Some Notes about Printing at Black Mountain College

With all its novelties and innovations, it is no wonder that Black Mountain College is still studied today as a model of experimental and democratic education. One of the opportunities afforded students was instruction and practical experience using a printing press. Through the collections at the Western Regional Archives we are able to piece together snippets about presses and typefaces used at the college.


Betty Brett printing on a Challenge Gordon printing press, 1941. BMC Collections, WRA.

In 1936, Xanti Schawinsky, a short-term instructor in The Arts, enlisted the help of Robert L. Leslie, a New York editor. Leslie sent Black Mountain College a cabinet full of old typefaces, including Bodoni and Roman, remnants acquired from the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School. They were unpacked and sorted “with much excitement.” Leslie also bought a secondhand printer for $100 and shipped it to Black Mountain requesting that the college pay $40 towards the purchase. Schawinsky offered a course in typography that academic year.

According to a 1971 interview with former students Emil Willimetz and Susan Noble Gordon, a second printing press at Black Mountain College, a foot-powered Chandler Price machine, was acquired with the help of student David Way who had an interest in producing a magazine with Willimetz. It was said that Stephen Forbes footed much of the bill. The 1937–1938 Black Mountain College Catalog boasts “the print shop contains two hand presses, with several type fonts and complete accessories.”

Robert Haas, a visiting instructor in printing and photography in 1940, made his own typefaces. It was Haas who printed the striking programs for the campus production of Macbeth. However, the print shop fell dormant for a number of years until it was unearthed by student Jim Tite in 1946.


Program for Macbeth printed by Robert Haas, 1940. BMC Collections, WRA.

Tite wrote of finding the old printing press in an unused portion of the woodworking shop in Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts. He shared his discovery with Theodore Rondthaler and asked that he be allowed to clean up and restore the printing press. Working with fellow student Ann Mayar, they sorted the type, oiled and repaired the press, and cleaned up the shed to make a printing shop. To get a better understanding of the work, they sojourned to Asheville to learn from printers.

Tite then suggested to Rondthaler and Bill Levi (both men were instructors as well as members of the college’s Board of Fellows), that he might teach a course in practical printing. The class materialized and was split into two sections, one taught by Frank Rice. The press was used to create printed material for the college to save money. After acquiring a surplus (albeit brand new) Kluge press from the VA Hospital in Oteen, the campus was well-equipped to tackle the printing of programs, catalogs, newsletters, and chapbooks of student’s poetry.

In 1949, John McCandless was offered a position teaching printing for a year. He prepared a detailed report on the state of the shop, presses, and the type. By 1952 Carroll Williams was listed in the college catalog as the printing instructor. By the mid-1950s, printing was done in linotype.

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National Poetry Month: Poetry at Black Mountain College


Broadside #1 created for Charles Olson’s poem, This. Folio designed by Nikola Cernovich and printed at the Black Mountain College Graphics Workshop, 1952. 

Black Mountain College, which operated at two locations in the Swannanoa Valley between 1933 and 1957, has been described as “the ideal of American experimental education.” The curriculum and atmosphere were conducive to creativity and free thinking. Its early years were nurtured by its founder, John A. Rice, who followed the progressive style of learning touted by philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey.

A key component of the Black Mountain College objective was to grow the whole student, not just in academic matters but also through the arts, music, and practical experience, including work study. The pioneering and electric atmosphere attracted “some of the greatest artists and thinkers of the time,” and because of the strong personalities in a democratic environment, disagreements of varying degrees could cause internal struggles and shifts in faculty and programs of study.

It is during the second half of Black Mountain College’s existence, and largely under the influence of Charles Olson, that a group of heady and intuitive young writers began to pen avante garde and post-modern poetry. Olson helped advance the art form with the publication of his 1950 essay Projective Verse in which he challenges poets to surrender conventional elements of poetry and composition and to examine (among other things) the role of the breath of the author and the writer’s energy in the writing process.

Along with Olson, other poet-teachers and students at Black Mountain College were Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, M. C. Richards, Fielding Dawson, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, and Jonathan Williams.

Creeley edited the short-lived (1954–1957) Black Mountain Review which published poems and creative writing. In addition to featuring the works of poets at Black Mountain College, the Black Mountain Review also published emerging American writers. Williams was cofounder of The Jargon Society, which published over 100 works by under-represented and lesser-known writers.

Of course, not all poetry at Black Mountain College was created as literature, students Jerrold Levy and Richard Negro wrote a collection of satirical verses in 1943 (some of which poked fun at esteemed instructors) and performed them at a summer festival. They were well received.

For further reading:

Black Mountain College (Black Mountain, N.C.). The Black Mountain College Review. Black Mountain, N.C.: Black Mountain College, 1951.

