A millionaire, a forester, and a landscape architect walk into a forest. You might be thinking this is the beginning of a joke, but in fact, it’s no joke. Just before the turn of the 19th century, a group of men with a passion for the outdoors founded the first forestry school in America near Brevard, North Carolina. Today, the Cradle of Forestry in America Heritage Site brings that history to life in the oldest national forest in the east.
I have found one of the biggest misconceptions about the U.S. Forest Service revolves around its mission. Unlike the National Park Service, whose mission is to preserve historic sites exactly as they are, the USFS’s goal is to preserve and maintain forests for recreation and commercial purposes alike. It’s one of the key differences between the two federal agencies commonly associated with outdoor recreation
The Cradle of Forestry in America Heritage Site in Pisgah National Forest is an excellent place to learn how the USFS’s mission was first established. An inspiring documentary film explains the history of the first forestry school in the country, and how the work of the school’s founder has impacted national forests today.
In the early 1880s, George Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, visited Asheville, North Carolina. He immediately fell in love with Pisgah Forest surrounding the small mountain city, particularly Mount Pisgah to the west. Vanderbilt decided to build a “little mountain escape” on a hill just south of the city.
In 1889, construction began on the Biltmore under the direction of renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt. With love for the great outdoors, Vanderbilt also hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park. When Olmsted arrived, he immediately informed Vanderbilt the forests of the Biltmore Estate were in terrible condition.
Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, the first professional forester in America, to manage the land. From 1892-1895, Pinchot oversaw the implementation of the first place for managing a forest in the United States. When Pinchot left the Biltmore Estate in 1895, he recommended Vanderbilt hire Carl Schenck as his replacement.
Did You Know?
Gifford Pinchot was the first American to receive a formal education in forestry, attending the French National School of Forestry in 1889. Pinchot was just 27 years old when Vanderbilt hired him to manage the forests of the Biltmore Estate, his first job as a professional forester.
This early experience led to Pinchot’s appointment as the head of the Division of Forestry in 1898. Over the next few years, Pinchot worked with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, on a bigger plan for national forests. In 1895, four years after Roosevelt was elected president, the Congress created the United States Forest Service and appointed Pinchot its first director.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington is named after the icon of the USFS. View the complete list of all national forests in the U.S. here.
Carl A. Schenck was a German native and professional forester who closely aligned himself with Pinchot’s beliefs. Educated with a Ph.D. from a renowned German forestry school, Schenck arrived at the Biltmore Estate in 1895 with a profound question on his mind: how could he create a sustainable and profitable forest for Vanderbilt?
Through trial and error in a forest of totally unknown tree species, Schenck worked to develop a system for growing and maintaining a healthy forest for logging, and thus make the Biltmore Estate self-sustainable. In 1898, after a few years of honing his method, Schenck founded the Biltmore Forest School with the intent of teaching sons of wealthy timber company owners how to manage a forest for sustainability properly.
During the winter months, the school met on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate. But from spring until autumn, the school moved to a remote valley called Pink Beds at the base of Mount Pisgah. Using an old settler’s schoolhouse and occupying abandoned mountain cabins, Schenck taught classes inside and outside for the next fifteen years.
By 1913, the idea of professional forestry had taken off across the country. Universities such as Cornell and Yale established their own degree programs in forestry, and Pinchot had established his own school. With dwindling attendance numbers, Schenck closed the Biltmore Forest School and returned to Germany.
Cradle of Forestry in America
In 1964, 6,500 acres surrounding Pink Beds near Brevard, North Carolina was dedicated as the Cradle of Forestry in America Historic Site. At an event attended by foresters, conservationists, and public officials, the cornerstone was laid for a visitor information center.
Today, that building is called the Forest Discovery Center and is operated by the non-profit Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association. Visitors to the Cradle of Forestry can enjoy a museum, hike trails through the heritage area, and learn about the first forestry school in America.
Forest Discovery Center
The adventure begins at the Forest Discovery Center. Inside, guides at the visitor information desk will help you figure out what to do with your time, which trails are best to hike, and give you the lay of the land at the heritage site.
I highly recommend starting with the 30-minute First in Forestry: Carl Schenck at the Biltmore Forest School. The film plays continuously throughout the day in a comfortable theater inside the Forest Discovery Center. The documentary was inspiring and one of the best produced at a public site I’ve ever come across.
After watching the film, take a lap through the museum to learn about the practice of forestry and the history of forestry school. A flight simulator, crafted into the body of a helicopter, takes viewers over a raging forest fire.
The Café at the Cradle is a great place to grab something to eat before or after hiking the trails. The Forest Discovery Center is located in between the trailheads, so I recommend hiking a trail, returning to the café, then heading out again. And before you leave, be sure to visit the gift shop for a wonderful selection of books, clothing, and trinkets.
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Biltmore Campus Trail
The 1-mile Biltmore Campus Trail begins at the recreation of the one-room schoolhouse where Schenck taught his classes at the Biltmore Forest School. The trail passes through a tunnel beneath U.S. Highway 276 and winds through the forest schools “campus.”
The Ranger’s Dwelling is an exciting place to visit. The doors are usually open during business hours, and you can walk through the rustic mountain cabin. Other rustic buildings along the trail include Schenck’s Office, the Blacksmith Shop, and the Student Quarters.
The trail is paved and easy to walk. It is handicap accessible, although, for manual powered wheelchairs, there will be some inclines to handle. The trail is a wonderful thirty-minute excursion through the woods, though I will admit the sound of cars rushing along the highway was somewhat distracting.
Forest Festival Trail
Although the Biltmore Campus Trail was exciting to explore, my favorite was the 1.3-mile Forest Festival Trail. Heading the opposite direction away from the highway, the paved path was an easy walk into a peaceful area with antique equipment to explore.
A portable sawmill has been left on display with an interpretive display to show how it was operated in the early 1900s. Just beyond that, at the furthest point on the loop trail, a 1914 Climax locomotive was a surprising discovery. Although it disrupted the peacefulness of the forest for just a minute, I had to ring the loud bell before I could leave.
Restrooms are located near the locomotive, as well as a covered shelter if lousy weather catches you off guard. The trail is accessible, slightly more so than the Biltmore Campus Trail, because there are no steep sections to climb.
Forest Discovery Trail
The 1.3-mile Forest Discovery Trail is a perfect retreat into solitude at the Cradle of Forestry. The trail begins and ends at opposite points of the Forest Festival Trail, and if you hike the trail, you’ll miss the portable sawmill but see all the other points of interest.
The Forest Discovery Trail has a few benches, inviting visitors to take a load off and enjoy the lush forest. About midway along the trail, a wooden footbridge crosses over a babbling creek and crosses the creek again near the end.
Cradle of Forestry in America Overlook
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile national scenic route across the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina. Access to the Parkway is gained along U.S. Highway 276 — the road visitors take to reach the Cradle of Forestry in American Heritage Site — about a twenty minute drive.
At Milepost 411 on the Parkway is the Cradle of Forestry in America Overlook. From this scenic overlook, a panoramic vista spread below the overlook covers the vast majority of the forest once owned by Vanderbilt and used as the outdoor classroom of the forestry school.