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Biltmore Dairy: An Udderly Fascinating History

All Things Biltmore • 05/14/19

Written By Amy Dangelico

George Vanderbilt established Biltmore Dairy operations at his estate in Asheville, North Carolina for three main reasons: to supply dairy products to Biltmore House, to provide an example to others on how to run a successful farm, and to generate income through commercial product sales.

Imagine having a Vanderbilt for your milkman—flavoring your coffee with cream from the dairy of a multi-millionaire. It is enough to make one smack his lips and imagine the product is richer than that of ordinary dairymen.
– “A Millionaire Farmer,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1894

Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900
Biltmore Dairy delivery wagon, ca. 1900

Beyond the dairy, original agricultural operations included sheep, hog, and poultry farms, and a substantial market garden for produce. All of these endeavors, collectively named Biltmore Farms, contributed to George Vanderbilt’s ability to fulfill the estate’s mission of self-sufficiency.

However, Biltmore Dairy was the most successful of all of Biltmore’s enterprises, providing the estate with a financial cushion that would see it through George Vanderbilt’s death, two world wars, the Great Depression, and beyond.

Cows in main dairy barn
Cow stalls in the main dairy barn, ca. 1930

The Legacy of Biltmore Dairy

Much of this success was thanks to the Vanderbilts’ prized herd of Jersey cows. Of all major dairy breeds, Jerseys produce the richest milk—high in butterfat, protein, and calcium. They also produce a higher volume of milk per each pound of body weight than other type of cattle.

The Biltmore Dairy Farms herd, believed to be the largest herd of registered Jerseys in the world, is unquestionably one of the finest and best known.
– “Souvenir Edition Annual Meeting of the American Jersey Cattle Club,” June 3, 1942

Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910
Biltmore Dairy workers, ca. 1910

To ensure that the herd maintained excellent health, staff included a full-time veterinarian and a dairy bacteriologist. Dairy workers kept detailed records on the herd and conducted regular inspections to ensure their living conditions were of the highest quality.

The herd was primarily housed in the estate’s Main Dairy Barn—what is now Biltmore’s Winery. Just down the road was the Creamery, where cream was separated from the milk. Milk was then bottled and sold, while the cream was made into butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, and, of course, ice cream.

Biltmore's Main Dairy Barn
Biltmore’s Dairy Barn (what is now the Winery), May 30, 1913 (Courtesy of Alice Marie Lewis)

The Tasty History of Biltmore Ice Cream

Biltmore’s ice cream played a leading role at estate gatherings, including Cornelia Vanderbilt’s birthday parties, Christmas celebrations, and May Day festivities. Almost every oral history interview in our archives that mentions a childhood memory on the estate also includes a reference to ice cream.

After Biltmore House opened to the public in 1930, guests could view the milking rooms and processing areas in the Dairy Barn, sample the milk, and buy ice cream. Biltmore Dairy was so successful, and its products were so well-known that it became an attraction in its own right for estate visitors.

Biltmore Dairy milkmen and delivery trucks, ca. 1935-1940
Biltmore Dairy milkmen and delivery trucks, ca. 1935-1940

It was around this time that the dairy’s delivery wagons were replaced with trucks and the fleet grew from 30 vehicles to over 400 in just 15 years. Salesmen were now able to market the products as far away as Charlotte, which at the time was a windy, wooded five-hour drive.

Unfortunately, the market shifted. With the advent of chain grocery stores came a cheaper, more efficient way to purchase milk, eventually making door-to-door dairy delivery obsolete. Biltmore Dairy and other smaller, family-run businesses were unable to compete with expansive commercial operations. In April of 1985, Biltmore Dairy was sold to Pet, Inc.

A family enjoying ice cream in the Stable Courtyard at Biltmore
A family enjoying ice cream from Biltmore Dairy Bar® in the Stable Courtyard

Enjoy Biltmore Ice Cream Today

Today, Biltmore continues to draw inspiration from Biltmore Dairy. Biltmore Dairy Bar® in the Stable Courtyard was named in honor of our agricultural heritage. Additionally, vanilla ice cream based on a delicious original Biltmore Dairy recipe is offered at both Biltmore Dairy Bar® and at the Creamery in Antler Hill Village.

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Judy Meehan
2 years ago

I remember the dairy so well as a child. Biltmore Dairy provided a program where schoolchildren could visit in a group and learn the process of milk producing. I thought this was fascinating and it is a favorite childhood memory. We had home delivery from Biltmore Dairy, which was continued when I married. We occasionally were given two tickets to the Biltmore House! I kept these for years and found two of them in the late 1980’s, when I asked if they could still be used to visit the House. The tickets were accepted & I would hope they are… Read more »

8282149839
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Meehan

I remember the dairy before the school children were taken for tours. my family worked and lived on the estate. I am having great difficulty trying to find evidence of this. Walter James Shepard, Ethel Shepard, Michael Shepard, Daniel Shepard. I would greatly appreciate any information

1 year ago
Reply to  8282149839

Dear Judy,

Thank you for contacting us with your question. We will share it with our Museum Services team.

Palmyra Moore
1 year ago

I remember the home delivery when I lived in Spindale, NC. The dairy bar near the house was the best place to eat. I will always remember going to Lake Junaluska, going to get grocery store, only to find no Biltmore cottage cheese. This is how I found out that the dairy closed

Michael Childs
1 year ago
Reply to  Palmyra Moore

After I wrote my first comment, I saw that you refer to a dairy bar near the house. Was it in Biltmore Village, and, if so, what years?

1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Childs

Dear Michael,
If you’re referring to the original Biltmore Dairy Bar, it was located on the outskirts of Biltmore Village from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. The former location is now occupied by a TGI Friday’s Restaurant. The estate has its own Biltmore Dairy Bar in the historic Stable complex adjacent to Biltmore House.

Jan Lounsbury
5 months ago

In about 1930, my grandfather, Nate Hensley, lived on the estate with my grandmother & mother ( she was only 3 yrs old), & he trained to be a dairyman. He came to Madison County & operated a dairy for Biltmore Dairies until his passing in 1964.

Pam Walters
1 month ago
Reply to  Jan Lounsbury

My Grandfather worked at the Dairy and drove one of the Dairy Delivery Wagons. My Grandmother and Mother also lived on the estate. The cookbook, Biltmore Our Table To Yours, Chef’s Selection Cookbook, has a photograph of my Grandfather Nathaniel Howard, c. 1906 on page 168. I remember living in Weaverville NC and climbing the Mimosa tree with my money for ice-cream and waiting on the truck to come. This was between 1965 and 67. It was one of the happiest times of my childhood.

White V
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