Historical significance of old Swannanoa school looms large

Fred McCormick

Buncombe County school officials are considering a $12 million renovation to the school that once housed Swannanoa School. And Bill Alexander is recounting its past.

From first- through eighth-grade, Alexander attended the school, which now houses Community High School. The building’s historical significance goes way beyond Alexander’s years there, he said in a recent interview.

School facilities and planning director Tim Fierle recently told the county school board that Community High School needs new infrastructure such as a roof and heating system. The school board is scheduled to vote on the improvements in June. Any improvements would not be made until 2018, according to Fierle’s report.

Swannanoa history is important to Alexander. His ancestors became the first white settlers in Western North Carolina 232 years ago when they settled the area.

“The first white settlement was in 1797 where Bee Tree Creek flows into the Swannanoa River,” he said. “The original name of the Swannanoa River was the Shawno, which means ‘beautiful river’ in Cherokee.”

Alexander’s tours of Swannanoa, like the one of “Old Town” Swannanoa Saturday, June 4 (tickets and info at swannanoavalleymuseum.org), offer details about the history of his hometown. Swannanoa School and its predecessor come up often.

“There was a schoolhouse located where the Ace Hardware store in Swannanoa is now,” he said. “We don’t know for sure, but we know around 1923 it burned down. And they needed a new school.”

Two years later the building that is now home to Community High School was finished. Alexander’s father, Oliver “Spec” Alexander, was one of eight members of the high school’s first basketball team.

Swannanoa School served children that lived west of Lake Eden Road and as far east as Riceville, according to Alexander. It accommodated the children of Buncombe County’s largest employer at the time, Beacon Manufacturing.

“Mr. (Charles) Owen, the owner of the plant, created three separate villages, the old village, the new village and Swannanoa Heights. These houses were rented for 25 cents a room, and that was taken out of your pay.”

Throughout its 30-year history, Swannanoa School received backing from a thriving community composed of businesses that thrived among the economic stimulation created by Beacon. Advertisements in the school’s yearbook, “Cygnet,” were a virtual directory of businesses like Buchanan’s Five and Ten Cents Store, which stood on Depot Street.

“(The Cygnet) contains every piece of information you would want to know about the school itself,” Alexander said. “A cygnet is a young swan. They had to come up with a name for the yearbook so they used “Cygnet,” which was a play on the first few letters of Swannanoa.”

The school developed a fierce rivalry with nearby Black Mountain High School.

“The kids that went to Black Mountain would be considered more ‘urban’ today, even though that word wasn’t really used back then,” Alexander said. “We wanted to beat those city slickers every time when played them in football, or any other sport.”

The Swannanoa High School Warriors and the Black Mountain High School Dark Horses became the Warhorses when the two school merged. But the students at Swannanoa were not excited about joining forces with their nearby rivals.

“We didn’t like it,” Alexander said. “We felt like we were losing our sense of community. There was not going to be a separate Swannanoa and Black Mountain anymore. I’m glad I wasn’t in that first group of kids that was forced to go to school together.”

In retrospect Alexander, who was the emcee of his 55-year high school reunion, looks back on his experience at Owen with fondness.

“I graduated Owen in 1960, and after four years of being there with everyone from Black Mountain and Swannanoa, everything was fine,” he said.