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Wallace Bryant and the Ford Family Connection to Asheville

Updated: Jun 25




At the twilight of the Gilded Age and the dawn of the Progressive Era, Asheville, North Carolina emerged as a leader in the advancement of automobiles and good roads. George Vanderbilt, an automobile enthusiast, had advocated for better roads in Buncombe County after paving much of his Biltmore Estate. Roads in Asheville became much more traversable by automobiles as they were graded and paved under the Buncombe County good roads act. This started to increase automobile tourism to Asheville, as cars became cheaper and more plentiful to the masses. As the automobile was bringing more people to the city, Asheville started to become known as a medical haven for those suffering from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. 


Counted among these tourists were some of the titans of the automotive world: Henry Ford, his son Edsel Ford and Harvey Firestone who made several visits to the Grove Park Inn. On one visit, Henry brought along his Model T convoy of adventurers that were car camping through the East Coast. This group was called “The Vagabonds” and brought along celebrities of the time like Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and other friends of Henry’s to “rough it” in luxury tents. Edsel and Henry Ford made several scouting trips to Asheville, prior to and after this Vagabond expedition.



Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, E.W. Grove Jr., Henry Ford and Fred Seely at the Grove Park Inn C.A. 1918, Courtesy of Southern Appalachian Digital Collections


On March 10th, 1922, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported Henry Ford and Edsel Ford taking a trip out on the old Pisgah Toll Road, owned and operated by George Vanderbilt. The Pisgah Toll was a scenic road that accessed Vanderbilt’s Buck Spring Lodge. While on this trip, Henry Ford visited his good friend Fred Seely, architect and general manager of the Grove Park Inn. The Vagabonds would stay at the Grove Park Inn on their camping trip in 1918. While in Asheville, the Fords most likely saw how popular the automobile was, while driving the city’s higher quality roads. Asheville’s roads were far and above most other towns in the country our size. Word of these visits must have spread through the Ford family to Edsel’s cousin, George Wallace Bryant, who was looking for a new start outside of Detroit.


George Wallace Bryant, the nephew of Clara Bryant Ford and Henry Ford, decided to move to Asheville from Detroit in 1921 to open a Ford dealer. His father, Edward Lewis Bryant was working on the Ford Farms, when he died from Pneumonia when Wallace was only 18 years old. Wallace grew up in Dearborn and would go on to serve in the Navy during WWI. Clara Bryant Ford, one of twelve siblings and Wallace’s aunt, would end up employing many of the Bryant family in the many Ford family businesses. The Bryant family had a farm just five miles from the Ford Family. Clara and Henry would meet at an old fashioned country dance because of this proximity, which began their courtship. 


Wallace and his wife Margaret, along with their two daughters Marjorie and Diana bought a house at 30 Kenilworth road. Edsel Ford, Henry and Clara’s son lent George the money to build their home in Kenilworth and start their own Ford dealer. Wallace intended to build his own building at the intersection of Patton and Coxe avenues as early as 1922. The Asheville Citizen times ran an article that reported Bryant intended to build a three story brick building that would carry Ford and Lincoln automobiles, as well as Fordson tractors. It was to be built by noted Asheville contractor, T.C. Smith. At the time, the construction was expected to cost $105,000, which would equate to roughly $1,948,000 in 2024. It doesn’t appear that the building was ever constructed, or that Wallace Bryant opened a dealer at this location. Fordson Tractors was a separate company formed by Henry and Edsel to manufacture tractors. The name Ford and son was the inspiration behind the name Fordson. 




Wallace ended up opening his Ford dealer in the Haywood Building on Haywood Street, later moving to 17 North Market Street. He created Bryant Motor Sales as his automobile dealer with a partner, Oscar Brown. Edsel Ford loaned Wallace $50,000 that was payable in 15 months. The dealer opened in late 1922 and by 1923, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported Bryant Motor Sales had sold around 1,000 cars, with many more on the way in 1924. Unfortunately around this time, Wallace became sick with Tuberculosis and had a difficult time working. Realizing his health was failing, he sold his interest in Bryant Motors to Oscar Brown, who formed his own dealer, Oscar Brown Motors. 



The Haywood Building - 38-58 Haywood Street, Courtesy of Southern Appalachian Digital Collections


N. Market Street Aerial View - Southern Appalachian Digital Collections


Wallace was not able to pay back the loan to Edsel and from there, things went from bad to worse. His home and business were sold on the courthouse steps for pennies on the dollar to his business partner, Oscar Brown. It appears that Oscar let the Bryant family live in the house at 30 Kenilworth road for around a year while Wallace Bryant was trying to find work elsewhere. Desperate for work, Wallace was employed by the Kenilworth Land Company as a real estate agent. Oscar Brown would continue selling cars until he retired in 1942. His brothers, Grover and John Brown would form Brown Brothers motor sales, selling Hudson and Essex, then Chevrolet. Their interest in Ford would be sold to John A. Richbourg of the Richbourg Motor Company. Richbourg owned the Richbourg Motor Company selling Ford and Lincoln at 54 Coxe Avenue, as well as the Universal Motor Company, selling Ford on Haywood road in West Asheville. 


As the business slipped out of his grasp, George’s health continued to decline and he entered the Winyah Sanitarium below Sunset Mountain in Asheville to recover from Tuberculosis. While Wallace was undergoing treatment, his wife Margaret began having an affair with Henry Westall, who was author Thomas Wolfe’s cousin and Julia Westall Wolfe’s nephew. Henry Westall was known for flying the first airplane into Asheville at Baird’s Bottom, a large cow pasture in North Asheville. When the Lakeview Park neighborhood was developed, it was flooded by damming Beaver creek and Beaver Lake was created. The plane that Westall flew was purchased at a surplus auction from the Canadian military in 1919 for $2,000 after WWI. Henry flew it for about a year until he decided flying was no longer a good idea. He was said to be the first aviator to take an aerial picture of Asheville. 



