Cradle of Forestry in America

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About the Cradle of Forestry in America

When Europeans first arrived in what would become the United States, they found what seemed like an endless forest. Woodlands covered over a billion acres which was almost half of the continental United States.

Settlers soon set about the process of clearing the forests for farms and pastures. Timber was abundant and cheap in the New World, so unlike in Europe, everything was made of wood. Forests were seen as things taking up land that could be put to productive use. Because of this attitude and the seemingly endless nature of American forest, the United States lagged behind Europe in the science forestry, or practice of planting, managing, and caring for forests.

Paved path running in front of two red pieced of horse drawn machinery. Interpretive sign but cant make out its face.
Horse drawn road graders like were used to build roads through Biltmore Forest.

By the turn of the 20th Century, forested areas in the US had declined to 34 percent of the total land area. Deforestation had become a major problem in the United States. To make matters worse, once cleared, much of the former forests made very poor farm land.

Western North Carolina wasn’t immune. Deforestation threatened not only native wildlife, water, the very timber supplies needed to continue expansion, but for some people, it ruined their view.

Pisgah Forest and the Cradle of Forestry in America began with Biltmore Estate

After visiting the area in 1888, George Vanderbilt started to slowly buy up land to build his dream home in the mountains. Eventually his Biltmore Estate would encompass over 120,000 acres. Much of that land was former forest that had been used for timber production or cleared for farmland.

remains of one of the homes at teh Cradle of Forestry in America from before Biltmore Forest was established - old stone foundation and stone chimney in the middle of the woods
The only time it paid off to leave the paved trail. Between the Mountain Homestead interpretive sign and the sawmill

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the formal gardens at Biltmore Estate and is widely considered the father of American landscape architecture, told Vanderbilt that the woodlands beyond his gardens would never provide the type of view he wanted without extensive work. He advised that European forestry methods be used and that a professional forester be brought in to plan and supervise the work.

Unfortunately at the time there were no forestry schools in the United States and only two trained foresters in the entire country. Gifford Pinchot had recently graduated from forestry school in Europe and arrived in Asheville in 1892 full of ideas.

old wooden cabin with front porch and stirs on left side
Students were left to their own devices to find places to live, Many chose to bunk down in abandoned cabins scattered around the forest.

Pinchot instituted a plan that would simultaneously rehabilitate the forest and return a profit to the landowner. By 1893 he was in Chicago promoting his ideas at the Worlds Fair. His work at the Biltmore Forest would later become a national model for forest reclamation.

As his fame grew, Pinchot asked Vanderbilt to hire a second forester as an assistant. Carl Alwin Schenck was brought in and soon became the head forester at Biltmore when Pinchot left in 1895 to head what would become the U.S. Forest Service.

Carl A. Schenck Creates the Cradle of Forestry

After graduating from the Institute of Technology in Darmstadt at the age of 18, Schenck attended the University of Giessen which had one of the oldest and most respected forestry programs in Europe. While there he studied under Sir Dietrich Brandis the former British forestry administrator of Burma and India. Brandis is known as not only the father of tropical forestry but the father of scientific forestry. As Schenck’s mentor, he imparted many of the concepts that would become the cornerstone of American Forestry.

As he took over the reigns at Biltmore Forest from Pinchot, Schenck was determined to continue his predecessors work. Both were strong believers in “practical forestry” which would at the same time restore and preserve forest land but be a profitable endeavor as well.

interior like an old general store- wood stove checkerboard between two chairs and Cubby Holes along wall for mail.
Inside the Commissary. Students could relax and play a game of checkers while they waited for mail from home.

Managing a team of rangers and laborers, Schenck introduced new scientific forest management techniques to America, and Biltmore Forest soon became the model for the rest of the nation. He not only supervised the construction of roads and harvesting of trees but the planting of seedlings as well. Schenck went as far as setting up tree nurseries to aid in his forest regeneration efforts.

Schenck’s work at Biltmore didn’t go unnoticed. Time and time again he found himself explaining what he was doing to many local young men and why it was important for maintaining healthy forests. As interest in his techniques grew, he found that he couldn’t keep up with the number of applications to apprentice under him. Over time as interest grew, Schenck formalized his educational process and opened the Biltmore Forest School, the first school of forestry in the United States.

Biltmore Forest School Becomes the Cradle of Forestry

One room school house made of wood - the door is open with stairs leading up stone marker out front with inscription facing away from the camera and tree to the marker's right
One room schoolhouse along the Biltmore Campus Trail. Students at the forestry school would spend their mornings in a school just like this before heading out into the field for the afternoon.

When the school opened on September 1, 1898, there were only 10 people in the United States with any forestry training. All of them had studied in Europe.

The school didn’t have formal textbooks or even buildings. Schenck devised his own curriculum, brought in outside experts as lecturers, and made use of any buildings in the forest that had been abandoned when Vanderbilt bought the land.

wooden foot bridge along forest path that curves and crosses a second bride
Forest trail at the Cradle of Forestry in America

Schenck promoted his school to the sons of the leaders of the timber and logging industries. By teaching them scientific methods of forestry and modern logging techniques, he hoped to not only grow his school but spread his methods as well.

The one year program consisted of classroom instruction in the mornings followed by field work in the afternoon where students would apply the theories learned.

Biltmore Forest Fair

On the 10th Anniversary of his school, Schenck hosted a forest fair to show the world what his scientific management techniques had been able to accomplish. From November 26 to the 29 of 1908 Carl Schenck acted as personal guide to his invited guests who included federal and state officials, lumber magnates, furniture manufacturers, and the press. He not only gave them tours of the forest but detailed lessons of forest maintenance, sustainable logging, and soil composition as well.

