Black Mountain, North Carolina is known as the “Little Town that Rocks.” And I can’t imagine a better way to spend a day than sitting in one of the hand-painted rocking chairs in this mountain hamlet.
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My visit begins at the Black Mountain Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center located at 201 E. State Street. There is the “Big Red Rocking Chair” in front of the building.
A “Visitor Ambassador” named Gretchen greets me. She quizzes me on how long I will stay in town and what I want to do. I explain that I am only stopping by to walk my dog before going on a tour of the former Black Mountain College campus.
But I can’t resist quizzing her on the big red rocking chair that I just passed in front of their building. It turns out that it is the town’s symbol.
“Our rocking chairs are representative of North Carolina because we are the front porch of western North Carolina. When you enter the mountains, we are your first town. We are the Little Town that Rocks . . .” explains Gretchen.
The Chamber of Commerce works with local artists who paint scenes. “We put them on the back of the rocking chairs. Some years we auction them, and some years we sponsor them,” said Gretchen.
In 2022, the Visitor Center will put the spotlight on young talent. “This year we are going in a different direction. We are actually using children’s artwork on the rocking chairs. I teach children’s art classes. So pretty soon we’ll have a whole new set of rocking chairs out there in the community that will feature children’s artwork from grades one through six,” she explains.
Gretchen allowed me to look at the children’s paintings. I was impressed by a fantastical painting of a black cat with orange eyes and whiskers sitting in a wooden chair. Gretchen flipped through the stack of her students’ paintings. Then I gathered up a handful of travel brochures and headed out to see some rocking chairs.
Since I only have two hours to explore Black Mountain, I decide to head down the main street. I feel like I stepped onto the set of The Andy Griffin Show.
Black Mountain could be the small, sleepy North Carolina town of Mayberry RFD except there is so much to do.
I can’t resist taking a photo of my puppy in front of a store with a sign reading “This is my happy place.”
Parker is happy because Black Mountain is home to the Bone-A-Fide Bakery & Pet Boutique. Sadly, the store is closed this early in the morning, so I can’t buy any dog biscuits for him.
Next, I spy a group of red rocking chairs on an intersecting street. So Parker and I decide that it is time to rest. But I won’t let us sit down until I photograph closeups of the artists’ paintings.
Ann Watcher painted “The Dance of the Butterfly.” Her whimsical painting showcases a butterfly flitting around a red flower. North Carolina’s blue-hued mountains provide the backdrop.
“The Blue Tailed Skink” is painted by Shelley Schenker. The black lizard has bright yellow stripes starting at its head and running along its back. The skink belongs to the family Scincidae.
Angie Wagner painted “Blue Bird.” The abstract painting shows the diminutive bird resting on a tree limb. The canvas is awash in pastel shades—teal, peach, yellow, and pink.
Both Schenker and Wagner list SVAL next to their names on the sponsor plaques. The S V A L Studio is located at 1133 Old U.S. Hwy 70 W in Black Mountain.
After I finish photographing the rocking chairs, I let Parker climb up. But it turns out rocking chairs are scary for a puppy. He jumps off immediately.
Next, we proceed down the street to the train depot, since Gretchen recommended that we visit. Our first stop is the little red caboose. We can’t go inside but I walk around it.
The Old Depot Association is trying to raise money to restore it. “Help Turn Out Caboose Red Again!” The association needs to raise $15,000 in order to restore its caboose in the heart of downtown Black Mountain.
There is a metal sculpture of the locomotive stationed up high. You can see the smoke rising from the engine.
On the side of the building is a 1910 photograph of the depot. It shows a local farmer. His cart is packed with tanbark. It will be transported to a tannery in Asheville.
The Old Depot
The yellow wood Old Depot is now the home of the Arts & Crafts Gallery. But it is easy to imagine women in long dresses and carrying parasols streaming out of the building back in 1880. This is when the Western North Carolina Railroad (WNCR) commenced service in Black Mountain.
