Emma is a small community in western Buncombe County that sits nestled between Dryman Mountain and the French Broad River. If you wanted to put a pushpin on a map, you’d place it on the crossroads at North Louisiana and Emma Road (SR 1338). Today, the intersection maintains some character of the old and the new. Walker Tire (1967), a long-time family owned business, and an Ice Service station occupies the north side of the cross roads, and on the south side, a tienda and pasteleria (abt. 2013) sells sopas, churros, café, and other essentials for latinx cooking.
100 years ago though, Emma was a strange, in-between kind of location. In fact, there were only a couple of ways to access this little section of the county from Asheville, and both involved crossing the French Broad River. Folks from Leicester, too, found themselves without a shortcut to and from town. The Dryman Mountain Road, the Bridge at Hazel Mill, and Smith Mill Bridge were the primary options, and none was easily passable or desirable.
In the 1870’s, however, the population of the community began to grow. In addition to Smith who operated a farm where today the railroad crosses the river and Craven St. becomes Emma Rd., A member of a prominent Leicester family crossed Dryman Mountain and purchased a large farm. Thomas Caney Brown, a former alderman in the town of Leicester, came down the mountain bringing his charm with him. A friend to nearly everyone he met, Caney earned the nickname, “Cousin Caney.” Through his charisma, (and family name recognition) Caney earned political influence throughout the county, eventually earning the position of chair of the Buncombe County Commission.
I first came to learn about Cousin Caney out of what some might consider nosey-ness. Since I was very young, I have always been interested in a house that I would always see on the way to and from my grandparent’s home who lived just off Emma Road, just before Smith Mill Bridge. The big house on the corner of Hazel Mill and Emma Road
seemed like some kind of movie set, large trees towered over the wraparound porch. The roof pitched at strange angles, and it looked nothing like the simple ranch house my family owned. Now that I’m investigating communities, I took the opportunity to learn about this house in Emma. I quickly learned that it sits on Lot 42 of the Caney Brown Farm Tract. That’s when I first encountered “Cousin Caney.”
Platted out in 1922 and sold by Green and Cole, the Caney Brown Farm plat contains more than 150 acres, including three homes or structures. A branch of Smith Mill Creek runs through the middle of the tract. Following the creek on the plat the “The Leicester Road” (now Emma Road), as I learned with more research, a road of Cousin Caney’s own devising, wheeling, and dealing.
First elected to the county commission in 1896, Caney came into his role under some bizarre circumstances. Caney was a moderate Republican in a deeply Democratic county, nominated in a secretive process, and elected by an extraordinarily slim margin. He was appointed chair of the commission by a friendly Judge. The Asheville Democrat a competing paper to The Asheville Citizen mocked Brown and his “progressive” colleagues on a regular basis, and brought attention to some of the questionable activities of Cousin Caney’s administration. Despite political differences, the people of Buncombe County seemed to like Caney, for a time. According to various newspaper sources, the public opinion of Caney Changed rather quickly over the course of his term as county commissioner, however. His reputation shifted from a kind cousin to a slick political insider.
Although he left the Buncombe County Commission under a cloud of scandal, Brown accomplished one of his primary promises and goals to his constituents, to be a proponent of good roads, no matter the cost. At the end of his term, the Leicester Road (now Emma Road) connected Leicester to town and established the crossroads we know today as Emma.
Thomas Caney Brown died at his daughter’s home (89 Montford, the Gudger House) in Montford in 1916. Despite his corruption, and declining public opinion of “Cousin Caney” during his term in office, he continued to be a well-known and revered man in the city. His obituary and his brief biography in George A. Digge’s Historical Facts Concerning Buncombe County Government (1935) paint him in a positive light.
I was never able to pin down whether or not Caney Brown ever lived at the house on the corner of Hazel Mill and Emma Road. Tax records indicate that the two-story farmhouse was built in 1906 many years after Brown first purchased the property. It could be that the home was constructed for a Mrs. Laura Josephine “Fannie” Whittemore. Originally from Barnardsville, the Whittemores, also caught up in county politics, may have exited that section upon the outbreak of familial and political violence. However, that’s another blog post.
Today the house that sparked the questions for this post still stands on the same plat that Green and Cole had surveyed as a subdivision in 1922. Over the past two years, someone has transformed the property, renovating the outside of the home, clearing overgrown brush, and revealing the original stone springhouse. Like I did when I was small, I still look forward to seeing this house on my drive back to Leicester from Asheville, across Dryman Mountain.
Thanks, Caney Brown. Nice to get to know you.
In the 21st century, Emma is one of the county’s most diverse communities and harbors a lot of hidden activity. The community is home to the Central Office of Buncombe County Schools, a large conference center venue (The Crest Center, on the grounds of the former Bingham Heights), a growing number of new and renovated homes, plus new and thriving family owned businesses. A large number of Latinx community members live in this neighborhood, and the demographic change is apparent in the flavor of some of the newest local businesses (El Rio Ice Cream for elotes anyone?). An incredible reflection of this change is a program made possible through Asheville Writers in Schools. Word on the Street/La Voz de las Jovenes is an online magazine written by teenagers, for teenagers in both English and Spanish.
One of the most wonderful things about researching communities is to see how they change over time.
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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 Emma or some other Buncombe County community 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.