« Woman of the Cloth | Main | Woman On a Mission »

A Fashionable Yarn

The rise, fall and transformation of Biltmore Industries has involved some of Asheville’s most prominent families—and fascinating personalities.

by Jess McCuan     •     portraits  by Matt Rose

Edith Vanderbilt in a suit of Biltmore Industries wool, circa 1924. photo courtesy of The Biltmore CompanyThe New York Times didn’t quite get it right.

In a story from 1958 with this terrific headline, “Giant Oak Loom in Store Spins a Fashionable Yarn,” the paper did get many details right. Harry Blomberg, a famous Ashevillean who owned Western North Carolina’s first Cadillac dealership and was then owner of Biltmore Industries, had in fact sent a giant loom up to New York City.

It sat in the Saks Fifth Avenue men’s department for months as a publicity stunt. “[The loom] is causing such a stir that the allure of topcoats, sports jackets and cigars has been temporarily supplanted,” a Times writer puffed. “Saks has a wide variety of Biltmore woolens on hand and will make suits, skirts and sports jackets to measure in this fabric.” Indeed, a handful of American presidents, first ladies and other celebrities had had suits made out of Biltmore Industries fabric. Many more, like Richard Nixon, would do so in the years to come.

But what the newspaper didn’t report accurately that day was the history of Biltmore Industries. Yes, the story involves Edith Vanderbilt, wife of George W. Vanderbilt, builder and owner of the Biltmore Estate. But Biltmore Industries wasn’t simply, as the story claimed, a “little craft school” that Edith opened on the Vanderbilt manor. It was, in fact, opened by two other women, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance. And while its original purpose was to “encourage the mountain people to develop and preserve the art of weaving” (and woodworking), as the story said, the company grew dramatically. In a few decades, it became a large-scale textile operation that employed hundreds of people and was one of Western North Carolina’s most high-profile business entities. Later, as it collapsed and then transformed into the Grovewood Gallery craft village—changing hands between Vanderbilts, Groves, Blombergs and Pattons—Biltmore Industries ended up fueling tensions and unions between some of the area’s most prominent families.

Marilyn Patton, 81, is the president of Biltmore Industries. She is Harry Blomberg’s oldest daughter. PHOTO BY MATT ROSE This month, as the Grovewood Gallery celebrates its 20th year of modern history, VERVE also takes a look back at the history of its parent company, Biltmore Industries.

First, a question that regularly stumps locals: How did an entity once associated with the Vanderbilts end up on Asheville’s north side, on land adjacent to the Grove Park Inn? As Sherry Masters, general manager of Grovewood Gallery, explains, the answer lies in one Fred L. Seely—an ambitious, obsessive newspaperman and businessperson who was the son-in-law of E.W. Grove.

Seely always had a rocky relationship with his father-in-law, the owner of the Grove Park Inn, though Seely managed the hotel for years. Bruce Johnson, author of Built for the Ages: A History of the Grove Park Inn, says Seely may have started negotiating with Edith Vanderbilt to buy Biltmore Industries in 1916 as a safeguard. “He needed a parachute,” Johnson says, “a way to make a living when the time came that he and the Grove family would have a major disagreement.”

But before he could buy Biltmore Industries, he had to wrestle it away from Edith Vanderbilt, who had been unusually involved and interested since its early days.

Sherry Masters, who has helped manage Grovewood Gallery for 20 years. PHOTO BY MATT ROSE The company was founded by Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance, who had met at a Bible school in Chicago and moved south to find a better life. Vance had studied woodcarving and Yale knew weaving, so when the pair rented a flat together in Biltmore Village in 1901, Eleanor Vance used her kitchen table as a carving workshop. According to a historical chapter by Johnson in May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina (Volume II), young boys started crowding into Vance’s kitchen to watch her carve. When a local reverend from All Souls’ Church, Rodney Swope, realized Vance’s skills could be useful enrichment for the boys of Biltmore Village, he convinced Vance and Yale to form a parish club. They soon taught woodworking to boys in a separate workspace.

By 1904, the boys club expanded to include a girls’ club that was being bankrolled by George Vanderbilt. In 1905, as Vance and Yale instructed children on basket-weaving and carving bookends, Vance, Yale and the Rev. Swope “began working to gain Edith Vanderbilt’s attention,” according to Johnson.

Edith, it turns out, was incredibly civic-minded. The Biltmore Estate’s curator of interpretation, Leslie Klingner, explains that Edith had lost her parents at an early age and learned to rely on both her governess and a wide circle of friends. This taught her both the value of community-building and the importance of giving people a means to support themselves. Indeed, Eleanor Vance would later tell a writer for the Asheville Citizen that their fledgling company, Biltmore Estate Industries, only made real progress after “the public-spirited Mrs. Vanderbilt discovered the quiet beginnings [we] had made in encouraging handiwork among the mountain people.”

