Boardinghouse Guests: The Bachelor

“…a bachelor, somewhat dandified, but old-fashioned, in his dress. He wore wing collars, large plump cravats, and suede-topped shoes. His hair was thick, heavily grayed, beautifully kept. His face was courteously pugnacious, fierce, with large yellow bulging eyeballs, and several bulldog pleatings around the mouth. It was an altogether handsome ugliness.” — Thomas Wolfe

In June 1924, a returning guest to the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse signed Julia Wolfe’s guest register, L.M. Flax of Jefferson, Ohio. Lester M. Flax (1884–1981) was born on a farm in Jefferson Township, Fayette County, Ohio, the seventh of eight children to Mathias Flax, a civil war veteran, and Anna Cruzan. He had already lived in Asheville for about six years. We first find him listed as a resident of West Asheville in September 1918 where he registered, at age 34, with the local draft board. His occupation was recorded as accountant. He was called by the board for examination in October but was not called to service. He signed Julia Wolfe’s guest register a first time in June 1919.

In October 1919, an ad was placed in the Asheville Citizen Times noting a “Young man — no. 1 accountant, desiring to locate himself in a permanent position. Has practical knowledge of business, proficient in banking, real estate, and insurance. Here from another state and can prove clean record.” The address used was that of the Old Kentucky Home, 48 Spruce Street. When the 1920 Census was enumerated on January 2, 1920 L. M. Flax was still boarding at the Old Kentucky Home. He informed the census taker that he was an “expert” accountant. Little information is available about his early life and education. Lester’s advertisement does not suggest a formal education, but “practical knowledge.” He was still living on his father’s farm in 1900 and at age 25 appears in Lima, Ohio, between 1909–1910, a single man, working as a collector and bookkeeper at the First National Bank. An older married cousin, Albert Flax, was also working there. Perhaps he had helped Lester get the job and to find lodging nearby in the home of a widow on Lima’s South Main Street.

One historian described the early 20th century as the “golden age of the bachelor.” The study views the life of the bachelor as an American subculture, often satirized in popular literature. By some, Bachelors were disrespected as misfits and outcasts because they were viewed as people with no hope of finding a mate. On the farm, men and women were expected to get married and raise a family to continue the farming tradition. Singles in rural America were often judged with suspicion. The gradual transformation from rural life to urban life in America resulted in a migration of bachelors to the city. Many bachelors left home to escape family and community controls over ideas about marriage and one’s choice of occupation. Cities afforded single young men and women new economic opportunities and allowed more control over life as an adult. And, for some bachelors, the city was a place where diverse behaviors were accepted or at least overlooked.

Single men and women needed housing in the city. Even after escaping home, many bachelors still sought a family like setting, a place where they might establish relationships, find recreational opportunities, and sustenance. To help accommodate the demand, boardinghouses proliferated. For many bachelors, life in a rooming house was considered advantageous. It demanded a less rigid schedule for meals. When Lester Flax first arrived at Old Kentucky Home in 1920, Julia Wolfe had discontinued serving two meals a day. There were plenty of cheap restaurants, lunch counters and cafeterias open all hours in Asheville. At this time, many boardinghouses began to transform into rooming houses. We also see the emergence of the apartment or bachelor hotel, minimally furnished like the rooming house, but considered a more permanent residence. The bachelor hotel often had services on the first floor such as a barbershop, cobbler, and a restaurant.

While still residing in Julia Wolfe’s rooming house in 1920, Lester found a job as a bookkeeper for the Anthony Brothers Company. The department store had opened in June 1917 after remodeling a structure at 35 Patton Ave. The company originated in Florida and expanded from West Palm Beach to sell chic retail clothing and shoes in a number of resort towns in the south. In the 1923 Asheville city directory, Lester is living in the Elks Lodge at 53 Haywood. The fraternal organization had constructed a four-story structure at the corner of Walnut Street in 1914. The upper floors consisted of apartments for bachelor members. A photo in the Pack Library shows the hotel lobby full of men. In 1923, the organization moved down the street and the building became the Jenkins Hotel. Lester was now working at the Emporium Department Store as a bookkeeper. In an unusual turn of events, the original Emporium store at the corner of Biltmore Ave. and North Pack Square burned in July 1923. The owner, Jack Blomberg, purchased the stock of the struggling Anthony Brothers store and reopened at the location on Patton Ave.

In all the chaos, it appears that Lester had landed on his feet. In October 1923, an Ohio newspaper noted in the personal column that L. M. Flax of Asheville had returned home for a short visit. His father was not well and died in April 1924. Returning to Ohio, Lester had probably given up his hotel room. He returned to Asheville and the Old Kentucky Home by June 1924 and signed Julia’s guest register once again. Despite having been in Asheville since 1918, he still listed his home in the book as Jefferson, Ohio. On a couple of occasions in the early 1920s, Lester appeared in brief mention in the newspaper society column after attending a stag banquet and a birthday party. In October 1924, the news reports Lester volunteering for the First Christian Church during a fundraiser for the Sunday school program. The church held a banquet at the YMCA, where the men and boys cooked for the ladies. Lester served as chief waiter. He lost his job when the Emporium declared bankruptcy and closed in 1925. Lester again began to advertise in the newspaper classified ads, under position wanted: “L. M. Flax Public Accountant, Audits, Systems, Tax Service.”

Employment opportunities were scarce, however, as the real estate market began to crash in Asheville in 1925. The 1930 Census finds him living at Dayton, Ohio. He is listed as an accountant in public law. He was now closer to home and able to help his aging mother. Anna Flax died in 1936. Lester went to court in 1937 against the executor of her estate to recover expenses he had incurred caring for her and was awarded $1300. We find him returning to life in a bachelor hotel by the 1940 Census at Charleston, West Virginia, working as an accountant for an oil and gas company, and living in the Plaza Hotel. He still occasionally made the trip home to see family and friends, where he might have been viewed as the eccentric old uncle. In 1961 he is listed as a resident of the Holley Hotel at Charleston. Once considered luxury living, by the 1960s it was viewed as a “fleabag” motel. Maintaining his bachelor status to the end, Lester died just short of his 97th year in 1981 in West Virginia. He was returned home for burial at Fairview Cemetery in Fayette County, Ohio.

As an NC State Historic Site, we are dedicated to interpreting the life and times of author Thomas Wolfe, and the historic boardinghouse in which he grew up.