Ray Kirstein leaves memories of times past

Barbara Hootman

Ray Kirstein died on Aug. 25 at the age of 91, closing a life lived in the Broad River community where his ancestors settled around the time of the Revolutionary War.

“His family lived and farmed the Kirstein farm land since the 1700s,” Bill Garrison, Kirstein’s first cousin and close friend, said. “He died in the same bedroom that he was born in on the farm. He loved the land, and farming was a way of life for him, although he had several different jobs in his life. He had grants and deeds dating back to the 1700s.”

He is survived by older sisters, Florence Mercer and Berniece K. Donaldson. His sisters married and moved away, but Kirstein stayed to live on the family farm. The farm was home to a herd of cattle, bees and a large orchard where Kirstein’s well-known apples and cider came from. It also had a large garden where he grew produce for sale.

“He grew produce and sold it to A&P in Black Mountain and Winn-Dixie in Asheville,” Garrison said. “I am several years younger than Ray, and I helped him with the deliveries. Just about everybody liked Ray. He always had a smile, and spoke his mind, but was never rude. You knew where you stood with him.”

Robert Glenn, was one of Kirstein’s closest friends for more than 50 years. In the 1950s, he worked with him when he was a meat cutter.

“We worked together at Black Mountain Freezer and Locker which was the first self-service supermarket in town,” Glenn said. “I worked with him two of the four years that he was there. He was a hard worker, very efficient and always appreciated a good practical joke. I learned a lot just working with him.”

Throughout a lifetime of farming the farm, Kirstein kept up to date on the latest techniques through seminars. He shared what he knew with other farmers.

“We grew apples about the same time,” Glenn said. “He had a big orchard and expanded into the making cider, and even had a hydraulic apple press. He was well known for his apples and cider. We also shared a venture in sharing hay fields. He had to feed all those cattle.”

One of the early stagecoach stops was behind the Kirstein house in Broad River.

“Ray’s great-granddaddy William Garrison drove the stagecoach from Statesville to Asheville,” Garrison said. “Ray had many stories that he told about his ancestors, the farm, and Broad River.”

One of the stories he liked to tell was coming to Black Mountain for the first time when he was 5 years old. The train was so loud that it scared him. He and his family made the trip in a horse-drawn wagon. His father bought a Model T a few years later. He always remembered the African-American station attendant in Black Mountain with his pressed black and white uniform. He took Kirstein for an ice cream to calm his anxiety over the loud steam train. It was the first time he had tasted ice cream.

Garrison remembered when Kirstein worked for M.B. Haynes Co., doing landscaping, and helping install power in homes along N.C. 9. He also worked on paving that highway, which was a gravel road in the late ’40s.

“Whatever he did, he did it well,” Glenn said. “If you asked Ray for advice, and he didn’t know, he knew someone that could help you.”

Kirstein, who served in World War II and was part of the invasion of Normandy, liked to travel. He visited Alaska and attended a reunion in Normandy.

“He didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences,” Glenn said. “I hope he will be remembered as a hard-working farming man with great values.”

Ronnie Wheeler, who lived across the road from the Kirstein farm, became a close friend and confidante. He was listed as a son in Kirstein’s obituary.

“My family and I were really close to Ray for the past 30 years,” Wheeler said. “He had called me his son for at least 20 years. It started when some buddies and I asked permission to hunt on his land. Every time we hunted we would find him working in the hayfield, orchard or garden, and I would pitch in and help him. I just liked being around him, hearing his stories and working together to take care of the farm.

“I learned a lot from him. Then when his health started to fail, I saw that he needed help and I helped wherever I could. When he died, he had already had four heart attacks, even with a pacemaker and defibrillator. But it was the lung cancer that took him.”

“He was diagnosed in April with lung cancer,” Almeta, Kirstein’s wife, said. “He had been in failing health for several years. Ray and I had 32 good years together. I miss everything about him.”

Mary Hemphill and her late husband, Joe, were friends with Kirstein and his first wife, the late Virginia, and Almeta, his second wife.

“Virginia died at home on the farm,” Hemphill said. “She worked side by side with him for over 30 years. He was fortunate to find Almeta, who also became his partner in everything he did and worked with him on the farm. Joe and I shared apple growing and cider making with Ray and Almeta.

Edd Buchanan, a beekeeper, knew Kirstein all of his life. “I went to his 90th birthday party in Broad River last year,” he said. “He grew one of the best big California apples that you ever tasted. He also made great cider. If Ray liked you, he would do anything for you. He was also a generous man.”

Kirstein continued to work on his farm almost to the end of his life. He could look out and see the hemlocks he planted when he was 10 years old. Those tree continue to provide a barrier between the farm and N.C. 9.

In 2012, Kirstein placed the 300-acre farm in a conservation easement so that the land will be preserved.