1949 Spring Semester
William Treichler Biography
When I first arrived with my parents at Black Mountain College in late summer of
1947 to begin school for the fall term, the school entrance looked weedy and
the grounds were grown up with long grass. We had traveled from Iowa across
beautiful Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, and driven into the scenic
mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to the site of this college, already
famous as an art school, where the property looked ignored and neglected.
We drove up the roadway past the dining hall then along the lake and parked our
car near several others close to the entrance deck of the Studies Building. The
first person to greet us was M.C. Richards who was getting into a car. She
introduced herself in a very friendly way—my parents liked her immediately—, and
she directed us to follow a path that led across a footbridge above a narrow
wooded gorge to a building that contained the college office. We walked there
and made arrangements to stay overnight in the guest room upstairs in the same
Undoubtedly, I told a person in the office that I had come as a new student. We
must have walked around, looked into some of the buildings, and eaten our supper
in the dining hall, but I don’t remember doing any of these things, because I
was dismayed by the appearance of the school—this wasn’t the small rural
experimental college I had expected. I was already homesick and ready to drive
back to Iowa with my parents. Mother and Dad tried to cheer me up. "You should
give the place a try," they said. "Maybe you can cut the grass and weeds."
My parents had moved with my sister and me in 1928 -- from
living in Cedar Rapids and from my father’s law partnership with his father -- to
a rundown farm. They had fixed up the farm house by their own efforts and with
very little money. Some of that money my mother had made by selling her hooked
rug patterns, stenciled in color onto burlap. Their farming endeavors barely
earned enough to pay taxes and interest. Together they cleared away brush and
picked up trash. We gardened to raise food for ourselves. Mother canned tomatoes
on a wood-fired cook stove, dried sweet corn in the sun, baked bread from
home-grown wheat, and even made her own soap. My father built fences; tended
livestock, learned to milk a goat, then a cow; raised hay, corn, oats and wheat;
and put up buildings from salvaged materials.
They both worked to make our house livable and beautiful with paint and
wallpaper. I can remember Mother painting a woodland scene with a Japanese tea
house in the distance on the walls of the dining room using fresh cut birch
boughs as a guide.
Both of my parent’s fathers had been farm boys and gave my folks much
encouragement. City friends of my mother and dad were skeptical about my folk’s
move to the country with two small children. Family and city acquaintances
remained curious and came often on weekends to our farm to see how Esther and
Bill were doing and were amazed by their accomplishments.
Going to Black Mountain wasn’t my first time away from home. I had been in the
Army Air Force for 27 months, part of that time as a crewman on a B17 bomber
based in England. Before that, just out of high school, I had taken a summer
session of introductory engineering at Iowa State College and then worked half a
year for the Corps of Engineers before I was drafted. After the war I had gone
for one term to Iowa State, this time to take agronomy, forestry and animal
In the early 1940s our family had become very interested in
organic farming. We read J.I. Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine, articles and
books by Louis Bromfield, Edward Faulkner and Albert Howard. While I was in
England, stationed at Great Ashfield in East Anglia, I saw in an Ipswich
bookstore The Living Soil by E. B. Balfour displayed alongside Faulkner’s
Plowman’s Folly which I had read. Louis Bromfield’s introduction to Faulkner’s
book had helped make it a best-seller. I bought The Living Soil and discovered
from a map inside, that the farm where the author, Eve Balfour, was comparing
organic, chemical and mixed farming practices was only a few miles from our
I soon bicycled to the Haughley farm to see for myself. Fortunately, the first
person I met when I arrived at Newbells Farm was Eve Balfour. She was too busy
that day to give me a tour of the farm, but she invited me to return later at a
more convenient time when she could show me around. When I came back another
day, we walked over the whole farm and she showed me that it was divided into
three sections: one managed with livestock and compost, one with commercial
chemical fertilizers, and one using a combination of practices. After that visit
I was a frequent visitor and even stayed overnight. Lady Eve always wore working
clothes when I saw her and was busy with farm work. She was a niece of A. J.
Balfour, prime minister of the U.K. (1902 – 1905).
While still in England, whenever I was in a bookstore, I looked for books on
farming. To help me out, Lady Eve suggested titles and even ordered books from
her publisher for me. I read them, and ordered copies for other people after the
war when I was home.
