Sylvester Owens: Biltmore’s “Azalea King”
Written By Lauren Henry
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 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.
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.
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.”
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’ 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.
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.