The Antique Car Museum at Grovewood Village: Edwin’s Surrey, an Eldo and an Edsel
“America: the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”
Remember Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic?
Not tasteless financially, Mr. Grove’s drink outsold Coca-Cola in the late 1880s, so you won’t remember unless you drank decades of the hotly demanded tonic.
The Antique Car Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, does recall. One of its 23 classic vintage vehicles is a two-horse surrey (circa 1900) by Henry Hooker & Co., New Haven, Connecticut. The pre-car belonged to Edwin Wiley Grove, who made his way in the pharmaceutical business hawking the Coke-beating elixir.
Grove’s surrey is one of the four horse-drawn examples at the museum, 111 Grovewood Road in pine tree-rich Grovewood Village, next to The Omni Grove Park Inn, originally owned by ubiquitous Mr. Grove.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1923 building once housed the weaving shop of Biltmore Industries, backed by Gilded Age matron Edith Vanderbilt. Here, 40 looms produced bolts of fine handwoven wool worn by U.S. presidents, first ladies and other well-fabricked Americans.
The museum opened June 20, 1966, featuring the earliest car, a 1913 Ford Model T with a hand crank, and the most recent, a 1959 Edsel Corsair, which made potential buyers cranky.
The collection had been started years earlier by Asheville native and legend, Harry D. Blomberg. Born in 1904 to an immigrant Jewish family from Lithuania, he grew up in an Asheville neighborhood of family homes and boarding houses. His story has something of Wolfe’s miracles in America about it.
“Much to his father’s chagrin, Harry was captivated by automobiles from an early age and had no interest in going into the family business. He was a high school drop-out, and his father famously told him, ‘You will never amount to anything; you have wheels in your head,’” says Ashley Van Matre, marketing manager for Grovewood Village.
His Asheville High School principal, Andy Hutchins, agreed that cars were not a heady concern. “You ought to get a job and go to work.”
Get a Job!
He did: In 1923, he started working in the automobile business when he was 19, opening one of the city’s first filling stations, now the Blomberg Annex to the Asheville Community Theater.
Already expanding his business interests three years later, he leased a lot on the back side of a boarding house, “Old Kentucky Home,” owned by Julia Wolfe, mother of great author Thomas Wolfe, whose most famous novel, Look Homeward Angel, is set here. Wolfe renamed this childhood home “Dixieland” and incorporated the experiences in his work.
The business begun by Blomberg on the empty lot behind the boarding house became Harry’s Motor Inn, the first of three he opened in Asheville.
“He correctly gauged the future and the needs of automobile owners. He knew they would need fuel and service, and in those days, most cars were open-air models with ragtop roofs, so they needed somewhere to be housed during bad weather,” Van Matre explains. “Harry’s Motor Inn offered all of those things in one place.”
In 1937, he opened the Western North Carolina dealership for Cadillac-LaSalle, later adding marques including Pontiac. “Celebrities such as Bob Hope and President Franklin Roosevelt rode in Harry’s cars when they came to town,” she says, noting that he acquired most of the collection through the dealership.
In 1953, he purchased Biltmore Industries and was able to maintain the weaving business until 1981, producing Biltmore Homespun. This also allowed him to use some of the space for the cars.
His mechanics, technicians, and artisans restored each vehicle as closely as possible to original condition. The museum, opened June 20, 1966, can now be visited April through December as part of Grovewood Village.
A community supporter, Blomberg was a member of the Kiwanis Club, the Masons and the Shriners and also served on the board of directors of St. Joseph Hospital.
He even saved Old Kentucky Home from demolition in 1941, then sold it back to the Wolfe family three months later because he believed it rightfully was theirs. Today, it is a memorial for the great writer and was dedicated a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1973.
Blomberg died in 1991. His dealership, moved in 1967 and now known as Harry’s on the Hill, is run by his granddaughter Pat Grimes. And daughters Barbara and Marilyn and son-in-law, S.M. “Buddy” Patton, reformulated Biltmore Industries, opening Grovewood Gallery and working artist studios. Today the complex is known as Grovewood Village.
