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18 October 2016

The Workers at Biltmore Wished He'd Built Less

I visited the Biltmore Estate with my family over my recent Fall Break. To be honest, I was not looking forward to it, but it ended up being the highlight of the weekend--and that's saying quite a bit since I got to visit a great brewery and wander around downtown Asheville.

Biltmore: A Ridiculously Big House

To those who don't know, Biltmore was built c. 1890 as a rural, mountain retreat by George Vanderbilt, grandson of the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. It was opened to the public after the family struggled following the Great Depression. It stands as a reminder of the outsized footprint of American industrialists during the Gilded Age.

We paid to take a tour of the building (and then paid again to listen to a recording of a tour guide). I found myself angered by the way that the tour whitewashed what were most certainly complicated relations between the servants who build and maintained the estate and the family who lived, occasionally, on the property. First was a rosy story about a young servant who dropped a service tray during a dinner party. As told, the story is that she expected to be reprimanded by Mr. Vanderbilt, but instead, he helped her to pick up the mess and even checked in on her for the rest of her life, for which she was eternally grateful. A second example came in the basement of the building, where we learned that several generations of servants and their children were happy to live on the property and that the servants were happy to work there because they received New York wages in North Carolina, which we are to assume were considerably higher.

Both of the stories served to mask the immediate exploitation that was no doubt the foundational story of the workers at Biltmore and their employer and was indeed the very foundation of the immense wealth accumulated by families like the Vanderbilts during the Industrial Revolution. The elites extracted profit from the labor of the poor.

I have noticed this type of whitewashing before as something typical of many historic sites, oftentimes more literally than figuratively. I went to college on the grounds of an estate that most certainly was built and serviced by slaves, though there was rarely, if ever, a mention of this history. I have worked for many years now in the Deep South, visiting many historic locations where slaves and slavery are given only a passing reference, at best. I remember learning an important lesson at a museum as a child, where, to their immense credit, they openly discuss the lamentable fact that elite historic sites tend to survive because they are built with more durable materials and methods, while common historic sites inevitably disappear due to the ravages of time and inattention.

The literally unbelievable stories proferred by the likes of the Biltmore Estate unwittingly do violence to the historic poor and, by extension, the contemporary poor by erasing or even replacing their stories. The only thing more damaging than rendering a group invisible is recasting them as smiling. The Vanderbilts received their earthly rewards; their servants have not yet. We rewrite history to maintain the myth of "Great Men," but I think, we also rewrite the narratives so as not to make ourselves uncomfortable, to not confront our own failings. We'd be better served to confront the ambiguity of it all.

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