The fair was meant to promote his ideas as well as show off his accomplishments, and served as the high point of his career at Biltmore.

Legacy of the Biltmore Forest School lives on at the Cradle of Forestry in America

While the school was financially self sustaining, Biltmore Forest was in such poor condition when Dr. Schenck was brought in that it never turned a profit. In 1909 tensions between Vanderbilt and Schenck boiled over and he was fired as head forester at Biltmore Estate.

Forced to move his school from Vanderbilt’s land, Schenck struggled to continue for the next few years holding classes wherever he could, but in 1913 he closed his school and returned to Germany.

looking down a belt attached to a stem engine - belts run under shed to machinery
Stem Powered Portable Saw Mill

In 1914 just a year after his former personal forester was forced to close his school, George Vanderbilt died. Upon his death, his wife Edith sold 86,700 acres of forest land including the site of the school to the Federal Government. These tracts of land later formed the basis of Pisgah National Forest.

Although his school only lasted for a few years, it provided the foundation for the scientific maintenance of forests in America. His graduates became the first generation of domestic foresters and carried on his legacy long after he returned to his homeland. Thanks to their hard work, forest cover in the United States has remained stable for the past hundred years. In fact despite population growth and industrial growth in the past hundred years, the majority of deforestation occurred prior to 1910.

interior of rough cut log home with stone fireplace and rustic rocking chair and china hutch wooden chest on floor with ceramic jug on top gas lamp and nick naks above fireplace.
Interior of the Ranger’s House along the Biltmore Campus Trail.

Much of the work undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s can be traced back to Schenck’s work at Biltmore Forest. Not only in planting trees and building state and national parks around the country, but in the reforestation of marginal farm land ravaged by erosion. Many of the techniques used were pioneered right here in Western North Carolina.

Sycamore tree with an interpretive sign in front. The sign is pointing away from the camera and too far away to make out text, but it identifies the tree as a moon tree and gives the story.
Moon Tree – Sycamore grown from seeds that orbited the Moon during the Apollo 14 Mission.

In 1968 Congress recognized the work of these early pioneers with the creation of the Cradle of Forestry in America. Located in the heart of Pisgah Forest, the cradle of forestry tells the story of Schenck’s, Pinchot’s, and even Vanderbilt’s contribution to maintaining sustainable woodlands.

Visiting the Cradle of Forestry in America

For details on our visit check out our Cradle of Forestry in America Field Report

Located just off of Hwy 276 a few miles into Pisgah Forest, the Cradle of Forestry in America tells the story of the men who helped bring modern forestry practices to the United States. It does this through exhibits at the visitor center, a movie, and a pair of interpretive trails.

Cradle of Forestry Trails

paved trail running through the woods
The trail at the Cradle of Forestry are all paved, but some can become steep at times.

There are three trails at the Cradle of Forestry, the main two trails start at the back of the visitor center while the nature trail spurs off of the Forest Festival Trail. All trails are paved and there are lots of benches.

Forest Festival Trail at the Cradle of Forestry

A 1.3 mile interpretive trail based on the 1908 Biltmore Forest Fair. Interpretive signage tells about the process of reforestation and sustainable forestry with a number of exhibits. The main point of interest on this trail is the Climax Locomotive, steam powered log loader, and portable lumber mill. All three were cutting edge technology for the day. Other points of interest include the trout farm, the forest pond, and the seedling nursery. The nursery tells the story of how Dr. Schenck grew seedlings to give nature a boost in reforesting marginal farm land.

locomotive seen head on in a shed number 3 on the front
Climax logging locomotive at the halfway point on the Forest Festival Trail

The trail has some ups and downs, but overall it’s a fairly easy hike.

Forest Discovery Trail at Cradle of Forestry

paved walking trail curving up a hill
The Forest Discovery Trail is a 1.3 mile nature trail that runs uphill half way and then down hill the to finish.

A 1.3 mile nature trail that’s listed as moderate and starts at the forest pond along the Forest Festival Trail and runs back to the train. Half the trail is up hill at a fairly steep grade, but there are lots of benches at very close intervals. They’re aren’t any signs along the trail, but near the top, it crosses over a bridge with a small mountain stream below and a nearby bench. This is a great spot to take a rest and enjoy your surroundings.

Biltmore Campus Trail Tells the Story of the Forestry School

two old wooden houses grey with age and horse drawn wagon in front
Commissary and Ranger House along the Biltmore Campus Trail

This is a 1 mile interpretive trail starting at the back of the visitor center that focuses on the forestry school and life at the school. The trail is full of buildings, most are reconstructions but some are either original to the site or period buildings moved to the trail. The easiest of the trails, this one allows you to go into or at least see into all the buildings. And most have a recording you can play to get a better idea of what life was like for Schenck’s students.

Visitor Center at the Cradle of Forestry

entrance - text above reads "Forest Discovery Center Exhibit Hall"

The gift shop, information desk, film theater, exhibit hall, and small grill are all located in the visitor center. The helpful staff can answer any questions you may have about the school, the forest, and their history.

front half of a yellow forest service helicopter inside building
The Exhibit Hall has many interactive activities including the helicopter/forest fire exhibit.

The Exhibit Hall that not only tells the story of the CoF, but forestry in America before and after the original school was built right up to modern forestry techniques. It not only has a number of artifacts on display and wax figures but a number of hands on exhibits aimed mainly at kids including a helicopter/forest fire exhibit.

Fast Facts About the Cradle of Forestry in America

Type:Historical Site
Admission:$6.00adults · $3.00 youth (ages 5 to 12) · Free for children age 4 and under
Location:11250 Pisgah Hwy, Pisgah Forest, NC 28768
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Things to do: Interpretive Hiking Trails, film, exhibit hall

Map to the Cradle of Forestry in America