An Asheville, North Carolina, love story that begins in South Carolina…


Delila Ann Holcombe was born c1858 near Greenville, South Carolina, to Martha and Frank Holcombe.  The young couple already had three sons, Thomas Jasper, 12, Grimes Newton, 10, and James, 9, when Martha gave birth to their first daughter.

The Holcombe family was not wealthy and by the time that Delila was two years old in 1860, Martha and Delila had begun living with Martha’s parents (or perhaps even grandparents), Thomas, who at 73 still worked as a cooper, and Ann, 73, a housekeeper. Martha, now 30, also worked as a housekeeper.

Delila’s eldest brother, Thomas Jasper, now 13, lived with his father on a nearby farm.

Grimes Newton, Delila’s middle brother, stayed with his paternal grandmother and Delila’s namesake near his father’s farm. Delila’s youngest brother, James, was unaccounted for.

No one in the family could read or write.

As a young teenager, Delila’s eldest brother, Thomas Jasper, joined the Confederate Army as a private. It is likely her father also served in the Confederate Army.

According to family history, some time between 1860 and 1875, both of Delila’s parents passed away, leaving her in the care of one of her brothers. He mistreated her and, at 18 – around 1876, she left South Carolina forever and – at least temporarily – found safe haven at an aunt’s home in Weaverville, North Carolina.

1850 Census, Greenville

Frank Holcombe, 24, Laborer

Martha Holcombe, 20

Jasper Holcombe, 4

Newton Holcombe, 2

James Holcombe, 1

1860 Census, Greenville

Thomas Barnett, 73, Cooper

Ann Barnett, 73, Housekeeper

Martha Holcomb, 30, Housekeeper

Delilah Ann, 2


James Albert McDowell was born May 30, 1849, likely in the Buck Hotel on the northeast corner of Broadway and College Street in Asheville, NC. He was the second child of wealthy merchants William Wallace and Sarah Lucinda Smith McDowell.

In 1857, the McDowell family moved to what is now known as the Smith-McDowell House on Victoria Road about two miles south of downtown. It was a large working farm at the time.

James was not quite 13 years old in April 1861 when his father led a volunteer militia, the Buncombe Riflemen to join other Confederate troops. James along with his mother and four younger brothers and one sister remained on the farm. James’ eldest brother, William Gaston, entered Confederate service in July 1864 at age 17 and served until April 1865.

The Buck House

Smith-McDowell House, c1875

Following the war, no longer able to rely on the labor of the people the family had enslaved, the boys had to help run the farm.

In 1880, the McDowells’ lost their home on Victoria Road and moved to a house on South Main Street (now Biltmore Ave, on the St. Joseph’s hospital campus) and opened an elite boarding house for their many out-of-town friends and extensive family.


It was about this time that James Alberto McDowell met Delila Ann Holcombe.

1880 US Census, Buncombe County, North Carolina

According to an oral history performed by Clara McDowell Harris with Florence Duncan Ballew and Rhonda Westall, the daughter-in-law and son-in-law of James and Delila’s daughter, Bessie McDowell Ballew, on October 12, 1986 – this is what happened:

Delila arrived in Asheville around 1876 and began working as a cook. By 1880, she had begun working for friends of the McDowells, the Pattons. Likely through the Patton family, she met James McDowell and they fell in love. Because Delila was a servant the McDowells evidently did not consider her good enough for their son, so James moved Delila into a house that had formerly housed enslaved persons and began providing for her.

James worked for the railroad and was often gone, but when he came home he always brought provisions for Delila. Delila learned to be a midwife while helping a woman referred to as an “old colored lady,” who had likely once been enslaved by the McDowell family. Delila continued her profession all through her life, delivering many of her grandchildren.

Delila delivered her children with the help of James. While living in Asheville, the couple had six children; only three survived infancy — Leslie Dean McDowell, born Nov. 2, 1883; Bessie Eliza McDowell, born 2/23/1885 and James Albert McDowell, born 2/2/1888.

On October 23, 1893, following the death of James’ father, James’ mother, Sarah Lucinda McDowell, put James, Delila, and the three children in two wagons with provisions and sent them to South Toe River to look after the family’s property there. James’ younger brother Arthur went with them to help get them settled.

James Alberto McDowell

A preacher followed on horseback until they got to the Madison County line and he married James and Delila. They already had three children and Sarah Lucinda didn’t want the neighbors to know they weren’t married. Their daughter, Bessie, didn’t know they weren’t married until the preacher said, “I pronounce you man and wife.” 

Bessie was 8 years old.

Leslie, Bessie, and James “Bub” went to school on McDowell Street while living in Asheville and continued their schooling on South Toe.

1900 US Census, Yancey County, North Carolina

James and Delila had five more children after going to Yancey County including twins who died. The other children who lived were Sarah Maybelle “Sis” McDowell, born 4/24/1894; Annie Kate McDowell, born 6/30/1896, and Margaret Louella “Maggie” McDowell, born 05/09/1901.

James first farmed and ran a grist mill on South Toe River to provide for his family.

Bessie could remember when she found out there was no Santa Claus. Her father, James, went to Asheville to get provisions for their Christmas and didn’t get back in time for Christmas. Delila, their mother, stayed up all night making cookies. The next day he made it back and Granny McDowell (Sarah Lucinda) had sent them dolls and toys and goodies for their Christmas.

In later years, Galax picking was a way – one of the only ways – they had to make money. Delila had been out gathering galax and had gotten a cold. She contracted pneumonia. Her daughter Bessie sat up with her while she was ill. Delila was so weak she couldn’t talk and Bessie had to read her lips to know what she was saying. Delila died on 3/5/1905 and was buried in the Patton Cemetery at Celo.

When he left Asheville, James was a recovering alcoholic. He was well liked in the community and the neighbors thought highly of him. His brothers came over regularly to check on James. They camped under that “big tree on the property” and hunted. His nieces and nephews also came over and visited.

After Delila’s death James was a very sick man, grieving himself to death over losing the love of his life. So his people bought him a large, nice 4-5 bedroom house and property in McDowell County and he took the three youngest children – Sis, Kate, and Maggie – and moved to Old Fort. It was near a band mill so must have been at Eberman’s Station near Reed Queen’s house and near Patton’s house.

James cut wood for sale as a livelihood and one day he had been out clearing new land and when he came in that evening he was very sick. While Sarah, Kate, and Maggie were washing the dishes he had a heart attack and died on April 23, 1909.

Arthur buried him in an old established cemetery behind Bob Greenlees’ on a hill overlooking Old Fort. 

Someone rode a horse to South Toe River and told his son James (Bud) of his death. Bud rode a horse to Old Fort but his father was already buried.

McDowell Democrat, April 29, 1909