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Asheville's Mountain Craft Industry - Three Mountaineers, the Beginning

This month, we’re going to explore a little bit lesser known area of Asheville’s history. Mountaineer Motor Tours doesn’t just cover automotive history, we are interested in all of Asheville’s history! Our tours are focused on the transition of Asheville from a small mountain town to a prominent metropolitan destination by the end of the 1920s decade. Although the 1920s were a decade that saw Asheville transform itself and its infrastructure into a tourist mecca, it still had firm roots in its history dating back several centuries. In the city’s 1922 master plan drafted by city planner John Nolen, Nolen stated that mountain crafts were the city’s greatest and most important industry. Nolen stated that greater emphasis should be placed on the development of mountain crafts over other types of manufacturing. One of the more well known manufacturers to develop during this time period was the Three Mountaineers. 

Three Mountaineers is a name you may have heard a time or two in Asheville. There is no relation to the Mountaineer Inn or Appalachian State University - they are a company with a history all of their own. Their logo, three older mountain men and a dog roaming the hills appeared on many small pieces of furniture, as well as vibrant screen printed spice cabinets in the 1960s and 1970s. Although Three Mountaineers was known for mass manufacturing very high quality ponderosa pine furniture and occasional giftware pieces, they began by manufacturing small wood gift items in a very simple fashion. 

Our story begins with a man named Hugh Brown - an Asheville native and lover of mountain crafts. Hugh was born in 1884 in Asheville and at a young age, started his working career at the Asheville Hardware Company. By 1900, he was a traveling salesman for the company and continued to rise through the ranks of the company, until an opportunity came his way. There was a slight economic crash that occurred in Asheville in 1911, which caused the Asheville Hardware Company to go bankrupt. Hugh looked to his older brother Edwin Brown, owner of the Brown Book Company for financial capital and guidance. The Brown Book Company was one of Asheville’s largest suppliers of office supplies, books and tourist post cards, with several locations throughout the city. Edwin, Hugh and Frank Weaver, a leading businessman and co-founder of Weaver College in Weaverville all became business partners in the Hardware Business. The Asheville Hardware Company became Brown Hardware Company. 

Hugh Brown

Hugh became the owner of his own business, Brown Hardware Company on North Main Street in downtown Asheville. He primarily made his living selling tools, hardware, guns, wood stoves, fly swatters and any other darn thing an Asheville resident might need. Although Hugh knew the hardware business inside and out from a young age, his heart was drawn to Colonial Revival craftsmanship and antiques. Around 1923, he met a carpenter in Asheville named Cecil Clayton. Cecil Clayton was a master woodworker, who could carve out ornate detail on furniture by hand. He worked with high quality hardwoods like cherry, mahogany, walnut and maple to make exquisite furniture and other small home goods. 

Cecil Clayton in his woodshop on the banks of the Swannanoa River

Hugh Brown and Cecil Clayton formed their own partnership called Blue Ridge Woodcrafters that would make lovely wood pieces to be sold in Brown’s hardware store. Clayton had a small, ragtag workshop down on the banks on the Swannanoa River, just outside of Bilmore Village. Some of their first items were candlesticks, trays, small boxes, nut bowls, nut crackers, checker boards and more. These were mostly marketed to tourists of Asheville who might be passing Hugh’s hardware store. 

With Blue Ridge Woodcrafters starting to build up their success, Hugh decided to take another step towards expanding his craft business. He desired to sell his own line of giftwares that would include antiques, woodcraft items, pottery and more. In the back of Brown Hardware Company, he cleared out a small space, started decorating it and filling it with these gift wares. He decided to call his new business, The Treasure Chest. The Treasure Chest first opened its doors to customers on December 1, 1924. The evening was one that was memorable, with demonstrations by mountain craftspeople demonstrating a spinning wheel and weaving on a fly shuttle loom. The newspaper reported the Treasure Chest’s cozy sales room that had a square fireplace, outfitted with a revolving spit, goose-cage and a lark-roaster made of hand-wrought iron in the 18th century. It was the center of the crowd all evening!

Hugh would continue to build up the business of the Treasure Chest for a number of years, before they produced their first catalog in 1926. This was sent out to many of the major giftware sales centers, which included Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Every year, Hugh and his brother Edwin would make the rounds to each of these cities for their major giftware shows during the fall. It was at one of these shows where they would meet a man who would become a future long-term partner and key to their success: Stephen J. Anderson. 

