Photo courtesy of Thomas Wolfe Memorial
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, N.C.
For most of us, “home” usually conjures feelings of warmth and comfort. We often define home as a physical, tangible place where we either live, have grown up, or share memories with ones we love. In a sense, “home” is a friend to us.
For Thomas Wolfe, Western North Carolina’s most famous literary figure, the sense of warmth and comfort of home was lost to his family’s struggles and his own inner turmoil. None of us would probably know about his sensitivity to his personal and familial issues if it were not for his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929. The novel, a thinly-disguised narrative of Wolfe’s childhood growing up in Asheville, described a dynamic mountain city in the early years of the 20th century. The book more famously highlights, however, many of his family’s character flaws, from the drinking and bar-fighting of his older brother Frank to the penny-pinching ways of his tightfisted mother, Julia.
Thomas Wolfe was born to middle-class parents W.O. (William Oliver) and Julia in Asheville on Oct. 3, 1900, the eighth and last child. W.O., a successful stone-cutter by trade, owned a shop on Pack Square in the heart of the city. Asheville at the turn of the century was a growing city with a robust economy. The arrival of the Western North Carolina Railroad in 1880 spurred visitors from the Piedmont and coastal areas looking to enjoy the cool, favorable climate of the mountains.
Wolfe’s hometown was quite a modern city for the region. Its first fire department was organized in 1883 and the first telephone line was installed two years later. By 1889, the city boasted electric streetcars that serviced downtown. The city’s population grew from about 10,000 in 1890 to close to 30,000 residents in 1920. In addition to attracting regular tourists, the city also promoted itself as a health resort. Respiratory patients, especially tuberculars, flocked to the city to take advantage of the dry air and sanitariums the city offered.
Thomas Wolfe grew up in the middle of this boom. However, despite the city’s success, or more accurately, because of its success, his childhood was far from normal. The growth of Asheville spurred his mother to purchase a boardinghouse about a block from the family home and move her youngest child in with her. This physical move, only about a block down the street, would cause a deeper spiritual and emotional split in Wolfe’s life. And after this event, the writer’s life, and his concept of “home,” would never be the same.
Wolfe’s childhood was essentially growing up as one of his mother’s boarders in the boardinghouse she ran for almost 40 years. This boardinghouse was called the “Old Kentucky Home” in real life; a name given by its previous owner, a Kentucky minister. This house would later become immortalized in Look Homeward, Angel as “Dixieland,” and served as the backdrop for many of the stories of personal angst and torment of Wolfe’s autobiographical character, Eugene Gant.
Mrs. Wolfe purchased the “Old Kentucky Home” in 1906, and Tom moved in with his mother while the rest of his siblings and father remained at the family home. Wolfe described his new residence in the novel as “a big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms: it had a rambling, unplanned, gabular appearance, and was painted a dirty yellow.” And more importantly, it represented a stark contrast to the relatively warm home that he remembered before his move.
Wolfe became torn between his parents and their two houses. “But the powerful charm of Gant’s [Wolfe father’s] house, of its tacked and added whimsy … its roaring internal seclusiveness … the comfort and abundance, seduced him easily away from the great chill tomb of Dixieland, particularly in winter …” In 1906, Wolfe was torn between the comforts and fond memories of the family home and his natural connection with his mother at her boardinghouse.
Wolfe had difficulty removing himself from his mother’s shadow at the boardinghouse, and instances of his mother’s frugality and deference to the boarders had dramatic effects on his memories of home. “As the house filled, in the summer season, and it was necessary to wait until the boarders had eaten before a place could be found for him, he walked sullenly about beneath the back porch of Dixieland … which Eliza [Julia] rented, when she could, to negresses.” In Wolfe’s memories, his mother’s desire of wealth and independence inhibited his opportunity to have a real home experience.
Wolfe describes moving from room to room, bed to bed as he spent 10 years in the “Old Kentucky Home.” He never had a space to call his own; he never had his own bed. During the busy summers, when the house was filled to capacity, Julia would force Tom to get up from a bed to make room for boarders. He wrote, “[T]here was no place sacred unto themselves, no placed fixed for their own inhabitation, no place proof against the invasion of the boarders.”
