DG MARTIN COLUMN: Boardinghouse memories

It would be hard today to find an old-fashioned boardinghouse to spend the night and eat a meal with the other boarders.

D.G. Martin

Not impossible, but difficult, and yet less than a century ago boardinghouses covered the towns and cities where Americans came together for eating and sleeping.

Although most boardinghouses might be gone today, memories are firm.

Elizabeth Engelhardt, Kenan eminent professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has collected hundreds of them for her new book, “Boardinghouse Women: How Southern Keepers, Cooks, Nurses, Widows, and Runaways Shaped Modern America,” to be published by UNC press in November.

Engelhardt cites examples of how women escaped irrelevance and became accomplished and independent businesspeople as the owners and operators of boardinghouses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of her examples, Julia Wolfe, ran the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse in Asheville at the turn of the last century. The experiences in her boardinghouse formed an important basis for her son Thomas Wolfe’s novel, “Look Homeward Angel.”

Engelhardt writes, “So intertwined was her identity with the business, Wolfe did not allow herself to have even small luxuries in her own private quarters of the house. A ‘plain cot’ without a headboard and a ‘single chair’ were the only furnishings in her room. Julia Wolfe became the face of her boardinghouse and the driver of its operations — roles she played for the rest of her life.”

Another famous boardinghouse child, the late New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, said that his love of food came from his experiences in his mother’s boardinghouse.

Engelhardt has assembled scores of other examples where ambitious or desperate women struggled to make their boardinghouse business successful. She also shows how the boardinghouse experiences of women had an impact on the typical foods that we today call southern.

I have my own boardinghouse memory.

At Davidson College, when I was growing up, there were 12 fraternities. Each had a boardinghouse in town — for eating only. The boardinghouse woman in charge was called a housemother. Each fraternity also had a small cottage on the campus for formal fraternity activities. But the real activity centered around the boardinghouses in the town. In about 1957, the college built a brand-new fraternity court and brought the eating and social activities of the fraternities onto the campus centered in the new fraternity houses.

The housemothers moved from town, each into a comfortable apartment in the new fraternity house. Each one continued to supervise a staff and was in charge of preparing the three meals a day. It was a big operation. Not all the housemothers were happy. As a part of my temporary job as assistant dean of students, I was charged with looking out for the housemothers and doing what I could to make them happier.

I did my best.

About 20 years later when I was a Charlotte lawyer running as a Democrat for the U.S. Congress, I stopped by an apartment building in the Myers Park area of Charlotte to make a few campaign cold calls on some of the residents.

When I knocked on one door, a charming older lady greeted me, “Oh D.G., I am so glad to see you. When I was a housemother at Davidson you were so wonderful to me. You paid attention to us. You arranged for a meeting with the president and the dean. Things got better. I’ll always be grateful.”

I was thrilled with this encounter. Campaign workers were hard to come by and she would certainly be a supporter of my political efforts.
But when I asked her if she would help give out campaign literature in her building, she said, “Oh no, D.G., I would never do that. I’m a Republican.”

Another tough boardinghouse woman!

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”