Stories on 7th

Tour focuses on Hendersonville’s historic outpost

Journalist Mary Jo Padgett, standing at the Historic Train Depot, is ready for the big reveal on 7th Avenue.
Portrait by Clark Hodgin

“Agriculture and tourism are two words that became part of our vocabulary when the first steam locomotive arrived in 1879 on the 4th of July,” says journalist Mary Jo Padgett, who grew up in the area. “Suddenly, quiet little Hendersonville was an exciting, happening place. In 1890, there were 23 hotels and boarding houses in Hendersonville and Henderson County, with more being built all the time.” 

Padgett is a world traveler who visited France in 2007 and stayed for a year. After returning home, she created a fun, informative series of educational programs to share her Parisian insider’s perspective. That project, and a desire to know the history of any place she lives, inspired her to focus closer to where the apple falls from the tree. Two years ago, she began offering guided history walks in Hendersonville, including one that focuses on 7th Avenue and the Historic Railroad Depot district. Padgett describes that as a relatively undiscovered part of downtown, but points out that it put Hendersonville on the map in the late 1800s.

7th Avenue is bustling with new businesses, but some buildings retain their rustic charm.

“The railroad wasn’t yet connected to Asheville,” Padgett says, “so Hendersonville had this captive audience of tourists for a while. They’d come from the Piedmont and the lowlands of South Carolina and stay all summer. … There was a livery stable where Southern Appalachian Brewery now is, where they would keep the Shetland ponies they brought with them for their children.” 

The expansive, 100-room Wheeler Hotel, about four blocks off 7th, offered grand, elegant accommodation. “They’d send a fancy wagon with polished brass handles, a pair of matched horses, and a purple-clad footman to pick up their guests at the depot. They had Big Band orchestras, jazz bands, and dances.” Black-owned businesses sprang up and grew along 7th Avenue, too, including music venues, a hotel, a beauty shop, a pool hall, and a café.

Daddy D’s Suber Soul Food is a modern mainstay on 7th. Other businesses in the rising cultural district are Underground Baking Co., The Brandy Bar, Triskelion and Southern Appalachian breweries, White Duck Taco, and several thrift stores.

Seventh Avenue train depot, early 1900s, Nick Giantokos Ice Cream parlor in white building behind depot. Baker-Barber Collection Collection; Community Foundation of Henderson County; Henderson County Public Library.

Back then, though, the railroad brought not only tourism, but also a huge amount of agricultural business. “Cabbage was probably a larger crop at the time than apples,” notes Padgett, adding that in 1894 alone, eight million pounds of it were shipped from Hendersonville. “Horses, oxen, meat products on the hoof, and products of all kinds were shipped on trains that went to other railroad hubs and took the food up into the Ohio River Valley and other markets.”

Lots of money, commerce, and real estate was exchanged, as was the occasional illicit passion and lethal gunfire. Hendersonville’s circa-1925 mayor, Sam Bryson, was caught with the wife of another man; the spurned husband (along with his 12-year-old son) tracked him down. “There was this big shootout in front of a gas station where White Duck Taco now is,” Padgett reveals. She adds that Garren Medicine Company was also nearby. That enterprise manufactured a proprietary tonic made from native herbs, roots, and barks and sold tens of thousands of bottles of the cure-all during the 1920s, when traveling medicine shows were in vogue.

Unfortunately for Mayor Bryson, the concoction couldn’t cure what ailed him after 18 shots rang out.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, at 10am, Mary Jo Padgett leads a tour of 7th Avenue and the Historic Depot District. $10/admission (kids 10 and under are free with a paying adult). To reserve space, call 828-545-3179. Face covering required. Visit maryjopadgett.com for more information.

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