Travels & Traditions: Asheville, North Carolina - #105

This is Asheville, North Carolina.  It’s considered to be one of the best places to live in the United States.  The city itself is surrounded by the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains... mountains that are filled with local craftsmen who are producing some of the finest handmade objects in the world.  At the edge of town is the largest private home in North America, over four acres on the inside.  The traditional forms of dance and music have been preserved and are easily available to visitors.  And there’s an inn that stands as one of the highest-rated family resorts in the nation.  So join me, Burt Wolf, for Travels & Traditions in Asheville, North Carolina.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 1800s, magazines being published in the northeastern part of the United States began to carry stories about “unusual” behavior in people in distant places.  They were called “local color” stories and tended to focus on “bizarre” behavior.  One of the areas targeted for this type of story was the Appalachian region in North Carolina.

The War Between The States devastated Appalachia.  Many people ended up poor, isolated and uneducated, and they became the subject of these magazine stories.  They were presented as “backward mountaineers living in a region within, but not part of modern American life.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Of course, there were thousands of people in the northeast who were also poor, isolated and uneducated, but readers preferred reading imported stories of poverty rather than dealing with their own domestic problems.  The stories about Appalachia were distorted.  They focused on the peculiar, and the outrageous.

They ignored the natural beauty of the area, and the skilled, intelligent and responsible people who lived, and still live here.  During the next half-hour, I’d like to take you through Asheville, North Carolina and show you what this part of the world is really like.

Native Americans came to North Carolina over ten thousand years ago.  They were ancestors of the Cherokee.  The first European was the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, whose expedition marched through in the 1540s.  The early settlers were Scottish, Irish, English and African.

Asheville was incorporated in 1797 and remained a quiet little town until the railroad arrived in the 1880s.  Within a decade the population quadrupled and Asheville entered a period of growth that lasted fifty years.  The Visitors Center offers a brochure that outlines a walking tour of the downtown area.

At the center of Asheville is the County Court House and the City Hall, both built in 1928.  The plan was to have them designed by the same architect... Douglas Ellington.  As Ellington’s Art Deco City Hall went up, the county officials decided that it was too flashy and they hired a more conventional architect to design the County Court House.  That story is a perfect metaphor for Asheville:  a respect for the past, living side-by-side with a commitment to the future.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But downtown Asheville is just the beginning.  During the late 1700s, wealthy plantation owners began coming up here to get away from the low country summer heat.  And during the 1800s wealthy people from all over America stopped in.

George Vanderbilt was one of those visitors.  George had inherited a sizable fortune from his grandfather, the shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, and George decided to build himself a house in Asheville.  He ended up building Biltmore – the largest private home in America.  Today it’s an historic house open to the public, and my guide is Elizabeth Sims.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  This is Mr. Vanderbilt’s library.

BURT WOLF:  The books gave it away.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Mr. Vanderbilt was a book collector as a young boy and all his life.  So we have actually 20,000 volumes in total in the house; there are about 10,000 in this room.  We believe that this was probably Mr. Vanderbilt’s favorite room.  He actually read in eight languages, so he was quite a learned man, quite a renaissance man.  This room -- actually, there’s a spiral staircase up to the second level and a stairway that goes back to the guest rooms, so that Mr. Vanderbilt and his guests could come down to the library, not have to come through the main part of the house, take a book back up to their rooms or enjoy it here.

BURT WOLF:  I like that -- a very private little staircase, come down, pick out what you want to read and head back.  That’s quite a painting on the ceiling too.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Isn’t that beautiful?  That’s called The Chariot of Aurora, and it’s by Pelligrini, an Italian artist.  Mr. Vanderbilt purchased it at the Pissani Palace in Venice and had it brought here.

BURT WOLF:  I saw him in Venice standing there and saying, “You know, that’s gonna fit perfectly on my ceiling.  Perfectly!”

