Good works and wood work thrived in early Biltmore
by Rob Neufeld
“Wood carving,” the report commented about Eleanor Vance’s work-shopping Boys’ Club, “requires not only development and training of the muscles of hand and arm but mental effort as well since every touch of the chisel must be guided by thought and intelligence.”
The Protestant view of social improvement during the Progressive Era had been a good match to Southern Appalachian life.
Traditional mountain dances, for instance, also have a community-and-character-improving ethic. Neighborliness flourishes in squares; and individualism breaks out in buck.
Ministers were classroom teachers then. Missionaries, such as Frances Goodrich, who had moved to Brittain’s Cove in 1895 and Laurel in Madison County two years later, worked with local crafters—in her case, women weavers—and founded Allanstand Cottage Industries (its assets were later transferred to the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild).
Goodrich recognized the treasure in mountain hand-crafting, including woodcarving.
“The mountaineer, like the Yankee,” Goodrich noted in her book, “Mountain Homespun,” “has a bent for whittling and is never more happy than with knife in hand.”
Vance and Yale, wood carver and weaver, had just matriculated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago when they came to Asheville in the spring of 1901for Vance’s health, and rented a cottage in George Vanderbilt’s model village, Biltmore.
The legendary vignette follows: Vance carving Arts-and-Craft style designs on her kitchen-table; and local boys, vending cabbages, peering in at her as if at Santa Claus.
A few years before, Vance had been studying her craft with the acknowledged master, Thomas Kendall in Warwick, England. When Vance returned home, Kendall wrote her that she had the ability to become “the best amateur wood-carver of either sex it has been my lot to meet during my long career.”
At age 80, Vance recalled her adventures, including her bonding with Kendall, in an interview with Betty Barbour. Barbour’s manuscript, “Two Women with an Idea,” resides with the Polk County Historical Museum. Bruce Johnson makes good use of this document, and others, in his article, “Eleanor Vance, Charlotte Yale and the Origins of Biltmore Estate Industries,” published in Robert Brunk’s, “May We All Remember Well: Volume II.”
“See, the Lord,” Vance had read aloud to her young recruits in her home. He has filled Bez-a-leel “with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,” including, “carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work.”
The Reverend Rodney R. Swope, rector of All Souls, had made village clubs part of his mission, and had helped turn Vance’s group into a housed and funded Boys’ Club.
The Lord smiles on “all manner of work,” the Exodus passage continues, “of the engraver, and of…the embroiderer, in blue, and in purple, in scarlet, and in fine linen, and of the weaver.”
In 1903, the club expanded to girls, who wove textiles with instruction by Yale. The girls also took on wood-carving—why not, Vance had thought—and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club was formed. Woodworking was soon extended, with the hiring of an expert, to cabinet-making.
With the interest and funding of Edith and George Vanderbilt, the club became a profitable as well as charitable enterprise, called Biltmore Estate Industries.
In 1917, Fred Seely bought the business from Edith Vanderbilt, recently widowed, and renamed it Biltmore Industries. Harry Blomberg bought it from Seely in 1954, and operated it for 26 years. In 1992, Blomberg’s daughters, Barbara and Marilyn, and Marilyn’s husband, S.M. Patton, revived Biltmore Industries and established Grovewood Gallery on the grounds of the Grove Park Inn. Photos and documents associated with the institution’s history are part of UNC Asheville’s Ramsey Library Special Collections.
Vance and Yale, in 1915, moved to Tryon, where they set up shop and worked with local youths to create Tryon Toy-Makers and Wood-Carvers, another historic landmark.
The women’s influence reached into family legacies as well as social policy.
“The superintendent of public schools in Asheville,” Allen Eaton notes in his 1937 book, “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands,” “invited the two young women to extend their classes to the high school there.” They couldn’t manage it, but “the enthusiasm of the superintendent led to a course of manual training in the Asheville schools.”
An exhibition celebrating Grovewood Gallery’s 20th anniversary and highlighting its Biltmore Industries roots is on show at the gallery’s museum through July 8. Visit www.grovewood.com or call 253-7651.
Boys in Eleanor Vance’s Boys’ Club work at wood-carving in this photo from Biltmore Industries.