In 1923 Beth Garrett was living with her aunt in the wake of a family tragedy. On a chilly January day, only a month after the death of her mother and the incarceration of her father, Beth was removed from her aunt’s care by an evangelical preacher turned orphanage master named Lucius Bunyan Compton. “Dad” Compton and his wife “Mama” Edith personally drove 35 miles down US Highway 25 to Saluda, North Carolina, to pick Beth up and take her to the Eliada Orphanage in Asheville, N.C. Beth was 8 months old.
At the time of her death in 2011 at 89 years old, Beth Garrett Fisher still lived within an hour’s drive of the orphanage (the home she did know), and only 20 minutes from the home she never knew, the place where, on a single day in 1922, tragedy struck on Tryon Mountain, scattering her family of seven to different parts of North Carolina – four children placed in two different orphanages, a father sent to prison and then death in Raleigh, and a mother and her child to their shared grave. The tragedy was front-page news in the mountains and foothills of North Carolina. For Mrs. Fisher, however, learning the full truth of that tragedy took her a lifetime.
The former Eliada Orphanage sits on 30 wooded acres that were once miles from Asheville’s city center. Recent development along Patton Avenue and Leicester Highway crowds around the property. The home, however, remains sheltered. Sitting atop a hill in what is now the Emma neighborhood of West Asheville, the campus still offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, with development rare in its line of sight.
Visible to the east is the skyline of Asheville and beyond to Sunset and Craggy Mountains. To the south is the Vanderbilt Mansion. Directly north, condos stand along the road, the result of Eliada land sales in years past to alleviate budget deficits. Although Eliada in no longer an orphanage, it still serves children and families in need throughout Western North Carolina and beyond.
From its inception, Lucius Bunyan Compton built the orphanage as a refuge – or, rather a necessary offshoot of a sanctuary. In the early 20th century, Compton started Faith Cottage, a home for unwed and pregnant women in Western North Carolina. The women could retreat to the home, away from the condemning eyes of society, have their children, then return to their families and to society as if nothing had happened except a bout with an illness that had laid them up for many months.
Of course, as more and more women came to his shelter, more and more newborns were left behind. The necessary result was called Eliada Orphanage and Faith Cottage Rescue Work in the Southern Mountains. The orphanage’s distance from town meant that these children, born out of wedlock, were kept out of the public eye.
To say that Compton took in the children to hide their shame is misguided. While he often referred to them as “the last, the lost, and the least,” it was with a sense of compassion and duty. He devoted his life to these children – though in his particular way. Dad Compton was the absentee father, infrequently on Eliada’s campus. Much of the time Compton was on the road, preaching the word of the Lord and raising money for the home.
Though it could be rigid at times, the home provided a nurturing and mostly secure place for the children. The gardens and pasturelands on campus provided not only food for the children but also a sense of responsibility. Their morning chores included milking the cows for the boys and cleaning the “Big House” for the girls. While some might have viewed this as free child labor, Compton had intentionally (and necessarily, because of its need) created the Eliada Orphanage as a partially self-sustaining institution, a fact that certainly helped it survive as the nation entered the Great Depression.
In the 1930’s, the city of Asheville especially felt the ill effects of poor credit, a depressed bond market, and unchecked 1920’s speculation (the city would not be out of debt until the mid 1970’s). In the public schools, Eliada children sat in classrooms with barely clothed local children, gaunt and hungry. Later in life, the orphans of Eliada came to understand they were in a better situation than most of their peers in the depths of the Depression: they still went to school with shoes on their feet, still wore clothing that fit them and that had not beeen patched beyond recognition. They came home to safe beds. They may have had to wake up at 4 AM to tend to their chores, but they also drank fresh milk from the orphanage dairy with their breakfast each morning.
While many of Eliada’s alumni have a mixed attitude toward their time there – life was not cozy by any means, and discipline could be harsh – for Mrs. Fisher, life at Eliada bordered on the idyllic: the orphanage clothed and fed her; it supported her growth and maturation; it surrounded her with love and support. In her later years, after welcoming children, grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren into the world, after retiring to Landrum, South Carolina and surviving the passing of her husband Lee, she still called the other boys and girls who lived at the orphanage her brothers and sisters. “I loved Eliada,” Mrs. Fisher said. “Eliada saved me.”
Those last years of her life, Fisher lived independently in a tiny apartment in a small sun-baked complex just north of Landrum’s main street, surrounded by family and friends. Even in the summer’s unforgiving sun, her apartment was a cool respite, decorated with comfortable antique furniture and family photographs. The small kitchen was always stocked with food for the unexpected visitor or guest, and the upholstery of the chairs was old and elegant, comfortably faded. But for the contemporary photos of her family, the apartment was a firm reminder of her married life. However, Beth Fisher was never one to dwell in the past.
