'Tea with Harriet' honors a museum benefactor

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
If she wasn't laying rock or digging gardens, Harriet Style could be as refined as she needed to be, friends say.

The Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center is planning a major fundraiser that honors the rugged and elegant sides of co-founder Harriet Styles.

With two seatings of up to 80 people each, “Tea with Harriet” on May 12 will be refined affair that pays tribute to a woman whose verve, tenacity, warmth and charm brought the museum into being, the tea’s organizers said last week. The event, the first of what they hope will be an annual occurrence, will be held at the historic Whitemont Lodge near Warren Wilson College.  

Much the way Black Mountain has been both rugged and elegant in its day, so too was Styles, according to Carol Tyson, a friend of Style’s who is chairperson of the museum’s events committee. Styles, who died Dec. 24, 2014, could be building a rock wall one day at her home, Rangoon Lodge, and entertaining friends the next in a white dress and a large hat.   

“She was a magnificent person, an amazing person,” Tyson said. “I admire Harriet so much.”

Last week Tyson was at the museum, talking about the tea with event chairperson Ann Lutz and museum director Anne Chesky Smith. The museum is currently closed for the winter but scheduled to open by April 14 (the museum could open earlier, Chesky Smith said, now that it has heat and air conditioning, thanks to its renovations completed last year).

The tea will be “a major fundraiser,” Chesky Smith said. “And we’re still looking for volunteers,” Tyson said.

The tea, Lutz said, “offers a lot.” Place cards will hold attendees’ seats. There will be a savory course, a scone course and a sweets course. There will be live music and a talk of the historic home by its owner, as well as a tour of its grounds.

  Local businessmen and politicians built Whitemont Lodge in Swannanoa during Prohibition as a “gentlemen’s club” with a 2,000-square-foot living room, according to the lodge’s website. “No cost was spared in building this structure, as evidenced by the 13-inch steel I-beam infrastructure, beautiful river rock exterior, huge fireplace, walls bordering the terrace, and the handmade brick walls throughout the main floor,” the website states.

“There is no record of this structure ever being built, as it was built secretively by people of obvious local power,” it states. “Since Prohibition was enacted in North Carolina in 1908, 11 years before it was enacted nationally, pinpointing the exact date of construction is even more difficult to determine.” But it can be assumed that the builders and members enjoyed a cocktail or two, Tyson said.

Owner Nancy Alexander offered the museum the use of Whitemont Lodge, which she renovated in 1997 after years of neglect.

The teas will be a major fundraiser for the museum, which preserves and celebrates the history of the Swannanoa Valley. The museum funds its $100,000 budget every year through donations, its hike series and special events such as its Historic Haunted House Tours. The museum has about 600 members, Chesky Smith said, and has seen a slight increase in membership the past few years.

Lutz suggested the idea of a tea to Chesky Smith as a way of bringing the museum additional money and members. Chesky Smith recommended Lutz to Tyson, who organizes the museum’s Historic Haunted House tours. The tea fit perfectly with what the museum does by way of the Valley’s history.

“Every program we do has to do with building a sense of community,” Tyson said. As with the hikes and the house tours, the teas are intended to attract new people to the museum, especially those who have moved to town recently, she said.

The first tea will focus on Styles and her work with the museum and the community. Subsequent teas, also titled “Tea with Harriet” and held the Saturday before Mother’s Day, will focus on the history, culture and arts of the Valley and its residents. Possible themes the planners have discussed include front porch living, bees and honey, and birds and fish. All themes are intended to celebrate spring in the Appalachians – the season that sprouts the wildflowers that Styles loved so much, Tyson said.

“Harriet used to love to hike and garden,” she said, “and there’s nothing prettier than the Appalachian spring.”

Styles led many wildflower hikes, even late into her life. She loved the mountains and its people, making her the perfect honoree of the first tea, Tyson said. Outspoken, Styles frequently spoke up at the Tea and Topic Club that she and Tyson’s mother-in-law, Betty Tyson, were members of decades ago. The club was composed of 12 women who meet monthly to play bridge, have tea and discuss books and history.

Styles was long a benefactor of the museum, paying for its reroofing in 1998. She rounded up many of the museum’s first exhibits by going around to families in the Valley that she thought had historic material they might donate. Tyson remembers her mother-in-law telling her how Styles pulled photos out of the Tyson family albums to copy for the museum’s permanent collection.

“Most of the stuff on the second floor of the gallery was because of her efforts,” Chesky Smith said.

Styles put on many teas, Chesky Smith said. Styles told the museum director about many “high teas” she gave in which the women wore hats and white gloves.

“No white gloves required for this tea,” Lutz said, laughing.

The planners are recruiting volunteers to help on these committees: planning, food, decorating, serving, clean up, and history and entertainment. To volunteer or learn more, contact the museum at 223 W. State St., 669-9566 or