Recent ruminations on the state of picnicking in contemporary America got me to thinking about an 1860 newspaper account of a picnic hosted by Nick Woodfin. It is a light-hearted bit of journalism, but in hindsight it assumes a much more poignant tone. Especially charming in the passage about picnickers "attacking" the food brought to the event.
However, none of the celebrants could have imagined the horrors that lay ahead as a very real war was about to change their lives forever. Many of those attending the picnic would lose loved ones - or their own lives - in the war that was brewing. By 1863 Woodfin's own brother, John, would die in combat near Hot Springs.
Knowing all that, the article from the Asheville News is about as bittersweet a story as you'll ever find:
We witnessed, on last Saturday, June 23rd, a case of spontaneous social combustion. Early in the morning almost without premeditation, or design, several citizens of Asheville, men, women and children, began to place themselves in ox-carts, two horse wagons, four mule wagons, buggies, &c., &c., for the purpose of emigrating to the summit of a mountain, about five miles from the village.*
The first movement of the kind was contagious, and the contagion spread rapidly through the town. Not less than sixteen wagons and buggies together, were seen moving off in a Northerly direction, in a solemn procession, freighted with more than a hundred bodies of the citizens of the place.
After a pleasant drive, the party reached the desired summit, which commanded a splendid prospect, including the beautiful village that had just been described and that glittered like a gem of the mountains on the bosom of the valley below. Here we enjoyed the privilege of indulging emotions of sublimity, in contemplating the proofs of divine power, that presented themselves at every point of the compass.
This mountain is sometimes called "Nick's Folly," in honor of Nicholas W. Woodfin, Esq., who has set a portion of it in grass, and who is now clearing up a large body of adjacent mountain lands for the same purpose. There is a peculiarity about the soil of Western North Carolina; the higher, the richer. On the highest mountains you find the richest loam. "Nick's Folly" is very rich and the grass is exuberant.
After considerable reconnoitering we found a cool place on the North side for eating. While the table was setting we had an opportunity of taking a census of the crowd. We found that we had the Woodfins, the Pattons, the Chuns, the Smiths, Miss Susan and the girls, and others too tedious to mention. As soon as the signal was given the "tug of war" commenced, and so fierce and persevering was the fire, that it had nearly been a war of extermination.
The storm of battle had scarcely blown by, when our exhausted troops were reinforced by the brave hearted "Buncombe Riflemen," who were originally organized to fight Abolitionists, but who acquitted themselves like men on this occasion, in a successful outset on a formidable array, of hams, and defunct shanghais. This last battle was a remarkable one; the belligerent hosts coming in too close contact for the use of powder and lead, or even for the successful use of bayonets, the Buncombe Riflemen laid aside the guns, and fell to biting and gouging.
The battle o'er and the victory nobly won, the forces were drummed from the field of battle. The victory was celebrated by a triumphal march through the village about the going down of the sun - all seemed to be thankful that no lives had been lost, save on the part of the enemy.
It is proper to say that the affair was gotten up by Mr. N. W. Woodfin and lady, and given to Miss Cox, and the young ladies of the College - some 10 or 12 of whom remain in the boarding hall.
"And when Nicholas the noble
Bids the girls again be free
And hie to the pic-nic,
May I be there to see."
(Asheville News, July 4, 1860)
[*"Nick's Folly" was on Elk Mountain, near the present-day town of Woodfin. After the war, Nick Woodfin established a cheese factory on the site.]