One of the most interesting of the early residents of Brevard was Thomas Whitfield Whitmire, also known as T.W., or Whit. T.W. is an exemplar of the small-town “main street” businessman found at the beginning of the 20th century and made famous in the books of author Sinclair Lewis, a complex combination of driven entrepreneur, wily marketer, dedicated politician, and committed church leader.
Born in 1867, T.W. was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Whitmire. He married Martha “Mattie” Cooper, daughter of M.D. Cooper, who owned and sold large tracts of farmland on which the town of Brevard expanded. T.W. and Mattie had two daughters and three sons.
Whitmire first made his mark in the late 19th-early 20th century as the proprietor of a combination grocery and general merchandise store. A natural promoter, his advertisements in the Sylvan Valley News were different from the stiff, formal ads that surrounded them. T.W.’s ads were often larger, utilized eye-catching graphics, and contained brash sales phrases like “slaughtering prices” and “revolutionary sale.”
T.W.’s marketing strategies included holding raffles for high-cost items like a phonograph and a piano to get customers in the store. He distributed a leaflet called “The Clipper” door to door every Saturday which listed the prices of his competitors and his promise to match them. He ran public auctions to clear unsold items from the shelves in order to stock new goods. Whit even offered to pay railroad fares for people living in the far ends of the county if they agreed to spend a certain amount in his stores.
Whitmire began to expand his business interests between 1900 and 1915, often juggling three or more businesses at a time. He managed the Aethelwold Hotel, sold life insurance, was an auctioneer, owned a real estate company, was part of an investment group that sold home lots on a large tract of land called the Sylvan Valley Section, built and operated Brevard’s first skating rink, was a member of the Franklin Park Improvement Committee that purchased the Franklin Hotel, operated a merry-go-round, placed a pool hall in the back of his store, and even took time to serve as a representative for the Ideal Steam Cooker. He was a man who could multi-task!
T.W. was also active in politics during this time, serving as a city alderman, city treasurer, chairman of the Democratic Party executive committee, and then as Brevard mayor from 1905-09. One of his duties as mayor at the time was to serve as both magistrate judge and part-time law enforcer, which, according to the newspaper, “kept him very busy.” During his tenure as mayor, many of the downtown streets were paved; Brevard boasted the largest number of paved streets for a town of its size in North Carolina.
T.W. moved his family to Asheville in 1915 to start-up a new car dealership called the Whitmire Auto Company, also opening a branch in Brevard managed by his sons. The Asheville-based Whitmire Auto Company sold a variety of cars including Maxwell, Paige, Jewett and Grant—brand names now lost in the mists of time. Of course, Whitmire Auto advertisements in the Asheville Citizen newspaper were eye-catching and amusing. They always included his picture along with the phrase “See Whit” or “Talk it over with Whit.”
Ironically, right before T.W. relocated to Asheville, he had been elected mayor of Brevard again. He remained mayor for a year, despite not living in Brevard. When he submitted his resignation, it “was reluctantly accepted”, according to the Sylvan Valley News.
While in Asheville, T.W. purchased the Aethelwold Hotel in Brevard that he had previously managed. He renamed it the Waltermire in honor of his son Walter who died while serving in World War One. Whitmire leased the hotel to others who operated it for him.
For reasons unknown, the Whitmires returned to Brevard in 1925 and T.W. was elected mayor once again, serving several terms between 1925-31. He started an Oldsmobile dealership in the Aethelwold called the Broadway Motor Company, later adding Cadillac and Lasalle brands to the roster. Broadway Motors expanded to include Plymouth and Dodge cars in 1934 in a separate location.
Whit threw himself into new forms of community work. He was a leading organizer of the Brevard Kiwanis Club and also the director in 1926. He organized the Brevard Chamber of Commerce in 1929 and became its president. A long-time proponent of good roads, Whitmire was made an official member of the National Good Roads Association in 1927.
Throughout his life, T.W. faithfully attended the Brevard Methodist church. He served on the board of stewards and was a lifetime trustee. He also served as District Steward in the Asheville district. According to the Brevard News, he was well-known and regarded by Methodist leaders throughout the state. A devout man, he sponsored both local and regional revivals. When a large revival with a famous speaker did not make enough money to cover expenses, he helped defray the cost.
In the mid-1930s various citizens asked Whit to run for mayor one more time, but he declined to run, the Transylvania Times stated, “because of his health.” Now in his sixties, Whitmire was no longer prominently featured in the newspaper, appearing to relinquish his public role to younger men. Mattie passed away in 1937 and T.W. in 1954. They are both laid to rest in the Gillespie Evergreen Cemetery. Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Assistant Joe Russo. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820.