The Swannanoa in New Zealand, far, far away

Paul Clark

Monroe Gilmour and Fern Martin had to see it for themselves – Swannanoa, New Zealand.

No, not Swannanoa, NC, but Swannanoa, New Zealand is where Black Mountain resident Monroe Gilmour is giving the thumbs up.

They were in the country in April, visiting their daughter Sarah, who was studying for a semester at the University of Otago. Their son, who had also studied in New Zealand, told them about Swannanoa, though he never made it there himself.

Renting a car in Auckland, near the top of the North Island, Gilmour and Martin drove to Wellington and got a ferry to the south Island. There they drove to Swannanoa.

“We said, we’ve just got to go to that,” Gilmour said. They got there the day before they were flying back to the U.S. It was late in the day. “I wish we could have been there early in the day to explore it better,” Gilmour said. “There is no real downtown. It’s more like a community with different things.” There’s a community center and a well-considered school, Swannanoa School, he said. “We met a custodian there, she was very nice. She had heard nothing about there being another Swannanoa, and when I described it, she said it was pretty much like her Swannanoa.”

“There are a number of us in Swannanoa, North Canterbury, NZ who do know about Swannanoa, North Carolina,” Sheryl Johnson, an innkeeper in Swannanoa NZ said via email. “In fact, sometimes when searching maps, etc. for directions around our Swannanoa, we sometimes end up with your Swannanoa.”

“It is unusual for a locality to carry an American name,” the Swannanoa district’s mayor David Ayers said by way of email. “Most New Zealand place-names are either the original Māori names or names that reflect the origins of the first settlers, who came mainly from the British Isles.”

Swannanoa, NZ is a small rural district of about 1,000 people 35 kilometers northwest of Christchurch. It’s a dry, flat place with plenty of space (most people live on lots that are at least 2.25 acres), Ayers said. Farmers have historically raised sheep, but irrigation has brought about a dairy industry. Lots of people have been moving in lately, possibly because it’s an easy drive into Christchurch.

“I also think that someone in our community has already formed a connection with your Swannanoa,” Johnson said.

Turns out there’s a big connection to the Swannanoa here. Swannanoa “there” got its name from a man whose father had significant land holdings in Asheville.

John Evens Brown

John Evans Brown (1827-1895) was born in Pennsylvania and was a surveyor in North Carolina before leaving in 1849 for the gold rush in California. In the mid 1850s, he moved to New South Wales in Australia to run a sheep and cattle farm (as well as serve as U.S. consul), according to Wikipedia. Married, he and his young wife moved to New Zealand, settling in a farming community outside Christchurch that he named “Swannanoa” after a Cherokee name he liked. “Yankee” Brown, as he was known, was a member of New Zealand’s Parliament and an minister of education who helped created a system of free, compulsory education, according to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography as published by

Brown lost his 42-year-old wife Theresa, the daughter of a prominent New Zealand sheep raiser, in 1880, three years after two of their sons, one 11 months old, died within days of each other.

Brown married Jane Emily Martin in 1883 in Wellington, New Zealand, then in 1888 the couple left with three of their children for Asheville, where his father had his land, according to Wikipedia. With his wealth and the thousands of acres he owned in Western North Carolina and east Tennessee, Brown built Zealandia Castle on Beaucatcher Mountain in Asheville in 1889 (his portion of the house was razed in the 1950s; what survives today is the Tudor expansion built 1908-1920 for U.S. diplomat and art collector Philip S. Henry, according to the building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Brown, 68, died in the city in 1895 and is buried at Riverside Cemetery.

John Evans Brown built the original Zealandia mansion in 1889. What is pictured here is what remains was left after the subsequent owners tore down the Brown building.

“The story I have heard, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, is he came up to the Swannanoa Valley (as a young man) with his parents to get away from the heat in the Low Country” of South Carolina, said Bill Alexander, a local historican who lives in Black Mountain. “I heard the story that there was a terrible drought and his farm kind of went the way that droughts do. So he came back to the country. Most people think I’m crazy as hell when I tell them there is a Swannanoa, New Zealand.”

“It is certainly an unique name for a place in New Zealand,” said Fraser Hill who was once principal at Swannanoa School in New Zealand before becoming principal of another school on the north Island. In 2013, he visited Swannanoa and Asheville on a Fulbright Scholarship. He spent a week at ArtSpace Charter School in Swannanoa.

“We saw this as an opportunity to make a long-lasting connection between our two schools on the opposite sides of the world,” Hill said. “When I got back to New Zealand, some of the students at Swannanoa and ArtSpace did exchange email correspondence. We also did an audio conference with ArtSpace while I was in Asheville. The time difference was a challenge for this as even the end of the school day at ArtSpace was still only 7 a.m. in New Zealand.”

“I must say I was really impressed with the friendly people and scenery in your region and hope to get back over your way at some time,” Hill said.