This September was Dianne's high school reunion. She graduated from South Cobb High School in Austell, Georgia in 1960 something. We decided to drive there, the long way, the scenic route, through New Orleans.
After many wrong turns because we can't read the GPS properly, we finally arrived at the proper venue. A large group of elderly people were milling around. We thought we were in the wrong place. The people wore name tags, and Dianne recognized their names but not their faces. They were her classmates!
There were about 150 students in her class and of course, many are gone, but the 50 or so who showed up were, by and large local people who never left Georgia, except for Dianne. Nobody there was famous, but they were congenial, friendly people with Southern hospitality.
We headed straight for the bar, but wait! This is the Bible Belt. No alcohol was served. We did have a buffet with rubber chicken on the menu. We sat with old friends of Dianne. Everyone had much to talk about, everyone had a good time, but the party broke up by 9 PM. To us, as night owls, the night was still young and we would have preferred more quality time talking to more people.
Our road trip to Georgia and back was interesting and educational. We visited the home towns of famous people we never thought about. In Laurel, Mississippi, for example, we crossed Leontyne Price Boulevard, named after the famed African American opera singer who is still alive and kicking at 89. In Cincinnati, stuck in rush hour traffic, we exited at Ezzard Charles Boulevard. Most people outside of his hometown of Cincinnati don't remember him, but Charles was a boxer who once defeated Joe Louis to win the heavyweight title. He then lost to Rocky Marciano. In later life, Charles lived down the street from Mohammed Ali on the South Side of Chicago. Charles contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and died relatively young.
Here are the other highlights of our road trip:
CAPE GIRARDEAU, MISSOURI
We left Chicago before noon on Friday and, by nightfall, made it to Cape Girardeau, MO. This is a historic river town of 38,000 hard by the Mississippi River near Cairo, IL. Cape Girardeau's most famous native son is radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, but you would never know that driving through town. The locals are not sure whether to embrace him or not. There is no statue of Rush Limbaugh in Cape Girardeau, or probably anywhere else.
The trendy area of town, the restaurants, bars and night life is by the brightly painted levee next to the river. The Mississippi River Tales mural, colorfully painted on the levee, stretches for several blocks along the river. The city was settled in 1773 when a Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Girardot built a trading post on the flood plain. Most of the buildings in the area date back to the 1800's, and many are on the National Register of Historic Places.
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS
On late Saturday afternoon, our road trip took us to Little Rock, the state capitol of Arkansas. Our first stop was the Visitor's Center to see what to do in town. Did you know that the Arkansas legislature actually passed a bill to establish the correct pronunciation of the state name--Ar-kan- SAW.
We visited the neo-classical style Arkansas State Capitol building capped by a large dome. It took 16 years to build. We've been to many state capitols and most, if not all, feature large domes, and I'm not sure why.
Little Rock is not a large city by Chicago standards, and we got around fairly easily on a Saturday afternoon with little traffic. We drove through the River Market District located on President Clinton Avenue to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. This is a modern contemporary building filled with exhibits to inform the public about the 8 years of the Clinton Administration. Clinton stuff is big in Arkansas, because he is the only president from the state. Inside is a replica of the Oval Office. There are even a few books in the library, although I didn't see any.
The Clinton Library cost $165 million to build, all through private donations, including $10 million from Saudi Arabia. The structure is built on abandoned railroad tracks of the Rock Island Railroad, and in fact, next door is the old Choctaw Railroad Station building which now houses the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Foundation.
The other attraction in Little Rock is Central High School which is a national historic site. Central High School looks like any other high school in a major city, and indeed, it still functions as a high school. Its importance lies in its role in our nation's history during the Civil Rights Era. Back in 1957, the school was ordered to admit black students. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus defied the federal government order and, in a publicity stunt, stood in the door in an attempt to prevent integration. The event was televised. President Eisenhower wasn't putting up with that, and he took a stand. He called in federal troops to enforce the court order. Governor Faubus' actions were popular with about half the people of Arkansas, but to the rest of the country, he looked like a buffoon. Within a few years, integration was an afterthought in the South, but ironically, it became a big issue in many Northern cities.
