Biltmore-in-the-Green-Mountains

by Martin Harris 

Martin Harris

“Put the case…” (a little Dickensian alternative-theory-of-history lingo, there) that the economic power of gentrification, based on such 19th century wealth sources as railroads or tobacco, displaces a region’s-worth of hardscrabble hill farmers in Appalachia. It then replaces them with multi-thousand-acre professionally landscaped trust-funder estates complete with trophy mansions, and hires the locals to do the menial labors the new gentry disdains. Then it falls into a brief period of economic distress as the new owners, passive income types, have to learn how to earn at least enough to pay the taxes and the servants; but soon (smart people) recovers nicely to profitable status and seems en route to living happily ever after.

Actually, that was real history, not Dickensian fiction. On a small scale, it happened in Vermont, when the Webbs and the Billingses chose to buy in and play country gentleman on lands formerly farmed by folks ill-positioned to resist a buyout, in such places as Shelburne and Woodstock. In mid-scale, it happened at innumerable times and places up and down the Appalachians. Towards the upper end of the wealth scale, there’s the Reynolds Tanglewood on the once-small-farm outskirts of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and, of course, at the apex of such ventures, there’s the once-near-county-size Biltmore Estate in the hills of western NC. It turned out that even the vast late-19th-century rail fortunes of the Vanderbilts (-bilt plus more: get it?) were not enough to subsidize such a magnificent trust-funder playground. Thus, in the early 20th century most of the land was sold or gifted off and the French chateau version of Potemkin-Village-with-agricultural-theme-park was converted to just enough profitable mini-enterprise to replace red ink with black on the balance sheets. Biltmore has been doing just fine, thank you, ever since. Right now the day-visitor’s ticket costs $59. Rhetorical question: has high-cost-of-entry-and-stay Biltmore been the model for the contemporary Gentry-Left re-structuring of the Vermont economy, a new Biltmore-in-the-Green-Mountains?

Vermont is no exception to the general rule that those who are gentrified out of their houses and businesses and off their land by government or “the evil rich” don’t like it and say so. The Dutch truck-gardeners of mid-Manhattan in the mid-19th century didn’t like being run off at bayonet point for the creation of Central Park (it wasn’t even shown on the infamous 1811 Manhattan street-grid plan) and the Wikipedia entry wryly notes that it wasn’t envisioned by the planners until 1853. The hill-farmers of the mid-Appalachians were similarly run off by government for the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway (for their motoring betters) during the Depression and didn’t like it either. When the Interstates were pushed through Vermont in the early ‘60’s, there were similar stories of futile landowner resistance, at the same time that “Farm for Sale $20 per Acre” signs could be seen up and down Route 100. The Vanderbilts, it’s safe to guess, bought out the original 125,000 Biltmore acres from some 4,000 small-scale hill-farmers at even lesser acreage values in the 1880’s. But the next, trust-funder, Vanderbilt generation couldn’t keep it, and unlike government couldn’t run annual budget deficits, and so, by 1914 the first 85,000 acres were sold off -to the Feds, of course. Presently Biltmore has shrunk to a mere 8,000 acres, but is run at a profit, derived not only from paying-visitor entry but from such wholly-owned internal profit centres as Antler Hill Village, a tastefully composed collection of pricey shoppes, a winery, an upscale tavern, a “farmette” and of course, the four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate with room rates set to insure hoi polloiexclusion. In the early years, locals bought off their hill farms found jobs at Biltmore; now, their descendants do. Both groups (Humble Scribe opinion) didn’t much like being forced from ag to services, but are now, by all the usual standard-of-living measures, more prosperous than they were then or would be now, tales of high-profit 20th century informal potable-ethanol-manufacture-in-the-hills notwithstanding.

In Vermont, the passive sector of the economy isn’t yet the largest, but it’s the fastest-growing. Dairy farms (once there were more cows than people, and back then the majority of the latter liked it that way) are below a thousand. There’s no comparable record kept for in the information and management “industry”, but it’s growing, too, as the constant flow of Golden Dome big-ticket study assignments to “experts” shows, and the State’s own recent records shows that, just like the originally feckless and then feckful (a little HS neologism, there) Biltmore management, it’s quite capable of running a non-wealth-creating economy reasonably well and even generating a modest profit. This year, a nationwide recession year, Vermont governance posted a genteel little surplus of $40 million, one of only a handful of States to do so. In contrast, there’s been a series of non-trust-funder-oriented governances, from California’s Orange County in 1994 to the big city of Birmingham AL and the little city of Central Falls, RI, which went or are going bankrupt this year for the usual governance/management misjudgment reasons. Vermont’s discreet little surplus isn’t the only proof: for two key sectors, housing and employment, in numeri, veritas videtur: in the numbers, the truth can be seen. It’s been widely known, for example, that Vermont’s housing-economics situation is stronger than elsewhere, with higher value and lower mortgages per unit: in fact, housing costs have been a complaint-subject. The Federal Housing Finance Agency reports thus, in a new State ranking based on recent widespread value-declines: US average, down 19%; VT average, up 7%. Similarly for the employment situation. It’s been widely known, similarly, that Vermont’s employment situation is also better than elsewhere, which (Humble Scribe opinion) can be traced back to a young-adult-cohort out-migration situation, which some in the Gentry-Left applaud while others deplore. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports thus, in a new State ranking based on recent widespread unemployment growth: US average, 9.2%, VT average, 5.5%.

No space here for the philosophical aspects of a State seeking to be dependent on income-flows from wealth created earlier and elsewhere, from which a current generation can be supported without effort, in a passive-income society which must always be, by definition, not self-sufficient and not self-sustainable. You decide.