Asheville Car History: The Beginnings of the Coxe Avenue Motor Mile
View from near Church Street, looking towards the future Coxe avenue, circa late 1800s. The Ravenscroft School for Boys is situated on the hill in the right. Photo courtesy of Dale Slusser.
Many people that are new to Asheville or first-time visitors probably do not know; Asheville was a serious car town. Asheville had developed some of the highest quality roads in the area, thanks to George Vanderbilt. George Vanderbilt had first been exposed to automobiles while traveling in France in 1906 and fell in love with automobiles, taking his first road trip throughout the countryside there. When he got back to his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, he became involved with the Buncombe County Good Roads commission to improve the roads in Asheville. This involved leveling out many steeper roads and paving them with macadam paving. Macadam paving is a process that involves compressing crushed stone into pavement, which was first developed in Scotland. The commission had started as early as 1899 when bicycles were becoming very popular.
First automobile dealers association meeting, 1907, picture in Pack Square
As more wealthy tourists came to Asheville to visit, they increasingly brought their cars with them. Several men in town became more aware of this and started dealers to supply cars and service for them. It was decided that with the increase in cars in Buncombe County, Asheville needed its own automotive district. An area in Asheville that was known as Buxton Hill became this spot almost accidentally. A man named Edwin Wiley Grove, who had made his fortune in patent medicine called “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic,” which was mostly alcohol but contained quinine, which cured Malaria. Grove amassed a large fortune with this medicine and began to look elsewhere to invest his money. His medicine company was based in St. Louis, Missouri, which was full of factories belching smoke into the sky. Whether it was too much work, poor air quality or both. Grove began to develop some respiratory ailments. Like many others, he had been sent to Asheville by his doctor to cure his respiratory ailments by breathing fresh mountain air. When he arrived in Asheville, he was amazed by the natural beauty and open land ready to be developed. He purchased a large tract below Sunset Mountain and began to build the Grove Park Inn, a high end lodge style inn that would be “Built for the Ages.” It mainly catered to wealthy business travelers that wanted to rest and recuperate with fine dining and quiet surroundings.
Construction of Coxe Avenue, demolition of Buxton Hill and newly constructed Battery Park hotel off in the distance.
Looking to further expand his land holdings, Grove looked towards downtown Asheville. In 1923, E.W. Grove began demolishing the original Battery Park hotel that was owned by Frank and Tench Coxe. It was perched atop Battery Hill, which was an original battery garrison and lookout point during the Civil War. Not only did Grove demolish the Battery Park hotel, he leveled the entire hill, dramatically changing the landscape of downtown Asheville. He had to move all of the dirt somewhere and it was decided that the land south of Broadway (now modern day Coxe avenue) would receive all of this dirt, to fill in the ravine that ran through this area. The dirt was excavated by steam shovel and moved by wagon cart to fill in the ravine and create an extra-wide avenue for commercial and vehicle traffic. This job was said to have been taken up by John Bohannon of the Catawba Construction Company of Hickory, who later made Asheville his home.
A newly constructed Coxe Avenue, beginning to take shape
Starting in 1923, Coxe Avenue began to take shape as Asheville’s first zoned “motor mile”. To further flatten the area, demolition of some of the surrounding hills like Buxton Hill started to take place. Buxton Hill was named for Reverend Jarvis Buxton, who along with his wife ran the North State Fitting school, where a young Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward Angel attended school as a young man. The area was also home to the Ravenscroft School for Boys, which was funded and staffed by the Episcopal Diocese of Trinity Episcopal, on Church street.
One of the first car dealers that was constructed was the Richbourg Motor Building, which started by selling Ford and Lincoln Products. It was constructed like a parking garage, with circular ramps connecting all three floors of the building. At the time, they even parked cars on the roof. Many auto dealers were constructed like this in Asheville, as there was more vertical space to be used, than flat, level land, being in the mountains. This building was first constructed in 1926, by J.A. Richbourg. It later became Parkland Chevrolet, when it was purchased by Robert Hunter and the Ford Franchise was sold from J.A. Richbourgh and transferred to Raymond Matthews, at Matthews Motors.
Richbourg Motor Building in later years, burned in the 1980s. Formerly located at 51 Coxe Avenue
The next building to pop up on the Coxe avenue motor mile was the Sawyer Motor Building, also constructed in 1926. It was designed by the architect, Victor W. Breeze from Charlotte, North Carolina, who was said to have briefly lived in Asheville. It was built by L.L. Merchant, who was famous for much of the work that he did on the Oakley subdivision in East Asheville. The man behind the dealer, Eugene Coston Sawyer would go on to influence Asheville and leave more of a lasting automotive legacy than almost any of the other automobile men of this time period. Eugene Sawyer was the son of James Pinckney (known as Captain Sawyer for his service in the Civil War) and Nancy Coston Sawyer and the grandson of Asheville’s first mayor, Isaac B. Sawyer. He would have been familiar with the land of Coxe avenue, as he was a graduate of the Ravenscroft School of Asheville, located just above where he would build the Sawyer Motor Building.
