Summertime Fun: Just Like in the Vanderbilts’ Day

Whether it’s your first time visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, or you’re an Annual Passholder planning a return, summertime is the season for outdoor fun at Biltmore, and the choices are as plentiful today as they were back in the Vanderbilt days over a century ago.

Here’s a look at a few of our favorite ways you can vacation like a Vanderbilt this summer by exploring our great outdoors at Biltmore.

Cornelia with one of her St. Bernards on the Esplanade of Biltmore House, ca. 1903. Cedric was the first of at least four generations born on the estate. The St. Bernard pictured is likely one of his grown pups.
Cornelia with one of her St. Bernards on the Esplanade of Biltmore House, ca. 1903.

Creating a Grand Getaway

Cornelia Vanderbilt, the only child, born to George and Edith Vanderbilt, is the picture of relaxed elegance, enjoying the company of one of her St. Bernards on the Esplanade of Biltmore House. This is what her father, George Vanderbilt, intended when he chose the mountains of western North Carolina as the setting for his country estate in the late 1800s. He sought an antidote to the social pressures and hectic pace of New York City, and created a retreat where he, his family, and friends could relax and immerse themselves in the area’s natural beauty during the summer.

The Vanderbilts offered tennis, croquet, archery, fishing, horseback riding, golf, swimming, “automobiling,” and lawn bowling in the formal gardens and landscaped grounds surrounding Biltmore House.

Guests in 1905 play croquet in the Italian Garden.

Play Outside

The family welcomed hundreds of guests to Biltmore House through the years. And with all the amenities of a luxury resort, it’s no wonder they stayed for weeks at a time! The combination of the elegant French château, gently rolling hills, and mild weather captured the imagination.

Spring and summer lured the hosts and their friends outdoors to play. A dazzling array of activities appealed to nearly every taste and whim, including croquet in the Italian Garden.

Among the many outdoor activities offered for today’s guests, Croquet in Antler Hill Village just might be one of the most authentic Vanderbilt-era activities Biltmore has to offer!

Cornelia and Edith Vanderbilt in Biltmore's stables, c. 1917
Cornelia and Edith Vanderbilt in Biltmore’s stables, c. 1917

Head Out on Horseback

George Vanderbilt was descended from a family famous for its love of racing and raising horses. Coaching and riding were always favorite recreational activities. Cornelia grew up riding horses, and for a time, she even had a donkey to ride. It’s tough to find a more exciting and beautiful way to see the estate than from the back of a horse.

Today’s guests can also explore the estate’s scenic views on horseback through guided trail rides or with a leisurely carriage ride around the grounds.

Edith and Cornelia fishing at the Lagoon.

Reel Summer Fun

Edith was known to be an avid fisherwoman. She often gave fishing parties at Biltmore, and daughter Cornelia fished right alongside her.

Our archives note that the family enjoyed hikes into the forest and across estate ridges during the summertime. George Vanderbilt himself loved to get out in the woods and see the estate on foot.

Today, we honor these memories by offering activities like fly fishing lessons on the Lagoon and making the estate grounds easily accessible for guests interested in leisurely strolls, bike rides, or hikes to explore the very same scenery George Vanderbilt and his family saw back in their day. You can also find a good spot on the Village Green to picnic, listen to live music, and hang out with friends and family. 

Cornelia Vanderbilt swimming in Front Lawn fountain.

Make a Splash

As a little girl, Cornelia splashed around in the front lawn fountain, and later as a young woman, entertained guests at the pool on the South Terrace. 

The pool is no longer on the South Terrace, but both The Inn and Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate have swimming pools surrounded by beautiful scenery that open for the summer to overnight guests. The French Broad River runs through the estate and today’s guests can book river rafting and kayaking as away to explore the scenic views of this gentle river.

George Vanderbilt poses in a carriage in front of Biltmore House.

Cruise Through Summer in Style

As automobiles came into fashion, George Vanderbilt was enamored with this mode of transportation. His interest in cars must have rubbed off on Cornelia, for she tooled around the estate in a sporty convertible.

One of the most unique offerings at Biltmore is the Land Rover Driving Experience. Guests are challenged to learn how to navigate a Land Rover through a rugged driving course. 

Pauline Dresser, Edith Vanderbilt’s sister, attending a picnic in Langrolay-sur-Rance, France, 1895.

Pack a picnic

Whether they stayed on Biltmore Estate or traveled to a nearby scenic spot, picnicking for the Vanderbilts and their guests was a much more extravagant outdoor activity that included dining with real china and glassware and sitting atop cushions beneath a tent or shade.

Today’s guests are invited to head out and enjoy a more modest picnic on the estate grounds. Enjoy our great outdoors when you pack your own picnic (see policies) or set out with some grab-and-go items from one of our estate shops or restaurants to enjoy.

Guided fishing is one of the many Vanderbilt-inspired activities available for guests to book at Biltmore.

Vacation like a Vanderbilt

Summertime fun is just a hop, skip, and jump away! Plan your visit to join us this summer on George Vanderbilt’s 8,000-acre Blue Ridge Mountain getaway, just as it was intended.

For even more Vanderbilt-inspired fun, linger longer with summer days and overnight stays on our historic estate, or by joining our Passholder family.

Restoring the Past: The Smoking & Gun Rooms

For upper echelons during the Gilded Age, few things were more important than networking and maintaining social standing. Smoking and Gun Rooms were essential for many affluent families. At Biltmore, these two rooms have been used in various ways over the last century, yet always centered around hospitality.

In honor of National Preservation Month in May, we invite you to learn about the intricate layers of our preservation efforts to restore the Smoking and Gun Rooms of Biltmore House.

Hallway between Smoking and Gun Room
An archival photo of the hallway from the 1940s displays embossed wallpaper resembling leather, dating back to 1911.

A home well-loved

Biltmore has been called home to many generations of Vanderbilts and Cecils throughout the years. And, just as we do in our own homes, we update, refresh, and alternate the use of space, the Smoking and Gun Rooms on the first floor of Biltmore House were no different.

