Gripped by history: A one-woman mission to trace Waynesville’s early roots takes on a life of its own
Lately, it seems Ann Melton was born in the wrong century.
During the past two years, Melton has spent more time living in the late 1800s — the days when boarding houses and hitching posts lined Waynesville’s Main Street, when general stores still had butcher counters and bartering was a way of life — than the comparatively humdrum trappings of the 21st century.
Burrowed down in the annals of Waynesville history, Melton turned her nostalgia and passion for the past into a rich, detailed body of research documenting the early evolution of a small mountain town.
She sifted through trunks of old family documents, relegated to basements decades ago and dug out by those willing to lend a hand to her endeavors. She painstakingly sorted and labeled a giant mish-mash of historic photos from random personal collections, heaped on her by old-timers thrilled to find someone who actually cared.
And she tapped the memories of Waynesville’ unofficial keepers of early history, at last committing to paper stories that until now were only held in their heads.
Her historical sleuthing has led to a series of five books chronicling the early days of Waynesville — one for each of the town’s officially designated historic districts and one on Waynesville’s early founder, Robert Love, and his family.
They capture a portrait of a community at a microscopic level: not only who lived in which house but also the paintings that adorned their walls and the dresses in the ladies’ wardrobes. Detailed maps of every building on Main Street recall not just who owned them but the goods that were sold there and how much they cost — precious nuggets gleaned from old newspaper advertisements thanks to untold hours poring through microfilm archives.
Her journey into history started in her own backyard of Love Lane. Just two blocks from the heart of Waynesville, Love Lane was built and settled by the affluent business and political leaders in town.
“The movers and shakers of Waynesville lived on Love Lane,” Melton said.
The list reads like a Who’s Who of Waynesville’s early days. There was the mayor Clyde Ray, who was also the local undertaker and business owner; Dr. Abel, who started the first hospital in Waynesville; And James Love Stringfield, the first police chief.
Many of them were related, often by their children inter-marrying, and were also descendents somewhere down the line of Robert Love, the town’s founder — thus giving rise to the name Love Lane.
Melton’s own home on Love Lane is a shrine to history. Beautifully appointed with antiques and themed period rooms, she even has the original wallpaper in some rooms and the original bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets.
Melton can claim more than a Love Lane residence, however. She herself is the great, great, great, great granddaughter of Robert Love, a Revolutionary War colonel who founded Waynesville.
And thus she stumbled into her next book: The Love Family of Haywood County.
“During my research, I realized there was not one book in the library on the Loves who founded the town. Hello? So I did the Love family of Haywood County,” Melton said.
And while she was at it, she realized many of the Love Lane residents were the business owners and merchants who ran the stores in nearby Frog Level, just two blocks from Love Lane and the hub of commerce for the town at the time. That’s ultimately what roped her into her third undertaking: the history of Frog Level.
No sooner was she up to her knees in Frog Level history, when she stumbled on a treasure trove of old black and white photographs that led her down yet another path. Hilliard Jones, a Waynesville old-timer and history fan, had amassed historical photos of Main Street during the years. He was dead, and his wife didn’t know what to do with the never-before-seen collection. So she turned them over to Melton.
“I guess word got out that I am interested in the historic districts,” Melton said. “So I stopped working on Frog Level, and I started working on Main Street.”
Now with four books under her belt — Love Lane, Frog Level, Main Street and the Love family history — Melton couldn’t seem to stop. So, she took on the history of yet another of Waynesville’s historic districts, Woolsey Heights.
The family enclave of three enormous homes on a hilltop just outside downtown was built by Minthorne Woolsey in the early 1900s. A wealthy cotton broker from Alabama, he initially spent summers in Waynesville, a popular retreat for scores of Southern gentry looking for a mountain escape. Woolsey soon moved to Waynesville permanently, however, and became immersed in Waynesville’s affluent social circles. He built a mansion-scale home for himself and one for each of his daughters on the hilltop that came to be known as Woolsey Heights.
Melton was invited to pour through family history — 12 big wooden trunks worth — in the possession of Woolsey’s great, great grandson, Robbie Moody, who lives in Asheville.
“In those 12 trunks, I found an address book, which I knew for some reason I was supposed to keep,” Melton said.
The address book had the names and addresses of Woolsey descendants during the years. One of them was a grandson who spent summers at Woolsey Heights as a boy, who she eventually tracked down, through Internet sleuthing, in Colorado — after more than a dozen cold calls to wrong numbers around the country to people with same name.
When he learned of the book, he planned a trip to Waynesville to visit Melton and share his memories with her.
“He brought all his photographs and mementos and treasures and filled in this big hole so I could publish the book,” Melton said.
