An exceptional woodcarver and gifted designer, Eleanor Park Vance (1869-1954) was born into a modest, middle-class Ohio family. During her early twenties, she studied art, design, and woodcarving under William Fry at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Realizing that the woodcarving profession offered limited career opportunities for women, at age 30, Eleanor enrolled in the Moody Bible Institute located in Chicago. Her dream of serving as a missionary in India with her companion Charlotte Yale was derailed, however, when the two women assumed full responsibility for Eleanor’s widowed and ailing mother.
In 1901, the three women moved south for Ella Vance’s health, settling in a rented house in the village of Biltmore, located on the outskirts of Asheville, NC, at the entrance to the sprawling estate of George Vanderbilt. Soon after learning of Eleanor’s skills, Reverend Rodney Swope of Biltmore’s All Souls Church enlisted the two ladies to teach neighborhood boys and girls how to build and carve furniture and accessories and later how to weave homespun cloth.
With financial support from George Vanderbilt and guidance from his wife Edith, in 1905, Eleanor and Charlotte began managing Biltmore Estate Industries. Their goal was to provide young men and women with practical and productive skills and a source of income through the sale of their items to tourists and Asheville area residents.
Eleanor Vance served as the chief designer for Biltmore Estate Industries. Drawing upon her training under William Fry, she designed walnut bowls, bookends, hearth brushes, bellows, glove boxes, picture frames, and numerous other items, each decorated with carvings inspired by their native flora: acorns and oak leaves, grapes and grapevines, galax leaves and dogwood blossoms. Under her watchful eyes, the young carvers traced her designs upon the wood, then painstakingly carved each leaf, berry, and vine. Only those pieces which passed Eleanor’s inspection were branded with their trademark, suggested by Edith Vanderbilt: the word FORWARD inside a furled banner of an arrow, generally with BILTMORE, NC impressed beneath it.
One year after the unexpected death of George Vanderbilt in 1914, Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale decided that Biltmore Estate Industries no longer relied on their management and announced they were moving forty miles south to the small town of Tryon, NC. Not long after arriving, the two women were encouraged to found another cottage industry to train and employ young people.
In 1915 they formed Tryon Toymakers and Weavers. From the beginning, Eleanor produced a steady stream of designs for painted children’s toys. Later, with permission from Fred Loring Seely, the new owner of what in 1917 had become known as Biltmore Industries, they also began making and carving many of Eleanor’s original designs for walnut bowls, trays, picture frames, and similar items. In 1935 Eleanor and Charlotte received national attention and recognition when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited them to visit the White House.
The two women retired in 1936 but served as advisors to the new owners until Tryon Toymakers closed in 1941. They continued to live together in their modest cottage until Eleanor passed away in 1954 at the age of 85 and Charlotte four years later at 88. They are buried in the town’s cemetery as they lived, side-by-side, their marker featuring a pair of dogwood blossoms nestled between their names.
Written by Bruce Johnson – Director of the National Arts & Crafts Conference at The Omni Grove Park Inn.