During George Vanderbilt’s time, gentlemen primarily utilized these rooms to socialize, relax, and gear up for outdoor activities including hunting and fishing. After George’s death, Edith and Cornelia downsized, and used these rooms as office and living quarters, which they remained through the Cecils’ stay. Always evolving and reflecting the tastes of the time and lifestyles of their inhabitants.

Handwritten letter by George Vanderbilt from February 13, 1896. Letter says
A handwritten letter by George Vanderbilt in 1896 gives us a glimpse at the historic use of these rooms.

History writes itself

Through a combination of research, our own archival documents and photos, and those from repositories around the world, we can peel back the layers of time to bring Biltmore back to its roots.

Among the treasures uncovered in our archives are a series of letters that offer a glimpse into the past. One letter, dated to the 1890s, finds George requesting retrieval of a box stored in a desk in the Smoking Room—these little nuggets of information provide us with invaluable clues to the room’s furnishings and use.

“Dear Charles, With the enclosed key please open the desk in the smoking room. In the middle drawer is a box addressed to me at Biltmore about 14×7 inches + 2 inches deep… On the top of the desk are a lot of letters and some invitations. Please mail me these.” – George Vanderbilt on February 13, 1896

Herbert Noble in Biltmore Winter Garden c. 1930
Herbert Noble in Biltmore’s Winter Garden c. 1930

The Butler’s Log

Central to our research efforts is the Butler’s Log, meticulously maintained by Herbert Noble during the 1930s. This detailed account of the changes made within Biltmore House offers a treasure trove of information, from descriptions of room updates to insights into the removal and replacement of furnishings and décor that had been worn out, water damaged, or whatever the case may be. Often what he is moving out is the pieces of information that are most helpful.

Herbert recorded, “Leaks at some time had ruined the original paper which was dark green. As the blue draperies were so very faded and worn, I had new ones made for it of dark red damask…”

Edith standing in the Smoking Room
The wallpaper seen in this photo of Mrs. Vanderbilt matches a sample of wallpaper in storage, which assisted us in restoring the Smoking Room to its original state.

We took that information alongside a picture of Edith which shows a striped wallpaper on the wall behind her and found the same green striped wallpaper in our storage. This sample has since been sent off to be reproduced by Atelier D’Offard in Tours, France, who specializes in hand-blocked wallpapers as produced in the 18th and 19th centuries.. The same company who produced wallpapers for the Louis XV Suite.

Another entry states,”Mr. Cecil uses this room for a writing room.  He had the woodwork cleaned & oiled last year…Mr. Cecil had the backs of the cabinets painted yellow which shows up the birds so much more besides improving the appearance of the room.  The dark blue & red rug is from the Van Dyke room…  As this room had no draperies I hung a pair of velvet draperies in here.

A glimpse inside the Gun Room of Biltmore House as it undergoes preservation.

Digging deeper for information

While we had archival clues for the Smoking Room, the Gun Room required the team to start entirely from scratch. According to Lori Garst, Biltmore’s Curator of Collections, we had no archival drawings to use when planning the restoration of the Gun Room. Our research last summer focused on the function of late 19th  and early 20th-century gun rooms.  Based on the finishes in our gun room, we knew that the dirty work of cleaning the guns was done elsewhere.  Rather, Biltmore’s gun room, like others, was more of a gathering place where the men went to pick up their equipment for the afternoon’s shoot or fishing outing. 

Pardon our Preservation: Restoration of these rooms will be visible to guests through completion.

A mission of preservation

For Lori and the team, every preservation project is a chance to uncover and revive history. “Restoration projects at Biltmore uncover our past. Stories related to the spaces are revealed, and the original design details are uncovered. In the Smoking and Gun Room, we have both. When complete, the rooms will be completely transformed.”

We welcome you to see our ongoing preservation efforts of this National Historic Landmark for yourself during your next Biltmore visit.

Wedding Bells for John and Cornelia Cecil

Biltmore has witnessed countless celebrations over the last 129 years, but perhaps none so grand as the wedding of George and Edith Vanderbilt’s only child, Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, to the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil.

April 29, 2024, marks the 100th anniversary of this monumental event. To celebrate, let’s take a look at John and Cornelia’s wedding by the numbers!

Escorted by her mother Edith, Cornelia Vanderbilt follows her bridesmaids into All Souls Church. April 29, 1924
Rachel Strong insisted on wearing a white organdy Lanvin gown with a full skirt, accented with a large white hat.
The bridesmaids wore green flowered crepe-de-chine dresses cut straight, accented by black and white hosiery and small white straw hats.
The flower girls wore white dresses with full skirts, ballet slippers, and butterfly necklaces gifted to them by Cornelia.
John Cecil’s groomsmen wore dark tuxedos with tails and could opt to wear spats.

Wedding bells are ringing

Cornelia Vanderbilt had eight bridesmaids. Among them were her school friends from Miss Madeira’s, cousins, cousins-to-be, and her best friend, Rachel “Bunchy” Strong, as maid of honor.

John Cecil had a matching eight ushers, including Hugh Tennant, his best man and superior officer at the British Embassy in Washington, DC. Several of his groomsmen were men he lived with upon arriving in the United States in 1923, a group known as the “British Bachelors.” Others included his cousin Robert Cecil, childhood friend Benjamin Bernard, and Cornelia’s cousin John Nicholas Brown.

The wedding party also included two flower girls: Helen Raoul and Peggy Morgan, both daughters of family friends in Asheville.

Guests wait for Cornelia and John Cecil wedding
Guests wait to enter All Souls Church. April 29, 1924

Quantifying the guest list

The Cecil wedding was a high-profile event celebrating the union of not only two individuals, but two countries.

The guest list reflected the prominence of both the Vanderbilt and Cecil families. It included aristocracy, diplomats, politicians, and socialites of both the United States and United Kingdom—all mingling with the estate’s residents and employees, for whom a section of All Souls Church was reserved.

In total, 500 people were invited to the ceremony held at All Souls Church, while another 2,500 received a separate invitation to attend just the reception at Biltmore. While many invitations were respectfully declined, the Cecil’s welcomed more than 1,000 attendees!

