Biltmore Farms historical exhibit displayed at Doubletree Hotel

By Carol Viau | Aug 28, 2014
Photo by: Donated photos BRINGING HISTORY TOGETHER  — The new historical exhibit at the Doubletree Biltmore Hotel narrates the vision of the Biltmore estate as a self-sustainable, working operation. Pictured is part of the panel on Biltmore Dairy Farms.

The grand Biltmore Estate stands as an icon of days gone by. Visitors and Western North Carolina residents alike enjoy day trips to the Biltmore House and magnificent grounds. But many may not be aware of the historical significance of the other part of the Vanderbilt legacy — Biltmore Farms and Biltmore Dairy Farms.

George Vanderbilt envisioned the Biltmore property as a sustainable, agrarian-focused enterprise. He cared about forestry and agriculture and created Biltmore Dairy Farms as working operation on the estate.

The original herd included Jersey cows imported from the Isle of Jersey, which were known for producing high-quality milk. After Vanderbilt’s passing, the dairy operation continued and eventually came under the guidance of Vanderbilt’s eldest grandson, George H.V. Cecil.

Cecil, the eldest son of Vanderbilt’s daughter Cornelia, was educated in Europe and settled in the Asheville area after serving in World War II. Biltmore Dairy Farms prospered and the dairy processing plant stood on the site of the present day Doubletree Biltmore Hotel in Biltmore Village. The Biltmore Dairy Farms dairy bar, which is now occupied by T.G.I. Fridays, was a popular spot when it opened in 1957. Elaborate decorated ice cream cakes were sold for $3 – 4 for special occasions, and people in the area liked to visit the diary bar, just to enjoy some fresh ice cream.

But times move on, and so did the dairy business. The processing plant was closed and the Doubletree Hotel was constructed in its place. Biltmore Dairy Farms became Biltmore Farms, which was and is a major development firm for real estate, planned communities and hotel development in the Biltmore area.

The Doubletree Biltmore Hotel had always celebrated its heritage as part of the working Biltmore Farms operation. Photos of the dairy operation and the prized Jersey cows graced the halls of the hotel.

During a recent remodeling, hotel staff and Russell Shuler, of Brain Hooks, had the idea to make the photos into something more — a true narrative of the history of Biltmore Dairy Farms and the Biltmore legacy.

Lauren McDevitt, of the Doubletree, and Shuler approached Jack Cecil, who now heads the Biltmore Farms corporation, with the idea to make a cohesive exhibit and bring in more artifacts from the dairy farm era.

“What we had displayed before wasn’t cohesive,” said Doubletree general manager Robert Foster. “Yet, we are sitting in the middle of history.”

George Cecil’s wife, Nancy, was enthusiastic about the project.

McDevitt and Shuler worked closely with Nancy Cecil over a period of nine months to pull the exhibit together. The Cecils provided artifacts, both from the dairy and Vanderbilt family collection — and, of course, their memories of the times.

“My wife was the instigator for getting the project done,” George Cecil said. “All the credit goes to her.”

Easy-to-follow graphic panels, designed by Shuler, incorporate 200 vintage photographs and give a historical perspective to the items displayed.

The exhibit covers the acquisition of Vanderbilt’s Buck Springs hunting Lodge near Mt. Pisgah for the Blue Ridge Parkway, the establishment of The Cradle of Forestry and The Biltmore Forest School for forestry, the women of Pisgah and their role in the making of clothes from flax, Edith Vanderbilt’s donation of land to create Pisgah National Forest, and the evolution of the diary business.

There is a life-sized model of one of Cecil’s prize-winning Jersey cows (several were named Bess) and many of the trophies, ribbons and awards won by the Biltmore Farms line of cows.

“It was a good cow line,” said George Cecil. “The record for our Jersey bull and cow as best bred, owned and exhibited at the National Jersey show will always stand.”

One of the Biltmore Dairy Farms horse-drawn trucks is displayed in pristine condition, the last one existing, according to Cecil.

“We brought the era back to life,” Shuler said. “A lot of the exhibit is based on notes from Nancy and George Cecil. They added narrative and sat down with us and pointed out people in the photographs.”

One of George Cecil’s favorite parts of the exhibit shows photos of the Vanderbilt Buck Springs Lodge, featuring an automobile excursion taken by George Vanderbilt.

The photos were given to the Cecils as a wedding present, and they didn’t know about the car incident until the photos were given to them.

Evidently Vanderbilt was against buying a car — “a new fangled device.”

“My grandmother (Edith Vanderbilt) was pushing him to buy one. George said he would buy one ‘If you can get the car up to Pisgah.’ But the car got stuck in the mud and George had to help push the car.”

The photo amused Shuler, too.

”Imagine George Vanderbilt pushing a car in the mud,” Shuler said.

Some of the striking artifacts in the exhibit are the ice cream molds that came from Nancy Cecil’s private collection. There are molds for Christmastime, holidays, birthdays and all manner of celebrations.

The exhibit is careful to show Biltmore Farms from a workingman’s perspective, with pictures of farm equipment and the evolution of the dairy. And, it adds some personal artifacts from the Vanderbilts and wonderful photos to help narrate the times.

“The exhibit is well-balanced,” Cecil said. “There are other hotels in the country that have a historical background, but the Doubletree is quite a unique place to stay.”

The exhibit is in the main lobby and the hallways leading to the meeting rooms at the hotel. The Doubletree by Hilton Asheville – Biltmore is at 115 Hendersonville Road, in Biltmore Village. For information, call the hotel at 274-1800.