In 1902, Joseph Simpson Silversteen and his wife Elizabeth moved to Transylvania County from Pennsylvania. And although the Silversteens are now all deceased, their legacy lives on in the form of Silvermont, the 33-room colonial revival house with spacious grounds on East Main Street in Brevard in which the Silversteens lived.
Joseph Silversteen, born in Russia in 1879, arrived in this country with his mother and several siblings when he was eight years old. The family joined already established relatives in Pennsylvania.
An ambitious newcomer to the United States, young Joseph was learning a trade while still in school. He attended Woods College and was admitted to Yale Law School. Joseph decided he preferred industry to law and apprenticed himself as a tannery worker. He soon recognized that for a successful tannery, one needed lumber, water and a means of transporting hides, both finished and unfinished. Western North Carolina, he heard, had an abundance of all three.
In Pennsylvania Joseph wooed and wed a well- educated young Elizabeth Jeane Mount. Together the newlyweds set out to establish themselves in Transylvania County. Their first home and tannery were in what was then called Toxaway, often confused with Lake Toxaway. Joseph eventually changed the name to Rosman after two of his business partners, Joseph Rosenthal and Morris Ormansky.
That initial Toxaway Tanning Company was followed by the Gloucester Lumber Company, opened in 1911 and encompassing 20,000 acres of forest purchased from George and Edith Vanderbilt. Next came the Gloucester Company Store, then the Rosman Tanning And Extract Company and finally the Transylvania Tanning Company. When Silversteen’s economic enterprises were at a peak he was responsible for the employment of several hundred men and provided the single largest tax source for Transylvania County until the 1950s.
“The Boss” as he was called was a kindly and generous man. He built the first brick school in Rosman, donated the land on which the high school gymnasium was constructed and supported several churches In later years, he loaned the town of Brevard $10,000 to pave its streets.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Silversteen were active in the community. Joseph was a Master Mason and belonged to the Kiwanis and Elks Clubs and professional societies. Elizabeth was particularly active in the Daughters of the American Revolution, holding local, state and national offices.
The Silversteen’s greatest legacy remains the thirty three room Colonial Revival mansion Silvermont, left to the county in 1972. It typifies the era and lifestyle of the area’s first industrialist and deserves to be cherished and preserved in his memory. (The name Silvermont is a combination of Silversteen and Mount, the maiden surname of Silversteen’s wife.)
In 1917 the mansion was completed and became home for the Silversteens and their three daughters: Dorothy, Miriam, and Adelaide, who was called “Babe.” Miriam was born in 1904, Dorothy in 1906, and Adelaide in 1910.
Dorothy graduated from Brenau College with a degree in music and married a merchant marine captain named Thorvald Askel Bjerg in 1932. She later became the director of the Toxaway Tanning Company and, after her father’s death, the president of the Gloucester Lumber Company until it merged with Champion Paper Company in 1967.
Miriam attended St. Mary’s College in Raleigh and later married Alfred Weiss. She became the general manager of the Transylvania Tanning Company and held administrative positions in the Gloucester Lumber Company and the Weiss Machine Company.
Unlike her two older sisters, Adelaide sought a career in music. She obtained a music degree from Salem College in Winston-Salem and married Robert N. (Bill) Hill. She became a successful singer and performed with such noted conductors as Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Leopold Stokowski, and Serge Koussevitsky.
As if imitating a chapter from a Faulknerian novel, however, a demise of the Silversteen family began. In 1956 Elizabeth died. In 1958 Joseph died.
In 1965 Miriam died. In 1968 Adelaide died. The last living daughter, Dorothy (Bjerg) died in 1972. With no posterity, Bjerg willed the entire Silversteen residence to Transylvania County.
Bjerg’s Will states that Silvermont “be used as a recreation and community center for the benefit of the citizens of Transylvania County. It is my desire and wish that the facilities be adapted to provide accommodations for the gatherings of elderly people and the youth of the community, and that it serve as a center for art and crafts programs and such other useful and educational purposes as the Board of County Commissioners shall deem appropriate.”
But Silvermont was neglected and it fell into a state of disrepair. The home was not maintained and most of the furnishings, which Bjerg had willed to the county along with the furniture and books in the home had been removed.
In January of 1981 it appeared that Silvermont would meet a fate similar to that of the Silversteen family. A committee appointed by the Board of Commissioners recommended that the Silvermont mansion be demolished. But on January 26,1981 a group of concerned citizens informed the Board that they were strongly opposed to such a destructive action. The Board then voted to salvage the Silvermont mansion and approved the formation of Friends of Silvermont, a group of local citizens.
For nearly two years after formation, Friends of Silvermont and others cleaned, repaired and restored the mansion. In 1981 Silvermont was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The following year, the first floor was opened to the public. Currently the first floor at Silvermont houses the Silvermont Opportunity Center, Transylvania County’s senior center and is the site for congregate meals.
New Year’s Day, 2011, under the auspices of Friends of Silvermont, a House Museum on the second floor, restored to reflect the era and lifestyle of the Silversteens, opened to the public with limited hours. For information, call Parks and Recreation (828) 884-3156. (Not handicap accessible)
Transyvania County Extension Mountain Volunteers have designed educational demonstration gardens on the Silvermont grounds. The “Gardens of Silvermont” include a native plant woodlands area, raised beds for herbs and vegetables, ornamental grasses and a rain garden. These gardens will supply education and resources for such topics as native plants, shade gardens and other gardening topics. For information call (828) 885-3109.
“Walk of History,” which runs parallel to Main Street, is an adventure in the discovery of history and the native trees of Transylvania County. A sign, centrally located, denotes periods of history. Trees, such as laurel, serviceberry, apple, dogwood, holly and oak represent each period. In the spring, blooms from over 2000 daffodils burst forth. Individual signs lead to a pleasant learning experience.
Friends of Silvermont sponsor weekly “jam” sessions on Thursday evening, playing traditional mountain music from 7:30 to 10 p.m.