The 1920’s were a time of great change for women in North Carolina and across the country. After winning the right to vote in 1920, the role of women began to evolve. In 1921, North Carolina State College (now NCSU) enrolled its first full-time female student. However, it would be a full five years before the institution would declare “A woman who completes work for a degree offered by the institution [can] be graduated.” In 1920, Buncombe County voters elected Lillian Exum Clement to the North Carolina General Assembly. Clement became the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the Southern United States.
As women began the slow and agonizing climb in political and educational leverage, a cause was made for an organization for women that could address the needs of their communities and an avenue in which those women could enact meaningful change. In the summer of 1925, a group of young Asheville women lead by Anna Catherine Bryant met at Biltmore Country Club and formed the Junior League Club, which became the Junior League of Asheville. The JLA would become part of the Association of Junior Leagues of America (later the Association of Junior Leagues International, or AJLI) in 1927.
The Junior League of Asheville’s earliest endeavors included managing the Orthopedic Clinic, financing the care of a young girl receiving care for tuberculosis at a local sanitarium, and sponsoring a mother and seven children who were left homeless after the death of her husband. The women of the Junior League of Asheville also started their own Motor Corps, a group of women drivers who provided transportation to sick and elderly hospital patients in rural areas. In 1927, the Junior League of Asheville met with Judge Carl Hyatt, the man instrumental in organizing the Juvenile Court for Buncombe County, and were advised of the need for a home where infant wards of the court could be cared for until they were placed for adoption. In previous years, these children were shifted around to various hospitals throughout the county. The League quickly got to work and rented a building in Montford Hills to house these children.
On October 17th of 1927 the Junior League of Asheville opened the doors to its first major project, the Baby Home. The home accepted children up to 4 years of age. The women of the League proved to be tireless fundraisers. Through teas, dances, pageants, and concerts, these women raised enough money to not only equip the home with nursery furniture and baby essentials, but also employ two nurses as full-time staff.
Aside from fundraising, the members of the Junior League also provided hands-on care to the tiny residents. A minimum yearly volunteer requirement of 36 hours was implemented and the ladies of the League spent their time feeding, changing diapers, maintaining the upkeep of the home, as well as providing early education programs to the older children. By the fall of 1929, over 40 children awaiting adoption in Buncombe County had resided at the Baby Home. Through the fundraising and advertising efforts of the League, word had spread of the community service efforts of this group of young women. Little did they know that the League’s presence in Asheville had taken a foothold at precisely the right time.
The progress and opulence of the 1920’s would come to a grinding halt at the end of 1929.The stock market crash that unfolded on October 29, 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. In the wake of Black Tuesday, thousands of banks failed across the nation. The rapidly declining financial stability of the country was sent further into a tailspin with the drought of 1930. By 1933, over 25% of the nation’s workforce would be unemployed.
On November 20, 1930 eight Asheville banks closed their doors, sending residents into panic. Central Bank and Trust company would be the chief Depression Era banking casualty in Asheville. The bank had been the principal holder of the County’s funds. The Municipal bonds used by the county to fund infrastructure to the previously promising town left the county at the bottom of a nearly $160 million pile of debt, a tab that wouldn’t be repaid until 1976.
For the women of the Junior League of Asheville, the 1930’s ushered in a dire decade of need. With a rise in abandoned children and the county budget feeling the strain of mind-numbing debt, the League knew it would need to expand on its already challenging project of providing a home for children born into unfortunate circumstances. To finance this huge endeavor, the women took on a new and ambitious fundraising project. In the fall of 1930, the members of the JLA opened the Junior League Tavern on Wall Street. The tea room became a popular lunch destination for local businessmen and a favorite of numerous local civic clubs who booked the space to host private dinners. For the ladies of the League, running the restaurant was their first attempt at entrepreneurship. The success of the Tea Room and resulting profits helped cover the day-to-day expenses of the first Baby Home, but the sharp increase in poverty and unemployment in Buncombe county lead to a rising number of infants in the custody of the court. Finding themselves at maximum capacity, League members knew they would have to either rent or build a larger home.
Towards the end of 1930, a plan began to materialize from the League’s vision of providing a larger, state-of-the-art home for babies. During a meeting with County Commissioners, JLA Members, and other County and City leaders, it was determined that the grounds of The Buncombe County Children’s Home, which at the time housed 42 children ranging in age from 20 Months to 13 years, would be the future site of the Baby Home. The League agreed to fundraise, maintain, and operate this facility for a period of 5 years. This monumental effort was further aided by the generous contribution of the Estate of Mattie Belle James. Mrs. James was the wife of William P. James, a wealthy Manhattan businessman and North Carolina native. Waldo Dodge, famed Asheville architect and husband of then JLA President Margaret Robinson Dodge, lent his talents to design the baby home. On December 2, 1931, the new Baby Home welcomed its first residents. The new accommodations boasted room for 19 infants, as well as a living area for full time nurses.
Baby Home volunteers not only spent their time taking care of the children at the home, they also met with and counseled the biological parents of the children in their care. Sometimes these parents were able to reunite with their children after receiving job training and subsequent employment, parenting education, and stable housing. It was through these interactions that the ladies of the JLA began to understand the complex problem of poverty in Western North Carolina. Inspired by their firsthand experience with these parents, the JLA hosted a series of speaking engagements focusing on poverty in Buncombe County, its impact on the family structure, and ways to improve the local economy.
November 5, 1936 marked the expiration of the contract between the Junior League of Asheville and the Buncombe County Baby Home. By the time the League had fulfilled its five year obligation, the Baby Home had cared for over 140 children. The JLA had contributed $27,000 and countless hours to the home and its tiny residents. This ambitious undertaking would set the bar for future projects of the Junior League of Asheville.
By: Crystal Capps, Public Relations and Internal Communications Committee