Hendersonville Genealogical Historic Treasure Article 


February 24. 2003 11:47PM from Hendersonville Times News Online ( www.hendersonvillenews.com )

Historic treasure


From Staff Reports

A safe full of early 1800s land records found in a 1922 home on Highland Avenue provides a rich vein of important information for historians and genealogists, experts say. The maps, surveys, deeds and other land documents represent more than 60 years of work by the Justice family of Hendersonville, who were land surveyors and agents for the Speculation Land Co. The land records sat untouched in a safe in the basement of the historic home at the corner of Highland Avenue and North Main Street for many years until a retired college administrator, Gene Robbins, discovered them.

When Robbins bought his 1920s home in Hendersonville three years ago, he could see the house had been built around a 1,000-pound, steel-and-concrete safe. But the safe, locked tight, had no combination and the previous owner had no idea what it contained. So a year after moving in, Robbins got four men to move the safe, and he hacked his way through its back.

Robbins says the house was built by George Justice, Hendersonville's first town administrator and the last member of the Justice family to be involved with the Speculation Land Co. George Justice's link to the land company went back to his great-great-grandfather, Thomas B. Justice.

"They were local resident agents for a group of businessmen in New York who actually owned this land," said Robbins, who studied Colonial American history and worked for Queens College of the City College of New York before retiring to Hendersonville five years ago.

Rich collection

The value of the land records is hard to overstate for genealogists and historians. The land records, Robbins said, cover 407,000 acres in southern Buncombe County and parts of present-day Henderson, Polk, Rutherford, Cleveland, Burke and other counties.

Thanks to Robbins' discovery and a $125,000 donation from Joe Kimmel of Asheville, and his son, Steven, a UNCA senior physics major, the 800 documents will be available for students, scholars and historians at the Ramsey Library of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. The donation from the Kimmels helped purchase the collection and digitize it for public access on Ramsey Library's Web site.

The cache of papers includes maps, land surveys and survey notes, deeds, ledgers and letters of correspondence with foreign investors.

The documents help shed light on the acquisition and sale of the "Speculation Lands" bought for resale by native Philadelphian Tench Coxe in 1795-96. Tench Coxe, whose grandson Franklin Coxe built the original Battery Park Hotel in Asheville, was one of many wealthy and politically powerful land speculators operating after the Revolutionary War.

"This is a rich collection," said Helen Wykle, the Ramsey Library's coordinator of special collections. "It fills a gap in our knowledge of land distribution in the early years of the 19th century."

Among the signatures in the collection are those of Tench Coxe; Samuel Ashe, who was governor of North Carolina in 1795-98; Pierre Estienne DuPonceau, who fought with Washington at Valley Forge; and Smith Thompson, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who presided in the Amistad case.

"Because this is such a comprehensive set of records, it will give us good insight into who owned the land, how it was acquired and how it was distributed. These are important questions," said Dan Pierce, a Southern history expert and UNCA professor. "Among historians of early America there is an important and hotly debated set of questions about how people got land, who controlled the land and what that means. And among Appalachian historians there's been a recent debate about land ownership. There's a notion, which helped to build beliefs about Appalachian heritage, that everybody owned their own land, but in recent years that notion has been challenged. These records will help us take a closer look."

UNCA students will be able to use these documents for their undergraduate research projects and will be joined by historians studying land acquisition, gold mining and international banking practices, Wykle said. UNCA students majoring in Multimedia Arts and Sciences are helping to digitize the collection and build the Web site, which will be designed as a research and educational tool.

Protected by concrete and steel

Robbins and his wife, Sharon, had spent a year and a half renovating their home before he got to work on the safe. When county building inspector Sam Laughter asked what was in the safe, Robbins told him he didn't know how to get in. Laughter, who knows a lot about old houses, told the homeowner that the weakest side of such safes is always the back. After the crew of four turned it, Robbins spent two weeks using a grinder and sledge hammer to cut through a 16th-inch steel plate, a 512-inch-think wall of concrete and another 16th-inch steel plate to gain access. Inside were more than 850 documents, including 22 original land grants from the state of North Carolina signed by Gov. Ashe.

"Even though there were other land speculators in Western North Carolina and even though some had larger land holdings, this is the only one (where) there is a paper trail that covers 125 years," Robbins said. "The court appointed George Justice to oversee the dissolution of the land company. In March 1920, it ceased to exist."

Robbins spent a year and a half researching the Speculation Land Co. before deciding to contact UNCA.

Wykle and a history professor came to his home and saw the documents.

"It was obvious very early on they were absolutely beside themselves and would love to have the documents," Robbins said.

For more information about the Speculation Land Co. collection, call Ramsey Library Special Collections at 251-6645 or send e-mail to hwykle@unca.edu. A dedication of the acquisition will take place at 10 a.m. today at the UNCA library on the campus.

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