Wallace Bryant and Margaret McGowan engagement announcement


Henry and Margaret continued their affair until eventually word got back to Wallace. Wallace, heartbroken and angry, decided to file for custody of his two children. Fearing her children being taken away from her, Margaret decided to kidnap both of the children and run away with them to her family in Philadelphia. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that while Margaret’s maid was out with the children for a walk on Charlotte street, Margaret appeared in her car, stating that she wanted to take them for a quick ride. The maid obliged and sat down on a park bench, where she sat waiting for a car that wasn’t coming back. Shortly after this occurred, the children were reported as being kidnapped. 


On January 4th, 1928, Edsel Ford would send a telegram to Wallace at the Winyah Sanitarium reporting that his children had been found. Margaret was pursued by the Buncombe County sheriff Dick Penland all the way in Philadelphia, arrested and thrown in jail upon their return to Asheville. Her children were taken away and put into protective custody by the state. This drama would continue to play out in the headlines of newspapers across the country for two years, as Wallace and Margaret fought against each other for custody of their children. After the children were brought back to Asheville, Wallace divorced Margaret and Henry Westall would divorce his wife as well. 


While all of this drama was unfolding in the nation's papers, both Wallace and his ex-wife Margaret wrote to Clara Ford asking for her help. Clara was the North Star for the Ford family and also its “fixer.” Margaret wrote to Clara explaining her anguish about her children being taken from her and asking if Clara could use the might of the Ford company and their attorneys to help influence the case in her favor. Whether Clara responded or not is unknown, as there is no reply recorded from her in the Henry Ford archives. Margaret refers to her as “Aunt Clara” in her letter, despite all of the strife between her and Clara’s nephew Wallace. Margaret would sue Wallace for “cruel and barbarous treatment” towards her and the children. The suit was later dropped. 


The letters written to Clara from Wallace are heartbreaking. Wallace, stricken with tuberculosis, wrote to Clara from his bed in the Winyah Sanitarium in 1928 about many things. One letter discusses Clara and Henry’s trip to the British Isles for Henry to research genealogical history related to his family and visit his grandfather’s home in Cork, Ireland. Wallace had been following their trip from the New York Times articles and photos reported regularly. During his time at the sanitarium, two new Ford Model As, a coupe and a roadster had been parked outside his window for him to view. They excited him so much that he wrote “They are so beautiful I could hardly bear from getting out of bed and going for a ride.” He goes on in his letter to say “ I am very glad to tell you in spite of the most horrible mental anguish you must know I have been through that I am sitting up four hours a day and expect to walk in July. My right lung was removed by artificial methods, but I feel good and will soon be a useful citizen again.” He closes the letter to Clara by saying “I hope I will amount to something someday.”


The drama between Wallace and his wife would culminate in a lawsuit against Henry Westall by Wallace -  $100,000 for “alienation of the affections of his wife.” After the trial, the court awarded Wallace $50,000. Henry Westall had to spend 20 days in the Buncombe County Jail, as was required by law upon failure to pay the full sum of the court award in the alienation suit. After the trial for custody of the Bryant children concluded, Wallace was deemed unfit by the court to take care of his children due to his health condition. Margaret was granted custody of their children. In February of 1930, Henry Westall and Margaret Bryant would marry. They considered leaving Asheville, but ended up staying here for many years, living on Westwood avenue in Lakeview Park. Henry Westall was an extremely talented amateur golfer and competed for many years at courses around the country. He would later open a golf course equipment supply company on Merrimon avenue, selling Toro mowers and other premium equipment. 





Wallace’s story, on the other hand, does not have a happy ending. After the papers aired his and Margaret’s dirty laundry for years, he seems to have been able to take his daughters on a short vacation back home in Michigan. In August of 1930, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported Wallace taking his daughters up to Detroit to spend the summer with his mother. While in Detroit, they took a 10 day cruise of the Great Lakes aboard the Henry Ford II yacht with his aunt and uncle, Henry and Clara Ford. He wrote to Uncle Henry and Aunt Clara that their boat trip had restored his spirits immeasurably. Sadly, he would die at the age of 35 from complications related to his tuberculosis in September of 1930, shortly after this trip with his daughters to Detroit. 





Despite Wallace’s tumultuous decade in Asheville, he truly did enjoy his time here. He wrote to Clara about how lovely the weather is and how she would love the flowers here. Although Wallace did not have the first Ford dealer in Asheville, he did have one of the larger franchises and made a short, but brief mark in the city. He rests in Dearborn to this day. We hope that his soul has found peace after a short, but difficult life. 


Sources:


The Asheville Times. (June 22, 1924). Bryant Motor Sales. Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-times-bryant-motor-sales/140133732/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (February 11, 1930). Bryant-Westall Case. Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-bryant-westall-c/148806583/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (November 22, 1922). George Wallace Bryant - Start Business. Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-george-wallace-b/142209839/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (September 12, 1930). Obituary for O. Wallace Bryant. Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-obituary-for-o/148806606/


Asheville Citizen-Times. (January 9, 1930). George Bryant. Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-george-bryant/142538757/


The Asheville Times. (February 9, 1929). Bryant Divorce. Newspapers.com. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-times-bryant-divorce/142209999/


Letters between Wallace Bryant and Margaret Bryant to Clara Ford, Telegram from Edsel Ford courtesy of the Henry Ford Museum Archives

Conversation with Debbie Word, 2/23/24


Clara: Mrs. Henry Ford by Ford Bryan, published 2001


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