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Actually we think that he purchased the canvas and probably had Mr. Hunt, the architect of the house, design the room around it.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  This is the banquet hall.  It’s the largest room in Biltmore House -- seventy-two feet high, with a table that seats sixty-four people.

BURT WOLF:  Did they have dinner here regularly?

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Yes, they did.  And this was where they would have all their formal meals.  We actually also know that they had some informal meals here too.

BURT WOLF:  Just like in the corner.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Just the two of them.

BURT WOLF:  Yes, right in that little corner there.


BURT WOLF:  And these...?

ELIZABETH SIMS:  The tapestries in this room are some of the most valuable things in the collection.  They’re sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries, and they’re really quite wonderful.  It’s unusual to have five of the same set in one place.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  This is the main kitchen.  Biltmore House actually had three kitchens -- a pastry kitchen, a rotisserie (where the meat was cooked), and then this is the main area.

BURT WOLF:  About how many people would come for a dinner?

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Well, between the servants who lived in the house and the guests of the Vanderbilts -- when the house was full, maybe as many as a hundred folks a day.

BURT WOLF:  And that cooking was done in here.


BURT WOLF:  Interesting, it hasn’t changed a great deal.  There’s a big range -- South Bend, they’re still making ranges... and that’s an indoor grill; they’d store the wood underneath and then they’d get a fire right underneath the gridiron.


BURT WOLF:  Coffee-grinder, old-style...


BURT WOLF:  ...hundred-year-old Mixmaster, that’s very nice...

ELIZABETH SIMS:  That’s exactly right, yes...

BURT WOLF:  Right, and an early icebox, before real refrigeration.

ELIZABETH SIMS:  And of course, you have to remember this was all very state-of-the-art for the time.

BURT WOLF:  For the time, I’m sure it was, absolutely.


BURT WOLF:  So we’ve been through this and probably have seen about ten percent of the house?

ELIZABETH SIMS:  Yeah, I wish you had more time; we actually have seen very little -- and you haven’t seen the grounds at all, which are really quite lovely.

BURT WOLF:  I’m going out to see the grounds... and when you get here, you’ll see them.

Part of the magnificent Biltmore estate is a winery that produces a selection of reds, whites and champagne... and there are a number of excellent restaurants.  Biltmore chef Steven Adams prepared three dishes.  The first was Breast of Chicken with Rigatoni Pasta in a Gorgonzola sauce.

Pounded chicken breasts are sautéed in olive oil.  When the chicken is fully cooked, it’s taken out and the pan is deglazed with white wine.  Gorgonzola cheese and cream are used to make a sauce.  Cooked rigatoni pasta is added to the sauce and heated through... and the dish is ready to serve.

Next, a Loin of Lamb on a Bed of Spinach with Warm Peach Vinaigrette.  Loin of lamb is flavored with the zest of oranges, lemons, and limes, and a little dill... then seared in olive oil to give it a crust... and baked until done.  Leaves of spinach are tossed with a hot peach-flavored vinaigrette dressing.  The lamb is sliced, placed on the spinach, and garnished with spiced pecans.

And finally, a Sweet Potato Pie.  A mixture of cream cheese, eggs and sugar is spread into a pre-baked piecrust.  A second mixture of eggs, sweet potato puree, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and half & half is poured on top of the cream cheese layer.  The pie is baked and finished with a streusel topping that’s based on oats, sugar, and pecans.

Biltmore was the most impressive, but not the only evidence that Appalachia had been discovered.  The railroads opened up the western part of North Carolina, and travelers came in during the summer trying to escape the unhealthy conditions in the cities.  Tuberculosis was the plague of the time and people felt that clean mountain air and recreation would help protect them.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The visitors to the area were aware of the poverty in the mountains, and some of them wanted to try and help out.  Because the people in the mountains were so poor, they made all of the objects for their home themselves.  But the quality of the workmanship in those objects made them virtually works of art.  Eventually a group of people came together and figured out how to make those works of art into a business.