A Story Told
When Cliff Davids first met Beth Fisher in 1999, he was just beginning an oral history project for Eliada Homes that would take the better part of five years. Davids’ position as oral historian, he readily admits, was one of serendipity.
He had just come from a three-year stint with the Shoah Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s project to collect the stories of Holocaust survivors. Davids was working at Eliada Homes, and from looking at old photographs and talking to people, he knew the place “had a lot of history and a lot of secrets,” he says. “I was sure the stories had the same depth and power as those of the Holocaust survivors.” And his work with the Shoah Foundation, he is sure, got him in the door and talking to the right people.
Still, Eliada Homes is extremely guarded about sharing its past, so it took Davids some time to get the go-ahead to talk to some of the orphanage’s older alumni, many of whom had a distant relationship with the Home itself. Instead, they kept in touch with each other. “It was a fellowship of the orphanage brothers and sisters,” Davids says. “Mrs. Fisher and her contemporaries were all holding on to each other.”
After his first interview with Mrs. Fisher that winter, Davids had concluded that there was nothing remarkable about her time at Eliada or her life after the orphanage. That is, her story seemed fairly tame compared to the drama and action of some of Eliada’s other alumni. The circle of the brothers and sisters was (and still is) extremely small, and some of them, whose poignant histories Davids was following, hinted that Beth Fisher had a bigger story. “I realized afterwards that she wasn’t telling me everything,” Davids said.
So eight months after their first meeting, Davids returned to Mrs. Fisher’s apartment and asked her again. Only then, over pan-fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes and cherry cobbler, did she tell Davids the story of that day she became an orphan.
Her father, shortly returned from a stint at Dorothea Dix Mental Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., snapped on that December evening in 1922. With the rest of the family looking on, and for whatever reason he might have imagined, he killed his wife and his four-year-old daughter. The authorities found the four remaining children on the roof of their house, huddled around their father, who still held the shotgun in one hand. Cradled in his other arm was Beth, who was only seven months old.
Mrs. Fisher herself did not find out the truth about that day until she was fifteen, when on a weekend trip to Sylva, her older sister, who had been with her at Eliada until she had married and moved away, sat her down and told her what had happened. “He killed our mother and I’ll never forgive him,” Mrs. Fisher’s sister told her. She held back no details, including that she “got Mama’s wedding band off her finger.” What is unclear is why she chose to tell Beth at that particular moment in her life. “That’s a difficult age to be told,” Mrs. Fisher said.
Similarly, Davids always wondered why Mrs. Fisher, having met him just twice, decided to tell him the story. “When the thought ran through my mind,” she says. “I’d push it out. And that bothered me. There’s no use carrying something like that around for ever and ever.”
One meeting with Davids, now in his fifties, explains why someone would be so open with him. A tall man, with close-cropped hair, a neatly-trimmed beard, and wire-framed glasses, Davids looks the part of the New England professor. His deep resonant voice holds your attention, and a conversation with him is a two-person sport: he is genuinely interested in the discussion and actively participates in it. So though she hardly knew Davids, Mrs. Fisher’s reason for telling him her story so soon after they met is insightful: “I just wanted him to know the truth,” she stated.
After learning on that trip to her sister’s the story of her mother’s death and her father’s incarceration, Beth returned to Eliada shaken and insecure. “It was a shock to find out,” she said. And yet, questions still remained, and the rumors were flying. Did her uncle the sheriff try to have her father killed? Had he escaped prison in Raleigh? Or had he been killed trying to escape? Everyone seemed to know more then she did. “My father was a murderer. And I didn’t want anyone to know anything. I just felt worthless, like trash, as if I was nothing.”
It’s reasonable to suggest that other people, learning of similar tragedies in their families, would conceal the story and, worse, fold in upon themselves with grief. Mrs. Fisher’s response seemed the opposite. After telling Davids her story, she allowed him to seek out in the archives of the Asheville Times Newspaper the front page headline from that day in 1922, an article she had heard about and dreaded reading all her life – which Davids mailed to her. She promptly returned the clipping to him with a polite note of thanks. She had read the article, adding the facts to the ones she already knew. It was one more piece into the puzzle, and that was enough.
With the exception of a few years living outside the area with her husband, Beth Fisher spent her whole life within an hour’s drive of the Eliada Orphanage and the site of the shooting. A slim woman who stood just over five feet tall, Mrs. Fisher carried herself confidently to the very end. A self-described “quiet introvert” with an amazing memory for details both recent and past, her childhood nickname was “Dustmop” because of her thick bushy hair.
