Amazing stories from North Carolina

Monday 5 to Friday 9 June

We were touring the Blue Ridge Parkway. There were orange azaleas, mauve to pink rhododendrons, pink to white laurel, yellow wild flowers, dark green firs and the lovely spring green of the deciduous trees with sprinkles of white flowers in the understory. It was a constant feast for the eyes.

But North Carolina had even more to offer than the beautiful flowers on the Blue Park Rdgeway.

We stepped off the Blue Ridge Parkway and diverted into Winston-Salem. This is the home of the Reynold’s family, the founder of many famous cigarette brands including Winston and Salem. I’ve never been a cigarette smoker, but those brands were favourites among some of my friends in the 1970s.

The Reynold’s family made money importing and processing tobacco.

R.J.Reynolds married a first cousin once removed, Katherine Smith in 1905. He was 55 and she was 25. After a long honeymoon in Europe, Katherine set about acquiring property and built a modern self-sufficient farm as well as the family home Reynolda. They had four children, but R.J.Reynolds died in 1918 just five months after moving into their new home. The home stayed in the family of daughter Mary Reynolds Babcock before the house was incorporated as an art museum in the 1960s.

Photography was not allowed, so it is difficult to expand on the wealth of art and the character of the house.

Winston-Salem has another attraction, the area of the 18th century Morovian settlers. This closed Christian group of Protestant denomination first began in 1457, out of the followers of John Huss (Jan Hus, 1369–1415) in the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia. The first members came to America in 1753 and settled in Old Salem in 1759. They stayed neutral in the War of Independence and the Civil War and have maintained a traditional lifestyle. The village features the Salem College which is the oldest female institution in the southern United States.

We met the pastor who gave us an insight into the philosophy of the Church, which included openness and compassion. In the complex world of a new leader of USA and greater visibility of popularism, it was nice to share some earthly values.

Dinner in Winston Salem was interesting. More than ever we were greeted with the “Y’allhaveagoodnightthen”, a reference to the request for tips.

Our next overnight stop was at Asheville. It is a hip town known for the largest selection of beer in one town. Poor Bruce only got to savour two beers – a pale ale and an IPA. Never mind, he has already sampled too many to remember. 

We did the self guided walk around the town. Asheville is one of those towns that got forgotten in the urban renewal of gulag ghettos in the 1960s, and retains some older style buildings dating back to art decor. Sadly, it seems that modernity is now taking a swipe at Asheville with building sites and cranes all over the city. 

The other attraction in Asheville is Biltmore, the Vanderbilt mansion that was built in the 1890s by George Washington Vanderbilt II. With inheritances from his grandfather and father he built the massive mansion of 250 rooms. He was only 25 years old when construction commenced.

It is the largest home in the United States, obscenely enormous and ostentatiously decorated. There is 178,926 square feet (16,622.8 m2) of floor space which includes 135,280 square feet (12,568 m2) of living area.

There are 33 guest rooms, most with private bathrooms. Servants facilities are equal to the needs of a medium sized hotel with kitchen and laundry facilities to manage the guests needs. 

George WVII travelled to Europe in his mid twenties, found a rich young American lady living in Paris called Edith Stuyvesant Gerry (m. 1898–1914), married her and brought her back to the estate. 

They threw parties and lived an indulgent life. He read books from his extensive library and so did she.

Their only daughter Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil in April 1924. They continued the partying until money ran out and they were forced to abandon it.

The family still owns the estate, although it is now a mansion + winery + hotels + equestrian center + reception center, in fact any offering that will bring in a financial return.

Amazingly, there were crowds of Americans visiting the mansion and its surrounds.

We struggle over and over with the obesity that we see in the United States, the extra long sugary coffees, the salads that are piled high with cheeses, the boxes of food that are taken home from the restaurants. As Bruce says ‘there is no lean hunger’. 

It’s a sad indictment on society when your wait staff are paid $2.13 per hour. For being ‘nice’ they can earn up to $25 per hour. But it is a constant smile, always greeted with ‘Hello, I’m Mary/John and I’ll be looking after you tonight’. Your tip is shared by the wait staff, the people who fill your water glasses to overflowing, the people who clear your plate the very second you take your last morsel and the dish pigs in the kitchen. 

In order to take full advantage of the beautiful Appalachian mountains we re-joined the Blue Ridge Parkway to Cherokee. This is in the southern part of the mountains and is Indian territory. They keep financial with a casino which clearly attracts many local Americans. Certainly not as glitzy as Las Vegas but every bit as busy. At least there were decent restaurants there where we enjoyed good Italian wine and food. 

We visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indians to get an understanding the history of the native Indians. They displayed the story of their development during the ages, sadly without any chronological information. The life style during the first two periods described were remarkably similar to our aboriginal people, nomadic hunters and gatherers, developing hunting spears and simple shelters. 

But the native Indians discovered agriculture, in particular corn and beans, so the society stabilised into semi-nomadic seasonal lifestyles. Further development saw them settling and then fighting between tribes for their land and trading in goods. 

It is suggested (but not at this museum) that a migratory path from the Asian continent (Russia) to the American continent escalated the Indians’ development. 

As we headed west our next stop was Knoxville, but not before we had descended the Blue Ridge Mountains through the Newfound Gap and into the Grey Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.