In addition to the cars, the building housing them is very special. “The museum offers a peek into an important part of Asheville’s past,” Van Matre explains. “It’s such a unique space, very rustic, and there’s no air-conditioning, but it’s chock-full of character.”
Among the details are custom-made Roycroft chandeliers (circa 1918) designed by Karl Kipp, the noted Arts and Crafts metalworker.
Here, too, others have found enlightenment, Van Matre explains: “Visitors just love that the building bears marks of the mountain artisans who worked here long ago, such as thought-provoking quotes inscribed on the overhead beams and chandeliers, which were chosen to act as words of wisdom for Biltmore Industries’ employees.”
•1922 American La France Fire Truck –– Custom-built in Elmira, New York, and delivered to Asheville on November 3, 1922, this truck served the city for more than 40 years and was then sold to Blomberg’s dealership where it was restored.
The Type 75 chain-drive fire truck has a six-cylinder gasoline engine and delivers 750 gallons of water per minute through a positive-displacement, bronze rotary gear pump, explains Tom Anders, the museum manager. And, it has a chemical hose tank. The radiator and carbide headlamp is German silver, the ladders are made of seasoned ash and the leather-covered seat is horse hair filled.
•1927 REO Flying Cloud –– REO are the initials of Ransom Eli Olds, who pioneered the use of a stationary assembly line in the automotive industry. He founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897 (later Oldsmobile and a General Motors division) and the REO Motor Car Company in 1905.
This one belonged to a local deputy sheriff. It has a solid cowhide interior and a round brass hole in the windshield, used as a firing port or to mount a spotlight. The driver’s door has cartridge loops sewn into it for bullets. “If this car could talk, I’m sure it would describe tales of gun battles and moonshine busts, which were common in these parts,” Anders says.
He notes that the rock band, REO Speedwagon, took its name from Ransom Eli Olds’ Speed Wagon, a predecessor of the pickup truck.
•1927 La Salle Phaeton –– In 1965, this car, featuring a 303-cubic-inch V-8, was found sealed behind a wall in the basement of a condemned hotel in downtown Asheville. “The original owner had passed away years before, and no one knew the car was there, not even the man’s son,” Anders explains. “The car had to have new seat covers, a new top and tires. Everything else about the car is original.”
These cars weren’t just lookers, Anders notes. On June 20, 1927, one driven by Willard Rader at Milford Proving Grounds averaged 95.2 mph for 952 miles –– just 2 mph under the pace the Indianapolis 500-winning Duesenberg posted that year at half the distance.
•1940 Buick Century Touring Sedan –– powered by a 320-cubic-inch straight-eight, the four-door was bought by a customer who died before it had 100 miles. “His widow could not bear to part with it, so it sat in the garage covered with quilts for 22 years,” Anders explains. “When she passed away, her estate was settled, and the car was sold.”
•1950 MG TD 2-door Roadster –– Blomberg was an MG dealer briefly, so that’s probably how the museum has this car, Anders guesses. Painted in British Racing Green, it features a four-speed manual transmission and right-hand steering for British driving. The car has no fuel gauge, which was not a popular feature with owners at the time, he explains. Instead, a green light on the fascia flashed when the fuel level approached three gallons.
•1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham –– “The prized car of our collection,” Anders says. Only 400 Eldos were made this year; the hand-built “boat” has a brushed stainless steel top and suicide doors. This car is #149 and was sold new by Harry’s Cadillac.
Standard were memory power seats and an air ride suspension, which are features that were not seen on other vehicles for another 30 years, he says. The color is Lake Placid Blue. “When Frank Sinatra bought one in the same color, this became known as ‘Sinatra Blue,’” he explains.
“Harry was one of the few dealers who was able to get a car so rare because not only was he a Cadillac dealer, he was also a distributor for GM,” Anders says. “The customer who bought it kept having problems with the air suspension, so Harry eventually offered to buy it back from him.”
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