Visiting Our Past: Vanderbilt among families with toes in Bent Creek

(Photo: unknown)

The pop-up village of Glencoe marked the middle point in Bent Creek history between its first 70 years as a self-sufficient community and its current status as a U.S. experimental forest.

In 1866, Col. Hatch established Glencoe, an Episcopal mission named after a Celtic hero’s homeland, on Wilson Boyd’s huge tract where Lake Powhatan is now. The village lasted 21 years.

In 1887, Hatch and his family relocated to Asheville, nearer to Ravenscroft, the mission’s headquarters. Glencoe’s mill, workshop, factory, school and church were abandoned.

Remaining Bent Creek families tapped the new lumber market, if they wished. Residents also sought to preserve the forest and its herbs, mast and game.

In the 1890s, the forest attracted George Washington Vanderbilt, looking to attach a game preserve and hunting grounds to his estate. He started buying hundreds of properties in what would become the Pisgah National Forest.

On June 26, 1900, heirs of Col. Hatch, who’d died three years before, sold 1,383 acres in Bent Creek to Vanderbilt at $5 an acre, the market price.

Vanderbilt had already started taking people on trips to the Pisgah forest down to the Pink Beds.

On the road with George

“To all the native folk near and far,” Col. Fred Olds, one of Vanderbilt’s party, wrote for Forest and Stream, “Pisgah Forest is ‘Mr. Vanderbilt’s place.’”

Olds stopped and asked a local elder about Vanderbilt, and the source responded, “He is a mighty common man; real common,” a compliment in local lingo.

Olds asked another passerby if Pink Beds had been named after rhododendron flowers.

“I don’t rightly know where the name comes from,” the man said. “but I have heard ’em say a man one time had a cow here named Pink, and she got bogged up in a ma’shy place and died there.”

One wonders if the mountaineers had been playing with Olds.

Olds proceeded to the hunting part of his excursion.

“Though Mr. Vanderbilt is not a sportsman, but a student,” Olds observed, “all things are made ready for him… On his last visit he only caught one trout, nor did he fire a gun. His wife was with him. She is a good horsewoman, and rode a pony up and down the steepest trails.”

Change and conservation

On July 4, 1900, Dr. E.M. Berry of the Louisville College of Medicine came home after 36 years to address “his old-time friends of antebellum days” in the Bent Creek/Avery Creek area.

The Asheville of his youth had “nearly all disappeared” and become an “Aladdin’s palace,” he observed. “As my old-time friend and school mate of boyhood days, Major Rollins, and I were driving through the splendid streets of Biltmore I was reminded of the saying of the wise King of Israel: ‘A feast is made for laughter; and wine maketh merry; but money answereth all things.’”

When Berry had seen “several hundred hands busily at work upon (Vanderbilt’s) splendid estate,” he’d exclaimed that Vanderbilt “should be loved and respected for his benevolence to the poor.”

Pisgah was a visionary vista, Berry noted, and Southern Appalachia was God’s “great treasure house” of stone and minerals, mixing metaphors of pleasure and business.

It was a mix that Vanderbilt knew. There was enough drama, both joyous and difficult, in his life in 1900 to overfill "Downton Abbey."

He’d been buying land in Transylvania County in the 1890s, and then, in 1900, focused on Bent Creek, starting with Boyd’s place and properties adjacent to it.

He bought 191 acres from William Cothran at $5 an acre. Apparently Cothran continued to live there, for the land around his “house site on the east tract,” Nesbitt says in his 1941 report for the Forest Service, “was continued under cultivation until 1920.”

Cultivation is an important issue. Bent Creek farm families used methods intended to support generations of subsistence. This included land management, home economy, some cash-making and wilderness conservation.

Russell “Pinkney” Lance, Deborah Hamlin says of her husband Keith’s great-grandfather, “had a self-sufficient farm. They didn’t sell wood. They kept what wood they needed for their own purposes, to build their houses, to help their neighbors. It wasn’t a company. They had their reason for doing everything up there, and the government come in and made them move, so they moved everything down here to Wesley Branch Road.”

Lance, Nesbitt’s report documented, used an uncleared area for a “stock range and as a timber source to supply the saw mill.”

Pinkney “never had a saw mill,” Keith Hamlin says. “He had a grist mill to grind corn… The first Bent Creek Lake is where he put his grist mill, and when he moved off of it, he moved it right down here at the bottom of the hill in the little creek.”

Nesbitt said Lance “planted corn on his dam for the grist mill.”