After we got the flavor of Little Rock, we drove out to the suburbs and spent our second night in Benton, between Little Rock and Hot Springs. We were ravenous, and the best local pizza was walking distance from our hotel. The restaurant had about 20 TV sets tuned to the Arkansas Razorbacks football game. It was Saturday night, and the place was raucous. The Razorbacks were beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, a/k/a an undermanned squad from Texas State, not the University of Texas. It was 35-0 at halftime, and the fans were clamoring for more.
The next morning, we drove up the thirty miles or so to Hot Springs National Park in a driving rainstorm. The hundreds of billboards along the road are a good indication that Hot Springs is a tourist town. Water parks, amusement parks, zip-lining, boat rides beckon the tourist trade, but on a rainy Sunday morning, it promised to be a slow day. This town could be Wisconsin Dells or Gatlinburg, TN--just change the signs.
The hot springs actually exist; there are 43 of them in the park. Large bathhouses and hotels line the main street, Bathhouse Row, in large Greek Revival style buildings, built in the 19th Century, relics of the Gilded Age.
The park was initially designated by the federal government in 1832, shortly after the local Indians were relocated to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. In effect, it was the first national park. It was called the Hot Springs Reservation. It officially became a National Park in 1921.
The thermal springs, originating in the nearby Ouachita Mountains, were thought to cure almost every disease. The water bubbles up at 143F which can cause severe burns. For their safety, tourists are strictly limited in the amount of time they can spend in the baths.
The springs were popular with the rich and famous although there were also springs designated for the indigent, provided they sign an affidavit that there were poor. Beginning in 1886, baseball teams started coming to Hot Springs for Spring (as in the season) Training. The first to come was the legendary Cap Anson, the manager of the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs). Other teams followed, and the town became a Mecca for baseball. Each Spring, about 250 athletes came to train for the upcoming baseball season. These included baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner who are immortalized with historic signs on the streets.
The tourists couldn't spend a lot of time in the water, so they had to find other pursuits in their spare time. Not surprisingly, gambling, prostitution and bootlegging became popular pastimes in Hot Springs. Hot Springs was Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas. The word spread among gangsters that Hot Springs was a perfect hideout for crooks evading police investigations. Al Capone and his associates vacationed here. Al Capone is like George Washington--every establishment wants to claim that he slept there or otherwise patronized their joint.
Whatever the case, the mayor, judges and cops turned a blind eye toward criminal activity. Predictably, when the Feds cracked down in the 1960's, the city fathers were shocked, SHOCKED, that those activities were going on. The government called Hot Springs "the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S." Today gambling is legal, and Hot Springs has a racetrack, Oaklawn Park, with a casino.
CRATER OF DIAMONDS STATE PARK
This state park is the only place in the U.S. where you can dig for your own diamonds. Murphreesboro is the site of an eroded 95 million year old volcanic crater, and the diamond pipe in the soil goes down 7 miles underground. As one would imagine, there are a lot of rules. They don't let you bring in a steam shovel or any other powered device. If you dig a hole you have to fill it in at the end of the day. If the hole is more than 4 feet deep, for safety reasons you have to shore it up properly. You can only remove a 5 gallon bucket of sifted gravel each day.
To prospect for diamonds, tourists pay 20 bucks or so plus an additional amount to rent a shovel and a bucket. They then wander out into the muddy 37 acre plowed field to start digging. We weren't dressed for the muddy experience and chose not to buy tickets, but we were allowed to watch the others dig. Some people come to the park every day seeking treasure.
Unlike gold, diamonds don't run in veins, but are scattered in the soil. The ranger explained to us that, from their experience, no portion of the field is more productive than any other portion. If they are there, the diamonds are fairly easy to spot. Dirt and mud do not stick to them, so the crystals will shine.
Believe it or not, people find several diamonds each week, and they can keep what they find. The largest diamond ever found there was 40 carats, and several have been in excess of 8 carats. We can be talking serious money. Many of the finds exceed a carat or more. The odds are better than the state lottery. Since the area became a state park in 1972, over 27,000 diamonds have been found by the public.
