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My Fair Biltmore

Posted on 09/11/2017 by Jean Sexton

As the weather cools and the leaves begin to change color, it's obvious that fall is on its way to Biltmore. It's the perfect time to celebrate the bounty of the harvest season at state and local fairs, just like the ones that were once held at Biltmore.*

Planting seeds for success
The first fair, known as the Biltmore Estate Exhibition, was held in 1905, and preparation began early in the summer when Edith Vanderbilt provided free flower seeds to Biltmore tenants. Even five-year-old Cornelia Vanderbilt planted her own little flower garden before departing for an extended stay in Paris with her parents. Estate Superintendent Chauncey Beadle judged the results of everyone's efforts and prizes were awarded.

Biltmore farm produce and crafts display at the NC State Fair, October 1921Excellent results

“I anticipate the event this year will surpass the initial results,” Chauncey Beadle informed Edith Vanderbilt in 1906. Beadle once again  judged the results in July, recognizing first tthrough fourth place winners for both flower and vegetable gardens grown by families at cottages in the Farm Village, Dairy Farm foremen's cottages, and the farms along the east side and west side of the French Broad River.

"Without doubt, the flower garden of Mrs. Matthias Smith excels in extent and brilliancy any of the flower gardens we visited," Beadle noted of one winner's efforts.

For the Biltmore Estate Exhibition that would occur that fall, Edith Vanderbilt instructed Beadle to give out gardening books as prizes for the winners in July. Beadle kept a list of the books he acquired as prizes for the gardens and to whom they were given, and he had ribbons and cards prepared for the Exhibition.

Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt at the 1921 opening of the NC State FairAwarding prizes

In early September, Beadle distributed a flyer advertising the exhibition to all employees. An impressive list of first and second place winners to whom prizes were awarded in the various classes includes Class “A” (40 categories of vegetables and herbs) and Class “B” (13 categories of field crops). Class “D” covered domestic products such as pickles, preserved fruits, jelly, wine, cakes, loaves of bread, and biscuits. Various types of needlework such as Hungarian embroidery, Russian drawnwork, shadow embroidery, sewing school models were in Class “F” and a basket class included straw baskets, oak baskets, and rush seats. Estate records indicate that Mrs. Halyburton was top prizewinner in 1906 with 12 first place ribbons and six second place ribbons.

In 1907, James Charles Berry, the estate's orchards manager and beekeeper, won a book entitled The American Fruit Culturalist. Its inscription reads, "Mr. J. C. Berry by Mrs. Geo. Vanderbilt as a special prize for a well kept garden and house grounds at the bee farm. Special prize Sept, 1907."

Growing interest
Interest in the event continued to grow year by year. Beadle wrote to Mrs. Vanderbilt in September 1908, “I can but repeat the strong interest that is manifest among the tenants and their families regarding the forthcoming exhibition.” 

By 1911, Mrs. Vanderbilt extended invitations to the tenants in the farthest boundaries of Pisgah Forest in Henderson and Transylvania counties to participate in the “Annual Estate Fair” as it came to be known. From oral histories, we know the fairs continued into the 1930s and 1940s, and those who remembered attending them as children and adults have given glowing accounts of the fun and festivities and the camaraderie of the Biltmore farm families.

Edith Vanderbilt at the 1921 NC State FairPresident of the NC State Fair
In 1921, Edith Vanderbilt was the first woman to be elected president of the North Carolina State Fair. She eradicated gambling to promote educational, family-friendly atmosphere, and it was said of her that "Mrs. Vanderbilt’s record of accomplishment is of such an outstanding character that it points the way to definite service open to other women who are similarly actuated by a desire to aid in community betterment.”

Our farm story continues

Although we no longer hold a fall fair, this is still a wonderful time to visit Biltmore and enjoy learning more about our agricultural heritage with a stroll through Antler Hill Village & Winery to Antler Hill Barn and Farm—followed by delicious field-to-table dining options at any of our estate restaurants!

*All images are from the 1921 North Carolina State Fair
-- Featured: Edith Vanderbilt (left) and Cornelia Vanderbilt at the North Carolina State Fair, October 1921 
-- First image: 
Archival photo of Biltmore farm produce and crafts display at the NC State Fair, October 1921
-- Second image: Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt at the opening of the NC State Fair. They are in standing the right section at the center, with Governor Cameron Morrison between them. There is a uniformed band in the stands to the left and a group of people to the right, October 18, 1921
-- Third image: Archival photo of Governor Cameron Morrison (center) and Edith Vanderbilt (right) inspecting troops at the NC State Fair, October 1921

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