Biltmore House stands ready for wedding guests. April 29, 1924
Biltmore House stands ready for wedding guests. April 29, 1924

Renovations for accommodations

Although many guests stayed at Grove Park Inn, Biltmore Country Club, and Kenilworth Inn, those closest to Cornelia were invited to stay in Biltmore House. A group of 43 family members and friends occupied the 35 bedrooms—including the Oak Sitting Room, where members of the bridal party stayed together.

Because the wedding marked the most guests ever accommodated in the house at one time, preparations began as early as March 15, 1924—before the Cecils formally announced their engagement. Some rooms were renovated, while others were extensively cleaned before being furnished. That the house was ready for a record number of guests in just six weeks is a testament to the skill of Biltmore’s domestic staff.

Pollyann Foster greets John and Cornelia Cecil following their wedding. April 29, 1924
Pollyann Foster greets John and Cornelia Cecil following their wedding. April 29, 1924

Cupid’s innocent greeting

Following the wedding ceremony, 44 children of Biltmore Estate employees lined up outside All Souls Church. The newlyweds recessed from the church down an aisle formed by the children, each of whom held spring blossoms that they crossed to form an arch. At the end of this receiving line, they were greeted by Pollyann Foster, one of the estate’s youngest residents, dressed as Cupid.

Crossed flags, representing the bride and groom's nationalities, greeted guests in the Main Hall. April 29, 1924
Crossed flags, representing the bride and groom’s nationalities, greeted guests in the Main Hall. April 29, 1924

Two become one

As guests entered for the reception, they were greeted by two flags hanging in the Entrance Hall: an American Flag and a British Union Jack. During the wedding breakfast served at the reception, both God Save the King and The Star-Spangled Banner were played. The couple turned toward their respective flags as the national anthem of each country rang out, signifying the union of two countries through their marriage.

Keepsake cake with monogram details.
Keepsake cake with monogram details. “CVC” for Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil and “JFAC” for John Francis Amherst Cecil.

Gifts of generosity

Guests of John and Cornelia Cecil celebrated the couple in style, lavishing them with thoughtful gifts. Among the wedding gifts were 70 pieces of silver, 53 pieces of china, 25 pieces of jewelry, 20 books, and two pieces of Tiffany glass.

Several notable gifts include a Jade Vanity Case, Jade Hatpin, and Amethyst Pendant. Not all gifts were opulent; servants of Biltmore House gifted heartwarming, homemade gifts–and even a puppy!

In return, Cornelia and John gifted their guests a sweet treat from Maison Rauscher of Washington.

Biltmore’s floral team displays a recreation of Cornelia and John’s wedding bell in the Tapestry Gallery.
The Honorable and Mrs. John F.A. Cecil pose beneath a large wedding bell displayed in the Tapestry Gallery.
Close-up view of the recreated wedding bell.

See a piece of history re-created!

In honor of the 100th anniversary, our Floral team re-created the massive floral wedding bell under which John and Cornelia Cecil stood in the Tapestry Gallery to receive their guests.

Covered in carnations and sweet peas, the decorative bell was on display, as part of our Spring at Biltmore celebrations.

Featured image: John and Cornelia Cecil leave All Souls Church under an arch of floral branches carried by estate children.

Glorious Glass at Biltmore

With Chihuly at Biltmore—an exhibition featuring an all-new curation of artist Dale Chihuly’s work— now on display, we wanted to share some other types of glorious glass at the estate.

From decorative art glass to functional glassware and more, here are some interesting details about different pieces in Biltmore’s collection:

Intriguing green glass

Uranium glass under normal light and glowing under UV light
Known as uranium glass, this set has a green tint under normal lighting conditions, but becomes a bright glowing green when shown under ultraviolet light.

“While cleaning and photographing the china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry, we came across an interesting set of glassware,” said Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator. “We don’t have records that show when it was acquired, but it turned out to be uranium glass.”

Under regular lighting, uranium glass is a pale, transparent green or greenish-yellow, but when exposed to ultraviolet energy, the pieces fluoresce bright green.  

“Manufacturers added uranium oxide to glass to produce a range of colors from pale greenish-yellow to bright green,” Genevieve said. “It has been used as a glass colorant since at least the 1830s, although its use was discontinued for a 15-year period beginning with WWII when uranium became more regulated.”   

The LaFarge stained glass windows

Stained glass windows by John La Farge
Hospitalitas/Prosperitas (Hospitality/Prosperity), part of the Fruits of Prosperity series of stained glass windows created by John LaFarge, are now displayed in Biltmore’s Winery.

From 1880–1882, George Vanderbilt’s father, William H. Vanderbilt, built a grand house known as the Triple Palace on New York’s newly fashionable Fifth Avenue. Mr. Vanderbilt commissioned artist and interior designer John La Farge to create three stained glass windows for the central stairwell of his new home.

The Fruits of Commerce, Hospitalitas/Prosperitas, and The Golden Apples of Hesperides feature different themes and are considered to be among La Farge’s finest work. The windows showcase his experimental techniques, which influenced the work of another famous stained-glass artist: Louis Comfort Tiffany.

George Vanderbilt inherited the home after his parents’ deaths and the La Farge windows were eventually moved to Biltmore and placed in storage. The three-panel window entitled Hospitalis/Prosperitas is now displayed at Biltmore Winery.

An unusual vase

Glass vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany
Glass vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany

The Claude Room, one of the elegant Louis XV Suite of guest bedrooms in Biltmore House, features another unusual piece of glass—a vase created by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1890. The hand-blown vase features layers of glass in different colors, with a gold metallic surface and woven sterling silver overlay.

Though the style is markedly different from Tiffany’s iconic stained glass lamps, it demonstrates his mastery of glassmaking techniques. 

The Glassblower

The Glassblower, a bronze sculpture by Constantin Meunier
Le Souffleur de Verre (The Glassblower), Constantin Meunier, 1889

In 1913, George and Edith Vanderbilt purchased eight bronze works from an exhibition of Constantin Meunier’s work, including Le Souffleur de Verre (The Glassblower). While this sculpture is not made of glass, it faithfully captures the physical details of a glassblower at work, creating an interesting connection with the actual glass pieces.