Diamonds were originally discovered at this location in 1906, and several owners of the property launched commercial diamond mining operations but failed because of the prohibitive labor costs.
Sifting through tons and tons of material to find a carat or two turned out to be a ticket to bankruptcy. Eventually the State of Arkansas took it over and decided that it made more sense to let the tourists provide the labor.
It was lunchtime, and we were hungry from watching these people in their futile search for riches. We drove a mile or so down the road to Em's Restaurant for some authentic Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes and chicken gravy, and it was goo-o-o-d.
Hope is the watermelon capital of Arkansas, but is better known as the boyhood home of Bill Clinton. Clinton lived in a modest frame house next to the tracks with his single mother until the age of 4. He probably doesn't remember much about it, but we visited it because it is there. In the Visitor's Center, administered by the National Park Service, one can see a photo of a very young Bill winning the cutest baby contest.
The Clinton's house is out in back, but they wouldn't let you go inside because it was being renovated. There had been a fire last December. The next door neighbor has a large "Trump" sign in the front yard. The unpaved potholed parking lot is behind the Trump house. The neighborhood has seen better days.
SHREVEPORT & BOSSIER CITY, LA
We had a freebie coming at a nice hotel in Bossier City, and stopping there was a no brainer. Actually we had to pay a $17 resort fee, but we could handle that. Shreveport and Bossier City are twin cities straddling the Red River. The area is home to over 400,000 people. Shreveport grew up as a major port for the cotton trade. Today it is a mini Las Vegas. Although the largest employer is Barksdale Air Force Base, the largest industry is casinos and hospitality. There are 8 major hotel casino resorts as well as some smaller ones. The hotels are enormous high rises overlooking the river. We stayed one night in a beautiful suite at the luxurious Horseshoe Bossier City. Our room faced the river. The port was very busy, as we saw barges loaded and unloaded. We ate a wonderful steak dinner at the hotel, but we had to pay for that.
NEW ORLEANS, THE BIG EASY
New Orleans is one of my most favorite cities. The city is defined by its Creole culture. Creole comes from the Spanish word criollo
which means native born. Essentially the word creole
described the American born children of Europeans.
New Orleans is the city that never sleeps. Bourbon Street is swinging in the wee hours. At Pat O'Brien's, we ordered a few Hurricane cocktails in the huge souvenir glasses while listening to dueling pianos. Everyone is familiar with Pat O'Brien's because of the numerous tourists walking around the French Quarter schlepping those souvenir glasses. They charge 3 bucks extra for the glass, but you get the money back if you return the glass. The piano players play continuously--when it is time for a break, two fresh pianists come in. We left when the second duo started playing because they weren't as good as the first.
Bourbon Street can be seedy. The biggest industry there appears to be panhandling. Per capita, NOLA is probably the panhandler capital of the universe. I recognize that some of these folks are down on their luck, but others make a nice living doing this. A good panhandler who works hard at panhandling can make $50,000 a year--and probably doesn't report it to the government. The problem for me is that it is difficult to tell the difference between the professionals and those who are truly needy.
One enterprising young lady walked around Bourbon Street, topless, soliciting tips to take her picture with you. My tip is "don't take the picture." I would have preferred seeing her with clothes on.
Then we found the voodoo store. There are several in the French Quarter. You don't see many voodoo stores in New York or Chicago except maybe at Halloween. I guess they sell enough of this voodoo stuff to stay in business.
The other exciting feature of Bourbon Street is the impromptu parades. September is not Mardi Gras season, but they have parades anyway. The performers throw beads, just like at Mardi Gras. The police, on horseback, block the street; the costumed revelers go through; the cleaning crew follows, and the police open the street again. The whole thing can take 10 minutes.
The 18th Century buildings in the French Quarter are in the French style (well, duh). The upper floors have either galleries or balconies on which people congregate. The difference between the two is that a gallery has support posts anchored on the ground, while a balcony does not--it is cantilevered out and supported by the walls of the building. Whichever they are, young ladies standing on them are encouraged to lift up their tops, and many do so. Bourbon Street is not a place for kids.
In NOLA, they take dining and jazz music to a different level. I love creole food like jambalaya with shrimps and crawfish etoufee
. You can buy it at fast food stands or at classy restaurants. Live Dixieland jazz music can be heard anywhere on the street.