Dewey, Anne Day. Beyond Maximus: The Construction of Public Voice in Black Mountain Poetry. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Forrest, Seth Johnson. “Thus Far the Transmission Is Oral”: Orality, Aurality and the Poetry of the Black Mountain School. 2008.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Black Mountain Poets. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Legro, Gerard, Richard Negro, Jerrold E. Levy, and Alessandro Porco. Poems by Gerard Legro. 2016.

Paul, Sherman. Olson’s Push: Origin, Black Mountain, and Recent American Poetry. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

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Women’s History Month: Lillian Exum Clement

N_69_12_128 Lillian Exum Clement

Lillian Exum Clement courtesy State Archives of North Carolina

“Asheville Lady is Now Lawyer,” was the headline that ran in the Asheville Gazette when Lillian Exum Clement passed the bar exam in 1916, the fourth woman in the Tar Heel State to achieve such a distinction. But her law license proved only to be one of her many achievements. Before her career was over, Clement would become the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly.

Born in 1894, Lillian Exum Clement was one of seven children born to George Washington Clement and Sarah Elizabeth Burnette of Black Mountain, N.C. George worked as a foreman for the Vanderbilt family, overseeing the construction of Biltmore Village in 1899, and it was this connection that led to a fortuitous meeting between Exum and Edith Vanderbilt. A Bible discovered in 2014 bore the inscription “For Exum Clement, with best wishes for many happy birthdays, from E S Vanderbilt, March 12, 1900.” As a strong supporter of women’s independence and education, many credit Edith with encouraging Clement to continue her education.

Exum enrolled at the Asheville Business School where she learned typing skills. By age 14, she had taken a job at the local sheriff’s office, which further cemented her desire to study law. For the next eight years, Exum attended night classes to prepare for the bar exam.

After passing the bar, the Asheville legal community officially welcomed her into the fold, dubbing her “Brother Exum.” She opened her own practice on College Street and became the first woman in the state to practice law without the aid of male partners.

By 1920, the women’s suffrage movement was making great strides across the country. In an effort to adapt to this changing political landscape, the Buncombe County Democratic Party nominated Clement to run for a seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives just two months before the Nineteenth Amendment passed. After defeating two male opponents in the primary election, Exum went on to secure a landslide victory in the general election, with a vote of 10,863 to 41. She officially took her seat in Raleigh in January 1921.

During her term as legislator, Exum was able to get thirteen of the seventeen bills she introduced passed into law, most notably a bill that ensured privacy in voting booths on Election Day. Three months after her confirmation, Exum married Elias Eller Stafford, a telegraph editor for the Asheville Citizen. Her only child, Nancy, was born two years later, prompting Exum not to seek re-election in 1924.

Exum’s pregnancy put a strain on her health, from which she never fully recovered. She passed away just two years later from complications related to influenza and pneumonia.

Special thanks to intern Sara Kaglic for contributing this article and the Moms Mabley article to our WRA blog.  

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Women’s History Month: Remembering Moms Mabley


Mom’s Mabley, 1968, photo courtesy Internet Archive

Wearing a floppy hat and a colorful housecoat, Moms Mabley seemed to come out of nowhere when she appeared on television in the 1960s—an overnight comedic sensation. But Mabley’s journey to stardom took over 40 years and began in the unlikeliest of places—Brevard, N.C. It was here that Mabley was born as Loretta May Aiken in 1897 (or 1894, there has been some debate). Mabley came from a large family, one of twelve children, and experienced her fair share of tragedy at a very early age. Her father was killed when a fire engine exploded in 1908 and two years later her mother died after being hit by a mail truck on Christmas Day. It was Aiken’s grandmother who encouraged young Loretta to leave North Carolina and to make a name for herself elsewhere, so at the age of 14 she joined a traveling minstrel show and began touring on the black vaudeville circuit, known as the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA).

By the early 1920s Aiken had started to gain recognition as a comedienne on the vaudeville scene. She officially adopted the stage name “Moms Mabley” for her act, a combination of an old boyfriend’s name and the nickname given to her by other circuit performers for her motherly attitude. In 1921, Mabley signed with a new agent who started booking her on what was known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” a string of urban movie houses and theaters. Performing in these new venues earned Mabley about ninety dollars a week, over six times what TOBA had previously offered her. Soon she was living in New York City and had regular bookings at several Harlem Renaissance theaters, including Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club, where she shared the stage with legendary acts such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. In 1939, she became the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo Theater.