George Vanderbilt’s name rarely appeared in the financial records. But Johnson and the Biltmore’s historians say Edith convinced George to quietly fund the company for the next decade. Girls and boys made bowls, frames and benches. When the company bought more sophisticated equipment, like carding machines to clean wool, or wood-turning lathes, they were handled by a growing crowd of grown men and women.

George and Edith Vanderbilt bankrolled the earliest incarnation of Biltmore Industries (then called Biltmore Estate Industries), starting around 1905. Here, a snapshot of the company from the 1950s.Shockingly, for a woman of her stature, Edith was known to tote wool up a mountain on horseback to women weaving in their cottages. “This was literally a cottage industry,” says Klingner. “It was really remarkable, her level of personal commitment to the project.” Johnson says Edith suggested the company brand: the word “Forward,” inscribed on a banner in the shape of an arrow. “Each time they branded the word ‘Forward,’ it was encouragement from Mrs. Vanderbilt that they were going to go forward with their lives and improve their situation,” he says. 

When her husband died unexpectedly in 1914, at age 51, after complications from an appendectomy, Edith Vanderbilt was strapped. She suddenly, and surprisingly, for a Vanderbilt, had neither the time to tend to the company nor the money to continue funding it. And Fred Seely, who had been sparring with his father-in-law over the love of E.W. Grove’s only daughter, was looking to invest.

When Seely bought Biltmore Estate Industries (and quickly dropped the word “Estate”) from Edith in 1916, he put the business in a strategic spot. Since he lived in North Asheville and managed the newly-opened Grove Park Inn, he bought 20 choice acres for Biltmore Industries right next door to the hotel. Seely reasoned he could easily run both businesses from there, and he could capitalize on hotel tourists buying Biltmore Industries products. In a few years’ time, Seely built six buildings to complement the architecture and style of the Grove Park, the same buildings that now house the Grovewood Gallery, museums and Grovewood Café. At some point under Seely, according to Johnson, those six buildings housed 45 looms and more than 100 workers, who were steadily cranking out some of the highest-quality wool in the country.

Seely’s newspaper connections told him this: wherever celebrities go, good publicity follows. That meant Seely frequently allowed celebs and entrepreneurs like Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone (founder of the tire company) to stay at the Grove Park Inn for free. The same principle applied to Biltmore Industries. If celebs wore suits made of Biltmore Industries fabric, good press would follow. So Seely regularly sent fabric samples to Hollywood stars, well-to-do families and presidents. When Calvin Coolidge’s wife Grace requested a particular shade of red fabric for a suit, Biltmore Industries called it “Coolidge Red.”

By the late 1940s, though, the company was falling apart. Fred Seely’s son, Fred Seely, Jr., was a career Navy man and had little interest in running his dad’s business, according to Johnson. The Great Depression had hit the business hard, and as the first cheap textile imports started to compete with American-made goods, fewer young workers were interested in learning how to operate looms. By the early 1950s, the Seelys had all but given up on keeping their handmade wool operation afloat. Luckily, Harry Blomberg hadn’t—though he didn’t know that when he first visited the business in the fall of 1953.

A room full of looms, some of which still sit on the property today.Harry Blomberg was simply looking for a table—and also, by happenstance, a moonshine still. Blomberg had a collection of business interests in Asheville, including the first Cadillac dealership, a gas station and motor inns. He lived in Asheville but vacationed at a Lake Lure cabin, and Harry wanted a long wooden table for his lakeside place. He thought he might find one at Biltmore Industries, which was by then in bankruptcy dealings. When he walked into the building that day, he also spied a large moonshine still that he thought would make a good conversation piece in the cabin. The business was in such dire straits that neither item was really for sale. But Blomberg ended up buying both—along with the entire company.

According to archives about Biltmore Industries in the Ramsey Library Special Collections at UNC-Asheville, the negotiation between Blomberg and a Biltmore Industries manager, Alec Gover, took less than half an hour:

“He [Blomberg] called Gover over. Seely wasn’t there. ‘How much will you take for that still?’ Harry asked... ‘Oh, I can’t sell that,’ Gover said, it belongs to Mr. Seely and the Federal Government.”

‘That’s too bad,’ Harry said, and started out.

‘Wait a minute,’ Gover said. ‘There’s one way you could buy it. You’d have to buy this whole place to get it.’
Harry gave him a hard stare, saw he was serious, and the two began to trade horses. In 20 minutes, they’d settled on a price.”

The rooms full of weaving looms cranked up again, and Blomberg used the tactic of the elder Seely—sending fabric samples to celebrities—as a way to build buzz for the business.

