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    Part of the allure of Asheville, North Carolina is the forest that surrounds the city. The Blue Ridge Parkway passes near Asheville and just south of the city through the Pisgah National Forest, offering fantastic vistas of southern Appalachian forest. One of the main attractions in Asheville is the Biltmore Estate, once owned by George Vanderbilt II. The Estate includes Biltmore House, a Châteasuesque-style mansion, the largest privately-owned house in the United States (at 179,000 square feet of floor area), and one of the nation's most outstanding examples of the Gilded Age. The Biltmore Estate has some interesting American forestry history as part of its lore and the USDA Forest Service manages a large heritage site called the Cradle of Forestry near Asheville that is one of the most interesting side trips out of the city.

    The forest fire simulator, note the door is open and people are welcome to "pilot" it.

    While the site is oriented towards forest history, there is an equal dose of conservation, nature, and the environment. Many of the exhibits and features on the trails are kids-friendly. For example, at the sawmill site a pile of sawdust is "open access" just for the kids. The trails include educational displays. It is a chance to experience the southern Appalachians from a set of well-maintained and relatively short (around a mile) trails.  

    The Sawmill. Instead of hauling a whole log out of the forest, teams of oxen or mules "snaked" the logs to a sawmill where they were cut into lumber that was loaded onto wagons, leaving the waste behind. The sounds of the chugging engine and buzzing saw of the portable sawmill were never far from wherever logs were being harvested. 
      

    The story begins with George Vanderbilt, who fell in love with Asheville and the surrounding mountains while visiting in the 1880s. He decided to build a mansion in Asheville and hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the gardens and grounds of the estate (that would encompass over 120,000 acres). Olmsted convinced Vanderbilt to manage the forest as a business enterprise that would produce annual timber revenue, as well as recreation and a game preserve. We call that concept "sustainable forestry" today.  Olmsted recommended that a young American-born forester (the first one to be American-born), Gifford Pinchot, be hired to manage the forestry work. Pinchot would work at Biltmore for three years, and upon leaving helped secure his replacement, a German-born forester named Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck. 

    Schenck began the arduous task of managing the huge forest and hired a group of young men as assistants.  The assistants spent much of their time making Schenck explain the basics of forestry and why things were done the way they were. After three years of questions, Schenck decided it would be more efficient to establish a forestry school and to formalize the training. This was the first forestry school in the United States (the Cradle of Forestry).  It was a one-year program, with lectures in the morning and field work in the afternoons.  Schenck summarized his program as: "My boys worked continuously in the woods, while those at other schools saw wood only on their desks." Pinchot went on to become the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Schenck and Pinchot grew apart in terms of forest management philosophy and Schenck often was in conflict with the estate's landscape department and occasionally with Vanderbilt himself. Vanderbilt fired Schenck in 1909 and the forestry school operated elsewhere for a few years before Schenck returned to Germany. In 1914 the Estate sold 83,000 acres of the forest to the federal government. This became the Pisgah National Forest. The Estate was the first managed forest in the country and it became for first national forest established from private land. It is an interesting story and all the details are at the Cradle of Forestry.

     

    Forest Discovery Center  

    The experience should begin at the Forest Discovery Center with a 26-minute movie, "First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School." There is an exhibit hall with 15 hands-on exhibits, a gift shop, and a cafe. The exhibit hall includes interactive displays and even children's games. There is a fire fighting helicopter simulator over a forest fire (you actually sit in the helicopter) and an opportunity to go underground and see which animals live under the forest floor.

     

    The Adventure Zone is a special feature designed with the help of the Autism Society of North Carolina.  It is a collection of hands-on indoor and outdoor activities that were designed to help children and adults gain a better understanding about the natural world. Its maps and schedules should be interesting to anyone, but are intended to make these activities accessible for people in the autism spectrum. Indoors it focuses on a few Cradle favorites, like the helicopter simulator, a movie, "There's Magic at the Cradle," and a building station. Outdoors, the focus is on nature-play and hands-on activities. 

    The Climax Engine and Log Loader. The Climax engine was originally used by the nearby Champion Paper Company. Note the log loader behind the engine. Loggers attached cables to the heavy logs that the log loader "snaked" out of the forest to a landing near the train and then lifted them onto the train log cars. The log loader was a real "workhorse," and was used to build trestles, lay track, handle coal, and even to move logging camp cabins.

    The Trails

    There are three main trails and all are paved. The Biltmore Campus Trail winds through the campus of America's first forestry school, passing historic buildings along the way. Interpretive signs and audio tell of the story of student life from 1898 to 1909. In the spirit of the historic 1908 Biltmore Forest Fair, the Forest Festival Trail explores stories of past and present forestry efforts. It includes experimental plantings and antique equipment. The Forest Discovery Trail loops above the Forest Festival Trail and includes forest stories along a very scenic route.  

    Blacksmith Shop. The clang of the hammers on iron and the acrid scent of coal smoke were commonplace at Biltmore Forest School. Two blacksmiths, each with their own business 14 miles away in Brevard, took turns working at this shop. They needed to keep the horses in shoes, wagons on the road, and logging equipment in working order.

    The Biltmore Campus Trail is a mile long and winds through the Biltmore Forest School's rustic campus. It includes a one-room schoolhouse, general store, cabins, blacksmith shop, and a garden to illustrate life in the early 1900s.

    The Schoolhouse. In 1906 a horse was basic equipment for a forestry student and often one would arrive at the schoolhouse on a gallop as Dr. Schenck expected all students to arrive on time. The morning was spent with textbooks in this schoolhouse and the afternoons out in the forest with field work

    The Forest Festival Trail is 1.3 miles long and highlights some of Dr. Schenck's forestry experiments, while allowing for discussions on topics like plant growth and decomposition, forest issues, and transportation methods.  

     

    Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has a keen interest in history.

     

    For more information:

    Cradle of Forestry Homepage 

    https://cradleofforestry.com/

    Romantic Asheville: Cradle of Forestry

    https://www.romanticasheville.com/forest.htm

    Forest History Society

    http://foresthistory.org/Publications/FHT/FHT1998/CradleofForestry.pdf .



     

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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