Monday, November 19, 2012

bas allen

(part one of what i hope becomes a seven-part blog series titled "the farmers of black mountain college.")

The founding of Black Mountain College, in 1933, is a fascinating story - one of those Depression era, against all odds, they did it stories. Fortunately, we know much of it through three outstanding books: Martin Duberman's Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (1972); Mary Emma Harris' The Arts at Black Mountain College (1987); and Katherine C. Reynolds' Visions and Vanities: John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College (1998). For the sake of this post, I offer a brief history of the college's beginnings.

In April 1933, after a series of conflicts and disagreements, Hamilton Holt, president of Rollins College (in Winter Park, Florida), fired John Andrew Rice, (tenured) professor of classics and academic iconoclast. Rice appealed, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was brought in, and by the end of May the AAUP ruled the reasons for Rice's dismissal unsatisfactory. In early June, Holt fired two more Rollins professors, Ralph Reed Lounsbury and Frederick Raymond Georgia, for their association with Rice. By the end of June, eight more faculty were fired, asked to resign, or resigned out of protest. Many students, including the student body president and the editor of the campus newspaper, withdrew from the college out of protest.

Rice, an academic visionary and friend and follower of John Dewey, had often thought about what an ideal college would look like and, with encouragement from some of the now-former Rollins students and faculty, he began thinking about how to make it happen. Two things were necessary: a campus and money (about $14,500). From a tip from Bob Wunsch, who taught drama at Rollins, Rice visited a collection of buildings owned by the Blue Ridge Assembly of the Protestant Church, located in the mountains in western North Carolina, eighteen miles east of Asheville. The ready-made campus, which included ample lodging for students and faculty, a dining room, and the iconic Lee Hall, was used as a resort-conference space during the summer but available for fall, winter, and spring. Rice loved it. Through hard work and good connections, especially on the part of former Rollins professor, Ted Dreier, and former Rollins student, Anne "Nan" Chapin, they raised enough money to launch the college.

By the time the twelve faculty and twenty-two students moved into the Blue Ridge Assembly, in mid-September 1933, Bascomb "Bas" Allen was already there. (Jack Lipsey, chef for Blue Ridge Assembly, was also already there.) Bas was what we now call "plant manager" for the Blue Ridge Assembly - he made sure everything worked and everyone was warm and dry. Bas was an expert plumber, electrician, steamfitter, carpenter, and auto mechanic. He was able, according to multiple personal memoirs of both students and faculty, to fix anything and everything. Bas Allen was, in the words of Jon Everts (BMC faculty, music, 1933-42), "our regular handyman-genius."

Bas was also the college's nature expert and he organized overnight hikes for the students. As Duberman notes, Bas "took students on camping trips into the mountains, familiarizing them with the paths, flowers, and wild life, and many grew to value his quiet, intuitive insights" (155). The mountain trips quickly became one of the highlights at the college among students. In a 1946 issue of the Black Mountain College Community Bulletin, a student remembers: "It would take too long to recall the many ways in which we knew and depended on Bas. But one of the pleasantest was on the mountain trips that we took. Often we went together over the Craggies, the Black Mountains, Mitchell, Yates' Knob, Blue Ridge, Pinnacle, Green Knob, and so forth."

But what really interests me about Bas Allen is this: for the first two years of Black Mountain College, Bas taught farming. In fall 1993, Norman "Norm" Weston (BMC student, 1933-1938) and a few other BMC students thought it would be a good idea to start a campus farm. Inspired in part by Ralph Borsodi's 1933 back-to-the-land classic Flight from the City: An Experiment in Creative Living on the Land and encouraged by now-BMC professor Dreier, Norm and his crew proposed the idea to members of the college council, who approved the plan as long as the students took charge of the project. The students' collective knowledge of farming was healthy but limited. So when the students needed help running the farm, they went to Bas. As a student wrote in the Black Mountain College Community Bulletin, Bas "showed us how to farm: how to plow and how to harvest and everything in between" (3). Allan Sly (BMC faculty, music, 1935-1938) recalled that Bas "initiated us into what to do for harvesting corn, how to raise pigs, how to cut down trees, and things of that kind" (12).

There's a lot more to research and write about Bas Allen, including the apple orchards he rented (first from the Blue Ridge Assembly, then from Black Mountain College) and used to teach students how to prune fruit trees and how to make fresh apple cider. But for now, I'm confident to call Bas Allen Black Mountain College's first farmer.

Although my main interest in Bas is with his role in the farm, I am struck by how many personal memoirs mention Bas as an integral and inspiring part of the Black Mountain College experience. Janet "Bingo" Aley (BMC student, 1944-46) lumps Bas together with some of BMC's most famous teachers including Josef Albers and M.C. Richards. Bingo recalled "quietly absorbing the teachings of Bob Wunsch, Dave Corkran (a wonderful teacher who spotted my uncertainties during study of "Documents in American History"), M. C. Richards, Albers (briefly), George Zabriskie (poet), Alfred Kazin … Jalo and Eddie Lowinsky (beautiful music), as well as Bas Allen, whom I adored and who taught me plumping" (150).

And then there's Gisela Kronenberg Herwitz (BMC student, dates unknown) who recalls: "The work program was an important and exciting part of my life at BMC … Eventually I was put in charge of the tool shed and later worked with Bas Allen, the general maintenance man and an excellent teacher, learning to steamfit the lodge and other existing buildings, wire them, put in street lights, etc. I learned to put in subflooring, to drive a nail straight, and to do some masonry work with field stones on the Study Building. These accomplishments gave me a lot of confidence and some useful skills that have lasted me a lifetime."

And finally there's Norm Weston (who will re-appear shortly in this seven-part blog series on the farmers at Black Mountain College) who writes of Bas: "Always pleasant, and willing to teach, he made the place run and kept us warm and dry" (3).

On August 24, 1946, while crossing the street in the nearby town of Black Mountain, Bas was struck by a car. Three days later, he died. Although the name Bas Allen is rarely mentioned in discussions about Black Mountain College, it is difficult to consider the college, not to mention the farm, without him.

Works Cited:

Aley, Janet "Bingo" (Ramsey). "A Little Upstream." In Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts, edited by Mervin Lane, 149-151. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

"Bascomb Allen." Black Mountain College Community Bulletin (September 1946): 3. Found in the Horace McGuire Wood Papers, 1933-1972, Black Mountain College Collection, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.

Borsodi, Ralph. Flight from the City: An Experiment in Creative Living on the Land. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1933.

Duberman, Martin. Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972.

Evarts, John. "The Total Approach." Forum 6 (December 1967): 20-25.

Harris, Mary Emma. The Arts at Black Mountain College. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Herwitz, Gisela Kronenberg. "The Work Program." In Student Experience in Experimental in the Early Years (1933-43), edited by Robert Sunley. Online: Black Mountain College Project, 1997. (The Black Mountain College Project site is currently unavailable online. However it can be accessed through

Reynolds, Katherine C. Visions and Vanities: John Andrew Rice of Black Mountain College. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1998

Sly, Allan. "Excerpts from taped reminiscences of Black Mountain." Found in Mervin Lane Manuscripts, 1987-1989, Black Mountain College Collection, Western Regional Archives, Asheville, NC, USA.

Weston, Norman B. "Draft of possible 'Personal Account' to be delivered at Black Mountain College Reunion" (4 pages), Black Mountain College Reunion Statements, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, March 6-8, 1992.