Monday, January 9, 2012

Parkway card from a century ago

Bob Clark, a member of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and an authority on Flat Top Manor, a popular parkway site built more than a century ago by the Cone family, sent along a link to a postcard featuring a photo of the house that was sent in 1911 from Etta Cone, Moses Cone's sister, to her friend and writer Gertrude Stein in Italy.  Here's an image of the front of that postcard:

It's one more item of interest about the Cone family, which was instrumental in developing the textile business in North Carolina and the South, built the 13,000-square-foot Flat Top Manor (near parkway milepost 294) as an escape and as a showplace for many of the Cone interests, made philanthropic gifts across this part of the South and, indirectly brought my parents together during the Great Depression.

Etta Cone and her sister Claribel were great art collectors, counting among their friends Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse.  The Cone family had immigrated from Germany, changed its name from Kahn to Cone, and become prosperous in Baltimore for its grocery business. Stein often visited the Saturday evening salons that Etta and Claribel held at their Baltimore home.

Two Cone sons, Moses and Ceasar  (yep, not Caesar), represented the family business in the South and took note of the rise of the textile industry. At first they also represented other textile interests, and about 1895 their built their first plant in Greensboro -- Proximity Denim Mill, so named because of its proximity to the N.C. Rail Road, whose tracks came through the city, as well as labor and other resources. It would eventually become the world's largest producer of denim.

By then, Moses Cone and his wife Bertha had already begun acquiring land around Flat Tom Mountain near Blowing Rock, N.C.  One web site describes Moses Cone as a nature lover and avid environmentalist, and in 1899 he and Bertha had begun building the manor house.  More than half a century later, after the death of Bertha and long after the death of Moses, the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro -- whose opening I had attended as a boy because the company my dad worked for had sold a lot of the medical equipment used in the hospital -- gave title to the manor house to the Blue Ridge Parkway with the proviso that it be known as the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.

The message on Etta Cone's July 23, 1911 postcard to Gertrude Stein in Florence, Italy, is online. In it she notes that the roof of Flat Top Manor, seen as red in the postcard image, "is still olive green."  And she also notes that her sister Claribel was in Munich and that the school the Cones had founded on the mountain now had 43 students. Here's a link to that message. 

Bob Clark, who spent his summers near Flat Top Manor, found Etta Cone's note particularly interesting because she called it " 'Her" (Etta Cone's) school.  This place has such a fascinating history that has gone much too long under the radar.'"

I've always had a fondness for the Cones, not least because I wouldn't exist without them.  In the Depression, the Cone family recruited teachers to Greensboro to teach the children of mill workers by offering an additional month's pay if they would make home visits during the summer to make sure the kids were all right.  Sounds paternalistic now, I suppose, but the Cones provided decent housing at the time, built a YMCA and even though the Cones were Jewish, built Christian churches in a number of places.  My mother had been teaching in Anderson, S.,C., and came to Greensboro to take advantage of the Cone's offer.  Her first job in Greensboro was teaching at Proximity School -- and not long after she arrived she met my father.  It was years before they could afford to marry, but in time they were able to build a little house and have two children.  So whenever I read about the Cones, I'm grateful to them for many things -- their contributions to economic development, their generosity to their adopted state, their magnificent gift to the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway -- and for bringing folks together.

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved stopping at the Cone Mansion. A couple of years ago, my wife and I walked to the house from a wayside on a Blowing Rock street and got a tour of the upper floors of the house and some history lessons about the Cones. Fascinating!