Wolfe wrote in Look Homeward, Angel that he became ashamed of his mother’s boardinghouse. He felt like he had “two houses, but no home,” and to the sensitive child, this probably reflects an accurate representation of his childhood. But later in his career, as his thoughts matured, Wolfe also felt that “home” was more than just a physical place; more than just four walls. “Home” was a combination of time and place that will never return; an experience that can never be recreated. Maybe this is why he was so taken with the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a phrase that that so aptly described Wolfe’s memories of his childhood and the title of his posthumously-published novel in 1940.
Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
My hometown is Asheville, N.C., entrance to the nation’s most scenic highway, The Blue Ridge Parkway. I was born, raised and still live, just outside Asheville, in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. I love it here and would never consider living anywhere else. I have traveled many places, and none are as beautiful as these mountains.
We are so fortunate to live in an area where we can experience all four seasons. Winter brings a snowy blanket to the both the Appalachian mountain line and the ski slopes at Cataloochee. Spring brings out the new birth and all the wonderful flower colors and also the green of the mountains. Summers spent in the mountains are always fun with picnics, river fishing, and mountain trail hikes. Fall, my favorite time of the year is breathtaking from the lowest elevations to Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. From my travels, I do see why people flock to my hometown for the fall colors. They are so vibrant and much more beautiful than any I have ever seen.
I love to travel and see different areas, but I always love coming back home. Once I see the mountains looming in the distance, I know I am home.
— Sherry Shook
Hometown: Waynesville, N.C.
Waynesville—it’s an easy place to write about in the fall. In the mornings, colorful mountains break through the light fog nestling in the valleys. In the evenings, the smells of the first fires of the season drift through the air, as the sun takes rest behind Mt. Lynn Lowrey. All of these sounds, sights, and smells for me are tied to memories because I grew up here, and for me this is home.
I remember helping pick apples in my grandfather’s apple orchard and how my whole family would come together for the harvest. I remember Nana’s fried apple pies and pressing homemade apple cider. I remember canning fresh vegetables from my parents’ garden, and strawberries, and sweet peas. Growing up in the rural areas around Waynesville—Saunook to be exact—helped me develop a strong appreciation for country life and country folk.
Going into town for me didn’t happen too much unless a school bus took me there. I always looked forward to staying over with my friends that lived closer into town because they were the only ones with cable TV. Saturday trips with my father to the local music store, Strains of Music, were cherished; then we would get lunch at the best sandwich shop in town called Spanky’s. After that we would go check on my mom at the first cheese and wine store Waynesville ever had, appropriately named “The Cheese Shop,” and then maybe head on up to Britches to check out some of their cool watches. Twenty years ago we had no Walmart or Best Buy, and if you forgot the newest release on VHS, it became puzzle night at the house because one couldn’t stream anything on Netflix.
However, the best thing about Waynesville is its people. We are determined and faithful thinkers, hard workers, farmers, and characters. If you didn’t grow up here, it’s okay; give us a couple of years and we will change you forever. We help each other out; we watch one another’s back; we teach our children well; and I am thankful that I got to grow up in such a beautiful little town. Hold on tight to this, Waynesville.
— Joseph Massie
Hometown: Canton, N.C.
Have you ever been greeted by a neighbor with a cold drink after a long day mowing grass? Have you cheered on a Friday night while draped in red and black? Do you take pride in a hard day’s work and a blue-collar swagger? Have you seen the sun rise over Newfound and set in Thickety? Have you told time not by a watch, but by a mill whistle? Dropped your head when white crosses dot the ground in memory of soldiers lost? Do the words “Labor Day” ignite wonderful memories of family, friends, and carnival rides? Have you seen a red “P” on the back of a vehicle and smiled? Floated down the Pigeon on a hot summer day? Is the start of spring marked not by the blooming of flowers, but by the crack of a softball bat? Do church bells call to you on a Sunday morning? Is it where your grandparents fell in love? Have you said yes when asked to help or been there in a time of need? Have you been sunburned after spending a day wading into the waters of the Rec Pool? Do you know your neighbors by name and plan to give them freezer jam for Christmas? Called someone “Coach” no matter his or her age? And have you realized that you can always come home?
This is why I love my hometown—Canton, N.C.
— Zeb Smathers
Hometown: Boone, N.C.
