Marion, NC Oct. 18
I had to bite my tongue and hold my biases in check for most of the morning. We were visiting Biltmore, the largest home in America at 250 rooms built by a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, George Washington Vanderbilt. Cornelius had amassed an enormous fortune in shipping, railroads and other businesses back in the days when capitalism was unregulated.
Briefly: Cornelius left a fortune of $100,000,000 and his son Billy doubled it in less than ten years. Most of the $200,000,000 went to George Washington Vanderbilt’s two oldest brothers who ran the Vanderbilt family business. George inherited about $10,000,000 over a period of a few years in the 1880s.
Again, briefly, besides collecting art, George decided to amass land and build a personal mansion in Asheville NC. (Okay I am summarizing tremendously here but if you want more you will need to read biographies of the Vanderbilts.) He hired a top architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and the top landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmstead. The home took six years to build and opened officially on Christmas Eve 1895. (George died in 1914.)
Our tour time started at 9 AM. We had already calculated the amount of time necessary to reach the estate from our hotel. Good thing we added extra time. We had not calculated the ten minutes it took to drive from the entrance to the parking and the five minutes it took to walk from the parking lot to the entrance. 9 AM was the first starting time. We chose the self-guided tour, foregoing the audio wands that would go into the details of every stick of furniture, etc. (No internal photo taking is allowed.)
The next 90 minutes were spent following the tour book, staying behind the velvet ropes. The building is solid, the foundation alone took two years to build. The building is huge obviously with 250 rooms-we do not see all of them. The design, furnishings, artwork, and furniture are exquisite. Flemish tapestries, hand carved wood paneling, family paintings by John Sargent Singer, delicate figurines from Europe, etc. The guest rooms could house, feed and entertain whole families for a week or more. The mansion had indoor plumbing and electricity; it had its own indoor swimming pool and bowling alley.
The grounds are meticulously laid out and maintained, more in the manner of an English garden then just flowering gardens-although there are several. You may remember from yesterday’s post that Vanderbilt eventually owned 125,000 acres surrounding his estate. Much of that land had been clear-cut by lumber companies; Vanderbilt had the land replanted with over 3,000,000 plants and trees, all according to Olmstead’s master plan. After the house tour, we wandered through the formal gardens. They would probably be more stupendous during spring or summer flowering season.
The home was opened to tours in 1930, one branch of the descendants received the house and manage it as their business. They live somewhere else on the remaining 8,000 acres of the property. The estate employs 2,000 people to keep it going. We left the estate after lunch and went back on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Along the parkway is The Folk Art Center, run by the Southern Highlands Craft Guild. It is a combination museum and gift shop, showcasing pottery,jewelry, quilts, wood working, toys, etc. The items are beautiful to look at. I can not judge the quality but I would imagine they are all top shelf. Numerous items struck our fancy and would look wonderful at home. Luckily we do not need, or have room for, any more items in our condo so we saved a bundle of money by not buying.
Further along the Parkway is Mt. Mitchell State Park. Mt. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, is the highest point in North Carolina and the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. We had previously thought Mount Washington in New Hampshire was the highest. Wrong we were. Mount Mitchell is reached via a five-mile access road and then a steep hike for the last portion. The view once again was great, we have really been lucky with the weather. Similar to portions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Fraser fir trees on these slopes are usually dead.
Mount Mitchell was the first state park in North Carolina, established in 1915. It preserved an area likely to be harvested for lumber and several other notable high peaks in North Carolina. North Carolina is the home to the largest number of peaks over 6,000 feet in any part of the Appalachian Mountain Range. Most of them are along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It makes for great viewing as we drive along or as we stop at any of the 400 overlooks along the 469 miles.
Our drive off the Parkway to our lodging tonight was along a road, while not quite as “bad” as the Tail of the Dragon, came close. I am hoping that our return Monday morning to the Parkway will be via a road a little less challenging.
Ed and Chris 11:45 PM