Ninety years ago, a little more than 80 students from the towns and rural communities surrounding Asheville would gather in the basement of the Biltmore High School building to take classes from Asheville’s first college. They would walk or ride the electric streetcar—the streetcar company sold students 10 tickets for 25 cents—and the few students who drove their own cars would stop along the way to pick up their classmates. Some students were said to have taken the bus to Pack Square and then six or seven of them—not quite legally—would pile into one car and drive the rest of the way to Biltmore. The students didn’t pay tuition, but they raised money for extracurricular activities like a glee club, a student newspaper and sports teams—including football. They ate lunch together in the cafeteria in Biltmore’s basement, but only after the high school students had their lunch. The little school was Buncombe County Junior College, which would one day become UNC Asheville.
Our university certainly looked different then—as did the city and county it was created to serve. Asheville was becoming one of North Carolina’s hot spots, and was immortalized in 1929 by its native son Thomas Wolfe in his novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Wealthy tourists visited the newly built Grove Park Inn to play golf and attend tea parties and indulge in rich meals at dinnertime. Art deco structures downtown like the Kress building and the Grove Arcade were springing up, and below-ground tunnels served to undermine Prohibition laws. The electric streetcars that transported students to Buncombe County Junior College glided quietly along tracks built into the center of the streets running downtown and throughout Asheville, and the Chamber of Commerce advertised the city as “The Motorists Paradise.”
And then, in 1929, the stock market crashed.
Like the rest of the country, Asheville struggled during the Great Depression. The College of the City of Asheville, another junior college that shared space with Asheville High School, failed to open for the semester in 1930, and there were no longer funds for the Buncombe County Junior College. Instead of closing, the Buncombe County Junior College charged $50 a semester for tuition to pay the faculty—who often took a smaller sum than their regular salary—and changed its name to Biltmore Junior College (after all, the college’s funds were no longer coming from Buncombe County). For students unable to pay in cash, Biltmore Junior College used an informal barter system for tuition, and accepted vegetables, eggs, milk and produce as payment. Still, with students facing the brutal economic hardships of the Depression, enrollment dropped significantly. But the little college soldiered on.
Keep an eye out for more stories from UNC Asheville's history as we celebrate 90 years of educational excellence--including our story about the launch of UNC Asheville in 1927--and share your own memories on social media with #UNCAVL90years.
Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville Special Collections and University Archives. Visit their blog for more university and local history stories.