Various Images of the Sawyer Motor Building, constructed 1925-1926
Sawyer was said to bring the first automobile to Asheville that anyone had seen. He brought a 1900 Locomobile steam-powered car to his brother Clarence’s grocery store on Pack Square to advertise Colgate Octagon Soap. He owned his own bicycle shop and was an avid rider, starting several bike riding clubs that would hold events in town. He went on to build his own car, powered by a 2 cylinder internal combustion Brennan Motor and built with spare parts from his bike shop. He was said to later sell this car to Rutherford P. Hayes, the son of president Rutherford B. Hayes who developed much of West Asheville. Hayes turned the car into a powered tractor/mower for his farm. It was said that one day the speed control unit or governor failed, took off and crashed the machine into a tree on his farm.
A young Eugene Sawyer
Eugene Sawyer (far left) and a 1915 Hudson race car
Sawyer’s original car dealer, Asheville Cycle and Automobile Company, started around 1906. It was located at 15 Lexington Avenue, selling bicycles and used cars. He had started selling bicycles as early as 1890. He began selling automobiles in 1901 and sold one of the first one cylinder Cadillacs to Tench Coxe in 1901. Soon after, he began selling Hudson automobiles as early as 1910.
Later on, Sawyer moved his dealer to Church Street, still under the name of the Asheville Cycle and Automobile company. In 1904, he sold a Chalmers-Detroit automobile to George Vanderbilt. He would go on to sell him 5 more cars, as well as help him find a chauffeur to maintain and drive these cars for him around the estate. One of the last cars he sold him was a 1913 Stevens Duryea, which was Edith Vanderbilt’s personal car and is still owned by the Biltmore Estate. It was one of the first cars to feature electric headlights, when most cars used gas powered lights or carbide lanterns.
As the Coxe motor mile was being developed, Sawyer moved into a brand new, state of the art building at 100 Coxe avenue that would become the Sawyer Motor building. It started out as a two story building in 1925. Then, realizing he needed more space, he added two additional stories in 1926. At this time, he was no longer selling Hudson, but had moved on to Dodge, Plymouth, Studebaker and Graham Brothers Trucks. Graham Brothers was an early commercial truck manufacturer that had a Dodge Engine and driveline - that was marketed by Dodge. In an early attempt to recycle, Sawyer developed an oil stove that burned used motor oil to heat the building. He would go on to occupy this building until 1940, when he leased it to Raymond Matthews of the Matthews Motor Company, one of the largest Ford dealers in town. Matthews Motors would occupy the building until the early 1960s, when Skyland Motor Company moved in - selling Oldsmobile and later adding Mercedes and Jeep vehicles to the franchise. Skyland would stay for about 10 years, when they moved to Smokey Park highway. During the 1970s many other car dealers and businesses were moving out of downtown Asheville. The Sawyer building would go on to become the Coleman Tire Factory, which performed some mechanical service work and manufactured retread tires inside the building. In the 1990s, it became Precision International, a foreign car repair service run by Randy Richards until it was re-developed in 2003 by Harry Pilos and turned into condominiums and office space, which it still is to this day.
Matthews Motors, Corner of Coxe and Hilliard Avenue. Homes visible on Asheland Avenue behind.
Some of the streets that adjoined the motor mile of Coxe avenue at this time were mostly residential. Today, they have all become commercial or residential. The streets of Asheland Avenue and Hilliard avenue contained homes, boarding houses and small businesses. Almost all of this has been demolished in the present day, with almost none of these large Queen Anne style boarding houses still existing. Further south of Coxe Avenue, was the Southside neighborhood, which was the majority black neighborhood. This area encompassed all of the land from Southside Avenue to Depot Street in the River Arts District. Like many other cities at the time, many businesses in downtown Asheville were segregated. Black citizens of Asheville were not legally allowed to buy cars from white owned car dealers, but had many other avenues other than walking through the front door to buy a car. Black citizens would sometimes hire a white car broker to pay cash and purchase a car for them from the motor mile. There were also off-times, when they could sneak to the back entrance of one of these dealers and purchase a car for cash. At this time, there were not any black owned car dealers in this area during the 1920s, but there were several black owned taxi services, like Glenn Cab company, that was owned by a man named Southside Glenn, who was black and employed an entire staff of white chauffeurs, that drove only Packard sedans.
There were many different car related businesses in this area, but the main focus of this article was to cover the dealers that lined Coxe avenue and to describe the overall development of this area, which is now known as the South Slope neighborhood of Asheville and is home to many breweries, restaurants and businesses. As we go forward with this series, we’ll highlight many of these individuals in depth that were fixtures of the motor mile and later changed Asheville in many ways.
Stayed tuned for part two of the Coxe Avenue Motor Mile series. There is more history, people and car dealers to explore in this area. So much history happened on this corridor. There were several other areas in downtown Asheville that sold cars to wealthy and famous tourists that we will explore as well. As we continue to explore Asheville’s automotive history, we’ll look at automotive racing in Asheville, airplane history, trains and streetcars that went through town and much more.