Iris Gold and Garnet Chandelier

Dale Chihuly, Iris Gold and Garnet Chandelier, 2022, 9-1/2 x 6 x 6′, Biltmore Winery, Asheville, North Carolina, installed 2023 © 2022 Chihuly Studio. All rights reserved.
Dale Chihuly, Iris Gold and Garnet Chandelier, 2022, 9-1/2 x 6 x 6′, Biltmore Winery, Asheville, North Carolina, installed 2023 © 2022 Chihuly Studio. All rights reserved.

Following the successful Chihuly at Biltmore exhibition in 2018 that featured Dale Chihuly’s work in our historic gardens, Biltmore commissioned a custom Chandelier by the artist. With colors inspired by the hues of our handcrafted wines, Iris Gold and Garnet Chandelier was installed at the Winery in 2023 as part of Biltmore’s private collection.

“During his lifetime, George Vanderbilt collected a variety of fine art, including works by both Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge. In their time, they helped revolutionize glass and glass art, much in the same way that Dale Chihuly has done in the last several decades. Chihuly’s transforming of traditional forms of glass and his large intricate public art installations has elevated glass art to a much higher form today, said Darren Poupore, Biltmore’s Chief Curator.

Discover more glorious glass at Biltmore!

Plan your visit to Biltmore to enjoy the wonders of Chihuly at Biltmore, now on display. Hosted in the galleries of Amherst at Deerpark®, this all-new experience includes pedestal works, Drawings, and large-scale installations of Chandeliers, Towers, Mille Fiori, and Neon.

Sylvester Owens: Biltmore’s “Azalea King”

A significant and often overlooked employee in Biltmore’s past is Sylvester Owens: chauffeur, “Azalea Hunter,” and head gardener trained by Biltmore’s nursery manager and later estate superintendent Chauncey Beadle. It is because of Owens’ passion and expertise that Beadle’s vision for the Azalea Garden was completed, creating the stunning landscape that we know and enjoy today.

Learn about this important figure in Biltmore’s history and his lasting contributions to our renowned garden landscapes.

Sylvester Owens. Photo courtesy of Eugenia (Gena) McCleary.
Sylvester Owens. Photo courtesy of Eugenia (Gena) McCleary.

Sylvester Owens at Biltmore

Owens was born in Rutherford County, NC, in 1897. He received little formal education during his youth and began helping on his family farm at a young age. By his early 20s, he had been married and widowed with two young children, at which time he moved to Asheville to live with his uncle, Jim Owens.

He began his employment at Biltmore as a chauffeur and companion to Chauncey Beadle in 1920. His brother Frank was also employed on the estate, performing maintenance and supplying firewood to Biltmore House.

Sylvester Owens tagging an azalea at Biltmore, photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.
Sylvester Owens tagging an azalea at Biltmore, photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.

The Azalea Hunters

Under Beadle’s mentorship, Sylvester Owens progressed to become an assistant gardener and one of the so-called “Azalea Hunters,” traveling around the Southeast with Beadle and several others collecting unique specimens of azalea plants.

According to a 1997 oral history conducted with Owens’ daughter Mabel Owens Hoskins and widow Franklyn Owens, he grew to have a genuine friendship with Chauncey Beadle. When traveling together to gather azaleas, Beadle would not stay or eat at any place that would not also accommodate Owens due to his race.

Excerpt from a newspaper supplement produced by Biltmore featuring Sylvester Owens, April 14, 1968.
Excerpt from a newspaper supplement produced by Biltmore featuring Sylvester Owens, April 14, 1968.

When Chauncey Beadle died in 1950, Judge Junius Adams, president of The Biltmore Company, asked Sylvester Owens to take over Beadle’s work. Judge Adams stated upon his appointment that “His interest in the garden is sincere. He knows more about the plants, their origins, and their characteristics than anyone around and he is thoroughly familiar with Mr. Beadle’s plan.” Owens’ daughter Mabel later said that:

“I believe that he was able to handle Mr. Beadle’s death better because he was able to complete something that they had started together. Otherwise, he probably would have not felt as good about the ending of their relationship because they were very close. As I said, he was not only his chauffeur, but he was his companion too and they were more like friends…the respect that the Beadles had for my father and his family was encouraging, and the kind of thing that makes for a better person.”

Sylvester Owens photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.
Sylvester Owens photographed by Elliot Lyman Fisher for Ebony magazine, August 1951.

Azalea King

Owens was recognized for his work in several newspaper articles as well as in Ebony magazine in 1951 with an article titled “Azalea King.” According to the article, Owens was considered “one of the greatest authorities on azalea culture today.”

An article in The Charlotte Observer from July 1950 quotes Owens’ response to his appointment to carry on Beadle’s work: “I plan to make this spot the most beautiful garden in the world…Like Mr. Beadle, I love the plants—all of them—and I can picture the whole valley in bloom when the work is completed. Mr. Beadle was the finest, kindest man I ever knew. I was surprised and happy to be the one to carry on.”

Sylvester Owens and William Cecil with a truck in front of Biltmore House
Sylvester Owens with William A.V. Cecil in front of Biltmore House, photographed by Toni Frissell in May 1964. In the collection of the Library of Congress.

Sylvester Owens’ Legacy

Today, the Azalea Garden spans around 15 acres, but Owens’ purview extended beyond its current boundaries. He eventually oversaw many of the landscaping crews on the estate. He would travel with them to exhibit their work in Charlotte, and in 1961 they won the President’s Award from the Southeastern Rhododendron Show, which was a great point of pride for Owens, according to his family.

Sylvester Owens retired in 1964 after almost 44 years of service to the estate and after completing Beadle’s plans for the gardens at Biltmore. Owens lived in the Shiloh community until his death in 1989, and some of his descendants remain in the area. He is buried at the Shiloh AME Zion Church Cemetery, and his legacy lives on today through the beauty of Biltmore’s gardens.

Azaleas in bloom at Biltmore
The Azalea Garden offers a spectacular variety of colors each spring.