We celebrated with a sumptuous dinner at the famous Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street, one block over from Bourbon. Dianne had a delicious Steak Diane (with one "n"), probably the best she had ever tasted. For dessert was flaming Bananas Foster which was originally created at Brennan's. After dinner, the maître d' gave us a guided tour of the restaurant which is located in a historic house. The Brennan family owns several restaurants in New Orleans, and all are highly regarded. In fact, we had breakfast two days in a row at their restaurant in the Loews Hotel, right across the street from Harrah's where we stayed.
We ate dinner the previous day at Oceana Restaurant, right around the corner from Bourbon Street. Four of us shared a traditional New Orleans feast of Oysters Rockefeller, as well as raw oysters, crab cakes, crawfish etoufee,
hushpuppies and catfish.
We even signed up for a jazz cruise on the Mississippi River. I was surprised to learn that the live band performance was by the Dukes of Dixieland, a venerable Dixieland band for probably a hundred years. New Orleans, of course, is the jazz capital of the world with its unique Dixieland style.
At breakfast time, the traditional favorite is beignets which are small sweet rolls with powdered sugar sprinkled on them. They sell like hotcakes. We elbowed out way into a table in the crowded outdoor café and ordered a whole plate of beignets.
WORLD WAR II MUSEUM, NEW ORLEANS
The World War II Museum is a new attraction, located about a mile from the French Quarter. They have created an experience that everyone should see. We purchased tickets, and each of us were assigned a dog tag representing a serviceman who served in WWII. At each exhibit, we would swipe the dog tag and learn something about our particular veteran.
I was assigned a young man named Augustus Hamilton from North Carolina. Prior to the war, he received a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina. When the war broke out, he volunteered for service because he longed to be a pilot. He attended flight school and became a fighter pilot who flew many missions over France and Germany. He flew his allotted missions and was slated to go home. His commanding officer asked him to volunteer for one additional mission over occupied France. He was shot down by the Nazi Germans and killed. His body was not found until 1993, in France. His remains were given a military funeral. Literally, I broke into tears when I read that.
Dianne was assigned the young officer, Richard Duchossois whose name may be familiar to many of us. Certainly, it was to us, because we know his family through our charity work with the American Cancer Society. Mr. Duchossois, now in his 90's owns Arlington park Race Track. He served as a tank commander in the European Theater. He fought in the D-Day invasion and was awarded a Purple Heart. Eventually, he rose to the rank of Major. In his case, we had a happy ending--he survived the war and prospered. The Duchossois family has donated large sums of money to the museum, and a hall is named after them.
The two major sections of the museum are devoted, of course, to the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific. We spent several hours wading through the exhibits and absorbing information. To do an in depth study would take more than just a day.
One thing we enjoyed was an interactive exhibit of Medal of Honor recipients from WWII. I've previously written a couple of articles about Medal of Honor recipients, and the subjects of my articles can be found in the exhibit. For example, Richard Bush, a Kentuckian who spent his later years working for the VA Hospital in North Chicago is included in the exhibit. He died just a couple of years ago. A street is named after him in Waukegan. He bravely--or foolhardily--fell on a live grenade on Okinawa, saving the lives of several of his buddies. He lost an arm and leg, but lived to tell about it.
OAK ALLEY, VACHERIE, LA
From New Orleans, we signed up for a bus tour out in the country to the magnificent Oak Alley, an antebellum sugar plantation. In Southern Louisiana, sugar, rather than cotton was the main cash crop prior to the Civil War. Cotton grew better in the Northern part of the state and also in Alabama and Mississippi where the climate was drier.
The bus driver was a wealth of information about the history of Louisiana. We've visited this area several times, but never soaked up all the cultural significance. They call New Orleans "The Big Easy", probably from Prohibition times when it was perhaps even bawdier than it is now. The "Big Apple" was already taken by New York. Most people aren't aware of it, but they manufacture fire engines in New Orleans. After 9/11, New Orleans delivered two top of the line Mercedes fire engines to New York. The vehicles were superior to those used by the New Orleans fire department. New York was impressed and ordered 41 more. After Hurricane Katrina, New York gave one back to New Orleans.
