Gonna lay down my burdens,
Down by the Riverside,
Down by the Riverside,
Down by the Riverside,
…Ain’t gonna study war no more.
It was Keith’s birthday. I’d called him to see if he wanted to go for lunch, but he was already in Asheville for some early appointments. He suggested I join him up there for a late breakfast instead. Having no other plans, I agreed. It turned out to be another day of discovery and laid the groundwork for further exploration.
We agreed to meet at the Moose Cafe. Never heard of it. Never been there. However, I was quite glad that was how the day started.
Moose Cafe is a farm-to-table restaurant. I know that means an attempt to serve the best, freshest ingredients. Some places succeed better than others. The Moose certainly succeeds. Their fare is traditional meat-n-three Southern cooking.
We ordered coffee and the waitress brought us each “cat head” biscuits, served up with homemade apple butter. We could have stopped right there, but I ordered the All-You-Can-Eat breakfast. The first serving was actually more than I could eat.
There was a 12 in diameter pancake, grits, bacon, hash browns, and another huge cat head biscuit. If I somehow managed to eat all of that, they would bring me more. Scary.
As far as that concerned, the flavors were incredible. The bacon was so fresh it almost oinked. The grits tasted like they had been ground out back. And I mean that in a good way. The waitress brought out six more slabs of bacon, but there was no way I could make it through all of that, but it was an excellent breakfast.
Over breakfast we discussed our next steps. Since I was here in Asheville it made sense to head somewhere. Keith is a fellow taphophile, so he asked if I’d visited Riverside Cemetery in the historic Montford section of town. I hadn’t, so we made that our next stop.
We found Riverside Cemetery with no problem. Find-a-grave has over 9,000 graves listed for the site, but the city website says that there are nearly 13,000. The cemetery has several famous interments, including William Sidney Porter (aka O. Henry), Thomas Lanier Clingman, for whom Clingman’s Dome is named, NC Senetor and former Governor Zebulon Vance, and (most importantly for our rambles), the author Thomas Wolfe and his family.
The cemetery clings to the steep hills along the banks of the French Broad River. At one time the property actually bordered the river, but it is now separated from it by I-26. Even next to the interstate, the property is a peaceful place. That is, when weed eaters aren’t in full force as they were this morning.
We entered and drove through the winding roads first.
We drove past the grave of O. Henry and found the Wolfe Family. Tom Wolfe had a stone adorned with various writing implements left by admirers. His parents, William Oliver and Julia Wolfe, were buried next to him, as were two of his siblings.
We’ll return to the Wolfe Family (Wolves?) in a minute. We wandered through this section looking at some of the other graves. There were several private mausoleums and a variety of headstones.
An obelisk marked the grave of Thomas Clingman.
Back to the Wolves…
Arguably, Thomas Wolfe’s most famous novel is Look Homeward Angel. The story is a thinly disguised autobiography about Tom Wolfe’s early life in Asheville. His father, William Oliver Wolfe was a stone carver who sold gravestones in town. In the novel, the eponymous angel served as a porch advertisement for fictional Oliver Gant’s headstone business.
The real William Oliver Wolfe purchased several angels which were used on graves in the area. The angel that served as a model for the novel is said to be in the Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville. I’ve visited it several times.
I had information that several other angels from the Wolfe shop were in Riverside, and Keith and I wanted to find them.
It took some doing, but we found the grave of Fannie Jackson Reynolds, whose husband was son of a US senator from North Carolina. Sadly, this angel had been decapitated by vandals.
We had spotted another decapitated statue earlier when we were searching for this one. This was not from W. O. Wolfe’s shop, but I did wonder if this was a single act – creeps came through one night knocking statue heads.
There were a couple of other significant graves nearby. First up was the already mentioned Zebulon Vance. There were a couple of massive blocks of granite with a family name, and what had to be the largest angel statue in the cemetery. This one was not one of the Wolfe angels, but was quite impressive.