Just after the war, our family heard of the decentralist movement in this
country and we went to conferences organized by Mildred Loomis featuring the
ideas of Ralph Borsodi about rural homestead living. At these meetings we heard
speakers on organic gardening, whole nutrition, home production, and we met
other people who lived in the country, produced their own food and shelter, and
practiced crafts such as weaving. I remember being very impressed by a
home-loomed suit worn by a man at one of these conferences. I was determined to
learn all I could to live a self-sufficient life.
My mother read Milton Wend’s book How to Live in the Country Without Farming. In
the book he described his life style and stressed home-production, and in a
chapter toward the end of the book, Wend even listed colleges where a
homesteading family might send their children. Black Mountain College was listed
along with Berea and Bennington. Berea College might have been more appropriate
for my interests, but Berea didn’t often accept students outside five southern
states. So I applied to Black Mountain and was accepted.
The morning following our arrival my parents drove off, and I stayed. I was
assigned a study in the Studies Building. I went to classes and chose to take
Natasha Goldowski’s chemistry course. I wanted to gain a scientific
understanding of how organically raised foods could provide better nutrition. I
also chose to take the beginning weaving class taught by Trude Guermonprez
because learning to weave was a principal reason for my choosing to attend Black
Mountain College. I also enrolled in Max Dehn’s “Geometry for Artists” and Mrs.
Jalowetz’s evening activity on bookbinding.
Of course, I soon visited the farm and became acquainted with Ray Trayer who
taught classes in rural sociology and ran the farm which produced milk and eggs
for the school kitchen and some vegetables for the summer session. Ray let me
use the tractor and field mower to cut grass and weeds along the road edges and
the lawn areas near the entrance. Next, I mowed the flat plots on either side of
the Studies Building and along the library. Mrs. Rice approved of mowing the
tall weeds and her son Frank, who taught linguistics and German, rode the dump
rake to gather the cut grass into windrows so it could be picked up and hauled
to the farm yard.
About this time the group that administered school affairs assigned me the
work-coordinator job. My responsibility was to make up lists of student names
for the different jobs such as washing dishes, trimming brush along foot paths,
and unloading coal from a railroad car. All of us students were supposed to be
involved in some way with work necessary to operate the school. Some students
found special jobs for themselves, and some of the faculty may have had special
projects for the school. I remember that Ted Dreier and Ted Rondthaler were
always visible setting an enthusiastic example working with students outdoors to
clean up trash or examine the reels of fire hose, and indoors filling in with a
crew to wash dishes.
Every year in the fall, the college bought a full rail car of coal for winter
heating. Unloading the gondola meant picking up and throwing chunks of coal over
the side of the car into a truck parked alongside. When the truck body was full,
it was driven to the school and unloaded into a storage dump by the Studies
Building or into a coal bin behind the kitchen. Crews of students with the help
and encouragement of Rondy and Ted Dreier heaved the coal from the rail car into
a truck. It was a dirty job, but it took only about a day. Once we had thrown
out enough chunks of coal to get to the bottom of the car, a shovel could be
used to scoop the smaller pieces into the truck.
I remember one morning, when we were waiting in the truck in front of the girl’s
dormitory for every one to get aboard, one girl came down the dormitory steps
and started to climb into the truck wearing a beautiful and expensive sweater.
Several other girls said to her, “You can’t wear that; it will be ruined.” She
got something else to wear and came along to help. Picking up sooty lumps of
coal was work she had never imagined.
The student body was made up of somewhat distinct groups. There were the art
students, students mostly interested in academic studies, and those that took
the more general college courses combined with art classes and craft activities.
Students came from New York City, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco and
others from smaller places in New England, the Midwest, and from Southern
States. Many of the students who were there my first year did not return the
next year, but there was a sizeable increase in the number of students the
second year. The faculty was constantly shifting and this affected student
enrollment. When Albers was there, students came for his courses. There were
strong factions within the faculty, and power would shift from one faction to
another when certain members left or returned.
The faculty lived in the large old lodges from the time of the Lake Eden resort,
in apartments in the office building, in the dormitories, and one in the Studies
Building, and in several newer houses. Those who didn’t eat in the dining hall
came to the kitchen at lunch and supper time and took prepared food home to eat.
