By Allison West (reprinted from The High Country Magazine,December 2014)
At the turn of the 20th Century, the feminist movement was in full swing as the lives of women began to reflect the growing trend of industrialization and technological change. In cities and towns across the nation, women were working tirelessly to promote suffrage, better education, the regulation of child labor, women in unions and liquor prohibition. (Incidentally, this pivotal moment in history also saw the birth of the world’s first distaff superhero – Wonder Woman.) Most of us have a vague recognition of the eminent female pacesetters from this era – Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony – primarily from high school history classes that devoted about as much time to this revolutionary era as they did to school lunch announcements. So unless you spent additional time in Women’s Studies courses in college, even these ladies probably aren’t exactly household names.
The noble undertaking to rebuild communities began post-Civil War, with women bearing the burden of getting the South back on its feet due to the sheer volume of soldiers lost. Yet even as women embraced the efforts to rebuild communities across the southern states, progressive reform in the North Carolina mountains was hampered by rugged, isolated terrain and lack of transportation into the area. The folks who lived in the mountain communities were falling further behind the rest of the country. Fortunately, though, crusading for political, economic and social equality wasn’t limited to major and mid-sized cities. In the High Country, a group of women who possessed intelligence and selflessness in spades engaged in active reform of our very region, influencing the lives of countless people in both the mountains and across the world for more than a century. The Blowing Rock Art & History Museum (BRAHM) showcases five of these trailblazers – Emily Prudden, Bertha Cone, Mary Martin Sloop, Lucy Morgan and Vera Lachmann – in the powerful exhibit “Common Threads: Five Influential Women and their Legacy,” on display through Jan. 4, 2015.
The installation shines a light on each woman’s achievements over the course of a century, with placards displaying biographies and various achievements. A handful of possessions both personal and practical, profound and routine are also on display – Dr. Mary Martin Sloop’s flashlight (which guided the health-conscious physician on her nightly walks), Bertha Cone’s steamer trunk (a behemoth that accompanied her on a two-year worldwide tour), a photo of Lucy Morgan hard at work at her loom at Penland School of Handicrafts, a cast iron frying pan from Vera Lachmann’s Camp Catawba for Boys, and Emily Prudden’s peaceful watercolor paintings.
Given the breadth of each woman’s mark on history, collecting artifacts of representative significance was certainly daunting, says BRAHM Exhibitions and Collections Coordinator Dianna Loughlin. Yet whittling down the highlight reel was not so much to present “the best of the best,” she explains, “but rather [to express] that these women sought to achieve common goals during a time when the region demanded educational reform, economic expansion and cultural progression. The facts we chose to focus on helped relay the idea of ‘common threads’ and thus tell a cohesive story while also giving each woman her due justice for her individual successes.”
The most palpable connection the exhibit makes among the women is toward their individual efforts to progress education in the region, but Loughlin contends the biggest takeaway is the humbling realization that “these selfless individuals overcame any obstacles thrown their way. They simply persevered.” They were educators and scholars, agriculturalists and missionaries, artists and mothers, slogging away for causes – for people – they felt called to champion. They were all similar but so very unique, with legacies that inspire other women (and men) to continue to carry on similar fights even today.
Herewith a brief overview of the women featured in “Common Threads” and their indelible contributions to our region’s rich tapestry:
THE WOMAN – Emily C. Prudden
LIFESPAN – 1832-1917
HER LEGACY – Deaf, middle-aged and hobbled by severe arthritis, Prudden founded 15 schools in North and South Carolina (seven of which were for blacks and all of which were funded with her own money). Built all across the Western Carolinas in towns such as Saluda, Brevard and Elk Park, NC, and Cowpens, SC, Prudden’s schools were noted for crossing geographic, racial, cultural and religious boundaries. With opportunities for African Americans limited even after WWI, Prudden set out to found some of the first formal schools for African American girls in the mountains. She didn’t stop there: She also allowed all students – most of whom were impoverished – to attend for free. Her greatest legacy, Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, NC, is the only school founded by her that still exists today. Established in 1910, the university currently commemorates her work by hanging her portrait in the student center.
MOST FASCINATING EXHIBIT PIECE – A school trunk full of used clothing. While Prudden was financially responsible for initially funding the establishment of all her schools, she was also shrewd enough to organize the sale of used clothing to bring in additional funding for the schools. As each school became sustainable she would turn it over to a local church and move on to start another.
THE WOMAN – Bertha Lindau Cone
LIFESPAN – 1858-1947
HER LEGACY – Arguably best known as the wife of “Denim King” Moses Cone, Bertha Cone was a powerhouse in her own right. A few short years after the couple built their vacation home, Flat Top Manor on the Moses Cone Estate in Blowing Rock, Moses died. Bertha, however, continued to spend summers there and oversaw operations for the remainder of her 39 years. At the turn of the century, thanks to its agricultural efforts, the Cone Estate was the single greatest economic force in Blowing Rock. Bertha even maintained the estate’s four apple orchards, which produced more than 30,000 apples; regular shipments were sent to American soldiers in WWI. Always looking for new ways to run the estate, Bertha was an avid reader of The Progressive Farmer magazine, a dedication that may have influenced her to establish the first Grade A dairy facility in Watauga County, which sold milk and cream to hotels, Camp Catawba and the Appalachian State Teachers College. Cone Manor is now a nationally recognized park and historic site, with the house serving as a visitors’ and craft center.
