E.W. Pearson & local self-reliance…

As a relatively new member of the Burton Street Community–one who, as a child, was frequently found sitting at the feet of her elders–listening to stories of the long-time residents of this unique mountain community is a special treat!  Each community has their own story, but few are as rich and dripping with cultural wealth and fortitude as Burton Street’s.

E.W. Pearson, Buffalo Soldier - Spanish American War 1893-1898

In 1906 (according to oral history from his daughter Annette), a young man named Edward R. Walter Pearson, Sr. moved into West Asheville and set out to do what might have seemed impossible at the time:  create a thriving, black, business-hub for the city.  No ordinary man, Pearson was a veteran Buffalo Soldier who served the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and knew a little bit about doing the impossible.

Pearson deeply understood the power of self-reliance when it comes to engaging and building community, especially a community of people facing social barriers most of us have only read or heard about.  He set up a sub-division, affectionately called “Pearson Hill” until the city renamed the main street from Buffalo to Burton after the city’s founder, John Burton.  One can’t help but wonder if Pearson was honoring his military days with the naming of Buffalo Street.  After recruiting the first black families to the neighborhood, the word got out that this was “… a nice place to live, to have a family, bring children up.”  Families quickly became interdependent, helping each other with livestock, crops, seed-saving, soap-making, canning, etc.  Out of these deep, salt-of-the-earth agricultural roots, grew one of E.W. Pearson’s visionary endeavors:  the regional black agriculture fair.

1945, 31st annual Buncombe County District Fair under guidance of E.W. Pearson

In its heyday, this fair (known by many names through its 33-year tenure) drew crowds of up to 10,000 people—black & white.  Though it began in Pearson Park off of Fayetteville Street, the fair outgrew this and other venues through the years, moving to sites in the Southside Community and finally ending its journey at Logan Showgrounds on Craven Street.  Many of Burton Street Community’s current elders readily share fond memories of their time at the fair, the livestock farm down by Smith Mill Creek, and the many adventures of growing up during simpler, though sometimes harrowing, times.  Don’t miss a more in-depth exploration of Burton Street’s amazing history on August 18th, when Darin Waters will present at the West Asheville Library!

Our modern-culture’s recent return to a love of all things “local” rides on the shoulders of communities like Burton Street who, out of necessity and the delight of true community, relied on themselves and each other to build slow, simple, and profoundly rich lives.  We’ve taken many turns since those days of shared work and collective responsibility and few of us hold our own true memories/experiences of a “home-made” life…though most of us crave it on some level.

In our (sometimes) quiet corner of West Asheville, the Burton Street Community is working hard to build our contemporary version of a self-reliant, sustainable and “home-made” community.  And though we often romanticize this idea of “community” and “local self-reliance,” make no mistake—it’s hard work!  We won’t always agree and sometimes we won’t like each other… though through it all, if we can hold on to the simple truth “we rise by lifting others” –Robert Green Ingersoll, we will weave a web of love and practical support that will continue to nourish us for generations!

We hope you’ll join us on our journey, as we host our 2nd Annual Revival of the Burton Street Agriculture Fair & Farmers’ Jubiliee!  Saturday, September 24th at the Burton Street Community Center & Grounds.


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