K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Children born or raised at the farm and dairy village have wonderful memories of growing up on Biltmore Estate. For Mildred Buchanan, living here “was fun. I guess you felt a little but more secure than you would out in the town.…You just wasn’t afraid to get out and walk any place you wanted to. One of my girl friends and I used to skate. We would peel peaches. When you got a little older you could peel peaches and cap strawberries and earn a little money, and I bought myself a pair of skates.… With no place to skate except in the barn.”1 Thomas Brown Smith’s father came to work in 1927 and Thomas’ first job was capping strawberries (he ate more than he capped!), and he later worked in the Dairy. Thomas called Biltmore Estate “God’s Country.”2

Marsden Wallis recalls swimming in the river; playing baseball, one-a-cat and rounders; roller skating and bike riding as a young boy. His first job was carrying water to the field workers in 1933. The boys carried the water in two-gallon galvanized cans and “you pulled the top out and the guys just turned it up to drink.…if we were close enough that we could get ice from the Creamery, we would put ice in a five-gallon milk can and fill it with water.” They got a penny a can. His first paycheck was for 33 cents and he still has it.3

Even as late as the 1950s. families continued to call the farm and the dairy village home. And although workers’ pay was low, nearly everything was provided. Rent was free, as were utilities. Men from the Farm cut firewood in the winter to give the families, since all of the houses were heated with wood and most of the women continued to cook on wood stoves well into the 1950s, even though electricity was available. In the spring, the company plowed a fenced garden for the workers’ families to use and everyone kept a garden. Pigs fed on expired Dairy products were butchered and half a hog given to every family in the fall to smoke and put up for the winter. Milk was delivered twice a week and the amount of milk each family was given was determined by the number of children. On Fridays, Houston Ray Henson’s father bought a quart of chocolate milk for his kids. Houston is still grateful because “William and George took care of us.”4

Hilliard Bell was just six years old when his father came to work at the Dairy in 1924. His family lived at the Johnson Farm. Hilliard recalls “squeezing through a small opening in the locked door [in the Clock Tower] and breaking off small pieces of chocolate that was stored there. Eating that chocolate, I thought that I had died and gone to heaven, it was so good!.…Living at the Johnson Farm was the best part of my life. I have never lost the memories of that place. I had a lot of growing up real quick, so I could help my father milk cows and work on the farm.…I will never forget that farm. It will always hold good memories for me. Although the fields are now overgrown and the cabin windblown, it was good to see it once again. It was such a good place to live! I just wish I had…[a] magic wand. I would wave it and restore the cabin to what it was; but, of course, I know we can never go back.”5

Sadly, it is not possible to go back, but one can still sense the flurry of activity that must have surrounded the Dairy, Horse Barn, and farm and dairy village. Today nineteen families live on Biltmore Estate, and two of them are descendants of George and Edith Vanderbilt. One of the Vanderbilt’s great granddaughters, Dini Cecil Pickering, lives here with her husband Chuck and two sons. On a recent winter holiday afternoon, Chuck and Dini took the children, their cousins and several friends to one of the barns so that the kids could burn off some pent-up energy. They spent the afternoon climbing on bales of hay and playing with their dogs, having the same kind of homemade fun that children had one hundred years ago. Thankfully, not everything changes. Some traditions of the past do survive and although only a few families reside on Biltmore Estate now, those who do can truly call it home.