By John Ross
About 20 miles down the French Broad River from Asheville, the flood plain widens to about 900 feet. At this point, for millennia, Cherokee and their ancestors crossed the shallow river. Above this section of river, a steep bluff climbs to a rolling plateau. This was the drovers’ road from Greeneville, TN, to Greenville, SC. The route officially became the Buncombe Turnpike in 1827.
Here in the 1830s, David Vance, Jr. and his wife, Mira, opened a stock stand where Vance allegedly fed 90,000 hogs in a month. The stand was worked by slaves. Leah was reputed to be the region’s best cook, Jim was the blacksmith and Venus nannied the Vance’s eight children. Third born among them was Zebulon, who would grow up to become a Confederate colonel and twice North Carolina’s governor, once during the Civil War and again during Reconstruction.
With his father’s death in 1844, Zeb acquired the stock stand. The area around it was then known as Lapland, the name of the post office located in his uncle Adolphus Baird’s inn and tavern. As population in the area grew, so did a desire for independence from Buncombe County. In response, the legislature passed an act on January 27, 1851, that created Madison County. The act, according to some reports, expressly forbade locating the new county’s courthouse within two miles of the French Broad River.
Initially, court sessions were held in a log house up on Jewell Hill in the area now known as Walnut. Jewell was a vibrant little community where militias mustered. Area residents believed it was the logical choice for the permanent county seat. However, Zeb had donated 50 acres at Lapland, and his uncle and a few of his well-connected friends lobbied hard to build the courthouse on that location. So certain was Zeb that the courthouse would be built near his family’s stock stand, that he wrote to his fiancée Harriet Espy: “You may expect to see, next time pass the place, a flourishing and romantic village.”
The legislature created a committee to select the site for the courthouse. The result was a tie, but one member, Larkin Johnson, was missing. A delegation sought him out and found him planting his garden. To convince him to cast his ballot in favor of the courthouse at Lapland, he was promised free turnip seed, and he accepted the bribe.
The growing town was renamed for John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a two-story, brick courthouse was erected in 1857. The 1880s brought prosperity to Marshall, including the railroad, a hydroelectric dam and a large cotton mill. So strong was enthusiasm for the future that the county court approved $30,000 to build a new, grand courthouse in Marshall. Designed by Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect of Biltmore House, and completed in 1907, the building still stands as a stunning monument to the promise of the Gilded Age.
To learn more, visit TownofMarshall.org.