If you love mountains that roll like a green forest ocean beyond the horizon and are dotted with smiling communities—well Boone’s the place for you. The Blue Ridge Parkway passes right through it. Two national parks totaling 8,000 acres rest along this stretch of parkway and feature over 100 hundred miles of hiking trails, 3 lakes, camping and 25 miles of perfectly maintained “carriage trails” ideal for walking, jogging and cross-country skiing. Eight miles down the Parkway from this is Grandfather Mountain, one of the top twenty tallest east of the Mississippi, and host to a new 12,000-acre state park recreated by North Carolina.
I’m just scratching the surface here—I haven’t even gotten off the parkway to tell you about the Watauga Gorge, Tater Hill, Howards’ Knob or the New River.
Folks here have a real sense of community—there’s a movement in the area to do business with one another, to foster a life with-in and with their mountain forests and neighbors that’s comfortable, vigorous, prosperous, sustainable, and quite literally green. We have two local coffee roasters, a burgeoning farmer's market, an amazing university, great local restaurants, innovative non-profits, LEED engineered office space, a mountain bike park, small business galore, renewable energy and green tech entrepreneurs and North Carolina's largest wind energy turbine. The brightest promises of the future fused with the best of our Appalachian past.
Backpacking, kayaking, floating rivers, climbing, bouldering, hiking, trail running, road biking, motorcycling, mountain biking, porch setting, outdoor campfires—if you can do in, on or around a mountain—Boone's got it in spades.
And you get 4 neatly equal 3-month seasons to do it in—each as vibrant and unique as the next.
— Jeff Deal
Hometown: Waynesville, N.C.
There is just something about waking up here in the mountains, whether to birdsong in the spring or to the peace and tranquility of a snow-covered morning in the winter. One gets to experience all four seasons here—to feel the crisp bite of the winter chill and the soft caress of a warm summer breeze, the excitement from when trees start turning green in the spring and of the rise in fiery color of the mountains in the fall.
There is so much of my history here. For example, the land that I live on in Waynesville, N.C., has been owned by my family for years. It was passed down from my mother's side of the family. My cousins own an apple orchard and fruit stand, so there are apple trees aplenty below my house. I love to just stand on the front porch and look across the valley at the breathtaking view that I grew up with. If I look to the left, I can see the cross on Mt. Lynn Lowry. It is a sad night if I cannot see the cross lit up.
The mountain was named after the daughter of General Sumter Lowry, and Rev. Billy Graham dedicated the cross there. The cross has always been a constant in my night sky.
I hope that everyone has a chance to visit Waynesville at least once in his or her lifetime. I know that once one visits, one will want to come back again. I love the place that I call home, and I hope to share it with generations to come.
— Heather Long
(new) hometown: Asheville, N.C.
My hometown isn’t much of a “town.” I grew up in the Irish countryside, several miles from anything resembling a town. The borders of my townland were as far as I could pedal on my bike in an afternoon, in one direction an other-worldly bog, full of wild creatures and prickles of gorse, in another a dense wood for climbing trees, and in another a small stream, perfect for catching minnows. The land was fairly flat and perfect for a kid with a bike: wide-open farmland with a few big grand-daddy trees, but mostly low hedgerows and quiet back roads.
The first time I saw the Blue Ridge Mountains, nearly 20 years ago, I fell in love with the landscape. Ireland is beautiful, but here was everything we didn’t have: steep, tree-shrouded mountains, miles of undeveloped wilderness, and craggy trails leading to spectacular views. After years of moving about the US, my wife and I found our way back to Asheville and the heart of those mountains. Although we love to hike in the Smokies or drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the drive to pick the kids up from school provides a daily dose of breathtaking vistas. Coming over a ridge at 7:40 in the morning and seeing the sun shine its spotlight on five, six, seven mountain ridges stretching away into the distance with the mist drifting through the valleys in between is as much of a welcome jolt to the system as any fancy coffee drink.
We still go back to Ireland every year to revel in the 400 shades of green, wander through the old haunts, and catch up with family and friends. But even after seven years in WNC we’re still discovering new hikes, vistas and great campsites in the mountains, and the most mundane drive to the grocery store is still filled with beauty.
— Rich Rennicks