From her perspective, everyone’s life had it’s share of difficulties. Despite being orphaned at such a young age, she saw her life as no more remarkable than any other. For this reason, she tended to steer the conversation back to her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren – most of whom lived near her.
Her life’s story never hinted at her needing to escape what happened. If her past seemed unique to others, it did not to her. As she once explained, “You can’t miss what you didn’t have.”
So she married a man from her hometown whose whole family knew of her tragedy. After the Second World War, Lee and Beth Fisher eventually settled in Polk County, only miles from where she was born. Mrs. Fisher’s explanation was a pragmatic one. “Everyone knew what had happened to my family,” she said. “But they were all older than me, and I knew I was safe.” It is unclear whether this meant that she would outlive those who might gossip about her, or that those who knew her story knew it too well to bother spreading it around.
Though she didn’t seek out new information about what happened, she accepted it when it came her way – without a trace of resentment toward her father or toward the sister who told her of the shooting so callously. It’s almost as if every decade or so, one more piece of the puzzle would fall into place. When she was in her mid-thirties, her husband’s family took her to the location of the shooting. The home was still standing, though it had long since been abandoned. Eerily, the window through which her father had climbed with the remaining children was still open.
The Family Heirloom
Family photographs adorned the walls and end tables in Mrs. Fisher’s tiny apartment. She proudly displayed pictures of her granddaughter’s graduation, and of her great-grandchildren in their Easter outfits. Only one of the photographs was of Mrs. Fisher herself, and it hung in a conspicuous location on the sitting room wall. It was a beautiful sepia-toned photograph, her dark eyes bright, her hair in bouncy curls in the style of the 1940’s.
While on the surface it revealed the dignity that Mrs. Fisher carried to the end of her life, it also represented one of her happiest moments: at the time of the photograph, she was in her late teens, recently graduated, newly engaged. An unknown but promising future lay before her.
When Davids asked Mrs. Fisher for a photograph of her he could copy and keep in his files, she gave him this photograph – proudly and very carefully. Davids took it to a camera and imaging shop in Asheville. When he got the prints and original photograph back, there was a large crease running across her face, damage for which the store was initially loath to take responsibility. Eventually the store did what it could to fix the crease, though it was still apparent the photo had been bent and damaged.
Davids returned the photograph to Mrs. Fisher with some apprehension. After all, this was her prized self-portrait, and it had been damaged. But she put the photograph back up in that position of prominence with her usual modesty and courtesy. The symbolism couldn’t be more obvious to Davids: A woman changed but the same woman – proud of who she had become and what she had accomplished.
A Life Well Lived
Mrs. Fisher lived in that same tiny apartment in a retirement complex on stark grounds for over twenty years, most of those as a widow. On summer days, the place baked in the sun. Yet it was her sanctuary.
On one such scorching day, her porch felt about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of Landrum. She had just fed Davids his second piece of her peach cobbler, having spoken of her experience at Eliada and the long path she had traveled finding out the truth about that tragic day. “It was just something you didn’t tell,” she said, and her meaning was clear: I’ll speak of it, tell you how it has affected me, but it’s not polite conversation, and, more importantly, it is not the only thing that defines me.
While she may have known many of the facts about the murder, there was a sense that the puzzle was not complete – and that it might never be. As the decades had shown, there was always more to unearth – from the trip back to the home where her father shot her mother and sister, to the day that Davids sent her the clipping of the front-page article in the Asheville Times.
On one of Davids last trips to visit her, she showed off her favorite plants and flowers. Certainly her love of all growing things was nurtured on the lush grounds of Eliada, and her patio garden was crowded with many varieties; some hanging, some lined up along the shelf of the patio wall, others clustered at the door.
Nestled at the base of an old oak tree was one potted hosta, supported by a large rock. It came from the stone wall that locals said her father had been helping to build before he took the shotgun to his family. In the 1960’s, Mrs. Fisher willingly paid a visit to the mansion where the wall was constructed, knowing it was where her father once worked. She took the rock as a memento. “He probably placed it there,” she said.
The way that plant sat separate from the others made one think of that derelict house on Tryon Mountain, sitting with its window to the roof still open; and of that other Home thirty miles to the north, both casting their dominion over Mrs. Fisher in that small apartment. Hers was a life partly defined by two men, one who was larger than life, the other whom she knew only through the pieces of the puzzle she collected over many decades. One of those pieces sat beneath that potted hosta, cradled in the crevice of a large oak. She walked past it every time she came home.
I never met Beth Fisher, but this account makes me feel as though I knew her. What a fascinating glimpse into a different era. This is a remarkable story of a woman whose life started amidst tragedy, but who did not let this define her. Instead, she went on to live a rich and full life.
Thanks, Amelie. I was honored to be a friend of Mrs. Fisher for over a decade before she passed away in the winter of 2011.