The Lasting Beauty of Biltmore’s Azalea Garden

Beautiful any time of year, the Azalea Garden at Biltmore puts on a spectacular show each spring and is a testament to the lasting impact of this important figure in Biltmore’s history. From the hearty flame azalea native to the Blue Ridge Mountains to some of the most rare varieties in the world, thousands of vivid blooms provide a kaleidoscope of color for you to enjoy when you visit Biltmore Estate.


Special thanks to Explore Asheville and the Black Cultural Heritage Trail for collaborating with Biltmore to share these stories throughout historically Black neighborhoods in Asheville.

Before Biltmore Estate: Changing Ownership

The 8,000 acres of present-day Biltmore Estate have a rich history of inhabitants dating back millennia.

In this two-part blog series, we recognize and share a brief history of some of the many people who have called this land home throughout history.

The Alexander Mill, pictured here ca. 1888, was located southwest of Biltmore House. Members of the Alexander family were early settlers in this area and sold hundreds of acres of land to George Vanderbilt.
The Alexander Mill, pictured here ca. 1888, was located southwest of Biltmore House. Members of the Alexander family were early settlers in this area and sold hundreds of acres of land to George Vanderbilt.

Agriculture in the Antebellum Era

The State of North Carolina sold the former Cherokee Nation land included within its boundaries through land grants to white landowners in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Though these parcels varied in size, agriculture was a primary use of land in the Asheville area, though not on the scale of the larger plantations elsewhere in the Southeast.

Censuses show that prior to the Civil War and emancipation in 1865, there were enslaved people working the farms and living among the white landowners on tracts that now comprise Biltmore Estate. Author Wilma A. Dunaway calculated in her book The First American Frontier that in 1860, 41.7% of farmers in the Appalachian counties of North Carolina were using enslaved labor or a combination of enslaved and tenant labor to work their land. That same year, there were a total of 1,933 enslaved people held in all of Buncombe County.

This excerpt from an Asheville Weekly Citizen article dated June 25, 1891, shows the public fascination with George Vanderbilt's acquisition of land.
This excerpt from an Asheville Weekly Citizen article dated June 25, 1891, shows the public fascination with George Vanderbilt’s acquisition of land.

Arrival of George Vanderbilt

In May 1888, 23 years after emancipation, George W. Vanderbilt began purchasing land in the Asheville area through agents. By 1895, he had acquired many parcels totaling around 100,000 acres, which caused quite a buzz in the local community. The landowners that he purchased from included both white and free Black property owners, both of whom by this date had deep roots, if not comparable land ownership histories, in the community.

The future site of Biltmore House is pictured here ca. 1889 after it and the surrounding area was acquired from Boston Jenkins and others.
The future site of Biltmore House is pictured here ca. 1889 after it and the surrounding area was acquired from Boston Jenkins and others.

New Shiloh

Much of the land that makes up the Biltmore House site and nearby areas to the east was previously owned by members of Shiloh. The community of Shiloh consisted of around 28 African-American landowners, with a total population of more than 100 individuals by 1888. Reverend Boston A. Jenkins, one of the trustees of the Shiloh A.M.E. Zion Church, was the former owner of what is today the location of Biltmore House and the adjacent Stable Complex.

The prices paid for most of the Shiloh tracts averaged around $37 per acre, which was more than the fair market value at the time. Prices paid by Vanderbilt ranged from a few cents per acre to $1,000 for the one-acre parcel that included the Shiloh Church. Biltmore Estate acquired a tract of land on which an upgraded church building was relocated and subsequently transferred ownership to Shiloh residents. The surrounding community then became known as “New Shiloh.”

Archival Guide Map of Biltmore Estate, ca. 1896
Archival Guide Map of Biltmore Estate, ca. 1896

Remembering Biltmore’s Residents

While many people are familiar with the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt, it is vital to Biltmore’s cultural history to acknowledge the many individuals who came before the Vanderbilts and who lived and worked on this land since their arrival, including thousands of tenants and employees.

While there are many oral histories in Biltmore’s archives that speak to the experience of growing up on these grounds in the 20th century, the stories of most of those who came before have unfortunately been lost to time. In lieu of more detailed or personal accounts of individuals and communities who once lived on this land, it is essential that we acknowledge their existence as a way to honor and remember their lives and legacies.

Through environmental stewardship practices, land conservation efforts, and collaborative research projects, Biltmore remains dedicated to being good stewards of this storied land that has been home to so many, including Native Americans, the Shiloh community, and all descendants of the people who came before us.

Further Reading

For information on Native Americans who once called this land their home, read part one of this blog series, Before Biltmore Estate: Early Inhabitants.

Additional resources on this topic:

Exploring Biltmore’s Historic Orchid Collection

Biltmore’s love affair with orchids goes back more than a century, when George Vanderbilt was first planning his grand estate in Asheville, NC.

With some 25,000 species and 100,000 cultivated varieties, orchids comprise one of the two largest families of flowering plants, growing in every ecosystem except Antarctica. Discover the colorful history behind Biltmore’s orchid collection and how our team cares for the alluring specimens year-round.

Paphiopedilum 'Rosey Dawn' orchid
Biltmore’s orchid collection highlights five major groups and includes slipper orchids, or Paphiopedilum, like the “Rosey Dawn” variety shown here

Orchid Mania in the Victorian Era

Though orchids have been a beloved flower since Roman times, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the enchanting plants became extremely popular in Britain seemingly overnight. With elite Victorians seeking them out as status symbols, the demand grew and many people became obsessed with acquiring orchids for their collections, generating a fad known as “orchidelirium,” or orchid mania.

Private collectors and “orchid hunters” traveled far and wide, often under dangerous circumstances, to search for the finest exotic orchids on nearly every continent and ship them back to Europe at exorbitant prices.

Fortunately, by the late 1800s when George Vanderbilt was planning his grand estate in Asheville, orchids were more readily available from nurseries and no longer required sending collectors on arduous journeys.

Biltmore Conservatory ca. 1910
Biltmore’s historic Conservatory, pictured here in 1910, has an entire room dedicated to the display of eye-catching orchids.

