Service at Riverside Cemetery celebrates the lives of the Dickinson sisters

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
A service in Riverside Cemetery on Aug. 1 honored the lives of Alice Margaret and Helen Louise Dickinson, two sisters who lived in Montreat in the early 20th century.

On the 87 acres of rolling hills dotted by ancient trees at the historic Riverside Cemetery in Asheville there are thousands of graves. Mausoleums and elaborate tombstones mark the final resting places of some of the region’s most prominent figures. 

Among them are the unmarked graves of lesser-known residents, whose stories are often never told. That changed for Alice Margaret and Helen Louise Dickinson with a graveside service on Aug. 1.     

History would have likely forgotten the sisters if not for a shared passion of Montreat residents Joe and Mary Standaert. The couple has accumulated around 800 postcards since they began collecting them in the 1980s. 

As they pored over their collection they began noticing images copyrighted by Alice. Joe asked Presbyterian Heritage Center executive director Ron Vinson if he would be interested in hosting a small exhibit of the photographer's work. PHC collections manager and registrar Lisa Harrold made a serendipitous discovery around that time. 

While looking through hundreds of boxes of material given to the center by the late Reverend Dr. Kenneth Foreman, Jr. in 2015, Harrold discovered journals that painted a more complete picture of Alice.

A grave marker for Montreat photographer Alice Margaret Dickinson, who is buried in Asheville's Riverside Cemetery.

Joe began researching and learned through state archives that the Lowell, Massachusetts native arrived in Montreat near the beginning of the 20th century. She was a prolific photographer with a single image in the Library of Congress and the UNC Chapel Hill Library & Archives. 

As he curated the exhibit, which opened in August of 2018 and will remain on display through the middle of September, Joe discovered images of Western North Carolina, predominately in Montreat, captured by the Swannanoa Valley's first professional female photographer.

Alice and her sister Helen were descendants of the Dickinsons who settled New England and first cousins once removed to Emily Dickinson, Joe discovered. In 1907 the sisters purchased Lot number 91 in Montreat, where Alice sold her photos under a tent during conference season. 

Helen, who was two years older than Alice, had a background as a missionary and served as the librarian at Montreat College for 25 years. Joe located members of the Dickinson family and found they were largely unaware of the sisters. He learned they died poor — Helen in 1958 and Alice in 1963 — and were buried in unmarked graves in Riverside Cemetery. 

Joe Standaert speaks about the lives of Alice Margaret Dickinson and her sister Helen Louise during a ceremony at Riverside Cemetery on Aug. 1.

The Standaerts knew they "had to do something for these women," he said. 

They contacted the Friends of the Library for Montreat College, which agreed to help pay for a grave marker for the former librarian. The PHC and other private donations supported the effort as well. 

The Standaerts were joined by Vinson, his wife Ann, Sue Diehl retired librarian at Montreat College and members of the PHC board, retired librarian Elizabeth Pearson, members of the Friends of the Library and others for the service, officiated by Reverends Keith Grogg and Betsy Ray. 

"These two ladies were unmarried, they lived here most of their lives and they died impoverished," Joe said. "Alice was a housekeeper in the area for a number of years and Helen was a librarian at the college. She died at Broughton Hospital."

Former Montreat College librarian Sue Diehl stands over the grave of Helen Louise Dickinson, a librarian at the college in the early 20th century.

Grogg called the service an opportunity to "provide long overdue proper memorial" to the sisters. 

"They've rested in unmarked graves for over half a century," he said at the grave of Alice, who is buried several hundred yards from Helen. "They are sisters and Montreat pioneers."

Joe, who spoke at Alice's grave, said the story of the sisters' lives was significant. 

"They were two single women who found a way to get by through the Depression," he said. "Their family was up in Massachusetts. In a way, I think 'pathos' is the word to describe their situations."

As he did at the graveside of Alice, Grogg read from Emily Dickinson over Helen. 

Longtime Montreat resident Dr. Jane Holt spoke at the service for Helen. 

"She was the librarian when I was a freshman in college," she said. "I saw her years later, walking in an old coat in the winter in Asheville. That was the last time I saw her."

Holt thought she may be the only living person to meet Helen, but she contacted a classmate who remembered the librarian well. 

From left to right: Former Montreat College librarian Elizabeth Pearson, Friends of Montreat College Library member Shirley McIntosh, former librarian Sue Diehl and Kay Salmon stand near the grave of Helen Louise Dickinson, whose life was celebrated with a service at Riverside Cemetery on Aug. 1. Dickinson, who lived in Montreat in the early 20th century with her sister Alice Margaret, was librarian at the college for 25 years.

"When Mary told me about this service I thought it was important that I be here," she said. 

Alice's marker describes her as a photographer and pioneer, a designation shared on Helen's stone, which also bears the inscription of "librarian." 

"It's important to remember these women and celebrate their lives," Mary said. "Their stories are important because both of them made contributions to their community."