Come out to The Cathedral of All Souls on Saturday, Oct. 18 for a Preservation Society of America Buncombe County presentation titled "Before Biltmore: Native American and Other Early Settlements on the Estate."

The presentation will be given by Bill Alexander, landscape and forest historian at The Biltmore Estate.

As a longtime estate employee, it’s no exaggeration to say that Bill knows Biltmore’s grounds like the back of his hand. His thorough documentation and love for preservation make him an expert on all things Biltmore.

"I have worked at Biltmore Estate for 40 years in varying positions. I transitioned from Landscape Manager to Landscape Curator and then to Landscape and Forest Historian in the 1990s," Alexander noted in an email.

When asked how he has seen Biltmore grow over the years, Alexander said he didn't know where to start - citing tremendous growth since he began his career there in 1978.

He said some major milestones included:

  • The division of Biltmore in 1979 by George Vanderbilt’s two grandsons into two separate family owned companies – The Biltmore Company which owns and manages Biltmore Estate, a National Historic Landmark and Biltmore Farms, which specializes in development of sustainable communities and commercial centers;
  • Opening of Deerpark, Biltmore’s first full service restaurant in 1979; and the closing of Biltmore Dairy operations on the estate in 1982 followed by the establishment of Biltmore Estate’s permanent vineyards and Winery in the original main dairy complex that opened in 1985.
  • As Biltmore’s visitation has continued to grow, the estate has added facilities to accommodate that growth including retail shops and the Stable Café at Biltmore House, the Reception and Ticket Center, the Inn on Biltmore Estate, Antler Hill Farm, Antler Hill Village, Lioncrest - an event facility, the Village Hotel, and recently completed Amherst Ballroom at Deerpark.
  • The estate’s annual visitation has grown from fewer than 500,000 in 1978 to more than 1.5 million. Many events for guests have been added and evolved through the years such as Candlelight evenings during an extended Christmas season, Biltmore Blooms to celebrate spring on the estate, summer concerts, and annual exhibitions.

In addition, Many outdoor activities have been added such as guided carriage and saddle rides, rafting and kayaking on the French Broad River, Segway tours, Land Rover driving experience, shooting sporting clays, fly-fishing, and miles of trails for hiking and biking have been opened.

With family roots going back to the founding of Buncombe County, Alexander is a lifelong resident of Western North Carolina, and a Vietnam veteran. He studied both forestry and horticulture at Haywood Technical College. Since 1978, he spent the first half of his nearly 40 year career in hands on management of the Estate’s extensive gardens, grounds and forests, and  as the Estate landscape and forest historian. 

"I think that knowledge of the history of a region and its former inhabitants provides an awareness of how the landscape and people have changed over time and a point of reference for where we have come from, where we are and how we got here," Alexander said. "The history of the region near and around the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers and the area that that comprises Biltmore is both significant and fascinating and collectively creates a sense of place for locals and newcomers alike."

Bill is the author of three books and numerous articles on Biltmore’s history and has contributed to many others. He continues to dedicate his time to research and documentation of the land that became Biltmore Estate.   Its unique historic and archaeological resources support Biltmore’s ongoing management and preservation goals as a National Landmark.  Among other honors, Bill  was the recipient of the Sondley Award in 2010.

From Bill’s many years researching Biltmore Estate’s more than a century and a quarter existence,  and its thousands of acres, two important truths are evident. 

It is not an island in itself but inextricably tied to the history of the surrounding region.  It is not frozen in time but a notch on the scale of several thousands of years of human use and occupation. In peeling back these layers of time through research, and working with archaeologists and others, he continues to discover footprints of those who came before.

"Almost from the day I started working at Biltmore 40 years ago and through the ensuing years of exploring its nearly 8,000 acres, I have discovered along with others, evidence of former inhabitants including Native American artifacts and village sites, house sites and farmsteads of early settlers, road traces, and grave markers," Alexander said. "For the most part, no one could tell me anything about these sites and their history, so it inspired me to begin looking for any clues I could find through research of old maps, deeds, land records, historic accounts, and on-site investigations including working with archaeologists to conduct surveys and excavations.

Every time we find new pieces to the puzzle, I am inspired to find another one," he added. "Also, as more people are doing genealogy research, I get inquiries about their ancestors who were former landowners and in some cases were buried on lands that George Vanderbilt ultimately purchased. This provides opportunities for me to do additional research on specific families and is extremely rewarding for me to share what I find with them." 

From ancient trails and trading paths of Native Americans and their prehistoric  camps and villages, through the period of Revolution and early settlement by Europeans and others, Alexander will share selected tidbits of our regions history surrounding the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers. 

The lecture will be held at Zabriski Hall in the cathedral, located at 9 Swan St. in Biltmore. The presentation starts at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, but a $10 donation is requested for the PSABC. 

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