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Tennis Anyone?

Updated: Jul 7

Helen "Gram" Margaret Neely was Papa Neely's oldest daughter and my paternal grandmother. I now have a few photographs of Gram's life that I didn't have before -- they were part of a scrapbook that my mother put together for one of her birthdays. The above photo was of Helen as a young woman wearing a middy blouse, which was popular in the early 1920s. She always tried to have the latest styles; the tennis was probably an afterthought.

This is Gram's baby picture, which I had never seen before. On the back, in Mama Neely's handwriting, is the following: Helen Marguerite Nelson Neely, born at 56 Spruce Street Asheville, NC April 3 1895. I don't think Gram ever used the middle name "Marguerite" -- every other document I've seen says her middle name was "Margaret." And to my knowledge she never used the second middle name, "Nelson."

She was born in a boarding house just a few doors down from 48 Spruce Street, where Thomas Wolfe's mother had her boarding house after she purchased "The Old Kentucky Home" in 1906.

Gram's younger sister Ruth Julia Neely was born one year and three months later. Here's a photo of just the two girls -- again I had never seen this photo.

The following is a story from the Asheville Citizen from November 30,1901. I believe the child in question is Ruth, although it's possible it was Helen:

Run Over by Dray

Yesterday afternoon about 4:30 o'clock the five years old child of John W. Neely was run over on Patton avenue near Raysor's drug store, by a dray driven by two negro boys. The child was picket up and carried into the drugstore. The injuries were found to be slight.

Harmer Clemmons and Logan Thompson, the boys in the dray, were arrested by Chief Fullam, who was near by when the accident occurred.

On December 21, 1904, The Asheville Citizen published children's letters to Santa. Both Helen and Ruth's letters appeared:

Mr. Dear Santa:

I want a automobile that I can ride in an [sic] I want a doll and a carriage and a red table. Layoner wants a pair of nice gaters (?) a pocet [sic] hachet [sic] and a white aperon [six] with big strings on it and some oranges and candy. Bring them at the one house that I live in 19 West Chestnut street. Layoner is our cook.


Dear Santa Claus [sic]:

I wanted to tell you what I wanted for Christmas. I want a set of dishes a doll and a carriage to roll it in, a doll bureau and a little red table. Your friend,


I wonder what the little red table was all about.

The photo above is dated "1917," which is the year Helen married Walter M. Watts Sr. on November 15. I can't prove it, but I think this photo was taken by George Masa, whom I've written about previously. He was a Japanese man who showed up at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville in 1915, two years after it had been built. He worked there for a couple of years along with Black workers, the only Asian at the Inn. But he bought a camera and started doing professional photography at the hotel and around Asheville. He and Walter Watts Sr. became friends because of both men's passion for hiking in the Western North Carolina wilderness. Masa often put trees in his photos. His photography was used to support the establishment of the Great Smokies National Park in 1936. He also became the official photographer for the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. Some of his collection can be seen at the Western Carolina University Hunter Library in the Southern Appalachian Digital Collections.

When I was a child, I snooped through old photos in Mom and Dad's bureaus and found a whole collection of photos that included Helen, Walter Sr. and Water Jr. and their friends. Most of the photos had a forest for a background with lots of trees, which was Masa's hallmark. I believe these were all photos by George Masa, and I don't know what happened to most of them. There was one large photo of a tree that my sister has that was for sure taken by Masa, as Walter Jr. had written on the back of the photo.

There is a second photo dated "1917" that is of Walter M. Watts Sr. I think these were photos taken around the time of the couple's engagement or wedding. Again, the background is a forest. (And again, I think my nephew Scott Harris looks more like Walter Sr. than anybody else in the family.)

Here's a third photo also labeled "1917." If I had to hazard a guess, I would say this was taken at Riverside Park, which bordered the French Broad River. However, the park was flooded in 1916 and never rebuilt, and so if the date is correct, I don't know where this was taken. [Note: It turns out that a nonprofit company, RiverLink, IS rebuilding Riverside Park in Asheville, according to a Citizen-Times article dated July 1, 2024.]

And below is a photo of Walter M. Watts Jr. wearing what appears to be a forest fireman shirt and hat (pre-Smokey the Bear), and holding an axe and some other object that I can't identify (maybe a horn?) -- but it's the same object portrayed on his shirt. He would have been six or seven years old, so the photo was taken in the mid-1920s, possibly by George Masa. I love that a dog is in the photo. As an adult, he famously hated dogs, but he seemed to have several dogs as pets during his childhood.

Lastly, I have multiple photos of Walter Jr. as a toddler that were new to me. I think it's possible that George Masa took these photos too. Most families didn't own cameras back then. It occurred to me that while Arthur Murray took most of my mother's baby pictures, George Masa may have taken most of my father's pictures as a baby and young boy. I love the bowl haircut!

Walter Jr. with Gram

Walter Jr. with Aunt Ruth Watts

Walter Jr. with paternal grandmother, Mary "Maa Maa" Moore Watts

Walter Jr. with maternal grandmother, Julia "Mama" Nelson Neely

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