Melton amassed so much research, one of the biggest challenges she ultimately encountered was deciding what made the cut, particularly which photos. For every one that appears in the book, there were 100 others that couldn’t be included.
“These were such wealthy people they were getting professional photographs made all the time,” Melton said of the Woolsey Heights families. “These pictures were magnificent. They tell such stories.”
Some of the photos are of family picnics with famous guests in attendance, old historic cars in the carriage house, elegant dresses trimmed with exquisite lace and buttons and bonnets.
Never ending story
When Melton first embarked on the Love Lane history two years ago, she didn’t realize just what she was getting herself into.
“When I started, my plan was to just do the history of who lived in all these houses here,” Melton said of Love Lane. “But I just kept digging and digging.”
As she trawled the Waynesville history records, Melton became a magnet for people with forgotten collections of old documents, letters, deeds and photographs.
Melton was the perfect receptacle for descendants wondering what to do with their collection of historical records. Sometimes, she would get a call out of the blue from someone who heard she was writing a series of history books on Waynesville’s early people.
One of those calls came from a descendant of Waynesville’s founder, Robert Love, who lived in Georgia. Generations earlier, the Love family attorney had divested himself of the family’s legal files and documents when he retired, and they’d been passed down through the years, eventually ending up with her.
“She said, ‘I don’t know anything about my family. These documents don’t mean anything to me, but they obviously mean something to you,’” Melton recounted.
A few days later, four boxes arrived at Melton’s house via UPS. Inside were land deeds, business transactions and historical records that told not just the Love family story, but the story of Waynesville’s founding and much about Haywood County. Robert Love had amassed the largest estate in North Carolina at the time of his death in the 1840s. The collection even has deeds signed by William Thomas, a famed mountain landowner, trader and adopted white son of the Cherokee who helped secure the tribe’s reservation in the Smokies. She plans to give all the documents to Western Carolina University for its regional archive repository.
Melton’s luck at times seemed uncanny. One of her favorite historic photos — of yoked oxen lying in Main Street in front of where Mast General Store is now — was mined from a collection an acquaintance had picked up at a yard sale.
The real gems, however, are the personal stories she found along the way — giving life to an otherwise dry account of when each house was built and who lived there.
These include story of Hugh Love, the great-grandson of Waynesville’s founder Robert Love, who went broke over his lifetime despite being born into affluence.
“Hugh Love had a big heart and just loaned money and loaned money and loaned money. His wife was left penniless and in debt,” Melton said.
Labor of love
Melton, a retired school teacher, discovered her passion for historical research late in life. Her husband, who worked at Garrett Funeral Home, has taken her all-consuming hobby in stride.
“My husband is so glad this is coming to an end,” Melton joked.
The books have found an audience among old-timers and descendants of Waynesville’s early residents. One man bought a whole stack to give each of his grandchildren as a snapshot of their grandpappy’s own childhood. He’d grown up in the back room of a general store in Frog Level in the early 1900s with six other siblings, and, of course, was in Melton’s Frog Level book.
With two intensive years of research and writing behind her, Melton’s work still isn’t over. As orders for the books come in, she prints and binds them herself, first making copies at Staples in town and then driving them to a book bindery more than three hours away. She drops them off, then goes back to pick them up — a round-trip she’s made six times so far.
She’s not making any money off the books — she sells them “at cost,” just enough to cover the photocopying and binding. She doesn’t even charge enough to recoup her gasoline to drive to the bindery and back.
“It really is a labor of love,” Melton said.
Everything you ever wanted to know about Waynesville’s historic districts is captured in the a series of five self-published books by retired Waynesville school teacher Ann Melton, who serves on the town’s Historic Preservation Commission. They recently won her the Willie Parker Peace History Book Award from the N.C. Society of Historians.
• The Early History of Love Lane contains pictures and descriptions of the historic homes on Love Lane, the history of each home, stories from families who lived there and pictures from today depicting how the historical integrity has been preserved even on the interiors.
• The Early History of Frog Level documents the one-time hub of Waynesville commerce around the old railroad depot.
• Views from the Past, Main Street Waynesville 1896-1931, is largely a pictorial collection of more than 200 historic photographs paired with descriptions of what each store once was and who owned it, corresponding to maps.
• The Early History of Woolsey Heights, “Millionaire’s Row,” describes this unique hilltop enclave of mansions above town that served as a retreat for the wealthy Colonel Woolsey family and his descendents through the generations, including exquisite historic photographs and stories.
• The Love Family of Haywood County traces the biographical and genealogical story of Robert Love, the founder of Waynesville, his sons and their descendents, as well as the family’s business, land and legal dealings surrounding the town’s creation.
To order a copy of any of these books, contact Ann Melton at 828.452.2500.