Occasionally some ate dinner in the dining room. The evening dinner was supposed
to be a dress-up time. Saturday night dinner was often followed by a performance
or by Mr. Bodky playing Viennese waltzes for several hours. He played with great
gusto. Ted Dreier was one of the star performers, and would at times rapidly
draw or dash his partner across the floor. He was spectacular. Ted Dreier Jr.
was a good waltzer, too. Donald Alter and Misi Ginesi seemed to be a natural
dancing couple and Delores Fullman and Bob Raushenberg were a great dancing
pair. Dolores also gave classes in jitterbugging. There were regular classes in
modern dance given by Betty Jennerjahn in the dining room. Saturday night was a
great affair. Mr. Bodky would exhaust himself at the piano. He taught music at
the school and was a regular performer on the harpsichord, broadcasting from an
Asheville radio station. The Bodkys lived in the stone house across the road
from the dining hall. Mrs. Bodky looked after the arrangements for student
Luckily for me, Natasha Goldowski had come to teach science at Black Mountain. I
told Natasha at the beginning of her chemistry course that I wanted to better
understand a scientific basis for organic farming. She was agreeable to my
purpose, but, she told me, it would require considerable preliminary study. I
would need to start at the beginning to be familiar with chemical processes. The
first day of class she wrote out a page full of simple chemical equations for me
to solve and she explained how to do the exercise. We went on from there through
basic chemistry, organic chemistry and began bio-chemistry. I could not have
found a better teacher nor one more responsive to a student’s interest.
Natasha always considered herself to be a physicist and I remember she would say
to us, “You need to know physics to understand chemistry, we will have to have a
physics class.” And, “You do pretty well at arithmetic, but we need to have a
mathematics class.” And she would set up another class or tutorial to move us
Natasha had come to this country as an expert on corrosion chemistry and had
been a consultant, I understood, to the Manhattan Project at the end of the
Second World War. She had met the big names in physics and she had personal
opinions of their merits and personalities and would express them to us. She was
well read on the developing ideas in the physical world. I remember how excited
she was when she read Norbert Wiener’s new book (then) on cybernetics. She would
come up to one of us and say, “I just read something amazing.” And then go on to
explain it to us novices.
Natasha decided that we should send for a new chemistry text by Linus Pauling in
which he detailed his theory of atomic bonding as an explanation of chemical
behavior. Pauling changed the study of chemistry from memorization of discovered
reactions to an understanding of why substances did or did not react. (Pauling
at this time was getting a lot of publicity for his anti-war stance.) Linus
Pauling went on into the field of biochemistry, studying the importance of the
essential nutrients, the vitamins, especially Vitamin C. His work continues
today in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Linus Pauling’s
elementary chemistry book made chemistry understandable for me and his later
work fulfilled what I wanted to know about the relationship of good husbandry to
nutrition and healthy plants, animals, and humans.
Natasha’s choice of a text for our organic chemistry study was by a French
husband and wife team. Natasha always favored the French. Understandably, it was
her preferred language because she had spent a lot of time living in France.
Born in Moscow, she moved to Paris for schooling. She told us that she had
earned a Ph.D. in physics and another in chemistry and an engineering degree at
the University of Paris, and had never gone a day to school. She had to work to
support herself and her mother who came on to Paris in a short time to look
after her. Natasha worked at a job during the day, bought notes of the lectures,
studied them at night, passed the examinations, and was awarded the degrees. She
worked on chemical corrosion projects for the French air ministry, and was in
the Resistance during the war.
Natasha was a wonderfully enthusiastic teacher, always delighted when a student
grasped a concept or she caught some nuance herself. “For-mi-dab-la!” she would
exclaim. Natasha used a blackboard like a note pad to chalk up equations or
notes, and had a board in her office/study in the apartment where she and her
mother lived in the back of the office building. My intellectual life at Black
Mountain for the 2 years I was there was mostly taken up studying with Natasha.
Madame Goldowski always had her students come to her apartment for their French
lessons. They would meet in her living room. She had more students than any
other teacher at Black Mountain but she wasn’t paid. She didn’t complain.
Every time Madame saw me going to or coming from Natasha’s office she would say,
“When are you going to learn Francais? Eet is not difficult; you already know
all of those words ending in t-i-o-n.” Because I didn’t come for her French
lessons, she would wag her finger scoldingly, but smile at me. Madame knew that
I had lived on a farm and worked then at the college farm. She would say, “Work
with ze clods; become like ze clods.” She did tell us marvelous stories of her
youth when she went to functions in the Kremlin. “The doorways into the ballroom
are very low. Everyone has to stoop to enter. That is so one or two armed men
could defend the entrance from invaders.” Madame was very short. Did she have to
stoop under the lintels?
