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Smith-McDowell House Springs to Life

By Dasha Morgan

The Western North Carolina Historical Association has their headquarters here at this beautiful antebellum Smith-McDowell House. The association seeks to educate the public through lectures, exhibitions, publications, and related events.  Photography by Warren LeMay.

With a new Executive Director, Anne Chesky Smith, the Smith-McDowell House at 283 Victoria Road in Asheville is starting an exciting new chapter.

Chesky Smith brings a wealth of experience from her tenure at the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center in Black Mountain, NC. As she said, “I’m very proud of how far SVM has come since I started there at the end of 2010. I expect great things from them in the future. The Western North Carolina Historical Association has been in existence since the 1950s, and they’ve operated the Smith-McDowell House since the 1970s. WNCHA has a strong board and tremendous potential. I’m excited to be a part of using the skills I honed at the Swannanoa Valley Museum to help WNCHA achieve their potential.” Chesky Smith grew up in the Asheville area, attended A.C. Reynolds High School, UNC-Asheville, received a MA in Appalachian studies at Appalachian State University, and later a MA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Georgia. She currently lives in East Asheville with her husband and young daughter.

North Carolina in the Great War Exhibit

The North Carolina in the Great War Exhibit, which opens on February 13,  features western North Carolinians who put their lives on the line in service to their country during World War I.

On Thursday, February 13th , an opening reception for the exhibit “North Carolina in the Great War,” will take place from 4:00 – 6:00 PM with light refreshments. This exhibit explores state and local contributions to World War I through the stories of the men and women who served. Although there are no official numbers or lists for those North Carolinas killed in WW I, the exhibit acknowledges that 86,457 North Carolinians fought in the war, and that North Carolinians were involved in all major battles on the Western Front in 1918. The toll was 828 killed, 3,655 wounded and 1,542 who died of disease, mostly from influenza. The Great War or War to End All Wars was fought mostly in Europe between the Allies and the Central Powers between 1914-1918. But the United States remained neutral until April 6, 1917 when the U. S. declared war on Germany. However many men and women from western North Carolina fought with British and French forces soon after the war began in August 1914. WWI was fought to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Featured in the exhibit are memorabilia from local citizens from western North Carolina who put their lives on the line in service to their country: Madelon Glory “Battle” Hancock, Kiffin Yates Rockwell, Anne Penland and Cashus Melton Morgan.

Madelon “Glory” Battle Hancock, whose father, Dr. S. Westray Battle, was a highly regarded physician known primarily for his work with tuberculosis. She grew up in Asheville, left the United States for Belgium on August 13, 1914, to serve as a nurse going to the frontlines of battle with the first British Hospital Unit. Hancock nursed soldiers, and managed to survive artillery fire and gas attacks. She remained in service through the end of the war and became the most decorated nurse to serve with the Allied Forces in World War I. For her service to the wounded and sick and her conspicuous bravery under fire upon many occasions, she received 12 decorations: five from Great Britain, five from Belgium and two from France.

Kiffin Yates Rockwell is quite well known to many here in the area—with family still in the area. On Merrimon Avenue you can find a historical marker commemorating him. In 2017 the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh had an exhibit which featured Rockwell and his comrades in WW I, and also showed a documentary film, “Valor,” which tells the fascinating story of this North Carolinian. Rockwell attended Asheville High School. In April, 1916, Rockwell became a charter member of the Lafayette Escadrille in France, a squadron of American volunteer pilots. On May 18, 1916, he was the first American to shoot down a hostile airplane. On September 23, 1916, Rockwell entered into a dogfight with a German plane. He was shot in the chest, and his bullet-riddled plane crashed into a field of flowers. He was the second American killed in aerial warfare during WWI. There are items on loan from the Rockwell family for this exhibit.