“So, it went from saw mill to grist mill,” Keith observes with bemusement.

“He planted corn on his own dam,” said Nesbitt.

“He didn’t have to grow corn,” Keith says. “He would grind (people’s) corn for a portion… He got paid off that way, and he didn’t have to grow corn.”

Frederick Law Olmsted, Biltmore landscape architect, writing to architect Richard Morris Hunt in 1890, said that the soil was “extremely poor and intractable.” A planted landscape, he said, would have to be made “out of whole cloth.”

Olmsted is talking about a fraction of Vanderbilt’s land, the part closest to the main road. His characterization does not include the Pisgah National Forest, whose virgin timber was so remote that Carl Schenk, Vanderbilt’s forester, starting in 1895, proclaimed, “Forestry is a problem of transportation.”

And it does not include the Bent Creek settlement, which, according to Nesbitt, showed few signs of exhausted or eroded soil, even in the most cultivated portions.

Salaries, turkeys and juries

In 1900, Schenck went to Vanderbilt to tell him he had to return to Germany. Schenck’s house on the estate had just been completed. Regrettably, his country had told him if he didn’t return, he’d lose his citizenship and pension.

Vanderbilt raised Schenck’s salary to cover his losses and gave him a life insurance policy plus, Schenck wrote in his memoir, “the sum of ten thousand dollars to my wife, should I die while in Vanderbilt’s employment.”

Vanderbilt initiated a game restoration program in 1900. It resulted in more deer and fewer turkeys. “The Old Settlers assert that the absence of woods-burning,” Nesbitt relates, had stopped the fires that had destroyed “insects which would prey on and destroy the ‘turkey-chicks.’”

An important court case came to trial in September of 1900 just a few weeks after the joyous occasion of Cornelia Vanderbilt’s birth.

“The case under trial,” the Brevard News reported, “was supposed to settle the status of all title within the boundary” where possession by habitation “had not followed on securing a title.” After three days, the judge took the case from the jury and ruled in favor of Vanderbilt.

The Vanderbilts, north and south, were automobile enthusiasts and leaders in the Good Roads Movement. The approach road to the Biltmore House was one of the first macadam paving jobs in Asheville. Vanderbilt also helped fund the paving of South Main, between Asheville and the Biltmore Estate.

“Instead of having spring fever this year, Asheville seems likely to have a beneficent attack of paving fever,” an Asheville Citizen editorial proclaimed on April 7, 1900.

By this time, the Vanderbilts had taken up permanent residence in Biltmore House, except for a winter vacation, when according to reports, baby Cornelia could be seen being perambulated around Manhattan’s Central Park.

Sellers and stayers

Vanderbilt paid good prices for Bent Creek land. Schenck was one of his agents, and the Old Settlers objected to his methods of enforcing contract language to force evictions. “I have yet to find any occasion where there was coercion, strong-arming or unfair dealings,” historian Bill Alexander says. Schenck’s wrongdoing, he surmises, was not letting sellers renege on options Schenck had secured but not acted on.

One of Vanderbilt’s dealings had been with a widow with a small home place and three young children, Alexander relates. Charles McNamee, Vanderbilt’s primary agent, Alexander says, “bought her a 17-acre property in the Beaverdam section of North Asheville.”

By the time Vanderbilt had completed his purchases, around 1909, there were seven Bent Creek hold-outs. After the federal government bought the Pisgah Forest land for an Experimental Forest Station in 1925, there were three.

Today, several households of descendants of early settlers live on land adjacent to the forest, carrying on family traditions.

They’re engaged in talks with the Forest Service about the protection and maintenance of an old church cemetery in the Experimental Forest woods.

Keith and Deborah Hamlin teach wilderness, farm and traditional skills to teenagers.

When the ice storms hit the east on New Year’s Eve, Louise Cook and members of the Bent Creek Baptist Church provided lodging to three busloads of stranded students.

Threats persist — not just clear-cutting, but also roads and developments, high density and exclusive.

The NCDOT is forging ahead with an NC 191 widening that would eat into a large, old family cemetery in Sandy Bottoms. The community is trying to restore the Venable Community Center, a mile north on 191, and make it a community asset.

Keith Hamlin recalls his great-grandfather Pinkney’s last mill location in Bent Creek. “I remember the barn standing, when I was a kid, beside the creek,” he said. “They (his great-grandparents) were done dead and gone, and the mill was gone.” But a cemetery serves as a touchpoint for a surviving ethic.

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.

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Katina Tate