Sarah Downing, archivist for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (NCDNCR) at the western regional archives, gave a presentation with an overview about their collections for the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society. The state archives were established in 1912, headquartered in Raleigh.
Downing said as part of the special collections section of state archives, they principally house organizational papers, and personal and family collections, many on microfilm. The climate controlled “stackroom” has records in boxes on shelves. When the 1932 building was restored a few years ago they wanted to maintain its historical integrity.
Windows were replaced in kind, and shades inside mitigate the harmful effects of sunlight.
“Screened porches are still found on both sides of the building, as are emergency staircases in case of a fire. The design provides modernizations such as a sprinkling system, a new elevator, high efficiency lighting and mechanical systems,” Downing said.
In the ready-reference section, one can find documents such as colonial records, and the North Carolina roster of Civil War troops. There are records for various WNC counties and towns.
“We also have a genealogical collection of books about neighboring states including Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina for people with roots in North Carolina whose ancestors might have migrated to other states,” Downing said.
The Western Office is on Riceville Road in east Asheville at the Charles George Veterans Administration Medical Center campus.
“The hospital was set up in 1918 to treat soldiers that had served in World War I,” Downing said. “The air was good in Asheville, and a lot of soldiers had lung issues from exposure to mustard gas or tuberculosis. This facility specialized in the treatment of respiratory illnesses.”
There was a YWCA building, a Red Cross building, and a library.
In 1924, the federal government transferred administration of the hospital to the newly formed Veterans Bureau, which initiated a building campaign. Among the first permanent buildings constructed were two hospital wards, known as Wards A and B, along the east side of Riceville Road.
“We are learning a lot about the early years of Oteen through several collections housed at the Western Regional Archives, the Brown-Ruiz family papers, the Bruce Johnson collection about William Waldo Dodge, and the William Conway Morris Oteen Diaries,” Downing said.
Downing said through the early years the hospital has seen a multitude of patients, and some of them took photographs, and wrote in diaries about conditions at the hospital. There were notes from doctors, nurses, and recreational aides.
Asheville historian Bruce Johnson wrote, “General John J. Pershing upon visiting the military hospitals in France where thousands of soldiers lay recovering from disabling wounds seared lungs, and missing limbs, had in 1917 requested hundreds od young women trained in craft instruction to come to France to assist in the recovery and the rehabilitation of these young men whose lives had forever been altered by the war.”
Downing said the collections have a particularly fascinating diary written in the 1920s by a soldier who spent several years at the hospital and sadly never got better.
“He writes things about who comes to visit him, and he keeps track of the patients and the new nurses,” she said. “The Johnson-Dodge collection is new to us. Dodge became a successful silver smith and architect in Asheville, but he came following World War I and learned to work with silver at the hospital. He married a recreational aide and there are several pictures in that collection that were only recently discovered.”
Building No. 13 where western regional archives are now stored was originally the dormitory for African American nurses, built in 1932. Building No 9 was the white nurses’ dorm, built in 1930.
“Both of these buildings were badly deteriorated. Building No 13 was refurbished first, and they just completed Building No 9 a little more than a year ago. It is now used for the ‘Hope and Recovery Center,’” Downing said.
In 1967, the VA constructed a modern hospital building in front of the 1928 Administration building. Hospital beds and treatment facilities were concentrated in the new hospital building, and staff no longer required on-campus housing.
Downing said in 1971, the VA gradually transferred ownership of the former nurses’ quarters to Western Carolina University for classroom use. N.C. Department of Cultural Resources Western Office opened in September of 1978, leasing space within Building 13 from Western Carolina University. After Western Carolina University vacated the building around 1991, it was determined the structure required safety updates in order to remain in state government use.
In 1999, $1.8 million was allocated for planning & construction, though the funds had to be reallocated towards state hurricane relief efforts following Hurricane Floyd. The project was revitalized in 2006, when $3.5 million was allocated in the state Repair & Renovation budget for design and rehabilitation
Some collections were sent from Raleigh such as the Black Mountain College Collection, the Blue Ridge Parkway Photograph Collection that details the parkway’s construction, and a handful of others.
If a North Carolina college becomes defunct, state archives become the custodian of their records.
The purpose of the college was to educate the whole person, with the role of the arts and creative thinking in the forefront. Although Black Mountain College could rarely offer faculty more than room and board, a number of influential teachers and artists came to the school as part of the regular faculty or to participate in the school’s Summer Institutes.
The success of several of the college’s students helped to further the college’s reputation in the area of the arts and the avant-garde. Sadly, by 1956 the student enrollment and available funds dwindled until the college was forced to close.
“The Brown – Ruiz Family Papers is a collection we use to learn about the early days of the Asheville and the Oteen Hospital. Bob Ruiz donated these treasures to us. There are scrapbooks, photographs, diaries, and love letters. Members of the Brown family actually worked at the hospital. Family members wrote about what life was like in Asheville at the time. They talk about going to town and what movies were popular. We have volunteers transcribing the letters and diaries, and they are having a fun time doing it,” Downing said.