One result was an organization called the Southern Highland Craft Guild.  Its home is the Blue Ridge Parkways Folk Art Center.

KATHERINE CALDWELL:  We have about seven hundred members; they’re from the mountains of nine Southern states, and about three hundred or so are represented here in the Allanstand Crafts Shop.

BURT WOLF:  How do they become members?

KATHERINE CALDWELL:  Well, the members of our guild are juried in by a rigorous jurying process.  They show their slides and then they bring their actual pieces if they get past the slide jury.  They need to be from the Southern mountains -- certain counties within the nine Southern states that we represent.  When you buy something here you can be assured that it was made right here in the mountains.

BURT WOLF:  How many people visit each year?

KATHERINE CALDWELL:  About 300,000 people come through the doors each year.

BURT WOLF:  You have any idea of how much they spend?  I mean, I know that I’ve increased your volume enormously by my own spending in the last hour, but me aside, how much do they spend?

KATHERINE CALDWELL:  Well, you can go home with something for seven dollars -- you can spend seven thousand dollars in a heartbeat also.

BURT WOLF:  Oh, so I’m right in the midrange, I’m gonna be okay.

KATHERINE CALDWELL:  You’re about midrange, yep.

Another organization for local craftsmen is called Handmade in America.  It’s run by Becky Anderson.

BECKY ANDERSON:  Handmade in America is a non-profit organization, and it’s dedicated to making western North Carolina the center of the handmade object.  We took our culture, we took our history, we took the beauty of our mountains and the environment that we want to protect, and we said, we think we can make an economic venture out of this that will afford a very good living for our people and yet protect the garden paradise we live in. . . .  Well, an interesting project, and one that has created a great deal of interest for us in the state of North Carolina and across the nation has been our Cultural Heritage Trails that we’ve put together for visitors, that would take you into private studios, would take you into shops and galleries selling only American craft and featuring the craft of the region -- a great way, a great way to meet the people of our region.  Robert Steffan is a glassblower; he’s on our Trails system, has a great studio up in North Asheville.  His work is very contemporary, very unusual.  He’s a member of the guild; he’s very well-respected in the glass community here.  Don Davis is a potter, very well-known and respected.  Don teaches a lot; he has done great work for churches -- a very historic church in our region, and he’s done great huge vases for them, for their external use.  . . . We know that the handmade object, in all of its resources, and -- this is including retailing, this is including the natural materials that go into it -- it is $122,000,000 a year.  That’s the total of eleven of our counties’ manufacturing wages.  So we have, I think aptly named it “The Invisible Factory.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Handmade in America also publishes a guide book that will show you how to get to the workshops of the craftsmen.

I used it to find Weaverville, the home of Diane Mostrom and Fred Chase who are... weavers.

DIANE MOSTROM:  I’m weaving a cotton rainbow baby blanket.  It’s called a rainbow baby blanket because I’m incorporating several different colors in bands as I move along.  So I have to keep stopping and changing and shifting to another color.

BURT WOLF:  In an average year, how many items do you think you make together?

FRED CHASE:  Well, we print over 5,000 cleaning cards which are the cards we attach to each piece of weaving, and they go on every other piece of weaving as it turns out so we’re producing maybe...

DIANE MOSTROM:  And we run out.

FRED CHASE:  We produce a good many.  A good eight or nine thousand individual pieces.  Many of them quite small.  But over the years we’ve produced hundreds of thousands of individual pieces.

DIANE MOSTROM:  The looms we are working on Fred has built.  I do a lot of the finishing.  He does a lot of the loom preparation and the warping, and I do a lot of the business management.  So that we leave each other to our own particular areas of specialty.

FRED CHASE:  One and one often adds up more than two.  It does.  And it’s helpful to have someone to work with for as long as we work together.

A few miles down the road is Black Mountain... the home of Eddie Hollifield and his father Marshall.  The Hollifields are wood turners.