Her star continued to rise and by the late ’50s, Mabley was asked by Chess Records to record her own comedy album. The Funniest Woman Alive went on to sell over a million copies, earning Mabley her first gold record. Her success in the recording industry led to her first television appearance in 1967 when she was invited to perform on A Time for Laughter, an all-black comedy show. This led to even more bookings on shows hosted by Flip Wilson, the Smothers Brothers, and Ed Sullivan. By 1968, Mabley was raking in $10,000 a week as the Apollo Theater’s headlining act.

Her newly minted fame was short lived, however. In 1974, Mabley was set to star in her own motion picture, Amazing Grace. During filming, Mabley suffered a heart attack. Production was delayed in order for her to undergo surgery for a pacemaker. She was able to come back and complete the project, but passed away shortly after the film’s release at the age of 81.

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WRA Receives Ogden Drawings


Doan Ogden Watercolors005

The Western Regional Archives recently received a collection of articles and color drawings by renowned landscape architect, Doan Ogden. Ogden, whose influence can be seen across western North Carolina, opened up a practice in Asheville in 1952. Although he did work out-of-state and out of the region, Ogden chiefly worked in North Carolina’s mountain counties. A number of colleges were recipients of his talents. He designed Asheville’s University Botanical Gardens, the Arboretum at Haywood County Community College, and he had a hand in designing plantings at Warren Wilson College and Western Carolina University. Other projects Ogden designed were Watauga County’s Daniel Boone Native Gardens and Canton’s Recreation Park. In addition to large public spaces, Ogden also landscaped a large number of private homes. Well-known clients include Billy Graham and Sam Ervin.

In 1987, two years prior to his death, Doan Ogden donated a large collection of his landscaping plans and client cards to the State Archives of North Carolina. These materials were transferred to Asheville following the opening of the Western Regional Archives in 2012.

The recently acquired material consists of a dozen or so articles written in the late 1950s that Ogden submitted to various magazines with hope of publication. It is believed the color drawings were the illustrations for the articles.

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Lady Bird Visits Land of the Sky

Fifty years ago, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, wife of U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, arrived at Asheville Airport as part of a three-state tour through Appalachia. Described as “an adventure in learning,” Mrs. Johnson was eager to see improvements in education brought about by federal funding.


Mrs. Johnson visits an Appalachian home as part of her Adventures in Learning tour. March 14, 1967. Robert Knudsen photograph courtesy LBJ Presidential Library.

Nine hundred well-wishers welcomed Mrs. Johnson, including North Carolina governor and Asheville native, Dan K. Moore and his wife Jeanelle Coulter Moore. After greeting the governor and Mrs. Moore and five volunteers from VISTA—Volunteers in Service to America—Mrs. Johnson spent ten minutes working the crowd as she moved along the fence and shared salutations. According to the Hendersonville Times-News, “The crowd loved it. They oohed and aahed as the First Lady went along the line shaking hands with the people.”

During her brief visit to western North Carolina, Mrs. Johnson—accompanied by Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, John W. Gardner—had a full schedule. After her arrival in Asheville, Johnson rode with the Moores to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, and after receiving a tour of the author’s childhood home, she attended a private reception at the Governor’s Western Residence. The following day Mrs. Johnson traveled to Jackson County to see a National Teacher’s Corps pilot project, unveiled a plaque at Hunter Library at Western Carolina College, and visited an evening adult education class at Asheville’s Lee High School.

In addition to North Carolina, Mrs. Johnson visited West Virginia and Tennessee to view schools in the Appalachian region.

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Black History Month: Discovering the African American Nurses at Oteen

The Western Office of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is housed in a former nurses’ dormitory at the Oteen Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Asheville, known now as the Charles George Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Ongoing research about these women has been conducted by one of our faithful volunteers, who has been on a quest to learn about the first African American nurses to live in the dorm and to work at the Veteran’s hospital.


Lieutenants in the Army Nurse Corps stationed at Tuskegee Army Air Field, where the Tuskegee Airmen were in training. A few miles away, other African American nurses served at the Tuskegee Veteran’s Hospital. Photo courtesy Tuskegee Army Nurses Project

In November 1942, during World War II, the number of patients was increasing at the Oteen Veteran’s Administration Hospital. For that reason the Department of Veterans Affairs transferred nine African American nurses from Tuskegee U.S. Veterans Hospital 91 in Alabama to Oteen. By January 1943, an additional four nurses joined them. The Tuskegee hospital, founded in 1923, operated with black staff for black patients. Both Tuskegee and Oteen veteran hospitals concentrated on tuberculosis and mental health. The transferred nurses would work with African American patients. Ten of the nurses had worked over ten years at the Tuskegee hospital. All of the nurses had been trained at nursing schools and in hospitals across the eastern United States. Head nurse Elsie V. Davis was trained and worked at Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1920. Others received training at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C., and the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York City among others.

We will provide updates as we continue to learn more about the nurses.

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