A giant coffee urn sits near the entrance to the dye house in historic Grovewood Village. It’s seriously massive. It puts your workplace’s Keurig to shame, and it adds to the feeling that workers who were tending to the hot-tub-sized dye vats just stepped away (maybe for a late lunch break in the afternoon sun that filters through high windows) and could return at any moment.
In fact, the dye house, next door to the Grovewood Gallery, has sat empty since 1980. The building, part of Biltmore Industries, houses the original looms, carding machines and mule spinners used to make the famed homespun fabric that was worn by the likes of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, and first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Grace Coolidge (for whom “Coolidge Red” was designed).
Grovewood Village has announced that it will offer guided tours of the dye house Wednesdays to Saturdays at 1 p.m., April through December, starting Saturday, April 1. The tours last about 45 minutes and are open to up to 25 people on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no charge.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Biltmore Industries’ home at Grovewood Village, and a centennial celebration is set for Saturday, June 17, from noon-5 p.m. “The tours are one way for us to celebrate this milestone,” says marketing manager Ashley Van Matre. “A lot of folks aren’t familiar with our history and don’t realize the significant role Biltmore Industries played in the Arts and Crafts movement, both locally and nationally. Biltmore Industries grew from a humble and small start to the largest hand-weaving industry in the world.”
The homespun production launched in 1901 under the direction of Edith Vanderbilt. The wife of Biltmore Estate patriarch George Vanderbilt, Edith wanted to create a training program so the youths of Asheville could learn handicrafts. It was first located in Biltmore Village.
While woodworking was the program’s initial focus, it grew to include the production of wool cloth. “Woodworkers produced furniture such as the Windsor chair and made cabinets based on designs from pieces in the Vanderbilts’ collection of Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Gothic and Chippendale furniture at the Biltmore House,” says an article by the National Park Service. “Sheep were bred on the Biltmore Estate to provide wool for the industries, wool that would eventually become famous for its quality and durability.”
After George passed away in 1914, Edith sold the business to Fred Seely, the architect of the Grove Park Inn. Seely, who had managed the Grove Park as well, had a rocky relationship with his father-in-law, Edwin Wiley Grove (the inn’s owner) and was looking for a plan B, according to Van Matre. He constructed the buildings that make up Grovewood Village — including the wood shop and the facilities for fabric production — adding folk expressions around the themes of good living, productivity and morality on walls, doors and ceiling beams.
Biltmore Industries, which maintained the name of its initial benefactor, was linked to the Arts and Crafts movement — a reaction to industrialization that valued traditional craftsmanship and simple forms. The Grove Park Inn next door is known for its collection of Arts and Crafts furnishings, mostly from the Roycroft community of craft workers in East Aurora and the White Furniture Co. in Mebane. “Guests would buy fabric [from the homespun shops] or have clothes tailored while they were staying at the hotel,” says Van Matre. “After word got out about the extra-fine quality of the wool, lots of people would order by mail.”
Seely died in 1942, and by midcentury, “industry automation made hand-loomed cloth more expensive and less marketable [and] Seely’s son, Fred Jr., was selling the company and liquidating everything,” says Van Matre. Harry Blomberg, a local entrepreneur with multiple businesses, came to look at a large cloth-cutting table when a copper moonshine still sitting in the corner caught his eye. When he inquired about purchasing the still, he was told he would have to buy the whole operation.
“In about 20 minutes, he settled on a price, and that’s how [Blomberg] came to own Biltmore Industries. He would keep the business going for another 25 years,” says Van Matre. Blomberg’s family owns Grovewood Village today, and it was they who “established the artist studios and Grovewood Gallery in 1992, carrying on Biltmore Industries’ tradition of supporting local craftspeople,” Van Matre explains.
The tour shares this information and more. It begins in the Homespun Museum, which gives a detailed overview of the Biltmore Industries’ historic importance. But stepping into the dye house is a completely different sort of history lesson.
A bobbin-threading machine, its threads still extending through space, seems frozen in time. Bags of colored bobbins are strewn here and there. Looms lurk in darkened corners like sleeping beasts. Colored liquid pools where it was spilled years ago in the dye mixing room. It’s half-spooky, half-enchanting — and all a remarkable glimpse into an important part of Asheville’s story.
For more information, call 828-253-7651 or visit grovewood.com