Since one of my reasons for coming to Black Mountain was to learn to weave, I
entered a beginning weaving class taught by Trude Guermonprez. Each student was
assigned a loom in the weaving gallery on the bottom floor of the Studies
Building. We could spend as much time as we wished working on “our” loom. Some
people seemed always to be there weaving. Willie Joseph, a long-time student and
weaver at BMC, worked on a large double-warp-beam loom trying out patterns for
upholstery fabrics. With that loom he could form corduroy type weaves. Willie
used only black and white thread in the true Albers fashion. I got to know
Willie pretty well: we visited in the weaving room, we were room mates in the
dormitory, we had both been in the war, he was in one of Natasha’s classes with
me, ate at the same table in the kitchen, and I even rode home with him once as
far as Cincinnati where he lived. Willie came to see us later in Iowa.
Anni Albers occasionally did some weaving in the gallery. I remember that she
brought back wool garments from South America; some had been fashioned before
Columbus’s voyage. Lore Kadden Lindenfeld probably spent more time than anyone in
the gallery. She wove place mats which the weaving department sold, I think, in gift
Trude did have class time with us beginners when she explained the different
weaves: plain, twill, satin, mock leno. She taught us how to diagram weave
patterns on graph paper. She showed us how to make up a warp, install it on a
loom and place the correct thread through a heddle and tie it to a stick
fastened to the cloth beam. Our class went on a trip to Burlington Mills where
we saw a large room filled with many looms turning out parachute cloth. All of
us in the class were impressed by the finger dexterity of a pleasant woman in
another room who was knotting with a simple motion of her forefinger against her
thumb two threads, one from a new roll of warp to the corresponding thread of an
old warp that was still running through the heddles in frames from a loom. She
took time to show us how easy it was, but I couldn’t make the knot.
On the same trip we went to a hosiery mill and saw nylon hose being formed on
steam-heated aluminum leg forms. Knitted white stockings were pulled over the
legs and patted into place then pulled off as shapely hose. We thought the
oscillating leg forms looked like a scene from “Ballet Mechanique.” Sometimes a
run would appear, but the women running the machine deftly picked at the
apparent run and it disappeared. Lorna Blaine Howard arranged through her father
for our excursion of the mill. She and her husband Tasker Howard, a former
student who was teaching at the college, came along on the trip.
I haven’t done any weaving since my days at Black Mountain and so haven’t
fulfilled my early ambition to weave for home production. I realize that
purchasing ready-made clothing is far more efficient use of my time. However, my
daughter and daughter-in-law are skilled spinners and we have an old,
large-frame loom acquired in Vermont which my daughter set up and used at one
time when we lived at a boarding school in Vermont. The girls don’t spin, knit
or weave anymore either. I do have hundreds of pounds of shorn wool from a small
flock of Romney sheep.
Yet, in the late 1940s, weavers at Biltmore Industries in Asheville were turning
out fine hand-loomed woolens and tailoring them into men’s suits. We went there
and saw cloth being hand woven, then taken outdoors to be shrunk and dried in
sunlight. Later my father bought one of the Biltmore suits by mail, and he was
very pleased with the suit he received. I wonder if Biltmore Industries is still
Beautiful bed coverlets were woven 150 years ago by independent weavers in this
country. I wish now that the school had had a loom set up with a Jacquard or
barrel attachment to weave intricately patterned coverlets and I could have seen
or had the experience of weaving a coverlet with intricate patterns including
names and dates.
The other course I took my first year was Max Dehn’s “Geometry for Artists.” Dr.
Dehn introduced us to points, lines, planes and solids; cones sectioned into
circles, ellipses, parabolas, and hyperbolas; spheres and regular polyhedrons.
He showed us that any two lines drawn from opposite ends of the diameter forming
a semi circle will always meet the arc at a 90 degree angle. He drew on the
chalkboard geometric relationships such as the Pythagorean Theorem. Professor
Dehn told us the 25 prime numbers from 1 to 100, and then asked us, as an
assignment, to find as many as we could above 100. He told us about Fibonacci’s
Number and its relationship to the “Golden Mean” of the Greeks, and to volutes
so commonly observable in nature. He considered our grade school learning lax in
that we hadn’t memorized the squares to 25. To remedy our insufficiency, he
taught us a simple way to compute squares.
