With thanks, museum honors co-founder

Melanie English
Special to The Black Mountain News

Since 1989, the Swannanoa Valley Museum has safeguarded the region’s historical relics. Yet the artifacts are secondary to the people who have contributed to its mission over the years. These people are the museum’s real treasures.

On Christmas Eve 2014, the Swannanoa Valley lost one of the museum’s founders, Harriet Styles.

The museum will honor Harriet Styles on May 23. The event will feature free museum tours and a reception from 2-4 p.m. that day at Black Mountain United Methodist Church, 101 Church St. Community members are invited to share their memories and photographs of Styles. The museum will offer all a chance to preserve those stories in the museum’s oral history collection. Professional videographers and sound technicians will be there to make the recordings.

Born in Asheville in 1920, Styles, the daughter of A.W. Allen - the first Boy Scout executive in Western North Carolina - had an innate connection to the outdoors. In the 1940s, Styles married the late Judge William Styles and settled in the Swannanoa Valley to raise her family.

Shortly after, she was pegged as an “outsider” by an another mother at a P.T.A. meeting. Styles later wondered, “I have never figured out if she thought this because I had migrated the great distance of 13 miles from Asheville or if it was the fact that I lived in Lytle Cove.” She professed, “I have raised my children and gardens in this Valley, I have picked Swannanoa Valley berries and have been bitten by Swannanoa Valley snakes and spiders. But above all, I have reveled in the natural beauty of this Valley and have rejoiced in the friendship of its people.”

This reverence for the environment and the people of the Valley, prompted Styles to play an active role in the local community, as a Girl Scout troop leader and member of organizations like the Tea and Topics Club and Black Mountain Women’s Club. As a member of the Women’s Club, Styles helped to mount a small exhibit of local history in the basement of the Black Mountain Baptist Church for the Fourth of July fair held in conjunction with the nation’s bicentennial. Styles sought out artifacts for the exhibit from locals such as Hardy Davidson, a Swannanoa woodcarver and descendant of one of the earliest Valley families. He loaned several old items and cracked, “If you need any more antiques, just let me know and I’ll make you some.”

The exhibit spurred interest in a permanent museum of Valley history. By the 1980s, Bill McMurray and other philanthropic community leaders, including Harold Patton, Tom Reynolds, Gary Semlack, Elizabeth Pace, Bob Daniels, Joe and Mary Hemphill developed plans for a museum in the former Black Mountain Firehouse. Patton approached Styles to help gather artifacts for the fledgling museum. Styles had learned two important lessons while planning the 1976 exhibit: first, “the Swannanoa Valley is unique in many ways” and, second “that valuable items and stories are being lost,” she said. Indeed, by the time the museum began amassing its collection, Davidson was gone and so were his “antiques.”

Styles entreated Valley residents for donations of artifacts and pictures to bring local history to life. She wanted to assemble a collection of “objects that could tell the complete story of the Swannanoa Valley,” as she put it. “Everyone I talked with and asked for donations were most generous,” she said. “I looked through photo albums, went through attics and basements, and asked for items to start the museum.” Foremost, she sought stories that would give the historic artifacts relevance in the present.

Styles had a knack at making connections between the past and present. For instance, Styles happened to be in the museum on a day she wasn’t typically scheduled and met a Mr. and Mrs. King, tourists from Birmingham, Alabama. After a brief introduction, the wife divulged that she had visited Black Mountain in the 1920s when her grandmother had a summer home on State Street across from the Gresham Hotel. Upon learning the woman’s maiden name, Weatherly, Styles recalled seeing a photograph of the home in an old album belonging to local resident Clyde Hall. She immediately telephoned Hall who brought the album to the museum.

“At the first page, the tears began to fall,” Styles remembered, as Mrs. King was astounded to see her grandmother’s handwriting on the pages of the album filled with photographs she had taken and developed herself. Mrs. King flipped through the album, fondly reminiscing about cherished memories. Hall insisted Mrs. King keep the album. Due to Styles, the museum, served as an emissary between history and the present day, proving as Styles asserted, “one more reason museums are worthwhile.”

Styles had an affinity for connecting the loose threads of history. She handwrote lengthy histories of the Swannanoa Valley, which now constitute the museum’s new collection of Harriet Styles papers, which will soon be available to researchers. She visualized these stories through exhibits as the museum’s first curator and director. Styles later provided guidance as a member of the board of directors and chairman of the curatorial committee.

Styles also led guided hikes to share her knowledge about the region’s natural history, setting the precedent for the museum’s popular hiking programs. In 2003, Styles was awarded the WNC Historical Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award for her work in helping to preserve the history of Western North Carolina. “Harriet Styles is the heart and soul of the Swannanoa Valley Museum,” former museum administrator Jill Jones said. “There would not be a Swannanoa Valley Museum without the efforts of Harriet Styles.”

Styles embodied the mission of the museum to preserve and interpret the social, cultural and natural history of the Swannanoa Valley through programs and exhibitions for the education and enrichment of the community, its children, and future generations.

The museum currently has a video about Styles’ contribution to the museum on display in one of the galleries she curated.

Remembering Harriet Styles

What: Remembrance Day honoring Harriet Styles

When: 1-5 p.m. May 23

Where: Swannanoa Valley Museum, Black Mountain

More:, 669-9566