Today, July 8th, 2008 was yet another grand adventure in Boone, North Carolina. Day three of our Blue Ridge Parkway NEH LAndmarks in American History workshop and the theme could be construed as a study in the naturalist environment. Dr. Tim Silver, author of Mt. Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An environmental history of the highest peaks in the Eastern America, gave a morning slide presentation and discussion relating to his book. We discussed the notions of ‘what is nature’. our conection to a constructed landscape, how we hard the ecological balance when we try to tame nature for our pleasurable views. Nature is in people’s thinking as well as their actions. Again, as was the case in yesterday’s discussions, the theme of imminent domain has come up….how do we attract tourism with an antiseptic and stylised landscape and at what cost of those who live on the land?
A short time was spent in a break out group examining primary sources from Bertha Cone’s letters to Hoover expressing her displeasure at the construction of the Parkway through her parcel of land. As was the case yesterday, I am still in awe of the amount of research and preparation which has gone into planning this workshop. Many of these primary sources are from the National Archives in Washington as well as from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
After lunch, our group boarded a bus to Blowing Rock, home of the Moses and Bertha Cone Mansion. Phil Norblitt, author of Mansions in the Mountains:the Story of Moses and Bertha Cone and their Blowing Rock Manor, accompanied us. As a former National Park Service Interpreter at this location, Mr. Norblitt is very knowledgeable of the family’s history, of the Cone Family’s cotton textile business and art collection. This sad tale, of Mr. Cone’s death at the young age of 51, only 8 years after completion of this family summer retreat, forced his wife Bertha, a lady of Victorian values at the turn of the century to begin managing their functioning farm on the property. Her strong convictions to its management led to an opposition to the building of the parkway through her
parcel of land. Again, the theme of imminent domain surfaced in our discussions. Those with power could influence the path of the parkway. Ultimately, at her bequest, Mrs. Cone’s house was willed to the Greensboro Hospital, then was turned over to the NPS to be enjoyed as a pleasurable park for others. The house was intended to remain closed to the public, though today a local crafts group display and sell their wares in a portion of this building.
Much of the Cone mansion history reminds me of our John Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Similar to Cone, Ringling was a wealthy man, who had built a luxury retreat in an exotic local. Both entertained wealth acquaintances at these retreats, both were married without children and direct heirs to manage their assets. Both realised a death within the couple and thus hard times fell upon them. In the case of the Cone’s , Bertha became responsible for managing both the house as well as the self sustaining farm. In the case of Ringling, Mable died leaving John Ringling with little joy. Much of his fortune was lost during the Depression, resulting in his penniless status at the time of death. Ringling’s house and art collection was left to the State of Florida willingly. Mrs. Cone, begrudgingly signed and agreement to hand over the farm land to the government at the time of her death. As I walked through the Cone mansion, my mind was drawing parallels to these two houses , whose tales were unfolding at roughly the same time.
Workshop participants hiked a portion of the Cone’s trails to their apple barn, enjoyed the pleasures of rocking on the houses front balcony while enjoying the stunning vista of the town of Blowing Rock below. A heavy summer time rain pounded down for nearly 20 minutes. Interestingly, it was possible to see the weather front approaching us, sweeping across the the mountain tops.
We then boarded the bus, to return to Appalachian State University Campus to eat supper, then read and write about our experiences.