Anne Penland is considered to be the first nurse anesthetist to serve in battle in WWI, at the battle of Passchendaele. She was a nurse at a time when the science of anesthesiology was in its infancy. Her childhood home on Haywood Street in Asheville was where Pack Memorial Library and the the Vanderbilt Apartments now stand. This is where the once-imposing Penland house was located until it burned in October 1903, when Anne was 18. Shortly after President Woodrow Wilson’s war declaration in 1917, Penland joined other medical professionals at Presbyterian Hospital in forming Base Hospital No. 2 and traveled overseas to support the Allied war effort as the unit’s nurse anesthetist. A marker has been placed downtown, honoring this important pioneer. The marker reads, “Anne Penland, 1885-1976. Nurse anesthetist. Her WWI service influenced the British Medical Corps to train female anesthetists, 1918. Home was here.”

Cashus “Cash” M. Morgan was born February 9, 1893, in the Candler section of Buncombe County, NC, to a farming family. Like most men born during the final decades of the 19th century, Cash was required to register for the selective service on June 5, 1917. Less than a year later, the 24-year-old was drafted into the army and sent overseas to fight. Men who were drafted into the military, did what their country asked of them – performed much of the drudgery of war like digging trenches, marching for miles, camping in the mud in the middle of nowhere – and lived or died doing it. We don’t often hear the stories of these soldiers, because they weren’t the most decorated, but in many ways their experience is the most relatable. Cash Morgan’s family donated to this exhibit his uniform, diary, and some letters that really shed light on his experience of war.

This exhibit seeks to put the local men and women who served in context with the larger events happening in North Carolina, the United States, and the world. There are uniforms, gas masks, steel helmets, nurses uniforms, posters, letters and diaries telling what the lives of these participants was like. In the exhibit, visitors will find displays and interactive elements telling the stories of just a few of our hometown heroes. The exhibit is on loan from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and has been supplemented with artifacts from the Smith-McDowell House collection. Entrance to the exhibit is included with Smith-McDowell House admission – and is always free for members – and runs through May 16, 2020. The museum is open from Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Members, free; adults ,$10, children 8 – 18, $5 and Students with ID $5.00. for further information please call 828 253-9231.

Annual Fundraising Dinner at Historic Fernihurst Mansion

On April 2, the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA) is having an evening of fine dining with all proceeds benefiting historic preservation in our area. The evening begins at 5:30 pm with a reception in first floor library of the beautiful and historic Fernihurst Mansion on the AB-Tech campus and includes sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres. Dinner service will begin promptly at 6:00pm. Prepared by the nationally-recognized and award-winning culinary department at AB-Tech, the all-inclusive, five-course gourmet dinner has become an Asheville-area tradition. The dinner menu will consist of: Cassoulet, Consommé, Wilted Baby Spinach Salad with Blue Cheese and Warm Bacon Vinaigrette, Beef Wellington with Sauce Béarnaise and a Cherry Clafouti. The cost is $75 members/$100 nonmembers of WNCHA; You can register online with a credit card or call the Museum at 828-253-9231 to reserve and pay with cash or check.

In The Present

Today, the restored Smith-McDowell House functions as the headquarters of the Western North Carolina Historical Association, a historic house museum, an exhibit space, and a center for youth history education. The Museum is included on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered one of the finest surviving examples of brick antebellum architecture in western North Carolina. The Museum is very active and has many programs for youth throughout the year. Area educators and parents are invited to bring their students to their Living History days. The mission of the Western North Carolina Historical Association Educational Programs is to help each student and visitor rediscover the land and people of western North Carolina through experiences that reveal the past and illuminate the future. In addition since the 1950’s the WNCHA has annually presented the Thomas Wolfe Literary and Outstanding achievement awards. The TWML Award has been presented annually for printed works that focus special attention on Western North Carolina. In 1955 the award was received by Wilma Dykeman for “The French Broad;” the 2019 winner was George Ellison and Janet McCue for Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography. You can help the WNC Historical Association continue its important work by joining today. Members enjoy many benefits. Just go to https://www.wnchistory.org/membership-account/membership-levels/ for more information.

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