Filling the “Orchid House”

Conservatories and glass-roofed garden rooms filled with private plant collections remained popular among wealthy estate owners in Europe and the United States throughout the late 19th century. Naturally, George Vanderbilt followed this trend with the construction of Biltmore’s Conservatory and the Winter Garden room of Biltmore House.

For Biltmore’s collection, landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, specified that 800 orchids, comprising more than 30 varieties, should be purchased for furnishing the Conservatory’s “orchid house.” In archival photographs, orchids can also be seen adorning tablescapes in the Winter Garden surrounded by palm trees, providing a lush and exotic space for the Vanderbilt family to relax and entertain guests.

Today, Biltmore’s orchid collection contains close to 1,000 plants. In the collection are award-winners recognized by the American Orchid Society and some of the very same varieties contained in Olmsted’s original list.

Assortment of orchids in bloom inside Biltmore's Conservatory
Biltmore’s orchid collection contains close to 1,000 plants.

Caring for the Orchid Collection

While much of the work to care for Biltmore’s orchids happens behind the scenes, the effort is always evident. No matter the time of year, our team rotates blooming plants onto display inside the Conservatory for guests to enjoy their irresistible beauty.

A typical week among the orchids includes fertilizing and watering the collection and then tending to the display areas in the Conservatory. If severe cold weather strikes during winter months, team members may have to take extra precautions to protect the plants, including running auxiliary heaters in all of the greenhouses and moving the plants into warmer spaces overnight.

Large, white Phalaenopsis (or
Large, white Phalaenopsis (or “moth orchids”) are some of the most recognizable orchids in Biltmore’s collection.

Quick Tips for Orchid Care at Home 

Of all the orchids in Biltmore’s Conservatory collection, you may be wondering which is the most popular with our guests. According to our garden team, guests are very drawn to Phalaenopsis, or “moth orchid,” likely because it is one of the more recognizable varieties that they may have at home.  

You don’t have to be a professional gardener to enjoy the beauty of orchids. Biltmore’s Orchid Horticulturist, Marc Burchette, shares these tips for successful orchid growth at home: 

G – Give your orchid a bright east or north-facing window with little to no direct sunlight.  

R – Regulate temperatures to avoid exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day or below 55 at night. 

O – Only water plants when they are completely dry to avoid overwatering.  

W – Maintain humidity levels between 50 to 80 percent. You can use a gravel-filled tray partially filled with water if needed.  Plants should not sit in water. 

T – Treat with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 / 20-20-20) at 1/4 recommended strength weekly during the growing season.  

H – Handle repotting every 2 to 3 years or when new root growth is observed; use a well-draining mix. 

Cymbidium hybrid orchids
This Cymbidium hybrid orchid boasts striking purple, white, and yellow blooms.

A Fascination with Orchids Continues

Each winter season, Biltmore’s vast and vibrant orchid collection reaches peak bloom inside the Conservatory. And, while “orchid mania” may be a craze of the past, the fascination with Biltmore’s orchids continues to provide a feast for the senses year-round.

Be sure to spend time enjoying the beauty of Biltmore’s orchids during your next visit and consider joining our Passholder family to experience the ever-changing assortment of blooms inside the Conservatory throughout the year.

Biltmore’s History of Giving Back During the Holidays

Christmas has always been a special time at Biltmore, from George Vanderbilt’s opening of Biltmore House on Christmas Eve 1895 to the Christmas at Biltmore celebrations of today. The holidays at Biltmore have also been a time of intentionally giving back to the community.

Although George and Edith Vanderbilt made philanthropic contributions year-round, Christmas provided an opportunity to connect with the residents of Asheville and Western North Carolina to share in the spirit of the season.

Learn more about this tradition of giving back during the holidays.

Giving back through healthcare

Archival photograph of George Vanderbilt and his cousins traveling in Europe in the late 1800s
George Vanderbilt (standing, right) traveling in Spain with his cousin Clarence Barker (seated, left), niece Maria Louisa Schieffelin (seated, right), and her husband William Jay Schieffelin (standing, left), 1891. The Vanderbilts created Clarence Barker Memorial Hospital in Asheville, NC, in honor of Barker who passed away at Biltmore in 1896.

A particular priority for the Vanderbilts was making high-quality medical care more accessible to the community. George, Edith, and Cornelia Vanderbilt financially supported area hospitals including the Clarence Barker Memorial Hospital (later the Biltmore Hospital), which they founded in Biltmore Village to provide care to residents of the estate and the area.

During the holidays, however, the Vanderbilts contributed a little extra to extend cheer to the staff and patients. Beginning as early as 1903, Edith Vanderbilt ensured patients in the wards of the Clarence Barker Memorial Hospital, Mission Hospital, and General Hospital No. 19 at Oteen had a festive supply of estate-grown holly, mistletoe, wreaths, and Christmas trees. One House Mother at General Hospital No. 19 assured Edith that her annual donations “provide Christmas Cheer for the patients in this hospital.”[1]

Faith and philanthropy

All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, ca. 1906
Archival photograph of All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, ca. 1906.

Christmas also provided an opportunity for the Vanderbilts to grow closer to their faith community at All Souls’ Church in Biltmore Village. From the earliest days of All Souls’, George Vanderbilt not only attended services but found ways to include members of the church in his Christmas celebrations.

In 1896, for example, George Vanderbilt hosted members of the choir and administration of All Souls’ at a Christmas Day tea held at Biltmore House. The Asheville Citizen-Times remarked George “entertained his guests in a manner that made the evening a memorable one. After tea, the guests were shown over Biltmore House and made to feel thoroughly at home.”[2] George and Edith hosted the choir each year they were at Biltmore for Christmas until 1913.

Giving back through employee Christmas parties

Archival invitation to the 1909 Biltmore Estate employee Christmas party
Invitation to the 1909 Biltmore employee Christmas party.

A new tradition began in 1897 when All Souls’ Church was selected as the location for Biltmore’s employee Christmas party. Festive décor included a large star made of holly and pine hanging from the center of the chancel arch along with live pine trees growing in boxes in each corner of the building.

