North Carolina: My 47th State
We divided our time in North Carolina between the American castle–Biltmore Estates in Ashville–and the surrounding Appalachian forests of eastern North Carolina. We entered North Carolina from Tennessee by driving over Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountain National Park. The took us to the Cherokee town called, uh, Cherokee. It is the western culmination of the Blue Ridge and packed with motels, activities, and some Cherokee Culture. I had no idea it was so large and would like to go back and explore it more some time.
After leaving Asheville, I realized I should have visited the home of Thomas Wolfe. His book You Can’t Go Home Again had a huge impact on me as a young girl. But we were there to see the mansion, and then headed out on byways to see the forest country. Along the way we found some delightful places, including the town of Cashiers. (pronounced Cash-ers.)
What connection does George Vanderbilt, a free-spending millionaire, have to the beautiful mountain forests we drove through in eastern North Carolina?
It turns out that Vanderbilt was drawn from his home in New York City to North Carolina by the same thing that draws the millions of tourists that drive the Blue Ridge Parkway and other byways today. I was surprised to learn that this grandson of the infamous railroad baron Commodore Vanderbilt (the one who built a fortune from $100 to countless millions), spent his life spending some of his inheritance and creating beauty. That beauty included Appalachian forests. In fact, George Vanderbilt and his employee, Gifford Pinchot, were responsible for the system of national forests that we have today, and we visited the cradle of forestry. But first–the mansion.
Vanderbilt visited the pure air of North Carolina’s Appalachian region in 1888 when his mother was there for health treatments, and immediately invested in some worthless, barren land–125,000 acres of it. He put together a team of three men who were the most prominent architect, landscape architect and the father of forestry to build his 250 room “chateau”, surrounded by newly planted forests. Today that forest is dense and natural looking and it is sad to realize that Vanderbilt died before the forest reached its present glory.
You might not recognize the architect, who was the premiere architect of his day, but you certainly have heard of Frederick Law Olmstead–or at least of his most famous accomplishment–Central Park. It was Olmstead’s idea to plant the estate with a forest. This formidable team of four men created a masterpiece. Four, because George Vanderbilt was a hands-on builder.
All the men were more than just employees. They were used to the rarified social setting Vanderbilt traveled in and he considered them friends–even hanging their portraits in the mansion along with his family and ancestors.
The architect traveled with Vanderbilt to Europe to help pick out 17th century tapestries and other treasures. Then he designed around the precious pieces. I was incredibly impressed by the 25,000 book collection and the fact that after Vanderbilt obtained an Italian 17th century painted ceiling, the architect designed the library to fit the ceiling. Every detail was carefully chosen, from the marble bathtubs in the 47 bathrooms to the colors of the rooms–each decorated slightly differently to reflect their use.
Vanderbilt constructed this mansion before he even had a bride, and after he married he and his wife had only one child–a daughter. But all those rooms (and bathrooms) were filled with friends and their servants. (The dressing rooms in the basement indoor pool area are huge because ladies had to have their lady’s maids along to help them dress, dontcha know.)
Besides the house servants, there was an army of farmers and foresters and gardeners taking care of the vistas from every window and every balcony–each vista carefully thought out by Olmstead. The gardens go on and on and culminate in a conservatory where you can spot exotic orchids or visit a cactus room.
We spent six hours on site, determined to make the most of our $55 (each) admission cost (Plus $10 for one audio guide). If you go, be warned that to fully explore the mansion and gardens you will have to climb a lot of steps. There are some alternatives, but none that can explore the historic site completely. There are places to have picnics, and we would have taken advantage of that had we been aware that you can catch shuttles at several locations, so you could get back to your car to get your food and then drive to the pond or river for a picnic. (The website and map do not do a thorough job of explaining the availability of these shuttles, so be sure to ask when you are there.) However, there are also several quite good restaurants, including lighter offerings like a cafe adjoining the house.
Finally, be prepared for a constant bombardment of places where you can spend more money–special activities, high end gift shops, even two luxury hotels on the property. The Biltmore Estate, hugely popular, is run by descendents of George Vanderbilt’s daughter and her husband and they are determined to maintain it as the treasure it is.
On to the Forests
After taking a short stretch of freeway in Asheville from our Red Roof Inn (good location, good bargain, good eats within walking distance) in order to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were on “blue highways” for the rest of the day. After searching on the Internet, I focused on three byways. First, it seemed appropriate to do at least a small stretch on the Blue Ridge, America’s most popular road. I had been on the Blue Ridge in Virginia, but not here at the western end.
The Blue Ridge took us to Pink Beds, a place with a concentration of Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel and a lovely picnic grounds where we paused for a break. I had to consult with friends on Facebook to learn that this is Mountain Laurel .
Right up the road from Pink Beds (or take a five-mile loop hiking trail that connects the two) is the official Birthplace of U.S. Forestry. We had been traveling through woodlands that once belonged to George Vanderbilt (The Vanderbilt Forest). Upon his death, his wife sold thousands of acres to the United States Government for $40 an acre, and they hired Gifford Pinchot to manage the first National Forest. The site includes a small interpretive center and has special programs to introduce people to forestry. We were also traveling through the Pisgah Forest, both part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
and finding boiled peanut stands.
Up and down we went, through numerous mountain passes gaps and gorges, and soaring up over mountain peaks. On one of the down trips, we came upon the lovely little town of Cashiers, where we ducked into Buck’s Coffee Shop for a refreshment. As we started to leave town, we saw their Village Green town park, and decided it was time for a lunch picnic. This park gets the prize for best town park we’ve come upon. It had everything. Luscious landscaping, a creative children’s playground, art installations, a boardwalk into a wetland for bird watching and spotlessly clean picnic tables and restrooms. Cashiers, we love you.
More up and down mountain driving and across a mountain ridge until we wound down into Georgia and our next stop–in my 48th state.