The first thing you notice visiting Oak Alley are the 28 enormous live oak trees framing the quarter mile road from the Mississippi River to the house. The oak trees were planted by an unnamed Frenchman around 1700, long before the house was built by the prominent Roman family in 1837. An alley has a different connotation in France than it does in Chicago. A French alley is a canopied path. The beautiful plantation house is distinguished by its free standing colonnade of 28 colossal Doric columns.
The plantation stood vacant for years after the Civil War. Various owners could not maintain the buildings, and in the 1920's Andrew and Josephine Stewart purchased the decrepit plantation and hired architect Richard Koch to restore it to its former glory. Mrs. Stewart planted an English garden next to the house. A virus had destroyed the sugar cane crops in the early Twentieth Century, and the Stewarts ran the plantation as a cattle ranch. In the 1960's, they were able to reintroduce sugar cane successfully. When Mrs. Stewart died in 1972, she left the property to the Oak Alley Foundation which opened it to the public.
We toured the restored slave quarters and the blacksmith shop. The plantation is famous for an important event in horticultural history. In 1847, a slave gardener named Antoine was the first to successfully graft pecan trees which made pecans commercially viable. As a slave, he didn't get much credit for that, but at least history remembers his name.
SINGIN' JIMMIE DAVIS AND YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE
Our driver told us the story of the 1940's era Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, better known as "Singin" Jimmie Davis who became famous for composing the popular song, You Are My Sunshine
. According to the bus driver, the song was named after Davis' horse, Sunshine. Actually, my research showed that the horse was named after the song, not the other way around. Whatever the case, the song, first recorded in 1939 later became the official Louisiana state song. Incidentally, not to spoil the guy's story, there are 6 official Louisiana state songs, but Sunshine
is the best known. It has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Lawrence Welk to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and even an instrumental version by Johnny and the Hurricanes. When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he sang the song at all his campaign rallies.
Name recognition is everything in politics, and it worked for Davis. He was eventually elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and received many other honors in his long life. Although they had 101 years to get something on him, he was one of the few Louisiana politicians to never be indicted, as was pointed out by Gov. Edwin Edwards who was
convicted. Edwards was elected both before and after
he was convicted, but that's a long story. Remarkably, Davis was the only governor to live in 3 centuries (1899-2000).
SWAMP TOUR, MARRERO, LA
We drove South from N'awlins to Marrero, LA, deep down in the bayous to look for alligators. We found many. Snakes also, including poisonous water moccasins. . No crocodiles, however. You probably don't want to go swimming there. Most of the locals are Cajuns, descended from the Acadians in Nova Scotia who were driven out of Canada by the British. In the bayous, its easy to get lost, and it became a good hiding place for pirates and others who don't like the government to intrude in their lives.
The famed French (and allegedly Jewish) pirate Jean Lafitte who helped the U.S. in the War of 1812 used this area for his hideout. His statue stands prominently in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
We booked a trip on a catamaran plying the Inter Coastal Waterway. Cap'n Reggie was our guide. A grizzled old Cajun who grew up in the bayou, he knew where to find alligators, and they knew where to find him because he threw food to them, mostly marshmallows. We made sure he was well paid, so he didn't throw any of us in. Alligators can eat and digest almost anything including marshmallows, people and iron hooks. Their usual diet is small animals, but a large gator can drag in a cow that ventures too close. Alligators are color blind, and the marshmallows are easy for them to see. Alligators live as long as humans do, and they continue to grow their entire lives.
Cap'n Reggie looked 20 years older than he really was because he was missing several front teeth. We guessed that he normally wears a bridge but elects not to wear it for the swamp tours, for authenticity sake.
ALPINE HELEN, GEORGIA
Helen, Georgia is a touristy town in the mountains of Northern Georgia. It is commonly known as Alpine Helen because of its location at the Southern end of the Appalachian Mountains and its German heritage. German, in a good way.
