Sometimes things just make you wonder, like the name “Chicken Hill.” As a Buncombe County native, I remember asking my dad as we would cut through West Haywood to avoid (what we called then) the Westgate Bridge, “Why is that place called Chicken Hill?” and his response, always trying to teach me better observe my surroundings, was “take a look around, what hints do you see?” Ten-year-old me spied one big hint:
There was my sign.
So I asked, “What is a hatchery?” The only hatchery I had ever known was a trout hatchery near Pisgah Forest I’d visited on family camping trips. I quickly learned that the More than 50 years earlier a successful enterprise, Earle-Chesterfield Mills, had established a chicken brooder, described to young-me as, “Auntie Em at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz times 1000.”
Later on, the Farmer’s Federation egg processing center came to Chicken Hill in 1945. The giant warehouse designed by Anthony Lord created space for cold and dry storage, plus garages, spaces for shipping and receiving, and a seperate warehouse for the storage of apples.
My dad was pretty close when he told me the origin story of the name “Chicken Hill” for this steep section of the West End Clingman Avenue Neighborhood, but references to Chicken Hill appear in Asheville newspapers and city directories as early as the late 1890’s. So if not the hatchery, where does the name originate?
Unfortunately, there are no clear answers in local papers, stories, or lore about the community. It seems as though folks started calling the area Chicken Hill long before the hatchery but no one really seems to remember why. Before there was the Farmer’s Federation there was the Asheville Cotton Mill, so I began to wonder, could the name have originated with the mill?
The Asheville Cotton Mill first opened in 1887 and in 1894 was purchased by Moses and Ceasar Cone, two brothers, who first built workers’ housing, or a mill village. Asheville Cotton Mills was a successful operation for many decades, well into the 1940s. The mill officially ceased operations in 1953.
Jaquelyn Dowd Hall revealed why this nickname may have originated in her critically important work, Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. This book examines the motivations and lifestyle of early cotton mill workers through oral history narratives. Cotton mills invaded the South at the turn of the century, moving from the industrial north in search of cheap labor and shorter shipping routes for the source their primary raw material, cotton. As Hall describes it, at the end of the 19th century, farmers across North Carolina were fighting a losing battle against the economy, and began to turn their sights toward factory work as a saving grace for their families. Farm Families in WNC turned their gaze to Asheville Cotton Mills as a source for steady income as their farms suffered.
As a result, farm families packed their belongings and headed for mill towns, often with poultry and a milk cow in tow. These items proved to be essential to mill village life, and helped Chicken Hill earn its name. Mill families used their small livestock to supplement their income, and provide fresh milk, butter, eggs, and the occasional sunday fried chicken dinner. As more families arrived to work at Asheville Cotton Mills, so arrived more chickens, thus, the name stuck.
Keeping work throughout the entire year, and work that paid well, was sometimes difficult. Often, children as young as 12 (sometimes younger) worked in the mills. These excerpts from the 1900 census show several typical Chicken Hill households. Note the adolescent workers.
There were growing and ongoing concerns with the state of the health of workers, their children, and conditions on Chicken Hill, as well.
However, by the end of its run, it seems from what we know about life on Chicken Hill, that it was similar to what Hall and her students found typical of other mill villages across North Carolina. Times could be tough, but the community felt a sense of togetherness, very much like one big family.
You can read more about the history of some families who made their homes on Chicken Hill here: http://www.chickenhillnc.com/gallery.htm
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As a reminder, this post is a part of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series. In this series, we are covering a different Buncombe County community each week. Do you have materials related to Chicken Hill or Asheville Cotton Mills you’d like to let us know about? Do you, your parents or grandparents have a good story to tell? Please let us know!!! We want to hear from you! The North Carolina Room is Buncombe County’s Public Archive, we want to help preserve and make accessible the history and culture of Asheville and Buncombe County for all its residents.
This post was authored by Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, a librarian working in the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library.