EDDIE HOLLIFIELD:  This is our wood turning shop.  We create artistic decorative pieces as well as functional pieces.

BURT WOLF:  What do the customers like?  What’s popular?

EDDIE HOLLIFIELD:  Well, the popular pieces really are the natural edge, free-form decorative pieces that show the different layers of the tree.  I search for a particular type of tree, mainly trees with burls, which is a growth on a tree.  And it can be detrimental to the tree as well, but usually there are other funguses and insect problems going on.  And I only take trees that are going to the landfill, or maybe firewood at best.

BURT WOLF:  And you’re planning a major project for the Guinness Book of Records.

EDDIE HOLLIFIELD:  Yes, we are.  We found a dead maple tree over in Asheville that’s probably close to nine feet in diameter and we’re going to try to make the world’s largest wooden bowl out of it.  It’s going to be about nine feet in diameter and about four and a half feet tall.

BURT WOLF:  What’s going to go in that bowl?

EDDIE HOLLIFIELD:  A lot of tips, I hope.

And those are just a few of the craftsmen who will welcome you to their studios.

One of the people who came to Asheville to get away from summer in the city was Edwin Wiley Grove. Grove was a pharmaceutical manufacturer from St. Louis, who made a fortune selling Grove’s Patented Tasteless Chill Tonic, the first successful use of powdered quinine in a liquid form.  

Grove arrived in 1898 and immediately saw an opportunity for a real estate project.  Asheville was far enough south to avoid the worst parts of a northern winter, but high enough in the mountains to avoid the worst parts of a southern summer.  Vanderbilt’s Biltmore House made Asheville into a fashionable location.  Grove felt that the area was an ideal spot for a resort community.  So he went over to the other side of the valley, across from Biltmore, and purchased a side of mountain.

Grove had visited the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park and believed that a similar resort would increase the value of his property.  The result was the Grove Park Inn, which was constructed and furnished in a style known as American Arts and Crafts.

The Arts and Crafts movement believed that the work of the craftsman was the most important thing.  And they produced every form of functional object from jewelry to architecture, but the movement always had a special interest in household furnishings.  The ornate style of the Victorian was rejected in favor of uncluttered lines.  The Grove Park Inn was built by people working in the Arts and Crafts movement, and today the Inn has one of the most important and well-preserved collections of their work.

DAVID TOMSKY:  What people really love about the Grove Park Inn, at least initially, is its magnificent setting.  We’re not in a parking lot in an urban environment.  We’re in a residential area with magnificent views of Asheville and the surrounding mountains.  Then once they get inside, into the Great Hall, they see our Arts and Crafts legacy.  We have the Roycroft grandfather clock, made specifically for the Grove Park Inn.  It’s eight feet tall, and its scale would overwhelm a room any smaller than the Great Hall.  The copper hand-hammered chandeliers, designed to reflect light off our concave ceilings for a feeling of warmth.  And finally, at either end of the Great Hall, these two huge fireplaces – twelve feet wide, six feet high, six feet deep, burning ten-foot logs... just magnificent.  It’s our real photo spot.

The Arts and Crafts period honored the work of the craftsman... a fact which is also reflected in the activity of Chef Jeff Piccirillo in the Grove Park kitchen.  His first dish was for a Pecan-Crusted Trout.  Trout filets, which have been dredged in flour, are dipped in an egg wash and given a coating of chopped pecans... then sautéed on both sides until golden brown.  They’re served with a lemon sauce, smashed sweet potatoes, squash, green beans, and baby carrots.

Next, Pork Chops with Cornbread Stuffing.  Butter, onions, celery, sage and thyme are cooked together with bread crumbs and chicken stock to make the stuffing... which gets packed into pockets that have been cut into two-inch-thick pork chops.  The chops are baked in a pan for twenty-five minutes...  and then they are served with a selection of vegetables and a peach compote.

