Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: With all the controversy over Zebulon Vance, the former Civil War governor of North Carolina and a U.S. Senator, how much has visitation dropped off at the Vance Birthplace near Weaverville? Any chance of that place closing down?
My answer: Well, I’ve got to at least think the popularity of “Zebulon” as a baby name has dropped off some. OK, that should’ve happened a hundred years ago.
Real answer: Visitation dropping? Not quite …
“The site visitation at the Vance Birthplace has grown 60 percent since 2016, with a steady increase of approximately 10 percent each year,” Kimberly Floyd, site manager at the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site, said via email. “Our annual visitation at this time is around 18,000.”
The site, at 911 Reems Creek Road, not far from Weaverville in northern Buncombe County, comprises a two-story log home and multiple outbuildings. The state website suggests that by visiting you can, “Explore daily life on an early 1800s plantation in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
“Step inside a 1790s slave dwelling and hear the stories of the women and men who were enslaved by the Vances,” the website states. “Take a tour through the reconstructed birthplace of Zebulon B. Vance to discover how the environment and society of Western North Carolina shaped his political career.”
Born in 1830, Vance died in 1894. His family had occupied the Reems Creek valley since the late 1700s.
The University of North Carolina project, “Documenting the American South,” notes that Vance was a “Confederate soldier, governor of North Carolina, congressman, and U.S. senator, the third child and second son of David and Mira Baird Vance.
“He was born in the old homestead in Buncombe County, on Reems Creek, about twelve miles north of Asheville,” UNC notes, citing an article from “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.”
While Vance was known for his advocacy of expanding public education, he was also a man of his era — and deeply prejudiced.
Local historian and journalist Jon Elliston helped to break open this darker side of Vance’s history in 2020 with a post about Vance on his Facebook page. Elliston noted that Vance wrote of the Confederate cause:
“Our independence is chiefly desirable for the preservation of our political institutions, the principal of which is slavery.”
“Vance also wrote that the ‘putrid stream of African barbarism’ runs through the veins of Black people, including, presumably, his slaves,” Elliston wrote. “When we talk about the monument to Vance, this is who we’re talking about.”
The City of Asheville removed the Vance Monument, a large granite obelisk that had dominated Pack Square for more than a century, in the spring of 2021. The polished granite and concrete base, which proved difficult to remove, remains on site, although the “Vance” name is covered.
The removal also spawned a lawsuit against the city from a Confederate memorial group.
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of Minneapolis Police Department officers sparked national outrage that also spread to Asheville. It created a national reckoning on race relations, locally casting a spotlight on the Vance Monument.
The Vance Historic Site website does not shy away from the Vance family’s ownership of slaves, but it also does not delve into the more recent controversy. There’s a reason for that.
As Kimberly Floyd told me, she believes the name of the site — the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace — “may be misleading.”
“While the Vance Birthplace looks at the history of Zebulon Vance, our interpretation is much broader than one man,” Floyd continued. “The Vance Birthplace is historically and culturally significant due to the breadth and reach of the narratives that unfolded on this land that still impact us today from the institution of slavery to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era.”
As Floyd puts it, “A mixture of people and cultural traditions shaped the area we know as the Vance Birthplace.”
“Formerly Cherokee land, indigenous people farmed, hunted, and named the sacred places that later became points of cultural exchange,” Floyd said. “Europeans colonized and brought their own views and customs. People of African ancestry, enslaved by families like the Vances throughout the region, contributed foodways, musical traditions, religious practices, and other significant aspects to this multicultural society.”
Floyd also makes it clear that as a historic site, the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace does not have any connection with the former Vance Monument in downtown Asheville. Freemasons, of which Vance was a member, erected the monument downtown in his honor in the late 1800s.
Floyd also noted that the Vance Historic Site has an exhibit onsite now titled, “Atonement: Journey to Juneteenth,” that “covers the history and development of the site, highlighting our growing interpretation within a national historical context.”
While the historic site has largely avoided the unflattering spotlight, I did notice it still shows signs of having been vandalized with graffiti on one side of the log cabin home. News reports from WLOS News 13 and the Asheville Citizen Times noted that in December 2017 someone spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the home.
The Vance birthplace opened to the public 60 years ago.
By the 1950s, the original Vance house was in bad shape. Plans to preserve the site had been in the works for years, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the state of North Carolina acquired 2.28 acres from the Wheeler family, according to the Vance website.
“By 1960, workmen began reconstructing the Vance house, utilizing materials salvaged from the original building, as well as other dwellings in the area,” the website states. “Local citizens donated artifacts and structures, including three outbuildings and a 1790s slave dwelling that were relocated to the site. After a dedication ceremony on May 13, 1962, the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace opened to the public.”
It is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. It’s closed on Sunday and Monday.
As far as any permanent closure, don’t look for that to happen any time soon.
“There are no plans to close the birthplace,” Floyd said.
Got a question? Reach out to Answer Man John Boyle at (828) 337-0941 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org