By Robert Beanblossom
Nestled in a mountainous valley known as the Pink Beds is the Cradle of Forestry in America, a national historic site. This spot in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina is aptly named for it is the birthplace of scientific forestry in the United States.
This intriguing story begins in early 1888. That year a wealthy young man, George Washington Vanderbilt, traveled to the nearby town of Asheville along with his mother, who sought relief from malarial-like symptoms. Dr. S. Westray Battle, a retired US Navy surgeon and a highly respected pulmonary specialist with a practice there, subsequently provided Mrs. Vanderbilt’s medical treatment while she and her son stayed at the posh Battery Park Hotel. The clean air, scenic mountains and natural beauty of the area quickly captivated Vanderbilt, a widely-traveled, well-read individual, who considered himself a poet at heart. Consequently, he fell in love with this land and immediately decided to build a luxurious mansion – he later named Biltmore – and to purchase property. By 1895 he could claim ownership to over 125,000 acres of forest land; but much of it had been heavily damaged by fire, grazing and poor logging practices. There were, however, virgin stands of high quality trees especially in the coves and on north and east facing slopes of his holdings. Vanderbilt employed the foremost architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design his 255-room mansion but also hired an equally famous landscape architect, Fredrick Law Olmsted, to design the grounds of the estate. Olmsted, known for designing New York’s Central Park, the U.S. Capitol grounds and other notable venues, suggested to Vanderbilt that a forester be hired to manage his newly-acquired holdings. There was one problem, however, only two foresters were practicing in America at the time. One was a German forester, Bernard Fernow, who happened to be already working with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. The other was a 27-year old Pennsylvanian – Gifford Pinchot.
Pinchot, who came from a wealthy family himself, had graduated from Yale and had studied forestry, on the advice of his father, in France for 13 months. Anxious to get started in his chosen profession, he accepted Vanderbilt’s offer of employment and came to the Biltmore Estate in early February, 1892. His plans for forest management included selection cutting for sustained yield. Stands not adequately stocked with trees were planted with hardwoods and pine. Later, in writing of his experience, he stated, “…. Thus, Biltmore became the beginning of practical forestry in America. It was the first piece of woodland to be put under a regular system of forest management whose object was to pay the owner while improving the forest.” He also received his first taste of fighting wildfires while working on the estate.
Pinchot was employed at Biltmore for three years as he was destined to play a national role in the establishment of forest policy throughout the US. He served as the first chief of the US Forest Service and later was elected governor of Pennsylvania for two terms. He was a close personal friend of both Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and was one of the original founding members of the Society of American Foresters. Today, he is highly regarded as the “father” of American forestry by professionals throughout the nation.
Through his European contacts, Pinchot was able to recommend his successor, Dr. Carl A. Schenck, a German forester, who grew up in the town of Darmstadt and had longed to become a forester since boyhood. Knowing little of American tree species or forestry, Appalachian mountain culture or even democracy for that matter, Schenck accepted Vanderbilt’s offer of employment. He did have one thing going for him though – he could speak English. During his college days, he had met and fallen in love with a girl from England. In an attempt to impress her, he even memorized Shakespeare’s “King Richard II”.
Schenck intensified the programs begun by Pinchot. He urged the construction of permanent forest roads to facilitate management activities, took steps to improve watersheds and created a tree nursery. He undertook several projects to improve game and fish populations on Vanderbilt’s lands. As his reputation as a practical forester grew, Schenck was approached by several individuals seeking to become apprentices so that they might learn of this new concept called “forestry”. Encouraged by the number of young men wanting training, he decided to open a forest school and on September 1, 1898, on a site just a hundred yards or so from the present-day Cradle of Forestry in America’s Forest Discovery Center, the very first forestry school in the nation was established.