A 25-foot spruce replaced the choir stalls, “beautifully dressed with gleaming ornaments and lights and gifts, and from its topmost branch was suspended a large figure of an angel which seemed to waft a benediction upon the assembly and the ceremonies of the night.”[3] While the décor was not quite so elaborate in subsequent years, the 1902 decorations included a star made up of 200 incandescent lightbulbs in what must have been a dazzling display accompanying Christmas services.[4]

Western Union telegraph message from Edith Vanderbilt Gerry to everyone at Biltmore Estate for Christmas 19XX
Western Union “Holiday Greetings” telegram message from Edith Vanderbilt Gerry to everyone at Biltmore Estate.

Even after George Vanderbilt’s passing and Edith’s eventual marriage to Senator Peter Gerry of Rhode Island in 1925, she continued the tradition of giving back by coordinating Christmas donations from afar while her daughter Cornelia and husband John Cecil actively supported local hospitals.

Making Christmas bright for children

Archival photograph of a decorated Christmas tree at the Biltmore Parish Day School in 1897
Archival photograph of Christmas decorations at the Biltmore Parish Day School, ca. 1899.

Also bringing cheer to the children of Biltmore Village was the Biltmore Parish Day School, run by All Souls’ Church in the Parish School building beginning in 1898. With their focus on creating memorable Christmases for their employees, it is no surprise that George and Edith also supported the Parish Day School’s holiday celebrations.

The All Souls’ Yearbook for 1899 reveals separate parties were held for older and younger children, both involving Christmas trees, gifts, and refreshments. An 1899 All Souls’ Yearbook notes the importance of this party: “As it was the only Christmas some had, we endeavored to make it as bright as possible… some of them had never seen a lighted tree before, it was a genuine delight to them.”[5]

George and Edith established the operating fund with which the school funded its yearly Christmas celebrations, as well as provided scholarships to students who could not cover the $10 annual tuition.

A Vanderbilt tradition of giving back

Two girls looking up at Christmas lights
Starting on the very first Christmas morning in 1895, the annual Biltmore Employee Christmas party has been a special annual tradition for employees and their families that continues today.

The Vanderbilts firmly believed in giving back as their responsibility to the communities in which they lived, a belief that became especially clear during the holidays. At Christmastime, the Vanderbilts gave in personal ways, ensuring that those without access to Vanderbilt resources still experienced a happy Christmas.

The philanthropic efforts of the Vanderbilt family were not only directed toward their neighbors and children within the community but also extended beyond the boundaries of Biltmore Estate. Their involvement created a foundation that has guided the philanthropic efforts of their descendants throughout generations, both during the holidays and beyond.


[1] Letter held in the Biltmore House Archives, 1919.

[2] Asheville Citizen-Times, December 26, 1896; p. 1.

[3] Asheville Citizen-Times, December 27, 1897; p. 2.

[4] Asheville Citizen-Times, December 26, 1902; p. 5.

[5] All Souls’ Church Yearbook, 1899.

Before Biltmore Estate: Earliest Inhabitants

The 8,000 acres of present-day Biltmore Estate have a rich history of inhabitants dating back millennia.

In this two-part blog series, we recognize and share a brief history of some of the many people who have called this land home throughout history.

Modern-day viewshed of Biltmore Estate
Modern-day viewshed of Biltmore Estate

Early Native American Roots

George W. Vanderbilt chose to build his home at this site because of the spectacular mountain views and mild climate. Before his time, there were other reasons why people found this location desirable. Due to the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers, groups have settled here for almost 10,000 years. There were also two major trade routes that passed through this region, making it a much-used area for people from near and far.

Modern archaeological investigations on Biltmore Estate show evidence of significant Native American occupations. They span many years, dating from the Early Archaic period (ca. 8000 BCE) to the late Pisgah phase (ca. 1500 CE) of the Mississippian period.

One of the most significant Native American sites on the estate is known as the “Biltmore Mound and Village Site.” This earthen mound dates to the Connestee phase of the Middle Woodland period (ca. 200–600 CE), or around 1,400–1,800 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that the mound, which has been reduced from several hundred years of plowing, served as the substructure for a series of wooden town or council houses. These buildings were used as the civic and ceremonial centers of the surrounding village and the wider Native American settlements in the area.

Map showing historical land cessions of the Cherokee Nation, made in 1884, in the collection of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map division.
1884 Royce, C. C. Map of the former territorial limits of the Cherokee “Nation of” Indians from the collection of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map division.

Forced Removal of the Cherokee

By the time European settlers began arriving in this region in the late 18th century, this land was officially recognized as Cherokee territory. After the Revolutionary War, pressure on Native populations increased. The Cherokee Nation ceded much of the land that nearly 100 years later would make up Vanderbilt’s 125,000-acre estate to the United States government in the Treaty of Holston and the First Treaty of Tellico in the 1790s. These land cessions were made through coercion and encroachment and rarely represented the wishes of the Cherokee people as a whole.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 granted the government the power to relocate tribes to land west of the Mississippi. Five years later, some members of the Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota, which paid them $5 million to leave their ancestral lands in the Southeast. The forced migration to the new Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma in 1838 and 1839 became known as the Trail of Tears. The few who persevered to remain here or return later are the ancestors of the present-day Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). This tribe now mainly calls the Qualla Boundary their home, located about 40 miles west of Biltmore.

In 1890, when Biltmore House was under construction, an Extra Census Bulletin from the U. S. Census Office totaled the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina at 1,520 members. Despite their proximity, there seems to have been little interaction between George Vanderbilt or the estate and the EBCI. One exception is the sale of timber by a group of Cherokees to Carl Schenck during his time as Biltmore’s forester. There are also a few known early employees documented as claiming Cherokee ancestry.

This photo taken February 25, 1893, shows progress on Biltmore House and the Walled Garden. The new structures contrast with the residence of the Wright family in the foreground, which was purchased by Vanderbilt in June 1888.
This photo taken February 25, 1893, shows progress on Biltmore House and the Walled Garden. The new structures contrast with the residence of the Wright family in the foreground, which was purchased by Vanderbilt in June 1888.