For dessert, Baked Apple in a Pastry Crust with a Caramel Sauce.  Apples that have been peeled and cored are poached in water that has been sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon sticks.  A mixture made from butter, almond paste, cinnamon, bread crumbs, plus a little of the sweet poaching liquid is spread on a square of puff pastry.  The apples, which have been drained and cooled, are placed in the center of the pastry squares and stuffed with sugar and cinnamon.  The pastry is folded up around the apple and sealed.  Then they’re baked for twenty minutes, and served with a caramel sauce.

From the very beginning, lovers of nature were attracted to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Over the years the region has become a center for mountain sports.  Some of the activities are what you’d expect – canoeing along mountain rivers... whitewater rafting through the rapids... mountain biking...  But as I encountered the local outdoor sports I came to one mountain adventure that took me by surprise.

LANCE HARDCASTLE:  We have a llama-trekking business, and what I mean by that is we offer treks or trips into the woods on 60 private acres in Madison County in North Carolina.  And we pack these guys up with specially designed pack systems and panniers, and fill those things with gourmet food and allow people to have a pleasant dining experience way back in the woods.

L. ALVIN BEAN:  If it’s a cold lunch, then we might be able to cut up to a pretty spot and not have to worry about packing stoves and stuff like that.  If it’s a hot lunch, and if it’s something real complicated for dinner we might need a table, so then we might go to a different place on the property.  Some people really want a view, so we go to an overlook that has a nice view, and some people like to rock climb, so then we head up to the climbing rock.

One of the reasons we’re excited about doing this is because it makes the hiking- camping-wilderness experience more accessible to everybody.  There are people that are older, or maybe they’re not in good shape, or maybe they have some sort of special needs or some sort of physical disability that would keep them from being able to carry a pack to get out into the woods, so that’s where these guys can help out.

The Llamas are some of the more recent immigrants to arrive in Appalachia, but the most influential group were known as “Ulster Scots.”  During the 1700s over 250,000 of them immigrated to North America.  Many of them felt that North Carolina reminded them of their original homes in Scotland and they settled down here.  Among the things they brought with them were their ancient traditions in music and dance.

Laura Boosinger is one of North Carolina’s most talented singers and instrumentalists.  Her husband, Timmy Abell, is a national concert performer, recording artist and songwriter.  They’ve been teaching me what mountain music is all about... and today they’ve brought along Arvil Freeman, who’s one of the great mountain fiddlers.

LAURA BOOSINGER:  Well, I call this a traditional Southern Appalachian Mountain music.  Bluegrass is something that really came along later.  It’s considered more commercial.  It came along in the 1930s, and this kind of music has been around since the roots of it actually coming to this area from Scotland, Ireland and England with the settlers who came to these mountains from those areas.

You know, you have to think about what could you bring on a ship to come over here.  It had to be something pretty small.  And the violin was of course the most social instrument; it was used for dancing, it was used for parlor music, and it was easily transportable.

BURT WOLF:  What about the banjo?

LAURA BOOSINGER:  Banjos – really it’s an interesting correlation here between violins and banjos, because banjos came here from Africa.  So if you sort of picture, for example, on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation the idea of the African slaves playing banjos, and Thomas Jefferson himself was known to be a fiddler.

BURT WOLF:  And the guitar?

TIMMY ABELL:  The guitar of course is a Spanish instrument, but it wasn’t until I think sometime around the late 1800s that it came in and became part of the music of the mountains.

LAURA BOOSINGER: And so the idea of these people coming together with these instruments, creating a whole new music that was really traditional American dance music. American music.

I really liked my visit to Asheville... discovering the Scottish and Irish origins of the music... shopping at the workrooms of the craftsmen... visiting one of the most magnificent homes in America... passing a few days at one of the nation’s outstanding hotels... enjoying the good food... and a beautiful countryside.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): That’s what Asheville, North Carolina really looks like.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  I hope you will get to come here soon, and I hope that you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS; I’m Burt Wolf.