Blue Ridge Country - May/June 2015 - 42
Freshly picked carrots will soon make their way to
the plates of diners at Biltmore Estate restaurants.
Tenant Farming at Biltmore Estate
Some of the structures remain on the west
side of the estate today that once housed
tenant farmers and their families.
It was preferred in Vanderbilt's day to hire
married farmers who had a family, but if a
single man was hired it was customary to
board him with one of the families. Farmer
John Holt, who served as the head herdsman in the 1930s, had three daughters and
each married a tenant farmer who boarded
in their home.
"A tenant farmer would be given a house
and a barn, or other outbuildings as
needed, and a certain amount of acreage,"
says Biltmore historian Bill Alexander.
"Either he would provide his own cattle or
the estate would provide them," Alexander
continues. "For the rent of living on the
estate, they would provide a monthly quota
of milk to the main dairy, which was
brought over daily on the ferry. Any excess
in milk was paid for in cash."
This provided a safe, secure place for many
mountain families to live, and they were
also allowed to raise crops to feed their
family and supplement their income.
"The house and buildings and land
belonged to the estate, but a farmer could
pay installments on the tools and equipment," he says. "At the end of a term - three
years - the tools and equipment became his
At its peak, the tenant farmer program
included about 300 people, farmers and
courtesy of the biltmore
Biltmore Has Always Led the Way
Being on the cutting-edge of agriculture and environmental stewardship
isn't a new concept at Biltmore.
George Vanderbilt was very proactive bringing in not only the best
artisans and architects to craft his
palace, but also agriculture and forestry experts and state-of-the-art
technology and techniques.
"That's one of Vanderbilt's greatest contributions to Western North
Carolina - bringing high tech agriculture here," says Katsigianis.
Vanderbilt had a very diverse
operation with a huge poultry farm,
Berkshire hog operation, a flock of
southbound sheep, and even some
"The other thing was genetics,"
says Katsigianis. "Vanderbilt bought
the best genetics in livestock species.
Most of the dairy cattle were direct
imports from the Isle of Jersey.
Animals here were superior and they
made the breeding stock available to
people throughout the southeast.
Jersey bulls were sold for breeding
Katsigianis says it's crucial to also
remember Frederic Law Olmstead's
contribution to the estate. When
Vanderbilt brought him in, the
famed landscape architect told him
families, on the estate. In 1905, Edith
Vanderbilt created a fall fair for estate
workers and their families. There was a lot
of competition with people showcasing
their canned goods, basketry, embroidery
and prized livestock.
Alexander, who has been reviewing many
oral histories of tenant farmers and their
families, says he's most captured by the
years of the Great Depression on the estate.
"The crash happened in '29 and Asheville
went bankrupt," says Alexander. "There
were lots of people who lost homes and
businesses, but for the tenant farmers, they
said, 'What depression?' Nothing changed
much for them. They kept milking and selling to Biltmore Dairy and kept making the
same livelihood." -MHM