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George Vanderbilt’s marriage to Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in June 1898 precipitated a special celebration when the Agricultural Department won a tug-of-war competition with nursery workers, foresters, and Biltmore House employees and received a “handsome silver plated pitcher bearing a suitable inscription”1 as a trophy. Estate veterinarian Arthur Wheeler assembled estate workers to line the Approach Road to greet George and Edith when they arrived home on Saturday, October 1st, following their honeymoon in Italy. In keeping with an old English tradition, many of the men carried tools that represented their trade; some led tethered Jersey calves. Many of the women and children carried flowers that they tossed at the carriage as it passed by.

Edith’s arrival at Biltmore thrust her into a new world. She immediately began to look for ways to involve herself with the local people, especially those who helped to build and maintain Biltmore Estate. In an essay entitled “Mrs. George W. Vanderbilt,” Mrs. Wheeler, the wife of Estate veterinarian, Dr. Arthur N. Wheeler, wrote of Edith and the people who inhabited the farms and dairies on the estate:

The southern mountaineers lived more or less remote from each other in their log cabins with enough ground to take care of a small garden, a cow, and the usual ox. There was an occasional grouping of a few cabins…There were many, many such holdings on the estate…The Southern highlander is a fine type…He is always appreciative of interest and help, but it must be offered with tact and understanding…Mrs. Vanderbilt’s unfailing use of these methods, coupled with the charm of her personality soon made her a friend of all who were fortunate enough to know her.2

Edith routinely visited the cabins in the most isolated areas of the Estate to bring food, medical supplies and money when there was illness or a death in the family. She arranged for surgery or other special care when needed, and she and George bore the expense. She brought maternity baskets filled with all the things necessary to care for a new baby when there was a birth. Edith also organized gatherings of the mountain women and sponsored speakers who presented “talks…along with various interests in the care of their children and home,” again according to Mrs. Wheeler. Concerned with the lack of variety in the native diet, she offered a prize to the gardener who grew the greatest variety of vegetables and fruits.3

Edith Vanderbilt was a frequent visitor to the workers’ village. A 1909 article entitled “Vanderbilt of the Mountains” described a typical day for her:

It’s a busy life she leads. An hour in the morning may find her among the boys and girls who are carving, knitting, sewing, and weaving at the looms at the school she founded [Biltmore Estate Industries] and that she pays for. Then the fast-steppers swirl her miles away [in her carriage] to a bit of a colony [on the estate] where she talks to the mothers about healthful things for the children to eat, and gives them some patterns for homespun coverlets. She is one of the leading spirits in a dozen or so clubs for civic betterment, the training of the boys and girls, ‘sunshine societies.’ Mrs. Vanderbilt believes in the home, not only where she lives but where other women must live.4

Like her husband, Edith also was a great supporter of education:

The many comfortable houses built near the new dairy were occupied by the families of the men who worked in the dairy. This brought up the problem of a school for the children of the dairy village and others not far away. So a farm wagon was fitted out with cross seats and drawn by two farm horses and they were sent down to the…school in Biltmore Village, about four miles away. This was the first school bus in this part of the country. Also, adults eagerly responded to a night school for themselves in the dairy village. As they rarely gave outward expression of their feelings, it was touching to hear one of the oldest in the class say, ‘Now I can read my Bible.’5

In addition to the Moonlight School at the Dairy, Edith also established a Sunday School:

There were often religious services held in a room at the farm [Horse] stable for the dairy village people and those who were near enough to come. Dr. Swope, who was the Vanderbilt rector for All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, came out to conduct serves. They were always appreciated.6

The tradition of Sunday School at the Dairy was carried right up into the 1940s:

…there was a tent above the Horse Barn that was a church. They called it ‘the Tent’ ‘cause it was a tent. I was about six years old [circa 1949], I guess when they quit having that — six or seven. I can remember going there a couple of times. They had benches that you sit on.…John Holt’s son-in-law, Manuel Jenkins…was the one that started it. There was no church out there, you know, for the kids, and he started that for the kids and it lasted — I don’t know how many years it lasted, you know but we would go there.7

Dairy worker, Thomas Brown Smith, once met Edith at the Main Dairy Barn: “She was curious how the cows were milked. I gave her a grand tour of the parlor.”8 One of the farm managers’ daughters recalled that Mrs. Vanderbilt sometimes attended the Sunday School near the Dairy Barn and that once she took the children for a ride in her car.9 Edith visited many families during the influenza epidemic of 1917. One family living at one of the west side dairies recalled that she would “drive up in a carriage with fringe on top, horses. She had a big thing of soup for all of us. We were all sick in the bed except of our dad. He took care of us.”10 Lonnie Laughter was a supervisor at the Dairy from 1916 to 1919, and lived in a house in Biltmore Village. After he died, Edith brought food and clothing for his seven children.11

Dairyman Charlie Gaddy’s daughter-in-law, Ruby, grew up on the estate; Ruby recalled that once when Edith came to visit the families on the west side, all the women and children got dressed up, but Edith did not. Ruby thought that Edith “was just as plain as an old shoe” (Ruby and all her brothers and sisters were baptized in the French Broad River).12 Whenever Edith came to visit. The women always served cake, which she loved. She was “…down to earth, not like you think she might be.”13

Early in the century, Edith also set up a Sewing School that met at the Horse Barn. The 1909 article “Vanderbilt of the Mountain” reported how “the mistress of Biltmore had a habit of driving over to ‘Pine Top’ or ‘Red Side’ to ask the mothers to send the girls to her sewing school.…”14 Sarah Lanning was one of the young girls invited to the Sewing Class. When asked how she got there, Sarah replied. “Well, we lived away on over across the river from where the circle was. But we’d go down to the river and holler and holler, ‘til somebody heard us, and they’d come after us [on the Ferry] and take us over.” When she was 14, Sarah won second prize for a tablecloth with appliquéd corners.15

Ranger James Taylor’s descendants recalled that the girls attended a sewing class taught by a Miss Ray every two weeks as well as a cooking class though by a Mrs. Mead in her home, and the boys learned wood carving at Biltmore Estates Industries.16 In 1919, Edith was a guest speaker at the Civic Club in Asheville to promote a project that would grow into a 4-H Club on the estate. She offered to pay the salary of a full-time agent and hired North Carolina State graduate R. A. Hallet to head up the first 4-H Club in Buncombe County. He served in that capacity from 1926 until 1963.17

In 1949, Jane Wiley Clark and neighbor Louise Hunting started the Biltmore Estate Extension Club, meeting first at the Main Dairy Barn and later at the Test Barn. Jane recalled, “A couple of us went in and cleaned it up so that, by meeting time, it was quite cozy — and chilly, and definitely barn-y! A fine, healthy, country smell — but it permeated everything very distinctly and noticeably. We could have used disposable uniforms!”18 The women made sandwiches to make money for the annual Christmas party, assembled a choral group, gave showers for expectant mothers, collected household supplies for an estate family whose home burned to the ground, sponsored needy families through the Salvation Army at Christmas and made warm clothing for a family on the estate. On-going projects and class topics included Foods and Nutrition, Home Garden, Home Poultry, Home Preservation, Home Furnishings, Home Management, Family Life, Home Beautification, Clothing, Arts and Crafts, Health Recreation, and Music. The women felt that they were carrying on Edith Vanderbilt’s tradition of providing support to estate families.19