Preservacation is a series of essays by Brad Hatch about the preservation related adventures, issues, and sites that he and Lauren have encountered on their travels. This is #1 in the series.
By Brad Hatch
About a month ago my girlfriend, Lauren, and I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina to visit the Biltmore Estate (the subject of a future posting) and stayed at the Dry Ridge Inn, a bed and breakfast in a historic house just outside of the city in a sleepy little town called Weaverville. Weaverville is one of those towns that really only has one street with commercial establishments, aptly named Main Street. At first, Lauren and I figured there wasn’t going to be much to do in Weaverville, though we didn’t mind since we were there to see Biltmore. But, as is often the case, we had stumbled upon a little gem of a town.
The first thing we did, after unpacking, was take a walk downtown to grab a bite to eat. We stopped in at Blue Mountain Pizza and had a tasty pie while we listened to live local music, which is a nightly occurrence. This would not be our last pleasant surprise in this town. Later that weekend we got the chance to talk a walk down Main Street and look around in some shops. There were several local art galleries filled with everything from paintings to photographs, to pottery, all made by local North Carolina artists. Interestingly, we learned that many local artists have their workshops in the mountains surrounding the town and twice a year the town and artists put on an Art Safari where people can visit the different workshops. The shop that really caught my eye, however, was Preservation Hall. This little place contains a wide array of salvaged architectural elements from things as small as door knobs and keys all the way up to doors and mantles. As preservationists, Lauren and I were like kids in a candy store gazing over all of the things we learned about in various classes at Mary Wash. It’s definitely worth checking out if you get the chance just for fun or if you are looking for some pieces for a restoration job, they have a huge collection.
One of the other places we got the chance to visit on this trip was the Zebulon Vance birthplace, about 5 minutes outside of Weaverville. I won’t get into the details of Zeb Vance’s life here, but he served in the Confederate army during the Civil War, was elected governor of North Carolina three times, and did a stint in the U.S. Senate. To put it plainly, he is to North Carolinians what Robert E. Lee might be to Virginians; they love him down there. The birthplace, situated in the Reems Creek Valley, is administered by the state of North Carolina and consists of the reconstructed home of Zebulon Vance, with the original 1795 chimney, and associated reconstructed outbuildings. Zeb’s grandfather purchased the property in 1795, but it is unknown whether the structures were already extant. The main house consists of a two-story log building with a one-story addition. It is furnished to reflect the things that the Vance’s, a wealthy family on the frontier, may have had, which did not amount to much.
It was a real contrast coming from 18th century Virginia plantations to a small frontier farmstead and seeing the difference in material possessions. All of the possessions in the Vance house would not have been able to fill a single room in a place like Mount Vernon or Stratford Hall. They did, however, have some luxury items that were symbolic of their wealth. Most notably and best explained, was a wall clock. This was a status symbol for the Vances since nobody would have had one and it was virtually useless on the frontier, since it was impossible to set accurately if it ever stopped. In addition to the main house there are also several outbuildings, including a weaving house, a smokehouse, a tool shed, and a slave quarter. However, like most historic sites, these structures were left up to us to explore and were not interpreted. Despite this, the site served as an excellent reminder that the majority of people in the 18th century were not living in manor houses, and most, both east and west, were in even poorer material conditions than the Vance family.
Finally, I want to quickly mention that the Blue Ridge Parkway is only about 15 minutes from Weaverville, and only a couple of miles from the Vance Birthplace. It is a beautiful road and definitely worth driving on if you get the chance. Of course, Lauren and I explored it on a rainy, foggy day, so it felt more like a trip to our doom. About 20 minutes away from the Zeb Vance birthplace along the Blue Ridge Parkway is the Folk Art Center. It is huge and features a museum about folk art, particularly in the southern highlands, as well as a shop where you can purchase items created by local artists. Many of these pieces, including wood carvings, face jugs, and quilts get at the heart of Appalachian life and culture, which is why this is one stop you don’t want to skip.
Now that I’ve rambled on about Weaverville for far too long I should say that it is a wonderful place if you like preservation. It is a treasure trove of interesting buildings, art, culture, and beautiful scenery to enjoy. You won’t be able to see it all in a weekend, especially with Asheville so close to keep pulling you away. But, if you’re like me, you won’t want to see it all at once because it will spark a love affair with the Appalachians that will keep you wanting to come back for more.