A Brief History of Swannanoa
By Harriett Styles and Bill Alexander
The name Swannanoa apparently derived from the anglicizing of the Indian name Shawano or Shawnee, referring to an early Indian tribe in the area, or from a Cherokee word meaning ”beautiful river.”
In 1776 General Griffith Rutherford came through the Swannanoa Valley (then Indian Territory) to keep the Indians from joining forces with the British. There were no Indian settlements in the Valley at that time, so he passed through to the west. However, at the end of the Revolutionary War when the Indian Territory was declared open to settlement, the men who had ridden with General Rutherford remembered the beautiful Swannanoa Valley with its open fertile fields, lush forest for hunting, natural food for livestock and ample water. There was peace and beauty here, far removed from the ravages of war.
The Davidsons and the Alexanders were among the first families to arrive in the Valley. A settlement was established on Bee Tree Creek. A second settlement developed on the North Fork of the Swannanoa River. Grist mills, lumber mills, mica mines and farming thrived.
The beauty and the climate attracted large numbers of “summer people” who came by carriage and wagon to escape the heat and pests of the coastal regions. There were several large inns and many boarding houses. One primary attraction was the trip to Mount Mitchell from Black Mountain.
The Valley remained a farming community, but with the coming of the railroad in 1879, the businesses migrated to the rail centers. The route crossing the Blue Ridge at Swannanoa Gap and following the river was an important route for early settlers and even today remains the busiest artery connecting Western North Carolina and the Piedmont. In addition to main line of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, both US Highway 70 and Interstate 40 pass through Swannanoa.
Around 1900, while building his famous Grove Park Inn in nearby Asheville, Dr. E. W. Grove became interested in the Swannanoa area. He developed the Grove Stone and Sand Company to obtain material for his hotel. He purchased land and developed a summer resort at Lake Eden. He also purchased land in Swannanoa and developed “Grovemont,” the first planned community in the United States. Grovemont remains a thriving community today.
In 1925 the Beacon Blanket Manufacturing Company relocated to Swannanoa from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Homes were built to house company employees; streets, water lines, and sewers were part of the plan. The Beacon mill provided fire protection and police protection for the village. Under the benevolent umbrella of the Beacon mill and the Owen family, there was no need for Swannanoa to incorporate. A thriving business
district with grocery, drug store, clothing stores, a movie house and variety stores served the whole Valley. The Beacon mill sponsored sports teams and holiday celebrations. The first village for mill employees was begun in 1925, built by the Owen family to attract employees for the mill. As the mill continued to grow and prosper, another employee village was built just south of the railroad. These houses were made up of duplexes and single-family homes. During the war years, 1942 to 1945, Beacon employed more than 2,200 people, the largest employer in the Swannanoa Valley and the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. Growth continued into the 1960’s. During that period other industries from furniture to textile-related businesses came into the Valley.
In 1942 two hundred acres were purchased from the North Carolina Agricultural Test Farm in Swannanoa to build a major hospital for the Armed Forces wounded during World War II. It was called Moore General Hospital. During the last year of the war, German prisoners of war were quartered at the facility. The North Carolina Juvenile Evaluation Center is now located on the old Moore General site.
In 1957 the government purchased acreage in Swannanoa to build war materials during the cold war. The Oerlikon* plant operated there until it was sold to Northrup in the late 1960’s and then to Chemtronics in the 1980’s.
In 1956 the high schools of Black Mountain and Swannanoa were consolidated and the school was named Charles D. Owen High School in honor of the founder of Beacon Blanket Manufacturing Company. It was located in Swannanoa. The new high school’s mascot name (“Warhorses”) came from a combination of the “war” in the Swannanoa High School’s Warriors and the “horses” in the Black Mountain High School’s Darkhorses. Some of the famous athletes from Owen High School include Brad Daugherty (UNC-Chapel Hill and Cleveland Cavaliers), and Brad Johnson (QB of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Roy Williams, a Buncombe County native and the current basketball coach of UNC-Chapel Hill, coached basketball and golf at Owen High School from 1973 to 1978. He also served as athletic director in 1978. Well-known author Patricia Cornwell, also graduated from Owen High School.
The 1970’s and 1980’s saw fairly steady employment in Swannanoa, but the economic decline of the Swannanoa community began as fewer people were employed at Beacon, and the large shopping malls and big box stores drew people away from shopping the independent retailers in Swannanoa. More and more stores closed because business had moved elsewhere.
In the 1980’s Beacon was purchased by National Distillery and sold again in the 1990’s to Pillowtex Industries. Pillowtex began to send more and more of its business offshore, consequently weakening the textile business that was left in the country. In early 2000 Beacon employed less than 200 people and the Swannanoa business district had seen its best days. Pillowtex filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and the plant closed March 7, 2003.
On September 3, 2003 the residents of Swannanoa and the Swannanoa Valley witnessed an event as emotionally devastating as the flood of 1916 was physically devastating. Beacon Blanket Manufacturing Company burned to the ground. Thirty-two different fire departments and over 500 personnel responded to the inferno. It was national news. Investigators later determined that arson was the cause and the culprit was arrested, tried and convicted.
Growth has continued in Swannanoa, but on a smaller scale than in decades past. The Cliffs, a residential development company, has purchased property on the southern mountain range of Swannanoa and is currently constructing a large, upscale residential development called “The Cliffs at High Carolina.” World famous golfer Tiger Woods is developing his first US golf course there and is planning to build a house as well. A number of frontage lots on US 70 have been purchased for the purpose of putting up retail establishments, a barbeque restaurant, a chain drug store and others. Ingles Markets completed one of its largest grocery stores, a 65,000 square foot store, that has all the specialty sections for its many shoppers. There are plans for expanding the shopping base for the people of Swannanoa both short term and long term.
Swannanoa is growing with new residents attracted to the Valley for the natural beauty and affordable housing it provides. Old and new residents are continuing to rebuild the economic base of the community, and explore avenues for growth and rebirth.
* The plant was operated by Oerlikon Tool and Arms Corporation (OTA), a Swiss company formed in the USA in hopes of building air-to-air or air-to-ground rockets. Unfortunately for OTA, the military did not see fit to award defense contracts to “foreign”companies. Oerlikon is still in operation in Switzerland as a manufacturing company. Many thanks to Don Baldwin, who currently lives in SC, for writing in with this additional information about Oerlikon. Don’s father, Fred Baldwin, was an engineer at the Oerlikon site during construction, and often took Don (then 14) with him to the site.