Remembering Biltmore’s Residents

While many people are familiar with the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt, it is vital to Biltmore’s cultural history to acknowledge the many individuals who came before the Vanderbilts and who lived and worked on this land since their arrival, including thousands of tenants and employees.

While there are many oral histories in Biltmore’s archives that speak to the experience of growing up on these grounds in the 20th century, the stories of most of those who came before have unfortunately been lost to time. In lieu of more detailed or personal accounts of individuals and communities who once lived on this land, it is essential that we acknowledge their existence as a way to honor and remember their lives and legacies.

Through environmental stewardship practices, land conservation efforts, and collaborative research projects, Biltmore remains dedicated to being good stewards of this storied land that has been home to so many, including Native Americans, the African American Shiloh community, and all descendants of the people who came before us.

Further Reading:

For information on the transition of land ownership leading up to George Vanderbilt, read part two of this blog series, Before Biltmore Estate: Changing Ownership.”

Additional resources on this topic:

The Lasting Legacy of John Cecil

The lasting legacy of John Cecil is founded on his contributions to Biltmore during his lifetime, which helped preserve the estate for future generations. Let’s take a look at how he became such an important part of Biltmore’s history.

John Cecil’s early life

Photographic portrait of John Cecil
The Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil, 1924

John Francis Amherst Cecil grew up in the English countryside of Norfolk. He was the third son of Lord Cecil and the Baroness Amherst of Hackney. His father was a descendant of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth 1.

As a young man, John studied history and international law at the New College of Oxford University before becoming a member of the British diplomatic corps. He served in Egypt, Spain, and Czechoslovakia before being posted to Washington where he rose to the position of First Secretary of the British Embassy.

John Cecil met Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt in Washington, D.C., where she and her mother Edith Vanderbilt spent a great deal of time in the years following George Vanderbilt’s death. Ten years older than Cornelia, John was one of a group of eligible gentlemen known as the “British bachelors” in the capitol’s social circles.

A grand wedding

Cornelia and John Cecil engagement photo
The Honorable and Mrs. John Francis Amherst Cecil, 1924. This portrait, shot by noted London photographer Langfier, was taken when Cornelia was presented to Queen Mary of the United Kingdom following her wedding. Since John Cecil was a member of the nobility, the couple followed the tradition of formally presenting his bride to English society. Cornelia wore a dress made out of her modified wedding gown and veil.

Of all the romantic celebrations Biltmore Estate has witnessed, none have been quite as spectacular as the wedding of American heiress Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt to the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil on April 29, 1924.

Hundreds of invitations were extended to friends and family, and the guest list included many well-known public and diplomatic figures of the time.

Life at Biltmore

Cornelia Vanderbilt (front center) and John Cecil (back right) at party with friends in front of Biltmore House, 1925
(L-R back row) Leander McCormick-Goodhart, John Cecil; (front row) H. H. Sims, Amelia “Mitzi” Sims, Cornelia Vanderbilt, Rachel Vanderbilt, and Benjamin Bernard in front of Biltmore House, 1925

Shortly before his marriage to Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, Cecil resigned his diplomatic position, announcing that after the wedding he would make Biltmore his primary residence and would take an active role in managing the estate.

After their honeymoon, the couple lived at Biltmore, continuing the legacy of hospitality for which the estate was known, as well as managing the property and farming operations.

Cornelia and John Cecil (center) at the 1930 opening of Biltmore House
Cornelia and John Cecil (central figures) at the opening of Biltmore House to the public in 1930.

During the Great Depression, in a bid to boost the local economy and bring tourists to the region, the Cecils worked with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to open Biltmore House to the public in 1930. 

Building a legacy

John Cecil driving in front of Biltmore House
John Cecil driving in front of Biltmore House, c. 1925

The Cecils divorced in 1934, with Cornelia taking the couple’s two young sons with her to Europe to be educated. John Cecil remained at Biltmore, enjoying the life of a country gentleman while taking an active role in the management of Biltmore House and becoming involved with several community organizations including the Biltmore Hospital and All Souls’ Church.

Together with Edith Vanderbilt and Judge Junius Adams, John Cecil provided leadership for The Biltmore Company, which was organized in 1932 to manage the estate. He returned to his native England during World War II as Minister of Information, but came back to Asheville and took up residence at Biltmore again when the conflict ended.

A tribute to John Cecil

John Cecil dressed as Santa Claus with a group of children dressed as Santa's elves, ca. 1950
The Hon. John F. A. Cecil (left) dressed as Santa Claus with Santa’s elves at a Christmas party at the Biltmore Forest Country Club, ca. 1950. Courtesy of Biltmore Forest Country Club and Sheila Fender, Asheville, N.C.

John Cecil developed enduring relationships with estate residents who remembered him as a kind, down-to-earth gentleman. At annual Christmas parties, he often portrayed Santa Claus, emerging from one of the vast fireplaces in the Banquet Hall with a giant bag of gifts over his shoulder, much to the delight and wonder of the children in attendance.

In his book Lady on the Hill, John Cecil’s younger son William A.V. Cecil wrote that his father “had a deep appreciation for the treasures in the house and entertained his guests by translating the Old Latin woven into the tapestries. He brought a sense of British propriety to the chateau’s new role as tourist attraction with an approach that was both Old World and Madison Avenue. For example, he insisted that the staff place fresh-cut flowers in the rooms opened to visitors to discount the appearance of a dusty museum. His philosophy became a standard throughout Biltmore’s public life.”

John Cecil’s lasting legacy

Evening reflection of Biltmore House in the Front Lawn fountain
John Cecil’s contributions to Biltmore have helped preserve the estate for future generations.

Today, we honor John Cecil’s contributions to the legacy of Biltmore with the John Francis Amherst Cecil Scholarship established in his honor. This scholarship is a tribute to his devotion to the preservation and well-being of Biltmore and its employees, and the scholarship helps assist the dependents of Biltmore employees with the rising costs of higher education.

Featured image: Candid photograph of John Cecil