Max Dehn and his wife Toni lived up the road to the farm in a small house. They
took part in community meetings and often ate in the dining room. He was then
corresponding with former colleagues in Munich and was concerned with the meager
amount of food they had to eat. Max wanted the school to send them money, but
the school was very hard-up. An arrangement was worked out, however, and Harry
Holl prepared his famous Spanish rice casserole for all of us to eat in place of
a regular meal and the saving in food expense was sent to Munich.
For an evening activity I went to Mrs. Jalowetz’s bookbinding class. She taught
us how to rebind badly worn books from the library by showing us how to take a
sewn book completely apart, make necessary repairs, and then reassemble the
book. We learned how to fix pages with tears using paste along the torn edges,
not cellophane tape. We sewed sets of pages, signatures, as we assembled them in
a bookbinder’s rack, then clamped them tightly together and glued a strip of
mesh fabric along the spine. The board covers were replaced if they had bent
corners or worn coverings. When the covers were ready, the book core was placed
in the middle between the two sides and the edges of the binding fabric pasted
to the cover boards. Lastly, end papers were cut and pasted on the inside of the
cover to hide the binding fabric and make everything neat.
Mrs. Jalowetz also taught
us to make covered portfolios and boxes for holding
photographs or letters. She not only showed us how to do the work but she also
always applauded our efforts.
I remember Mrs. Jalowetz telling us that when she was young in Europe, a
household would have enough bed sheets for the whole time of winter because
people didn’t launder in cold weather. Sheets stayed on a bed for a week. The
top hem of a sheet had button holes for a row of buttons across the top of the
upper blanket. The sheet was folded over the blanket edge and was held in place
by the buttons. Bookbinding class was always a pleasant evening time for me.
Mrs. Jalowetz taught voice. I think she had been an opera singer in Prague.
Dolores Fullman was Mrs. Jalowetz’s principal student that year at BMC.
Printing class was another activity that I enjoyed. Frank Rice and Jim Tite had
fixed up a print shop where we could learn to set and justify type. We practiced
picking pieces of type from a case and placing each one in a composing stick
which holds the type pieces in alignment. Thin strips of copper or brass were
placed between letters and word spacers to make each line equal in length. From
the composing stick we learned to slide the type carefully onto a flat stone.
When we had enough set for the job we placed a chase around it and locked the
type tightly in place so all could be mounted in the press.
Jim and Frank showed us how to ink the rollers of the Kluge press and how to
stand erect before the press and safely reach into the open press to remove the
printed paper and place a fresh sheet against the clips before the press closed
against type bed. Jim Tite spent a lot of time in the shop printing brochures
and forms for the college. The print shop used only two type faces: Bodoni, a
serifed type, and Futura, a non-serifed type family.
During my second year, I took a biology course. It was first taught by an older
woman who had retired from missionary work in China and lived then in Black
Mountain. I don’t remember her name but she was a lively and entertaining
teacher. Part way through the year she turned the class over to a former student
of hers, a young Chinese woman, Mrs. Tsui, who was competent but less
conversational than our first instructor.
I took first-year German that year from Frank Rice. It was a course in
conversational German. “Meine name ist Wilhelm Treichler. Wo ist das bahnhof?
Danke sehr.” Frank was an enthusiastic teacher and we students enjoyed
“conversing” in class. He was reading Arnold Toynbee at the time, so we heard a
good deal from the complete version of A Study of History, not the Somervell
condensation I later read. At the time, he was learning Arabic and later went
off to Saudi Arabia to teach the language there to employees of the
Arabian-American Oil Company.
Frank was the pride of his mother, Nell Rice, who had been at the school from
its earliest days and seemed to have a story about anyone who was ever connected
to the school. She often told us about the years at Blue Ridge Seminary: how
reasonable the rent was but what a burden it was to completely pack up
everything when the owners, the YMCA, needed the building for conferences in the
summer. Mrs. Rice was delighted to have Frank teaching at Black Mountain
College. Her daughter, Mary, came to visit frequently. Frank did go to visit his
father John Rice occasionally.