After a few missteps we found another Wolfe angel. This was on the grave of Lucy Ann Bannister Cliff. This wasn’t just a lone angel, but the figure was embracing a draped cross. The grave was on a rather steep hill.
There was one last Wolfe angel we wanted to find. The problem was, I wasn’t sure of the name. The notes I had said the grave belonged to Margaret Loughran, but that name didn’t appear on Find-a-Grave. The were several other Loughrans, but none of these seemed like good candidates, either. There was a Margaret Laughran Harriman, but she only had a low flat stone. We circled several times, finding other cool headstones, but not the missing angel.
Eventually we gave up and left the cemetery. It wasn’t until I got home and was processing images that I found that we had, in fact, found the other Wolfe angel. This one was much smaller than the others, which is why we probably missed if the first time. The grave was for “Margaret, daughter of Francis Loughran.” Neither are listed in Find-a-Grave.
This was the only photo I have of the statue.
Keith and I parted ways at this point. He had some other errands he wanted to run in Asheville and I had one more place I wanted to check out. I drove on into downtown and found the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Parking in Asheville can be problematic, so I was pleased to see that the site had its own lot. I pulled in and walked on into the memorial.
The memorial has a small gift shop area flanked by two other spaces. In one was a small theater, and on the other side were exhibits about the life of Thomas Wolfe. “The Old Kentucky Home”, the boarding house run by Julia Wolfe, sits next door. Short introductory videos are on the hour, and tours of the home take place on the half hour.
I had some time before the orientation film started, so I strolled through the exhibits. I paid particular attention to W. O. Wolfe’s stone carving artifacts.
I chatted with one of the historians. He said that W. O. Wolfe signed his stones, and not just the statuary. Wolfe didn’t carve the angels, but ordered his statues from a company in New York. So that means that some otherwise non-distinct graves might have Wolfe’s signature. Hmmm. Something else for which to search.
I sat through the film with one other patron. I learned three things about Thomas Wolfe I didn’t know. First, he was exceptionally tall. Second, he took seven trips to Europe, basically whenever he felt depressed. Those trips ended with the rise of Hitler. Wolfe was even at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Wolfe died quite young in Seattle, Washington at the age of 38.
I decided to pay for the $5 ticket and take the rest of the tour. The other film patron join me and our guide, Natalye.
The tour took us through all of the boarding house run by Julia Wolfe. Tom Wolfe lived there, but didn’t have a room. Rather, he took any unoccupied bed. There were some private rooms, but most rooms, and even beds were shared for less than $1 a night. Meals were had in a communal dining room.
Julia Wolfe took advantage of every available space, using even porches and balconies for beds.
I took photos of everything, many more than I’m able to post here. It was a good tour and I was happy I’d gone ahead and taken it.
I had asked about the location of W. O. Wolfe’s shop. It was a couple of blocks away, just off of Pack Square. The folks at the memorial graciously allowed me to leave my car in their park while I made the trek. What I found was a roped off construction site. At least I was able to spot the replica of the angel at Oakdale in Hendersonville which marks the location of the shop.
With a full day behind me I headed home. I felt compelled to watch the “Blink” episode of Doctor Who with the Weeping Angels.
In my opening paragraph I mentioned that this trek laid the groundwork for further exploration. W. O. Wolfe’s statuary dot the Western North Carolina landscape. In addition to the ones we found in Riverside and Oakdale, there are angels in Bryson City, Waynesville, another cemetery in Asheville, and in Old Fort. This roughly follow I-40 and would make an interesting day trip if we got an early start. Not only would we look for the statues, but we now know to look for W. O.’s signature, as well. It would be an interesting trek.
2 thoughts on “Down by the Riverside”
You may be interested in an episode of a 1950s radio show Biography in Sound titled “They Knew Thomas Wolfe” with interviews with people that knew him. Episodes from the series are widely available, but I’ll go with the one on archive.org: link
Cool! Thanks! That looks like an interesting biography series. I’ll use this in my follow-up posts about the search.