The Chamber of Commerce proclaims Asheville, North Carolina as the Blue Ridge Mountain city that has altitude with attitude.
Linda, long-time time resident and supreme host at our Asheville bed and breakfast, calls the place edgy.
I completely agree! Snuggled off the beaten track in the Blue Ridge, all manner of art, music, food and literary wonders are tucked away in this magical place.
Asheville is an easy four-hour drive west on I-40 to from my home in the flatlands. Join me in a visit to this cosmopolitan city that’s a magnet for creative types as well as outdoor enthusiasts.
We’ll discover two amazing and very different libraries from Asheville’s literary heritage:
* entrepreneur George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate library
* poet Carl Sandburg's Connemara Farm library.
The 178,926-square foot, 250-room Biltmore Estate is the region’s crown jewel. This largest private home in America is owned and operated by the Vanderbilt family. It stretches over 8,000-acres of jaw-dropping mountain views and gardens designed by the great Frederick Law Olmstead, who also envisioned New York City’s Central Park.
(Full disclosure: I also long to visit Biltmore’s Dressing Downton exhibit to ogle costumes from my all-time fave Downton Abbey that are lusciously displayed in 50 rooms throughout the mansion. Sorry, no photos are allowed of the exhibit, or I'd post some for you!)
While every room in Biltmore is spectacular, I fall under the spell of the grand library that houses George Vanderbilt’s personal stash of nearly 23,000 books.
The 40’ x 60’ library, accented in raging red with Michaelanagelo-like painted ceilings, confirms Vanderbilt was a true book nerd. The room’s ladder to the second tier catwalk even has a hidden door between massive shelves, so guests could take a shortcut from their rooms to borrow books without having to haul up a ladder.
Vanderbilt, an avid reader, kept track of books in his journal, Books I Have Read. He even maintained a separate index of alphabetical titles along with the dates he finished them. (An early form of Goodreads!)
He favored Charles Dickens, who was wildly popular at the time, and also listed 4,326 French titles in his 19th-century "to-read" shelf. (Now I'm sure George had a vision about Goodreads.)
Plus, George built homes for estate workers and provided education for village children. I like this guy! I would so follow him on Twitter if he were around today!
A 20th-Century Poet’s Library
On a misty afternoon when mountains are hidden by clouds, I discover a different type of library, located 30 miles south of Asheville in Flat Rock, NC, at the home of poet, journalist, and biographer, Carl Sandburg.
Sandburg moved to Connemara, his antebellum, 245-acre farm, at the age of 65 to escape Chicago's winters. Set in the foothills, Connemara backs to a small lake while enjoying stunning mountain views from the front porch. In fact, the National Park Service, which preserves this historic landmark, reports Sandburg decided to buy the house after stepping on the front porch and seeing the mountains. He never even looked inside!
It was the right choice: the writer lived there for 22 years with his wife, Lilian, and daughters until his death in 1967. Lilian further put her stamp on the farm by raising prize-winning goats, whose milk made regionally popular cheeses and ice creams.
Sandburg was a prolific reader and researcher, exploring everything from President Abraham Lincoln to US Civil Rights. He won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his Lincoln biography in 1940 and a Pulitzer for his poetry in 1951.
I’m excited to learn that Sandburg wrote poems for children. In 1922, his Rutabaga Tales was published as a collection of fairy tale rhymes originally written for his two daughters.
Sandburg loved visiting schools and reading his poems, especially to the children of Flat Rock. Imagine this humble literary giant doing school visits! I feel a little tug at my heart just thinking about his generosity.
Unlike Vanderbilt, who clustered most of his books in a single great library, almost every room in Sandburg's house is a mini-library unto itself, packed to the ceilings with bookshelves containing parts of his 14k-book collection.
As his eyesight diminished, Sandburg's daughter transcribed his notes and ideas each morning on a (GASP!) typewriter.
My docent from the National Park Service tells me that kids visiting the home today are fascinated when she shows them this ancient writing device!
I love Sandburg’s unpretentious, welcoming home. It's maintained as if the poet would step through the door any minute to pick up a book. Or Lilian might pop in to offer us a sample of her goat cheese and ice cream.
Thanks for being such a fine traveling companion. We won't have time to explore the Thomas Wolf House in downtown Asheville that served as inspiration for his Look Homeward, Angel. Let's at least drive past the Grove Park Inn, where F. Scott Fitzgerald spent two summers in the 1930s recovering from Tuberculosis.
Always good to save something for a return trip, don't you think?
PHOTOS: Cat Michaels
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