Nell Rice was a sister of Frank Aydelotte, president of Swarthmore. Her father
had held an important position at the University of Nebraska when she was a
girl. Mrs. Rice may have liked me because I came from Iowa, a state neighboring
Nebraska. I was in the library, Mrs. Rice’s territory, the first time I gathered
enough nerve to speak to Miss Martha Rittenhouse. Nell Rice always promoted our
friendship, invited Martha and me to a tea party at her apartment, and later
sent birth presents for our children. Perhaps, she knew well that the most
important function of a college is to bring couples together.
Martha had come in 1948-49, the second year that I was there. She came from a
farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Our rural background gave us an affinity even
before we found many common interests. We often studied together and went on
many hikes with other students and with 12-year-old John Corkran, who liked
Martha, and nearly always walked right between us.
The very first week of my time at BMC, John’s mother, Mrs. Corkran, invited me
with other students to one of her wonderful get-acquainted suppers. Her husband
David Corkran taught history and had been at the North Shore Country Day School
out of Chicago. I think the Corkrans had attracted a sizeable Chicago contingent
to Black Mountain. Their two school-age boys, David and John, mixed a lot with
The Corkrans took me and other students and their boys on a weekend camping trip
to Roan Mountain. We hiked over much of the treeless mountain top that had large
clumps of rhododendron sprinkled over the fairly level top, and we boys talked
of what a marvelous resort site it would make with room enough for a landing
strip. Such an idea would be avoided today with all the concern for wild areas,
but we had exuberant fun planning.
The Rondthaler family occupied the other half of the house where the Corkrans
lived. Theodore Rondthaler (always Rondy) taught English and was the business
manager of the college. Mrs. Rondthaler was the office manager and oversaw the
kitchen. I think she also taught business classes. Mrs. Rondy was a busy and
capable person. She had gone to Sweetbriar. Rondy’s father was president of
Salem College in Winston-Salem and a bishop, I believe, in the Moravian Church.
The Rondthalers celebrated a Moravian Christmas with putzes of the nativity
scene. They had a home on Ocracoke Island, the only 2-story house on the island.
The family frequently talked of Ocracoke and went there whenever they could.
Bobbie Rondthaler was a popular student at BMC. Their son, Howard, was around a
lot and was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I
remember visiting his room there along with Howard, Manvel Schauffler, and Ed
Adamy. We were driving the school’s weapons carrier truck pulling a large
single-axle trailer on a trip to pick up surplus property, principally a new
dishwasher for the kitchen, at a naval station somewhere farther east in North
The Rondthalers took Howard and Bernie Karp and me, and probably some others, on
a wonderful weekend trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We slept
overnight in a lean-to shelter along the Appalachian Trail. I will always
remember Rondy imparting fatherly advice to us boys, “If you get cold at night,
you need to get up and urinate.” We went to Gatlinburg and also stopped along
the road to see a small grist mill that had a homemade turbine called a
tub-wheel to gain energy from a tumbling mountain stream. It was fashioned from
a tree trunk. The vertical turbine shaft extended through a platform above and
rotated the bottom buhrstone of the mill. Grains poured through the center hole
of the upper stationary buhrstone were ground into meal between the two buhrs.
Seeing such primitive engineering was inspiring—a great part of a memorable
At another time a group of us walked from the college up the valley to the ridge
and then followed the Blue Ridge Parkway some miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell.
I think Rondy and Howard suggested this hike at dinner time one evening and a
number of us went along with them. Someone drove there, probably Mrs. Rondy, and
brought us back in a car. As I remember, it was a 40-mile round trip by
Later, Ray Trayer invited me to go with his rural sociology class on a field
trip to the Tennessee Valley Authority dams in North Carolina and eastern
Tennessee. The curious part of that trip was our reversed reactions: the class
probably approved of government projects like the TVA, but they were upset that
so many valley farms had been flooded by the dams. I was always opposed to
government projects, against the TVA concept, but I was thrilled by the
engineering of the dams and the massive electric generators. We were all
appalled that a project of the United States Government would have separate
drinking fountains for “Colored” and “White.”
One of the favorite hikes at the school was to go up the side of the mountain to
the saddle where you could see in the distance fountains of water aerating at
the Asheville water-treatment plant. We walked up through an old abandoned
orchard. Some said it was from moon-shining days, probably not, but there were
trees that had wonderful apples. We carried all we could down to eat between
The food at Black Mountain must have out-classed the fare of any other college
in the country. George Williams was a wonder with meat pies and casseroles.