Helen was a down and out logging town which resurrected itself into a replica of a Bavarian Alpine town. In 1969, the city fathers adopted a zoning ordinance mandating that all buildings would be built in the classic South German Alpine architecture. The Hampton Inn where we stayed, the Wendy's--every building--German style. It was late September, and the town was preparing for Oktoberfest. Banners hung across the streets.
The town is small--only about 500 permanent residents. During Oktoberfest and when the autumn leaves are changing, thousands of tourists throng into town to peruse the cutesy shops. Besides the mandatory ice cream and fudge shops, there is a glass blowing shop. There are not many outside of Venice, but Helen has one. We purchased a couple of pieces for gifts.
The restaurants had names like Hansel & Gretel's Candy Kitchen and King Ludwig's Beer Garden. Even Jimmy's Chicago Style Hot Dogs looked like a German restaurant.
BABYLAND GENERAL HOSPITAL, CLEVELAND GEORGIA
There's not much to see in Cleveland, Georgia, near Helen, but if you are into Cabbage Patch dolls, this is the place to go. A mile of so out of town behind a 5 acre front lawn is an old mansion which is now the Babyland General Hospital. It's not a real hospital, but for 120 bucks or so, you can "adopt" a Cabbage Patch doll, fill out papers and give it a name.
The "doctors" and "nurses" are dressed in scrubs like real medical people. Every few minutes,,they pull a doll out of the cabbage leaves. You can see the cabbage field with heads sticking out. Many tourists find this a little creepy. At the gift shop, you can buy a regular Cabbage Patch doll without the adoption process for about $25. We adopted the $120 model last time we visited Cleveland, and it rests in its cradle in our living room.
BILTMORE, ASHEVILLE, NC
The Biltmore Estate was the brainchild of George Vanderbilt, actually George Washington Vanderbilt III, grandson of the Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Naming people after presidents was considered fashionable in the 19th Century and even in the early 20th Century. Not so much anymore.
In those days even obscure presidents were honored in this way. For example, in the baseball world alone, just narrowing it down to pitchers, we had Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar "Cal" McLish, Millard Fillmore "Dixie" Howell, Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Lilly and Monty Franklin Pierce Stratton, all of whom pitched for the White Sox or Cubs at one time. There was Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander, born during the Cleveland Administration who was portrayed by another president, Ronald Reagan in a 1952 movie, The Winning Team
. In the old Negro Leagues, there was a star pitcher and catcher Theodore Roosevelt "Double Duty" Radcliffe who didn't quite make the Hall of Fame but died in 2005 at age 103. I'm getting off the subject.
Back to the Vanderbilts, The Commodore, who had 13 kids, borrowed 100 bucks from his family to buy a boat which he used to make a fortune running the Staten Island Ferry in New York. He parlayed that into owning the New York Central Railroad. It costs a lot of money to raise and feed 13 kids. George, who was born on Staten Island, had over a hundred cousins.
George had a reputation as a bon vivant. He was worth millions, so he didn't need a job. When he began building the estate in 1889 he was single. He spent a lot of time partying in Europe where he met his future wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. She was a descendant of that one legged guy in the pictures, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor of New York. If you had "old" money, that counted for something, and Edith's money was about as old as one could get--it dated back to the 1600's.
George never took Edith back to his bachelor pad before they got married in 1898 in Paris. When he finally brought her home after the honeymoon, she finally got to see the house. Apparently she was suitably impressed, and she spent much of her time overseeing the vast gardens.
The Vanderbilts had one child, Cornelia, born in 1900 in the Louis XV room--or was it the Louis XVI room?
The house is truly impressive; it is the largest privately owned house in the U.S. The French Renaissance Chateau with steeply pitched roofs and ornamental sculptures has 250 rooms which includes 35 bedrooms, 65 fireplaces and 43 bathrooms, none of which are open to the public.
Tourists have to use the ones outside The house living area encompasses 175,000 square feet, as big as a Super Walmart. God would live there if He had the money. The front of the house is 375 feet long. Inside, it has an original functioning Otis electric elevator, one of the oldest in the world. We actually rode in an older one several years ago, in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul dating back to 1892.
