Broad River celebrates heritage while raising money for community center

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Broad River native Earline Garrison Owenby, right, and community center president Ruby Gilliam, are working to raise $12,000 to install an air conditioning system in the Broad River Community Center.

To the outsiders who pass through Broad River, it may appear as though time has stood still. As N.C. 9 snakes out of Black Mountain, between the mountains and along wide open pastures, the landscape remains sparsely populated with old farm houses and rustic barns dotting the countryside. Community carries a special significance in the rural area where neighbors are often separated by miles.

Few places, if any, play as important of a role in bringing folks together in the southeast corner of Buncombe County as the Broad River Community Center, leading local residents to organize a fundraiser to help revitalize the building.

The committee that oversees the center and the Broad River Fire Department Women’s Auxiliary are attempting to raise $12,000 to install an air conditioning system in the building, which was first erected as a simple block structure in the late 1940s. Today, the completed version sits adjacent to the Broad River Volunteer Fire Department and is used by the community for a wide range of gatherings.

On March 23, over 40 people attended a screening of the documentary “Come Hell or High Water, Remembering the Great Flood of 1916.” The documentary by David Weintraub recounts the devastation of the worst natural disaster to hit Western North Carolina, including Broad River.

Dozens of Broad River residents view a slideshow containing old photos of relatives and community leaders during Broad River Heritage Night at the community center on March 23.

The gathering was the first Broad River Heritage Night, organized by Hanna Harris and promoted by Don Talley to raise money for the center. Harris, who moved to the community with her husband Kyle in 1996, is writing a book on the history of the area.  

“We bought the Canipes old place and everyone in the community knew the Canipes,” she said. “When we bought that place we were introduced as the people would bought the old Canipes place for the next 10 years.”

Kyle was involved with the fire department and Hanna got to know many of the locals spending time at the community center.

“I would hear these family stories, about the Civil War years and stuff like that, and I was asking if any had been written down or documented,” she said. “Earline looked at me one day and said ‘Hanna, you need to do it.’”

Earline Garrison Owenby has lived in Broad River for all 91 years of her life, and her family has called the area home for much longer.

Earline Garrison Owenby sits on a horse-drawn hay rake in Broad River in the 1940s.

“You know where the Straightaway Cafe is on (N.C. 9)?” she asked. “That whole valley through there belonged to my grandaddy.”

One piece of oral family history explains the community’s need for a place to gather safely.

“My great great grandaddy was standing right over here, in what they called an election ground,” she motioned toward an open field that extends hundreds of yards beyond the community center, “They were having a meeting of some sort and there came a lightning storm and him and his mule got killed. That was in 1893, my brother said.”

Owenby, who is still an active member in the Auxiliary and attends weekly Capoeira classes at the community, was one of the dozens in attendance at the Broad River Heritage Night.

Talley, a longtime Black Mountain resident who became the director of the Light Center earlier this year, started a Facebook group dedicated to Broad River heritage. He was surprised by how many people were eager to share their family’s stories and old photos.

“We had like 200 members pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s been very active since it started, and it’s been great to see how proud this community is of its heritage.”

For the movie screening, people arrived with covered dishes and many greeted each other with hugs and handshakes. A slideshow projecting historic photos on a screen played as Hanna filled out name tags for them.

The event underscored the value of the community center, which was built on land donated by a woman who was known to the community as “Aunt Mae” Gilliam.

Gilliam lived in Broad River from her birth in 1882 until her death in 1953. She operated a library, in what The Asheville Citizen-Times described as a “tiny, antiquated, one-room log cabin” in a January, 4, 1942 profile on the operation, just down the road from where the center stands today.

Gilliam was literally an aunt to many in the community, including Pat Gilliam Owenby, who attended the heritage night.

“She was my great aunt,” Pat said, pointing to a sketch of Nora Mae Gilliam that hangs in the community center today.

Pat Gilliam Owenby was one of dozens of area residents who attended Broad River Heritage Night at the Broad River Community Center on March 23.

Aunt Mae was also the aunt of Luny Gilliam, who married current community center president Ruby Gilliam, a native of nearby Garren Creek.

“We live on land that’s been in the Gilliam family for well over 100 years, closer to 200,” she said. “We still have Gilliam reunions at this community center.”

Though separated by only a few miles of winding roads, rural communities like Broad River and Garren Creek were like growing up in “a whole different world” than neighboring Black Mountain, Ruby said.

“I didn’t even go to Black Mountain until I was like 14 or 15,” she said.

“I never knew what a dollar bill looked like until I was like 10 or 11 years old,” Earline added. “Now I’d seen a quarter, nickel and dime, but not a dollar bill.”

As the area has grown, the community center, which started as just a covered area with no floor, has adapted to accommodate it.

“Years ago, there was a couple, the Ledbetters, and they built a store at the fork in the road up here,” Earline said. “Then, the commissioners met up at the store and got the community center organized and put in some leaders.”

During the Party Rock Fire, which started in Chimney Rock and burned more than 7,000 acres over the course of three days, firefighters who came from all over the country to help fight the blaze slept in the center.

“We cooked meals for over 100 firefighters at a time,” Ruby said of the Auxiliary.

The facility has never had an air conditioner, and often can’t be used during the summer months because it gets too hot, according to Ruby. The fundraiser, which can be contributed to at, has raised over half of the money needed for the cost of equipping the building with the system.

“We will be able to use it a lot more when we get the air conditioning,” Ruby said.

After spending hundreds of hours interviewing locals about their stories, Hanna chose to donate proceeds from her book, once it’s completed, to the community center.

“Broad River’s world is down there at the community center and fire department,” she said.”And this community is still a tight-knit group of people who like to help each other out whenever they can.”