Everyone enjoyed his great dishes. George hovered around the stoves and work
tables. Mrs. Rice remembered that George at one time experimented with food
coloring to serve brighter entrees. After all, BMC was recognized primarily as
an art school. So what’s wrong with culinary color studies.
His wife Cornelia was always there in front of the two coal-fired stoves. For
breakfast she placed trays of sliced bread in the ovens, and in a short time
pulled them out to turn the slices, then shoved them back for a half-minute or
so before pulling the trays out and shaking the toast onto a tray. Cornelia
always grasped the hot trays with a large dry towel. The smoke puffed out from
the oven; Cornelia wiped her eyes and face free from smoke and perspiration and
stuck in another tray. She prepared bacon the same way.
For breakfast there were
always eggs, bacon, toast and fresh-cooked oat meal and grapefruit and raw milk
from the farm. Malrey Few cooked with George and Cornelia. One morning when I
dished out a bowl of steaming oatmeal for myself and stood idly stirring the pot
she looked at me disapprovingly and I asked, “What’s the matter?”
“You’ll make it gummy by stirring.” Her oatmeal was always flaky, and I was
ruining it. I have never stirred oatmeal since. Her grandson Alvin came to visit
occasionally and played with the faculty children and talked with the students.
Ben Sneed was another fixture of the kitchen. He was general handyman and I
believe took care of the fires in the main buildings. Howard Rondy liked to say
that he was the only person at the school who could go to Black Mountain or
Asheville for supplies and, without a written list, bring back everything he
went to get. Ben didn’t talk much; he drove a Crosley car.
My sister came from Bennington for her 1948 winter work term to help in the
kitchen. Ann worked for Mrs. Rondy and did odd cooking jobs. One of her
successes was baking sour, leathery apricots, the school had received from the
government as surplus food, into a delicious apricot torte dessert.
The cooks got Sunday evening off. Everyone made their own meals from set-out
bread, cheese, lettuce and other fixings. Oftentimes we got together to have a
picnic or a party Sunday afternoons or evenings. I remember that Susie
Schauffler and Harry Weitzer found an enameled chamber pot. They cleaned it up
and we ate soup heated in it, feeling very daring.
Generally the students got along with each other. I don’t remember any student
quarrels. Some students kept to themselves and their own interests. Occasionally
former students came back. Alex Reed who had built the Quiet House arrived in a
little British sports car that barely cleared the road ruts, and Henry Adams
came a couple of times from the University of North Carolina.
Black Mountain had regular visitors, and occasional visitors. Every winter Dr.
William Morse Cole came after Christmas for some weeks and audited the books of
the college. He was retired from Harvard, I think, where he had been head of the
School of Accounting. During his stay, Professor Cole held an evening
Shakespeare class in his room in the office building.
A frequent Sunday afternoon visitor was Dr. Cooley from Black Mountain. He was
one of the local well-wishers for the school, and he would bring friends in his
car and cruise up the roadway through the college and back down again at a speed
of only several miles an hour. He came to examine me when I had been sick for
several days. Mrs. Trayer thought I should have the doctor look at me and stay
in a room in their farmhouse. I got well in good time.
Nathan Rosen from Princeton was a frequent visitor. He came to visit Natasha and
they talked physics and probably Princeton politics. He had taught at Black
Mountain earlier. His wife came in the summer for a week and played in a
stringed-instrument music group.
John Cage and Merce Cunningham came. I remember watching John Cage put rubber
erasers and other things between the strings of the concert grand in the dining
room one afternoon for a performance that night. He wasn’t pretentious about
fixing the piano. There were other notables who came, celebrities in the art and
literary world, but only names to me. There was one woman who amused some of us
students because she always wore a stole as though it were a performance. I
can’t remember her name.
I remember that Marguerite Wildenhain came and spoke about making pots. She told
us that it wasn’t woman’s work; you had to be strong to handle the clay. She
looked to be entirely capable in every way to be a potter.
Ralph Borsodi came at Ray Trayer’s invitation and spoke one evening about his
ideas of living in the country as a part of a three-generation family, where
every person would have an opportunity and ample time to develop their full
talents. I was pleased to see that Mr. Borsodi did win over the interest of many
students who at first were put off by their concept of the isolation and
drudgery of rural living. He patiently, without condescending, answered
objections and made an economic case for self-sufficient country life. Borsodi
had lived his early life in NYC and had been an economist at Macys. Years
earlier in the thirties he had visited Black Mountain.
