take the photo below from near his house on Bennett Hill in Bryson City, showing the lower Deep Creek drainage, providing a nice frame of reference and sense of the area – cleared in and around the bottomland with forested hills and mountains. This also gives some perspective to how far the wagon load of logs was likely hauled. Juney Whank Branch, which is where my father grew up (Tipper wrote about a visit to the home place) and is now in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a little under three miles from the mouth of Deep Creek. As can be seen, most of the land below that was cleared and used for crops or pasture, so it would have been a haul of several miles to bring the load to the BC Pump Works plant.
Although they’re a little fuzzy, by zooming in, the mill dam and mill building can be seen below. The bridge that is seen is actually a rail trestle; the road bridge over Deep Creek is behind it.
The logs were debarked, turned on lathes, hollowed using a boring machine patented by EJ Wheeler, allowed to air dry for several months, and painted inside and out. The plant in Bryson City shipped these throughout the country according to newspapers of the time.
BC Pump Works employees, raw material and finished product
Source: Heritage of Swain County
The photo above was taken around 1910 at the original BC Pump Works plant; it shows logs as received (bark on) at the far left, after debarking in the foreground, and with the final product, a turned porch column being held by Bob Warren and Jim Buchanan. Several of these fellows worked for both BC Pump works and its successor, Carolina Wood Turning, for decades. Sam Wiggins, at the far left above, was one of those men.
About three decades later – in December of 1941, Carolina Wood Turning Company President IK Stearns took the photo below of Sam Wiggins and his wife Ellen Kirkland. I.K.’s affection for his employees and the people of the community in general are clearly manifest in his color photography, which was rare for the period outside of the professional photography domain. The character and strength of this Appalachian couple reach out of the picture and take ahold of your heart.
Porch columns turned by BC Pump Works are still found at many homes in the area, such as the one below. It is the Ditmore place, located just southwest of the town square. The roof, windows and siding aren’t original, but the Pump Works columns, now over a century old, continue to serve.
BC Pump Works columns still support the porches of many older homes in the area.
Source: personal collection
Bryson City Pump Works and its successor company, Carolina Wood Turning provided direct employment to hundreds for over three-quarters of a century, and indirectly provided work for others who cut the timber and hauled the logs. The plant, along with Daddy’s garden, put food on our table; he worked there from the late 1920s when, in his words, he was “the greenest hand that ever was” until retirement in the mid-1970s. I worked there one summer while in college; it was hard work and made me more fully appreciate the strength and dedication of folks like Daddy and Sam Wiggins.
I hope these photos and my rambling have provided Tipper’s readers some insights into a part of the life and people of this place we call home. If you and Tipper will have me back, we’ll move outside of town on the next photographic excursion.
I hope you enjoyed Don’s first post about the photo collections as much as I did! The few photos I’ve seen from the collections are beyond amazing. The subject matter is mesmerizing, the frame of the photo is interesting, and perhaps best of all to me the photographers grabbed a visual image of the people who called Appalachia home.