Schenck was a demanding instructor and his 12-month curriculum was intense but being a man of broad interests his teaching was not limited to just forestry. Mixed in his lectures were lessons in art, music, history, literature and life. As one student later wrote “…he also developed character.” Instruction took place in an abandoned schoolhouse until noon. After a quick lunch, students galloped along behind him on horse-back to complete various field exercises in the woods before dark. Classes included Silviculture, surveying, forest protection, logging, tree and plant identification, forest mensuration, forest policy and forest management to name a few. A total of twenty-seven courses had to be completed. A six-month internship followed the year of study and students had to submit a paper on their experience in order to receive a B.S. degree in forestry. Students received Sundays off and were given two weeks for Christmas; otherwise they were fully engaged in learning. They either boarded with mountain families still residing on the property or occupied vacant cabins and cooked for themselves. Students gave these cabins picturesque names like “Hell Hole,” “Rest for the Wicked” or “Gnat Hollow” among others. The combination of challenging teaching and splendid camaraderie produced an esprit de corps among the students which charged them with enthusiasm for their new occupation and sent them on zealous careers throughout the world.
The forestry student’s loyalty to both the school and to Schenck never faltered. Nor did Schenck’s to them. Until his death they were always “my boys”. Although the Biltmore Forest School closed its doors in 1913, its influence on the development of American forestry was profound. Out of more than 365 students, 300 completed the required coursework and over half went into forestry. One became the associate chief of the US Forest Service, four became regional foresters, twenty became forest supervisors in charge of a single national forest and 12 returned to their respective states, becoming state foresters and launching state-wide forestry programs. One later moved to West Virginia, for example, and was appointed that state’s first director of conservation. During his tenure, he helped acquire 102,000 acres of state park and forest land and supervised the construction of numerous recreational facilities – most of which are still in use today – using Civilian Conservation Corps labor. A number served with distinction as valuation engineers for the Internal Revenue Service. Others served as forestry consultants to British India, Canada, Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and Sumatra. In 1914, war broke out in Europe and Schenck was recalled to Germany. He served as a lieutenant on the Eastern Front and was severely wounded in action. Following the war, he returned to his native Darmstadt and practiced forestry until his death in 1955.
Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold the 87,500-acre Pink Beds tract to the US Forest Service in 1914; and it ultimately became part of the Pisgah National Forest. While all of those lands played a role in the origin of forestry, The Cradle of Forestry in America has special significance. Congress carved out and designated 6,500 acres as a national historic site in 1968. Here four firsts can be identified: the first trained American forester; the first managed forest; the first school of forestry in America and the first national forest created under the Weeks Act of 1911.
Today this historic site is jointly managed by the US Forest Service in a cooperative partnership with the Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association, a non-profit foundation, and is open to visitors from mid-April to early November. As you enter the main gate you will be rewarded with the opportunity to explore the past, present, and future of environmental sustainability and stewardship – brought to visitors through paved interpretive trails, interactive exhibits, film, music, drama, guided tours, nature programs, craft demonstrations, and special events. The Forest Discovery Center with its gift shop and café welcomes visitors to the historic structures with a relaxing walk through the woods or in the neighboring Pink Beds – the five-mile loop trail being very popular with its gentle, almost level grade. The Cradle of Forestry in American is four miles south of the Blue Ridge Parkway and along the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway. The surrounding Pisgah National Forest is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts offering hundreds of miles of hiking and bicycling trails, waterfalls, scenic overlooks and camping. The nearby town of Brevard is filled with numerous musical events throughout the summer and offers a wide range of dining opportunities. Sliding Rock, a natural 300-foot water slide, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly, and is only three miles away. It is almost impossible to list all of the things to see and do in the area.
This historic site is truly a national treasure and a must for anyone with an appreciation of our outdoor heritage. The development of science-based forestry at the turn of the 20th Century literally launched today’s environmental protection efforts. It is a unique spot to learn while enjoying nature. What could be a better combination for an outstanding vacation?!!
Robert Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, retired from the WV Division of Natural Resources after a 42-year career with that agency. A free-lance writer, he and his wife currently are the volunteer caretakers at the Cradle of Forestry in America. Email: [email protected]