Buckminster Fuller came with a small house trailer the first time I saw him at
the school. He brought models of geodesic domes and tetrahedrons and talked
about all his ideas. I was eager to see Bucky Fuller because I had read of him
and his Dymaxion car some years before. Natasha got him to come back for the
1949 summer session and he brought a group of boys with him who worked setting
up displays and projects. Fuller liked to give long lectures for his disciples.
He did have a lot of novel ideas. Kenneth Snelson was a student at BMC who
designed tensile structures and was very interested in Fuller’s engineering
When Fuller came for the summer session, his wife came down, too. I remember one
afternoon when she was having tea with my mother she told us that she had had a
house of her own design built before Bucky did. She said, well, my father was an
architect. Mrs. Fuller was pleasant company. So was Mr. Fuller, and he entered
into all activities enthusiastically.
There were several exciting times at the college. One afternoon a rain in the
valley above the school sent torrents down in amounts that isolated the cottage
where the cooks lived. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the water level fell in
about an hour and no one was hurt.
The night the chemistry laboratory burned I was sleeping in the Brown Cottage
next door to the lab. Kenneth Snelson, Donald Droll and I roomed there together.
I was awakened by the glaring light from the flames just outside the window in
my room. Rondy had coached us always in case of fire to first sound the alarm on
the big triangular fire gong near the kitchen and dining hall, and second to
dash to the hose shed by the Studies Building to get the Siamese-twin fitting
with two valves that was necessary to connect the smaller hoses with nozzles to
the larger hose that ran from the hydrants. We got the “Y” with the twin valves,
and students kept water on the shingle walls of the Brown Cottage. The
laboratory was too far gone to stop and I was sure that the cottage would burn
with all of my clothing and possessions, but it didn’t, thanks to those who
played water continually on the roof and walls.
In 1949, my parents made plans to come to Black Mountain to help the school. My
mother did come and worked to brighten up the dormitories. We made milk paint
using skim milk from the dairy and dry colors, mostly umbers and siennas, bought
at a hardware store in Asheville that sold dyes in bulk. We also took the dining
room chairs with sagging and broken seats to a farmer craftsman near
Hendersonville who redid the seats with oak splints he made himself. The man
showed us how he split thin strips from a small white oak tree. He told us he
performed regularly on an Asheville radio station and then sang for us the day
we were there. This farmer craftsman fashioned beautiful chairs without any
glue. I have always regretted that I didn’t buy for myself some of his delicate
but sturdy ladder backs for sale in the same Asheville hardware store. His name,
I cannot recall. I expected to see him in the Foxfire books but didn’t.
A local carpenter, Mr. Elkins, built roomy bunks in the boy’s dormitory and did
other carpentry jobs. For awhile there was activity to improve student
accommodations; then the money gave out. N.O. Pittenger who had been business
manager, I think at Swarthmore, came down to straighten out finances but that
My dad remembered that Bucky Fuller was on hand when we left to say goodbye. Nell
Rice’s daughter Mary and her husband were there at the time, and they insisted
that we stay in their apartment near Washington on our way to visit Martha’s
family on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
My feelings about Black Mountain College at the time of leaving were not too
different from my dismay at the unkempt appearance of the school when I first
arrived. At my departure, I was disillusioned because the vision of a school
where everyone was free to explore aptitudes, improve talents, try ideas and
work without imposed requirements and restrictions was disintegrating because of
personality conflicts. Was the college only an artificial, dependent,
fractionated and transplanted urban culture? Too bad that in the beautiful
southern highland setting, the school couldn’t have become self-supporting,
adaptive, inventive, comprehensive. Perhaps like Ralph Borsodi’s dream, a School
I have come to realize that I probably gained more from the two years I spent at
Black Mountain College than any other person who ever went to the college.
First, and most importantly for me, it led to my meeting Martha Rittenhouse who
can do anything and everything so well—she taught me how to be a better parent,
she provided our family good nutrition even before she became a dietitian, she
showed us all how to create a beautiful home, and she is a complete partner in
all of our interests and activities. There was also my great educational
experience of learning so much from courses and from the friendship of the
faculty, and from the experience of living at Black Mountain College.
© William Treichler, 2004. Printed with
permission. All rights reserved.