Saturday, March 12, 2011
Buncombe County: A Brief History
The Buncombe Turnpike was completed in 1827 connecting Tennessee and Kentucky to South Carolina. The turnpike ran along the French Broad River in the northern part of the county and through the heart of the county in the south. The turnpike caused an economic revolution to the region. By 1840, the first public schools had opened and by 1850 there were 57 schools enrolling more than 4,500 students. Economic prosperity in 1850 was based on the drover trade; driving hogs, cattle, sheep and turkeys from the West to markets in South Carolina. Corn, used to feed the animals being driven to market, was the key money crop. However, new railroads running into Tennessee and Kentucky greatly diminished the drover trade, as did the Civil War.
Zebulon Vance, Buncombe native and Governor of North Carolina, reflected the views of most citizens regarding the issues that resulted in the Civil War. He was opposed to secession, nevertheless he said, "If war must come, I prefer to be with my own people." Support for the Confederacy, however, formed quickly after the fall of Fort Sumter. The Buncombe Riflemen were the first to ride out. The war left Buncombe County's economy drained. Economic salvation for Buncombe County arrived on October 3, 1880 when the first train pulled into Asheville. Building the railroad across the Blue Ridge Mountains was an engineering feat only equaled by the strength of the men who built it. During the next ten years, the County's population increased more than 13,000 people-- 61 percent. The most important agricultural commodity was tobacco. It replaced corn as the county's key money crop. Fruit and dairy products continued to grow in importance as well.
In 1890, George Vanderbilt began building Biltmore House, the largest private home in America. The artisans and others he brought to build his estate brought changes in views about forestry, agriculture and handicrafts. During this era, 1890-1910, Buncombe County's cool, crisp mountain air made the area a popular location for tuberculosis sanatoriums. The area also became one of America's best known tourist centers. By 1920, Buncombe County was firmly established as a transportation, manufacturing, forestry, agricultural, educational, medical and tourist center. Thomas Wolfe put Asheville on the literary map as well. Despite the profound impact of the "great depression" that began in 1929, those same industries exist today in a vibrant metropolitan area surrounded by unsurpassed natural beauty. Our population has grown to more than 200,000. Yet, the qualities of intelligence, hard work, faith, honesty and "people to match our mountains" is prevalent today, as it has been throughout Buncombe County's extraordinary history.
A five-member Board of County Commissioners governs Buncombe County today, and they appoint a County Manager. The Board of Commissioners is chosen every four years in partisan elections. The Commissioners set policy, determine budgets for several agencies and set property tax rates for the entire county. The County Manager is the chief administrative officer, and prepares and recommends the annual budget. Also, the County Manager is responsible for program development and personnel management.
Buncombe County has changed in form since its inception, but it was always within the folds of the Appalachian mountains, judged to be the oldest in the world. Named after a Revolutionary War figure, Colonel Edward Buncombe, the county was formed from parts of Burke and Rutherford counties in 1791. Buncombe County was initially much larger than it is today. It once incorporated all of Rutherford County west of the mountains and most of the western part of Burke County while, to the south, it reached to the South Carolina border and then ran westward all the way to the Tennessee line. It has gone through at least ten distinct permutations from its creation until present day. Today it consists of 646 square miles lying on the western slopes of the eastern continental divide. It is bounded on the north by Madison and Yancey counties, on the east by McDowell and Rutherford, on the west by Madison again and Haywood, and finally on the south by Henderson county. It is roughly bisected by the French Broad river which has the distinction of being the third oldest river in the world as well as one of the few rivers to flow from south to north. At the county's center lies Asheville, the county seat, named after Samuel Ashe, governor of North Carolina from 1796-1798. Originally Asheville was named Morristown and known in Thomas Wolfe's novel Look Homeward Angel as Altamont.
Although the Cherokee have lived in this area for a long time, longer than any of the European immigrants, they say that they were not the first ones here. They tell strange tales of tiny white men with 'almond shaped eyes' living in this area long ago. These tales seem to be buttressed by the word the Native American Crow as well as early adventurers such as trappers and members of military survey expeditions through this area. Other accounts tell of accidently discovered graveyards consisting entirely of tiny graves.
Mysteries and legends abound in the early history of this area. Tales of Spanish miners who were slaughtered on the banks of a river due west of the county and their laboriously lode of silver dumped into the depths of the river and the opening to the mine hidden again forever. They had been drawn to the area by tales of gold and gems to find silver. In their feverish efforts to extract the mineral they neglected to provide for themselves, electing instead to rob the nearby tribe of Cherokee. The tribe were at first patient but the increasing boldness of the small party of Spaniards ultimately had to be dealt with in swift, bold methods.
Geologically, the area is rich in a variety of minerals and other natural resources as a result in its early era of considerable volcanic activity.
Source: Buncombe County: A Brief History.
Photograph is the old Buncombe County Courthouse (click on photograph for a larger image).
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