But the tide for producing textiles in this country was taking an irreversible turn. American manufacturers were competing not only with cheap imports, but also with a shift in how Americans dressed. Men and women no longer bought yards of fabric for custom-tailored suits. They still bought suits, to be sure, but readymade ones, and Asian manufacturers churned them out at cheaper prices and in higher volumes. The yardage of wool fabric that Biltmore Homespun produced dropped steadily over the ‘60s and ‘70s, and by the ‘80s, the number of workers who knew how to operate Biltmore Industries looms dwindled to just a few.

Meanwhile, cars were hot. Which meant Blomberg’s other businesses, especially the Cadillac dealership, were doing quite well. Harry’s granddaughter, Pat Grimes, still runs the Harry’s on the Hill car dealership in West Asheville. When she was little, she says, she remembers Biltmore Industries was already turning into a museum. Instead of producing much fabric, the North Asheville craft village made its money on tours—which she started giving at age 8. “My feet were all dirty and people really felt sorry for me,” Grimes recalls. “They thought I was some poor Appalachian child. I got great tips.”

In fact, Grimes had dirtied her feet playing in her well-tended backyard. Grimes’ mother, Marilyn Blomberg, married Siegfried “Buddy” Patton and moved into a house adjacent to the Biltmore Industries buildings. Today, Marilyn Patton, who is 81, still lives there. After Buddy’s death in 2007, Marilyn controls Biltmore Industries and the Grovewood Gallery with her sister, Barbara Blomberg, an actress and retired casting agent who lives in New York City.

Over the years, the Blomberg family has received several offers to buy their business and 11 acres—now surrounded by the Grove Park Inn’s tony golf course and blocks of upscale North Asheville homes. Pat Grimes recalls that, just a week after her father’s death in 2007, her mother received a communiqué that she was none too pleased about. It was from the late Elaine Sammons, then chairwoman of Sammons Enterprises, which owned the Grove Park Inn. “It said, essentially, ‘I was so saddened to hear of Buddy’s passing. Are you interested in selling Grovewood Gallery?’ All in the same sentence,” Grimes says. The answer? Absolutely not. “There’s a huge sentimental attachment to the property and the building,” says Grimes.

And the attachment is more than sentimental, as the family believes there’s plenty of life left in their company. In 1991, when Harry Blomberg died, the Pattons and Barbara Blomberg turned what was then a trinket shop and dilapidated industrial buildings into a glittering 9,000-square-foot craft gallery (Grovewood). They also turned a building into studio space for artists. “Everybody had this dream of having a craft village,” says Barbara Blomberg, who visits Asheville frequently from New York. Buddy Patton was the driving force behind the current gallery space, which sells everything from furniture to ceramics to jewelry. The trio also spiffed up the property’s antique car museum, operating since the ‘60s, and rented out a building to the operators of the Grovewood Café.

All of this meant Biltmore Industries was back on top again, with revenues that surpassed the $1 million mark sometime in the early 2000s. Masters, who has been a manager at Grovewood Gallery since 1992, collects fine crafts from around the country. She’s particularly proud of the gallery’s recent awards, including being named a Top 10 Retailer of American Craft for several years in a row by NICHE magazine.

To be sure, the gallery suffers from a bit of a perception problem with locals—sitting, as it does, so close to the Grove Park Inn. “It is kind of tucked away,” says Barbara Blomberg. “We don’t get as many locals as we should.” Masters and her staff try to battle the misperception that Grovewood is owned by the Grove Park, and that its offerings are solely aimed at tourists (the Grovewood complex houses nine local artists, and it frequently hosts events for locals). In mid-April, when it was announced that the Grove Park Inn would be sold to KSL Capital Partners, a Denver-based private equity firm, the family also worried that it would lose control over a 1,300-square-foot Biltmore Industries-owned gallery, Gallery of the Mountains, which sits inside the Grove Park Inn.

The Blombergs are always weighing their options. Could the hulking Biltmore Industries looms, still housed in a long warehouse behind the gallery, someday spin again? The family hasn’t ruled it out. Barbara Blomberg says they’ve been approached by curators about displaying the looms in a textile museum. And one particular weaving machine—the mule spinner—could be usable again in textile operations, she says, with a good bit of revamping. This month, at an event celebrating Grovewood’s history, the mule spinner and other ancient machines will be on display for the public.

Taking stock after the modern company’s 20th year, one thing seems certain: the family is committed to keeping its buildings, and the legacy of Biltmore Industries, alive. “We want to keep it as is as long as we can,” says Barbara Blomberg. “It has such history, and it’s utterly unique.” Marilyn Patton, who walks next door to the gallery regularly and is involved with a variety of community causes, says she intends to keep her father’s properties intact. “I don’t want to see them putting a high-rise out there,” she says, gesturing out the window of her home. “[This place] wouldn’t be the way it is, and I love the way it is.”

Posted on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 06:01PM by Registered CommenterVerve-acious | Comments1 Comment | References1 Reference

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (1)

Great piece, Jess! Fascinating!
May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne O'Sullivan

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.