Anderson had his own large giftware display room in New York City. He was attending the trade show in New York City, along with his daughter Roxanne, who was helping him set up and work in his booth. As he saw Hugh and Edwin Brown unwrapping their items for sale at the show, he was immediately struck with the sales potential of their products. He wandered over and saw them unwrapping beautiful carved wooden bowls, mountain pottery, hooked rugs and more from brown waxy paper, with little pine cones covering it. He stopped to ask them if they would be interested in having him market some of their products, to which they mumbled something about being fine on their own. Dejected, but not discouraged, Anderson wandered back to his booth. He mentioned this to Roxanne, who asked her father if she could take a try at asking the Brown brothers about their products. Anderson figured his daughter, who was cute and charming, may have a better chance. 

Early wood carved items, photo courtesy of Joyce Clayton-Plank

Roxanne strolled over to the Brown brothers and asked if she could try selling some of their mountain crafts. With the gleam of her smile, they agreed to let her take a small sample of goods back to the Anderson booth. As soon as the show started, the buzz around the Anderson booth was electric. While Hugh and Edwin sat patiently at their booth, the Andersons had already sold out of their mountain crafts and were back at the Brown brothers booth asking for more products to sell. This began the partnership of S.J. Anderson, later Anderson and Romaine as Three Mountaineers largest northeast distribution company. Roxanne Anderson would go on to marry Will Romaine, a representative for the Seth Thomas Clock Company who would join the family business and form Anderson and Romaine, headquartered at 225 Fifth Avenue in New York City. 

Stephen J. Anderson

Buoyed by their success at the New York show with S.J. Anderson, Hugh and Edwin began to sell more items across the country. They started advertising their products in House Beautiful magazine, where they began to ship them all over the country. One of Hugh’s employees at the Brown Hardware Company began to take great interest in the Treasure Chest and was a skilled carpenter himself - William “Bill” Lashley. Bill Lashley had started working at the Brown Hardware Company as a young man and has risen through the ranks as one of the more valued employees. He would later go on to be a partner in the next evolution of the company, Three Mountaineers. Hugh would also meet someone very crucial to his success in the hardware store: Lelia E. Mitchell who would become his wife and business confidant. Leila, as a skilled business person in her own rite, would be crucial to Three Mountaineers success beyond Hugh’s years with the company. 

The Treasure Chest and the Brown Hardware Company continued to grow and thrive in the booming Asheville economy. By 1927, the Brown Hardware company had reached sales of $167,460 ($2,698,756 in 2022 dollars) and the Treasure Chest had reached $130,311 in sales ($2,100,056 in 2022 dollars). Hugh had received several lucrative hardware sales contracts, which included providing much of the hardware for the Douglas Ellington designed Asheville City Hall. His brother in law, John Cathey (married to Ida Mitchell, Lelia’s sister) who was the mayor of Asheville at the time had connected him with Ellington and several other artists that included the architect, William Waldo Dodge Jr. At the time Asheville had heavily leveraged all of their development through one bank in town, the Central Bank and Trust headquartered in Pack Square. Suffering from a minor real estate market crash in 1927, Asheville was already beginning to sense that something was amiss. 

The Asheville-Citizen times published an article that detailed what they considered John Cathey’s reckless spending in Asheville. Cathay was then run out of town by angry citizens who harassed him and his family after his term as mayor ended. Mayor Gallatin Roberts, who had served as mayor prior to Mayor Cathey’s term from 1923-1927 was elected again and immediately had an audit done on the Central Bank and Trust. By 1928, the results of the audit concluded that the bank was insolvent and in serious financial trouble. Mayor Roberts did not publish the results of the audit and instead made the financial statements look a little bit better than they were, in hopes that the market might catch up and the bank would recover. Things went from bad to worse as the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Central Bank and Trust closed in 1930, never to re-open. 

Mayor John Cathey and Ida Mitchell

Hugh Brown was one of many casualties of the Central Bank and Trust’s unregulated lending. He lost both the Brown Hardware Company and The Treasure Chest. The Treasure Chest was sold to the Farmer’s Federation, a local farmers cooperative to help sell and market agricultural goods from Western North Carolina far and wide. The Farmer’s Federation called Hugh Brown in one day for a meeting to discuss the possibility of him running the company. Hugh, normally a soft spoken, kind man was visibly annoyed by this and told them “you bought it, you run it” and quietly walked out. 

In a letter to Mrs. Anderson, Stephen J. Anderson’s wife, Hugh Brown discussed what happened and their plan moving forward. He wrote: 

“My dear Mrs. Anderson:

You were no doubt surprised to receive the request attached to your commission check, although I know that you have been more or less familiar with conditions in Asheville during the last year. I have hesitated to write you until I knew something definite, but as the matter has been delayed from day to day, I have decided to acquaint you with the exact conditions.