MOST FASCINATING EXHIBIT PIECE – A railroad track piece. Since the orchard was located down an exhaustingly steep slope south of Hwy 221, Bertha had a railroad constructed to allow workers to carry apples in carts from the orchard to the highway. Railways greatly contributed to the economic success in the mountains.
THE WOMAN – Mary Martin Sloop
LIFESPAN – 1873-1962
HER LEGACY – A physician, educator and reformer, the Davidson, NC native is best known for bringing medical, educational and economic reforms to residents of the North Carolina mountains, primarily via her founding of the nationally acclaimed Crossnore School in the Linville Valley. In the early 1900s, refused for medical missionary work in Africa because she was deemed too old at 33, Sloop and her husband, Dr. Eustace Sloop, felt a need to redirect their ambitions toward helping the people of Appalachia, appalled by what she called “shockingly primitive” conditions. Eustace devoted most of his time to medical needs, while Mary responded to the lack of educational opportunities and undertook what became a 40-year crusade to change lives and break patterns of poverty, moonshine and child marriages. With help from contributions around the country, including from the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sloop and her husband established and eventually expanded The Crossnore School, which provided a nine-month, 11 grade education by trained teachers with special emphasis on economics, Bible study and vocational training, including a weaving program that helped to revive a lost art. In addition to the area’s first residential school, the Sloops also brought to Avery County a hospital, dental clinic, the first electricity, the first telephone and the first paved road. What started with the elegant belief that “Education is the best way for a child to rise above his circumstances,” led to facilities filled with children who, through no fault of their own, could no longer live at home. In 1951 Dr. Mary Sloop was rewarded for her lifelong efforts and achieved nationwide attention when she was named America’s Mother of the Year.
MOST FASCINATING EXHIBIT PIECE – The Crossnore School Photo Album. Tattered and brittle and overflowing with what are surely emotional stories of lives both touched and changed, the photo album is full of the faces of students, campus events and the remote yet exceptional backdrop of the surrounding mountains.
THE WOMAN – Lucy Calista Morgan
LIFESPAN – 1889-1981
HER LEGACY – One of the leading activists of the Craft Revival, North Carolina native Morgan founded Penland School of Crafts in 1929, an outgrowth of a craft-based economic development project she had started several years prior: revive the art of hand-weaving in order to give women in the community a means to supplement their family’s incomes. In 1928 noted weaving expert Edward F. Worst suggested adding pottery to Penland’s program, thereby giving rise to Penland Weavers and Potters, with pewter following soon after. Morgan remained the school’s director until her retirement in 1962. Today Penland encompasses approximately 400 acres and 50 buildings, welcomes more than 1,200 each year seeking instruction and is an internationally recognized center for craft education.
MOST FASCINATING EXHIBIT PIECE – The enameled copper dish, woven purse and pewter dishes lovely but not uncommonly so. It’s the sea change they represent that is the most striking. As a placard points out, “Lucy’s efforts to celebrate craft and promote profitability gave local women (and eventually men) a practical means of supplemental income while laying the early groundwork for the Craft Revival movement in the mountains.”
THE WOMAN – Vera Regine Lachmann
LIFESPAN – 1904-1985
HER LEGACY – Born in Berlin into a family of German-Jewish aristrocracy and highly educated, Vera Lachmann received her Ph.D. as Hitler was rising to power, even establishing a private school that the Nazis closed shortly after Kristallnacht. Lachmann fled Germany for the U.S. in 1939, teaching in various schools around the country that included Salem College in North Carolina as well as Yale. In 1944 she arrived in Blowing Rock and founded Camp Catawba for Boys, an eight-week summer camp for six to 12 year olds that focused on the arts, music and drama, mostly serving as “an educational and cultural refuge for young Jewish immigrants.” Although the boys played sports, rode horses and swam in a spring-fed pool, Lachmann, a published poet, also instructed the campers in Latin and English, regaling the boys nightly with stories from Greek and Roman mythology. Her life partner, Tui St. George Tucker, a renowned composer and conductor with whom she lived in New York in the camp’s off-season, served as the camp’s music director. Hampered by the polio epidemic, debt and Vera’s encroaching age, the camp closed in 1970. But for 26 years, Camp Catawba housed and educated more than 400 campers whose lives were forever influenced through music and drama.
MOST FASCINATING EXHIBIT PIECE – A piece of parchment paper with a Greek phrase written in black crayon that translates to “The gods are also here.” Considered one of her most valuable possessions and displayed in the camp’s small office until Lachmann’s death, the framed memento was not only symbolic of what Camp Catawba meant to her, but it was deeply personal. The creator of the piece was Erika Weigand, a friend who aided Vera in her 1939 escape from Germany.
Photos of the BRAHM Gallery event “Common Threads: Five Influential Women and their Legacies” running until January 4, 2015