Mother Daughter Book Reviews is pleased to welcome author Cat Michaels as a guest contributor with us today. Ms. Michaels is here to share some of the sights of her native North Carolina.
The Chamber of Commerce says Asheville, North Carolina (US) is the Blue Ridge Mountain city that has altitude with attitude. Linda, long-time time resident and supreme host at an Asheville bed and breakfast, calls the place edgy.
I completely agree with both!
Asheville is an easy four-hour drive west on I-40 from my home in North Carolina’s flatlands. Snuggled off the beaten track in the mountains, all manner of art, music, food and literary wonders are tucked away in a magical place.
I’m eager to explore this cosmopolitan city that’s a magnet for creative types, outdoor enthusiasts, and — especially — all things writing and books!
Please come along as I discover two book lovers from Asheville’s literary heritage and their very different Blue Ridge Mountain libraries: entrepreneur George Vanderbilt at Biltmore Estate and poet Carl Sandburg at Connemara Farm.
19th-Century Bibliophile’s Library Unlimited
My first stop is the region’s crown jewel, the 178,926 square foot, 250-room Biltmore Estate. 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 long to visit Biltmore’s Dressing Downton exhibit to ogle costumes from my fave Downton Abbey telly series that are lusciously displayed in 50 rooms throughout the mansion.
While every room is spectacular, I fall under the spell of the grand library. It houses George Vanderbilt’s personal stash of nearly 23,000 books.
Vanderbilt was an avid reader, who kept track of books in his journal, Books I Have Read. He even kept a separate index of alphabetical titles along with the dates he finished them. (An early form of Goodreads!) Vanderbilt favored Charles Dickens, who was wildly popular at the time, and also listed 4,326 French titles in his 19th-century “to-read” shelf.
The 40’ x 60’ library, accented in raging red with Davinci-like painted ceilings, confirms Vanderbilt was a true book nerd. The room’s second floor even has a hidden door between massive shelves, so guests could take a shortcut to borrow books. Plus, George built homes for estate workers and provided education for village children. I like this guy! I would so follow his Tweets if he were around today!
20th-Century Poet’s Library
The next day, I discover a different type of library, located 30 miles south of Asheville in Flat Rock, North Carolina. It’s the home of American poet, journalist, and biographer, Carl Sandberg.
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 lake and 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 their daughters until his death in 1967. Lilian Sandburg out her stamp on the farm by raising prize-winning goats, whose milk made popular cheeses and ice creams. The Park Service keeps descendants of those first goats on Connemara today, so visitors can sample Lilian’s goat-cheesed frozen recipes.
Sandburg was a prolific reader and researcher, exploring everything from President Abraham Lincoln to US Civil Rights. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History for his Lincoln biography in 1940 and a Pulitzer for his poetry in 1951.
I’m excited to find that Sandburg was also a children’s poet, publishing The Rutabaga Tales in 1922 as a collection of fairy tale poems originally written for his daughters. Even better — Sandburg loved visiting schools and reading his stories, especially to the children of Flat Rock. Imagine, this humble literary septuagenarian doing author visits with kids! I feel a little tug at my heart at 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. The 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 could step through the door any minute to pick up a book and smile at me. Or Lilian might pop in to offer a sample of her goat cheese.
I don’t have time to explore the Thomas Wolf House in downtown Asheville that served as inspiration for his Look Homeward, Angel. And I only 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?
About the Guest Contributor
Kid Lit author and blogger Cat Michaels has more than 20 years’ experience as an educator and writing coach. Currently, she’s working on her third book in the Sweet T Tales series for early readers, where kids use imagination and problem-solving skills to write or draw the story ending. You’ll find Cat blogging about writing, books, literacy, and more on Cat’s Corners.