JAMES EUGENE RANKIN, the elder son of William Dinwoody Rankin (Squire Billy) and Elizabeth Rankin, was a prominent Asheville Citizen. The Rankin house was his home until he married Sarah Frances “Fannie” Cocke in 1867 and moved to Merrimon Avenue. James and Fannie had five children.
After the Civil War, James Eugene took over his father’s mercantile business and ran it for the next 20 years. He was also in partnership with his brother-in-law, MJ Bearden in the mercantile business, tobacco warehouse ownership, and many real estate deals. James Eugene was also VP of Asheville’s first bank, the Bank of Asheville, and later helped organize and worked at the Battery Park Bank. He is noted to have saved the Battery Park Bank from a “run” in 1897 by speaking to the crowd from a wagon outside of the bank and successfully assured the masses of the bank’s security.
He and several partners purchased the Asheville Citizen newspaper in 1902. He was one of the founders of the Asheville Power and Light Company, as well as of the Blue Ridge Building and Loan Association, and was one of the Directors for the Western North Carolina Railroad. James Eugene founded the Asheville Street Car Company, and was one of the founding members of the Asheville City School Board.
In addition to being a dedicated public servant is said to have held 50 public offices during his lifetime. He served as Mayor of the City of Asheville in the years 1872- 1874, 1876-1877, 1897-1898, and 1911-1915. He served as City Treasurer for 15 years, and as a Buncombe County Commissioner for 22 years. James Eugene drafted the ordinance that paved the first street in Asheville. Penland Street was renamed Rankin Avenue due to James Eugene’s numerous contributions to the city, and the West Asheville elementary school, The Eugene Rankin School, was named in his honor by a unanimous vote.
JE Rankin died in 1928.All city and county government offices were closed, as his body lay in state in the courthouse lobby for mourners to pass and pay their last respects. Schools let out early, banks were closed and the flag was flown at half-staff for 30 days. His commissioned portrait hangs in the Buncombe County Courthouse; a picture of JE Rankin hangs outside of the City Council Chambers in the Asheville City Building as well.