The “Up to Black Mountain” plaque hangs on a fence near the Old Depot. I learn that the WNCR was established in 1855. But it took 25 years before the railroad offered service to Black Mountain “stalled by the Civil War, embezzlement, and – finally – by the extremely steep grade between Old Fort, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Black Mountain, at the crest . . .”
I read that it took 10 miles of track to climb the 3.4 miles to Black Mountain as the track “looped back and forth across the face of the mountain through seven tunnels.”
The sepia photograph shows men in round-topped bowler hats and wide-rimmed boater hats standing on the train tracks and hanging off the side of locomotive No. 2.
Outdoor History Museum
I decide to linger and read all the plaques. You could call this Black Mountain’s Outdoor History Museum. The “Slavery by Another Name” plaque describes how the WNCR uses convicts leased from the state to build the track to Black Mountain. “It cost 30 cents per day to house an inmate, whereas a free laborer made about $1.00 a day.”
The convicts, mostly African Americans, were chained together during the day to work. They slept in boxcars at night.
The “Center of It All” plaque tells the story of how this town was renamed after the railroad established its Black Mountain Depot. Grey Eagle, North Carolina was rechristened Black Mountain. The town was chartered on March 4, 1803. The town’s boundaries also expanded one mile in all directions from the railroad station.
The “Comings and Goings” plaque shows a photo of Depot Street from 1915. A huge line of motor car cabs is stationed outside the train station to drive passengers to the nearby inns, boarding houses, and religious retreat centers. “At the height of rail travel, as many as 10 trains a day stopped at Black Mountain,” according to the plaque.
The “Separate, Not Equal” Plaque explains how the passenger cars and the depots in the South were not desegregated until the mid-1960s. The Southern Railway’s Washington office required two waiting rooms—“White” and “Colored”—at the station.
Swannanoa Valley Museum
History buffs will want to visit the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center to learn more about the valley, which has been hosting visitors since the early 1800s. In fact, French botanist Andre Michaux studied flora in the Black Mountains of North Carolina in 1794.
Historical plaque outside the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center
In fact, Davey Crockett met his first wife Elizabeth Patton at the Swannanoa Settlement in 1815.
The museum operates in an old firehouse. It was designed and built in 1921 by Richard Sharp Smith, who was the supervising architect at the Biltmore Estate. (He also built many of the cottages at Biltmore Village.)
The museum features exhibits about regional history, including photos, artifacts, and temporary exhibitions.
“We are the primary museum of general local history in Buncombe County.”Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center
There is a brick walkway map of the Swannanoa Valley in the alley. This Museum Alleyway traces the ridgeline (as well as the height) of the surrounding mountains.
No visit to Black Mountain is complete without visiting the stores featuring handcrafted artisan wares.
“The Old Depot Gallery, RED HOUSE Studio, the Black Mountain Center for the Arts (BMCA), and White Horse Black Mountain exemplify Black Mountain’s dedication to craft and culture,” according to the visitor center.
BMCA offers public exhibits, concerts, theatre, special events, and a myriad of classes for all ages in music, theater, movement, and visual arts.
THE RED HOUSE is home to life drawing sessions, and art groups, programs, and workshops. The Swannanoa Valley Fine Art League’s mission is to inspire artistic growth and excellence through education and exhibition.
Historic Black Mountain College
On the outskirts of town is the former campus of Black Mountain College. BMCM+AC now offers tours of the historic Black Mountain College campus at Lake Eden, in partnership with Lake Eden Preserve.
The cost is $15/person, free for kids 16 and under. For groups of five or more, please inquire about a group rate (firstname.lastname@example.org). Click link to purchase a ticket.
Black Mountain College was founded in 1933 as a radical experiment in education and community. The one-hour walking tour showcases the college’s historic Dining Hall, Lodges, The Quiet House, and The Studies Building. Participants also see the iconic and recently conserved frescos painted by Jean Charlot and BMC students in the summer of 1944.
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