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 the main line of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, both US Highway 70 and Interstate 40 pass through Swannanoa.
After completing the Grove Park Inn on sunset Mountain, around 1905, E.W. Grove became interested in purchasing land in the Swannanoa area for the purpose of creating his own village. He would call it “Grovemont on the Swannanoa.”
After purchasing land in 1919 for his “Grovemont,” with additional land purchased for raw materials, construction began in 1924. The land purchased for the needed materials became known as Grove Stone and Gravel Company. The third land purchase was made to develop a summer resort for those buying houses in Grovement. This was to be called Lake Eden. Grovemont became on the of the first planned communities in the United States, and even today, is a thriving residential area with the Swannanoa Library located there.
Beacon Manufacturing Company came to Swannanoa in 1925 from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Charles D. Owen, owner of the mill, shipped down train-car-loads of brick to build his factory. He built homes to house his employees, while many of his executives purchased homes in Grovemont. The mill provided police and fire protection for the village of Swannanoa. A thriving business district served the entire valley, with many cafés, grocery stores, a drug store, bank, movie theater, a five-and-dime, and other variety stores. The mill maintained three shifts, six days a week.
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 Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women 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 2002 Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Roy Williams, a Buncombe County native and 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 decades of the 1980s and 1990s saw a steady decline in employment. Job cutbacks occurred at Beacon and some of the larger furniture makers in the Valley. Many small businesses closed during that period, especially in the Swannanoa Village, never to return again due to cutbacks in jobs, especially at Beacon.
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 fewer 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 more than 500 personnel responded to the inferno. It was national news. Investigators later determined that arson was the cause. The culprit was arrested, tried and convicted.
Ingles Markets has added more than one million square feel to its existing warehouse at the corporate headquarters, and expects to hire a large number of people to fulfill its job expectations. This is a great asset to the Valley in helping to add to the vitality of the Valley economy.
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.