When Vanderbilt purchased the property, the acreage had been cleared for farmland. His vision was to restore the land to its natural state. The gardens were meticulously planned with a world class conservatory and a large pond stocked with bass. Many new varieties of roses were developed at the conservatory. Vanderbilt hired the famous landscape architect, Fredric Law Olmsted to create them. Olmsted's resume included Central Park in New York and the Chicago boulevard system. More on that in a moment.
Olmsted had an interesting biography. He was a journalist who wrote a book detailing the inefficiencies of slavery in the South. During the Civil War, he was the head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (precursor to the Red Cross) which tended to the wounded troops.
Olmsted had no training in landscape architecture, and with the encouragement of his friend and mentor, landscape architect Andrew Jackson (there we go again) Downing, he entered a contest with the experienced English architect Calvert Vaux in 1852 to design New York's Central Park. Their design won. The success of Central Park led many cities to hire Olmsted and Vaux's firm. He went on to design the park systems in Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Louisville among others, as well as many college campuses like the University of Chicago, Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, Yale, Cornell and Washington of St. Louis. By the time Vanderbilt hired him, Olmsted had many years' experience and was the leading name in the field.
The architect for the house was society architect, Richard Morris Hunt who built the Breakers and Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, both for members of the Vanderbilt family. He also built the William K. Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue in New York, the John Jacob Astor IV house in New York and even the Marshall Field house in Chicago. Hunt and Vanderbilt together visited many French Renaissance chateau houses in England and France to get inspiration for their project. They modeled the house after Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England, but of course they added modern state of the art amenities like central heating, plumbing, electricity, refrigeration and two electric elevators. Air conditioning wasn't invented until 1901. The stables were placed at the North end of the house to protect the house from the prevailing winds.
Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, a young forest surveyor, a couple of years out of college to supervise the reforesting of the land. Buoyed by the success of his work at Biltmore, Pinchot went on to become a well known and respected conservationist whose guiding principle was that a forest can produce timber and still be maintained for future generations. Pinchot hung around with Teddy Roosevelt who appointed him head of the U.S. Forestry Service. In the 1920's he was twice elected Governor of Pennsylvania. Pinchot has a national forest named after him in the State of Washington.
The Biltmore Estate originally encompassed 150,000 acres--most of Western North Carolina. The French Broad River runs prominently through it. It sounds like it could have been named after one of Donald Trump's former girlfriends, but actually it was named by early English settlers who noted that the river, a tributary of the Broad River, flowed into areas then controlled by the French. There were two Broad Rivers, English translations of their Cherokee names. The other they named the English Broad River, but the name was later changed to just the Broad River. The river arises in spooky Transylvania County, North Carolina, and flows into the Tennessee River in Knoxville.
After George Vanderbilt's death in 1914 at age 51, Edith sold off much of the heavily wooded acreage to the U.S. Forestry Service for less than 5 bucks an acre. It is now a state park, Mount Pisgah State Park.
Cornelia married a British ambassador, John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924. Cecil's ancestor, William Cecil, was the personal advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. The wedding was the high point of the social season. A small museum at Biltmore focuses on 60 years of wedding fashion in the Vanderbilt family. The exhibits feature Edith's and also Cornelia's bridal gowns and veils. Cornelia's son William A.V. Cecil married a woman named Mary Lee Ryan who was Jackie Kennedy's first cousin (their mothers were sisters). Both Jackie and Mary Ryan wore the same heirloom veil at their respective weddings. The veil was originally owned by their maternal grandmothers.
Of course, with that connection to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, tourists took notice and put Biltmore on their bucket lists. Today the Cecil family descendants manage the Biltmore Estate. The Vanderbilt or Cecil women are encouraged to uphold the tradition and wear the same veil at their weddings.
The Biltmore Estate has two pricey hotels and several (expensive) restaurants of excellent quality.We stayed two nights at the hotel and dined at the restaurants on the grounds. They are especially good because they are stocked with organic food and wines grown on the grounds of the estate. Sheep and cattle are raised on the estate. Tourists are encouraged to tour the winery which is said to have world class wines. Wine tastings are held daily. We are not connoisseurs of wine, so we can't judge.
Overall, the Biltmore is an attraction worth visiting.
NEXT; The Suskins Travel to India, or is it Indiana?