History of Biltmore Industries and Grovewood Gallery
In the years shortly after the completion of the Biltmore House in 1895, George and Edith Vanderbilt spent many hours exploring the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Edith Vanderbilt became very fond of the people of Western North Carolina and took a particular interest in the homespun fabrics that some of the local women wove, often buying them as gifts to send to her northern friends.
At about the same time, two social workers from New York City, Eleanor Park Vance and Charlotte Louise Yale, moved to Asheville and established a craft school to better the lives of the economically deprived youth of the Appalachian region. The efforts of the two women caught the interest and support of George and Edith Vanderbilt, who were already strong supporters of mountain art and craft. They brought Vance and Yale to their estate in 1901 and over the next few years subsidized the development of a craft education program eventually called the Biltmore Estate Industries. The craft programs were soon moved to Biltmore Village, part of the Vanderbilt Estate, and a shop was located at 10 Plaza in the Biltmore Village.
While many crafts were taught in those early years, the hand-weaving of fine cloth and woodworking proved to be the most popular and practical. Edith Vanderbilt sent Yale and Vance to Scotland to learn even more about looms and the art of weaving quality homespun cloth from wool. Under the guidance of Yale and Vance, and with the benevolent support of Edith Vanderbilt, Biltmore Estate Industries soon grew into a bustling cottage industry that established a reputation for quality craftsmanship.
In 1914, tragedy struck when 52-year old George Vanderbilt died from complications related to surgery. Edith Vanderbilt became solely responsible for the sprawling Biltmore Estate and a single parent to their 14-year old daughter, Comelia. George Vanderbilt’s lavish lifestyle had left little available cash for his widow and daughter, and the eight looms of Biltmore Estate Industries could no longer meet the demand for their homespun cloth. Without the time, experience or money to expand and direct Biltmore Estate Industries, Edith Vanderbilt sold the flourishing craft industries in 1917 to Fred Seely, son-in-law of Edwin W. Grove and architect and manager of the Grove Park Inn. Crucial to their agreement was Seely’s promise to continue the industries’ educational features and erect buildings for the woodcarvers and weavers adjacent to the inn. The change of ownership and move from Biltmore Village was reflected in the name. Beginning in 1917 Biltmore Estate Industries became Biltmore Industries. Locally it was also called the Homespun Shops.
The founders of Biltmore Estate Industries, Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance, then moved to Tryon, N.C. where they started a craft industry that later became known as the Tryon Toy-Makers. Seely tried repeatedly to bring Yale and Vance back to Asheville but was unable to return them to the new Biltmore Industries site. He, however, continued his relationship with the two women until the late 1930's, and in their later correspondence, they fondly and amusingly refer to him as their "Godfather".
Under the direction of Fred Seely, Biltmore Industries gained worldwide recognition for its hand-loomed fabrics and through his management, the Grove Park Inn became a sought-after tourist destination. In 1924 Seely left the management of the Grove Park Inn and devoted his attention to the Biltmore Homespun Shops. His diligent efforts soon produced a thriving business and his textiles were worn by many of the country's leading industrialists and political leaders. A total of 40 looms were in steady operation, producing bolts of some of the highest quality homespun fabric in the country. More than a cottage industry, but not an automated industry the hand-loomed woolens were sold in some of the best shops in the country. Biltmore Industries' fame for quality wool fabric even extended to the American presidents. Coolidge Red was designed specifically for Mrs. Calvin Coolidge and Hoover Gray for President Herbert Hoover. President Franklin Roosevelt was particularly fond of the Industries white wool fabric, and was presented with a weaving loom when he visited the Homespun Shops in 1934.
The years of the Great Depression brought the Industries to a near standstill as they struggled to contend with the declining economy. In 1942 Fred Seely died and the Industries suffered an additional setback. Seely’s death was mourned by area residents, for few had done more than he to promote the scenic wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Asheville. His youngest son managed Biltmore Industries for a brief period, but as demand for homespun dwindled in the face of a rapidly automating textile industry, the business and the buildings began to deteriorate.
In 1954, an Asheville entrepreneur named Harry Blomberg purchased the struggling business from the Seely family. He provided the leadership and resources necessary to revive production of homespun fabrics. Although Biltmore Industries would never again reach its heyday status, Blomberg was able to keep the looms in operation for an additional 25 years. In 1980 all production of Biltmore Industries’ homespun fabric ceased, and in 1991 Harry Blomberg died. Ownership of Biltmore Industries transferred to Blomberg’s daughters, Barbara Blomberg and Marilyn Patton, and his son-in-law, S.M. Patton.
New owners, Barbara Blomberg and Marilyn and S.M. Patton, made the decision to revitalize the Homespun Shops that once housed the famous weaving and woodworking complex. Painstaking efforts went into renovating and restoring the original six, English-style cottages and the grounds they are on. In 1992, Biltmore Industries rose again with the opening of Grovewood Gallery and several professional craft studios for local artisans. A small museum is located on the grounds of the Grovewood Gallery that provides an overview of the history of Biltmore Industries and exhibits many of the artifacts from the active years of the industry.