Sondley's Legacy To State: History - TribPapers

Sondley’s Legacy To State: History

Buncombe County – You will find a historic marker on US 70 and Beverly Road in east Asheville, which reads: Forster Alexander Sondley – historian, lawyer, and bibliophile. Gave to Asheville the Sondley Reference Library. His home is 2.7 mi. north.

Forster Alexander Sondley, a distinguished attorney and scholar, was born at Montreal, his maternal grandparents’ residence in Alexander, found ten miles north of Asheville. While as an adult, he frequently identified himself as F. A. Sondley, most others referred to him as Forster, including Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he enrolled as a sophomore in 1873. Born to Richard Sondley, from a notable Columbia, South Carolina family, and Harriet Alexander Ray, who had previously been widowed and had five children from her previous marriage, Forster was her youngest child. His upbringing was rooted in the pioneering heritage of his mother’s family, deeply connected to the Asheville region. 

Having received his education from various schools in and around Asheville, Sondley graduated from Wofford in 1876, after which he returned to Asheville, where he would reside for the entirety of his life. He delved into legal studies, in 1879, he gained admission to the bar by the NC Supreme Court.  Additionally, he secured a license to practice law before the US Supreme Court.

Known for his extensive expertise in North Carolina law, history, and geography, as well as his charismatic courtroom presence, he became renowned as the most skilled civil lawyer in the state’s western region. His courtroom demeanor was marked by a distinctive courtesy extended to legal adversaries, further enhancing his reputation. At the peak of his career in 1905, he deliberately shifted towards semi-retirement, driven by a desire to allocate more time to his multifaceted interests, focusing on pursuing historical study. This transition allowed him to look deeper into his diverse passions and broaden his exploration of history.

A highly scholarly figure with an expansive knowledge of state history, Sondley played an instrumental role in the inaugural North Carolina Historical Commission in 1903. His dedication and passion for preserving the past also led to his active support in nurturing the growth of the Buncombe County Historical Society. Through these commitments, he not only contributed significantly to the state’s historical legacy but also fostered a culture of appreciation and preservation of local heritage within Buncombe County.

In 1911, Sondley relocated to Finis Viae, an expansive estate situated along the serene Haw Creek near Asheville. This grand move marked a pivotal moment in his life, as it became a haven for his unquenchable passion for North Carolina’s historical acquisitions. Within the walls of his new abode, Sondley meticulously gathered an extensive array of documents and artifacts, each one a testament to the vibrant tapestry of North Carolina’s history.

As his days unfolded, Sondley’s dedication to preserving the state’s heritage intensified. By the time he passed away on April 17, 1931, he had curated a staggering library housing nearly 30,000 volumes. Among these cherished tomes were numerous rare and invaluable works, each shedding light on various facets of North Carolina’s past. An accomplished writer, Sondley penned noteworthy publications such as “Asheville and Buncombe County” in 1922 and “A History of Buncombe County” in 1930, etching his name in the annals of North Carolina’s historical documentation. Renowned for his diverse and eclectic pursuits, Sondley amassed a fascinating assortment that spoke volumes about his wide-ranging interests. 

His collections were a testament to his multifaceted tastes, encompassing an array of items that spanned an eclectic spectrum. Firearms, Indian relics steeped in heritage, a trove of minerals and gemstones sparkling with geological wonder, antique furniture steeped in history, delicate porcelains exuding timeless elegance, poignant mementos from the Confederate era, and a myriad of other treasures found a home within his estate.

However, among his numerous collections, it was Sondley’s personal library that shone as a crowning jewel, a sanctuary brimming with knowledge. This unparalleled repository housed around 30,000 volumes, a treasure trove that echoed his unwavering dedication to preserving history. Within its shelves lay hundreds of rare works, each a testament to the rich tapestry of southern heritage, state history, and the captivating narratives of natural history. Sondley’s library stood as a testament to his profound commitment to preserving and celebrating the diverse narratives that shaped the region’s past.

Living a life of solitary pursuit, Sondley remained a lifelong bachelor. His estate eventually dispersed among his nieces and nephews upon his death. Yet, in a gesture that echoed his unwavering commitment to preserving knowledge, he bequeathed his extensive library to the City of Asheville. This generous contribution laid the cornerstone for what would later flourish as the esteemed Sondley Reference Library, enriching the Pack Memorial Library with a trove of historical treasures for generations to come.

Sondley’s contributions to the annals of state and local history echoed with vitality and precision, marking him as a distinguished authority on North Carolina’s heritage by the time of his passing. His written works bore the mark of a well-versed scholar, capturing the essence of the state’s past with an energetic and accurate pen.

Yet, Sondley’s persona was a mosaic of intriguing contradictions. Despite his extensive knowledge, his writings sometimes revealed a sense of provincialism uncommon in someone so widely versed. While ardently devoted to Carolina, staunchly defending the Confederate legacy, he harbored an unusual openness to contentious topics, boasting a broad understanding of worldly affairs. His resolute will and assertive opinions coexisted with an admirable patience during discussions or debates—a testament to his curious blend of attributes.

Although inclined to seclusion, Sondley’s social circle flourished, a testament to his many friendships. His homestead near Asheville bore witness to his renowned hospitality and generous spirit, which endeared him to the region’s populace. Upon passing, Sondley found his final rest place near his childhood haven in Alexander.