Disclaimer: This installment of 52 Weeks, 52 Communities has no ill intent. Indeed, I mean to shame no one in my assertions, only educate. However, be warned, I may air some grievances.
Dear readers, there are a few things that send unpleasant chills down my spine. For my husband, it’s the sound of a fork scraping across a plate, for some people, it’s a creaky door. For me, there are two words that I simply cannot stand to hear mispronounced.
The first one, “Appalachia,” my cousin from upstate New York and I can get into knock-down drag-outs over. Her family vacations at Allegheny State Park, in App-uh-LAY-shuh. I, on the other hand, as a native of the Blue Ridge Mountains, live in App-uh-LATCH-uh. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that these are two different places.
The second word that, when butchered, sends me into fits, is my sweet hometown of Leicester, NC. There is no argument, however, about where Leicester is, or how one might pronounce it, and that is the subject of today’s blog.
First thing’s first, it’s LES-TER. Not lee-ses-ter, lye-ches-ter, lee-eye-ches-ter, or lees-ter. It is simply Les-ter. But I also love the way David Cohen put it in this 2008 cartoon- it’s definitely “Not Asheville.”
Good. That’s out of the way.
So how did this little mountain village end up with a name that is (apparently) so dog-gone difficult to pronounce?
The story begins in the United Kingdom. The land of words with unnecessary letters (see: Worcestershire Sauce). To be more specific, the story begins in Wales, where Elizabeth and Captain Robert Chapman lived, for a time, while stationed with the British Army, and their son, Leicester Chapman, was born.
We don’t know a lot about Leicester’s childhood, except that his father died before he was 11 years old, and that his mother, Elizabeth remarried a man named Lutwyche (Loot-witch). (This is an interesting story in itself, and Elizabeth wrote a version of it. You can read and download it here.)
By age 19, Leicester Chapman sailed to the West Indies (Caribbean) where he became manager of a sugar plantation, and eventually met Sarah Handfield, the daughter of Irish immigrants. They married in 1845 and the couple moved to western North Carolina about 1850.
The couple settled in a section of Buncombe County called Turkey Creek where they opened a store and Sarah tutored private students. It was not long after their arrival, that Turkey Creek saw rapid growth, and began to make moves toward incorporation, and the establishment of “Bascom College” a now long-lost institution of higher learning.
Chapman’s mercantile business was in full swing by 1859. He “[embraced] all articles of merchandize usually called for in the country” and called upon local farmers and traders to sell him goods like ‘Sang (ginseng) and Snake Root in exchange for goods or cash.
Chapman was also on the board of trustees for the newly forming Bascom College, and did not keep himself restricted to the Turkey Creek area. Indeed, he made frequent visits to Asheville, and most often stayed at the Eagle Hotel.
In just a few short years, a previously unknown Englishman had settled in rural Buncombe County and become one of the section’s leading citizens.
By the summer of 1859, the trustees of Bascom College filed a bill with the NC General Assembly to incorporate, and so did the citizens of Turkey Creek as the new town of “Leicester.”
On July 4th 1859, the citizens of the newly incorporated town joined together to celebrate their existence. They heard speeches from elected officials, ministers, and other public figures, including Robert Vance, (brother of Zebulon, and at that time, resident of Alexander). The celebration was documented throughout the county, and well attended. Everyone seemed to be rooting for the new town of Leicester.
Leicester Chapman’s family remained in WNC. His daughter, Rose, became well known for her artistic talents. One of his sons, Frank, worked in the lumber industry and was one of the primary investors of the Bee Tree Railroad. One of my favorite photos in our collection shows the entire Chapman family seated together for a portrait, some holding their instruments. Rose, bottom right, is impeccably dressed.
Eventually, Leicester dissolved their charter of incorporation and remains an unincorporated township to this day. However, the section remained prosperous and populated as one of the most important agricultural sections of the county for decades. An 1883 Gazetteer for Asheville and Buncombe County describes the Leicester people as “unconcerned with summer tourists,” and “without hope of getting a railroad,” but goes on to say that the residents of the section were unmoved by this lack of progress in innovative transportation. Back in 2008, there was a referendum to incorporate once more, however, the measure failed.
The people of Leicester are just fine as they are, especially if you get their name right. So remember, the next time you head down Highway 63, you’re on LES-TER highway, and remember Mr. Chapman while you’re at it.
We love sharing our collections and stories with you! We especially like when they get a good workout from researchers, the curious, and even the stray interior designer or stylist! Our images and collections are as much yours as they are the library’s. That’s what public libraries are all about!
Come on in and take a look. You never know what you might find!
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 Leicester 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? 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.