A few months before the Central Bank & Trust Company failed, they were most anxious to get as much of their paper as possible in liquid assets. For this reason, we consented to a loan on our building at 25 Broadway for $50,000.00. This loan was held by a Baltimore Trust Company and the first payment is not due until next May. The day before the bank closed, we have them our interest check for $1,500 which they did not deposit and they are setting up a claim now that we have made no effort to take care of this interest on the loan, and as real estate values have depreciated so much the building is not worth over $35,000.00. This is made without regard that their own appraiser appraised the building for $85,000.

They have asked that a receiver be appointed for the Brown Hardware Company and as the Treasure Chest is owned by the Brown Hardware, it will naturally affect the Treasure Chest. This matter comes up at 9:30 tomorrow morning and I have decided to fight it for the reason that the Brown Hardware Company has never been insolvent, they have always had a surplus and have some $65,000 over and above their liabilities.

The Treasure Chest on the first day of January this year, after overcoming the fact that all their assets were tied up on November 20th in a closed bank, wound up the year without owing a penny to a soul in the world. If there are any businesses in Asheville that made this record, I don’t know them. I would be able to have done the same thing this year. I am only mentioning this as I wanted you to know that you have been connected all along with a business that has been prosperous and going and only the circumstances described in this letter could have brought about a possibility of a receiver being appointed. 

Now getting down to what I am most concerned in, I want to first tell you not to worry. Keep your chin up and go ahead as if nothing had happened, as I cannot conceive of a receiver being appointed and not continuing the business right on. Although should one be appointed, I naturally am putting on my hat and walking out, and I know that this applies to Mr. Lashley also, and possibly it might mean a more or less reorganization of the personnel of the Treasure Chest, although I asked the bookkeeper to handle your account in the same way as a salary account so there would be no possibility of the receiver holding up your checks. 

Should I step out tomorrow, it is going to more or less dry clean me, and mean that I will have to start from the bottom round of the ladder again. This does not worry me for a moment, as I started this way twenty-one years ago with by far less experience that I have today, and I have no worry whatever as to making a living. I am not looking for a job, I am going to make one, and I am still as deeply interested in Mountain Handicrafts as ever, and you will see me bob up again before many moons. 

I want to take this occasion to tell you that I have enjoyed my association with you and Mr. Anderson as much as anything connected with the Treasure Chest, and it has worried me as much to have to write you this letter as anything else in connection with this business.

If we lose tomorrow, I am going to make a desperate effort to get Mr. F.M. Weaver appointed receiver, and if I am successful, you will have a mighty fine man to deal with, otherwise, I do not know who the receiver will be, but you do have my every wish that he will be a pleasant one, as far as his dealing with the New York office goes. 

I believe if I were you, I would have nothing to say outside of your family as to this situation, as it would mean nothing but a handicap in going after your business. I am telling you this in all good faith, for you may find me in a position where I am going to have to be a competitor to some extent, though as you may know it will have to be in a most limited way for sometime to come.

I again want to tell you as I told my sister in the Chicago office, don’t worry, it gets no one anything. Things are coming out O.K. and good business is just around the corner for all of us. If I can be of assistance to you in any way, I want you to know that my services are at your disposal, and if you have any problems that you feel would like to have advice on before coming to a decision, you may rest assured that it you want to ask my advice, I will tell you to the very best of my ability. Please remember me to Will and Mrs. Roxanne most kindly, kiss the baby, and remember that things never get better until the darkest hour, so you may look for things to begin to improve, I feel sure. 

With every good wish, I remain, most cordially yours, Hugh C. Brown.” 

Looking for a way forward, Hugh Brown decided that he would found another company with his brother Edwin and his associate, William “Bill” Lashley. They would call it: Three Mountaineers in honor of their mountain heritage. There was virtually no money to open this business, with the total starting capital being $500, however only $275 was ever paid in cash. The $275 of cash was contributed by Edwin and Hugh. Hugh contributed $200 to purchase an old used metal-working machine; and Edwin Brown contributed $75 cash and $125 worth of wooden shelving and showcases taken from the basement of his book store. Lashley’s interest was represented by part of one month’s labor, valued at $100. It was said that to actually turn the lights on, four loads of J.B. Cole pottery was obtained on consignment and had to be sold before the utility deposit could be paid and the lights and water were turned on in the building.

Stay tuned for more on the Three Mountaineers later this month in our next blog!

Mountaineer Motor Tours will be giving a presentation for the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County on Three Mountaineers:

Thursday, April 25th 2024


Central United Methodist Church, downtown Asheville

We also have Three Mountaineers T-Shirts, the first installment in our Asheville Collection of shirts here: 

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