A Civil War-era loom is once again the centerpiece of one of the Swannanoa Valley Museum’s displays, thanks to the work of a Black Mountain man and expert weaver who has made loom restoration his specialty.
The loom, retrieved many years ago from a log shed in Riceville in East Asheville, is “a reminder of the importance of sheep farmers, spinners and weavers to the life and economy of the Swannanoa Valley,” Sally Biggers of Black Mountain said in a recent letter to the editor. Believed to have been built in the 1860s, the loom “had been used to create woven linen and wool fabrics for the family and area residents,” she stated.
A focal piece of the museum’s permanent “Pathways from the Past” exhibition, the loom was in pieces when Mikkel Hansen started restoring it late last year. “It was a difficult loom to work on because it was in pretty bad shape,” he said.
The loom is “one of the museum’s largest and oldest artifacts from the Swannanoa Valley,” museum director Anne Chesky Smith said. The museum got it from Nancy Wrenn, who taught at Owen High School, and the late Ruth White, who taught at Owen High and the old Swannanoa High School. The women lived in the Riceville area (Wrenn still does, Chesky Smith said; you can read more about their lives in a book at the museum titled "Jones Cove Road: Memories and Stories," which they wrote with Starr Cash and Marian Sigmon).
Wrenn and White, both nurses, met in Okinawa, Japan, during WWII. When they came home, they started Camp Awa-Niko (Okinawa backward), a girls camp on Jones Cove Road in Riceville that operated for 22 summers. In the early 1980s, Wrenn and White were able to salvage items from an adjoining property before it was sold, and it was there that they retrieved the loom, disassembled, in the loft of the oldest log shed on the property. They donated it to the museum in 1989, the year the museum was founded.
The museum exhibited the assembled loom in its back gallery then, but when the museum underwent its renovation last year, Hansen disassembled the loom and stored it. Last year the museum’s board asked him to go to work.
“They asked me what it would cost; I said $2,000, and it ran way over that,” Hansen said. He charged them only $2,000, however, which he said covered the cost of the materials. He estimates his labor at about $3,500.
“Mikkel gave us a very generous rate for all his work and donated half of the money back to the museum that we paid him,” Chesky Smith said.
Hansen, who recently turned 90, had to fabricate several pieces out of a beautiful piece of poplar that he got from Bee Tree Hardwoods in Swannanoa. From that 4- by 4-inch beam “I had enough lumber to do that loom and another loom, if I ever do one again,” he said, “but at my old age, I don’t think I’ll tackle another old loom.”
“It’s been very satisfying work to do,” he said.
Last year at the museum’s request, the NC. Preservation Consortium, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization dedicated to the preservation of public and private pieces and collections of historic importance, designated the loom a “N.C. Most Endangered Artifact.” Three Black Mountain residents contributed money for the loom’s restoration.
“When guests see the loom, together with the warping board, spinning wheel, yarn winder and other accessories, it can really help them better understand what life was like for people living here in the mid-1800s,” Chesky Smith said. “Now that it's restored, we can also use it for demonstration, so guests can really experience the skill and time that it takes to create textiles.”