Editor's note: The Blue Ridge Parkway is much, much more than a nice, long drive through some beautiful countryside. There are many interesting nooks and crannies to explore along the Parkway, places that tell stories from the past that better help us appreciate and know the Appalachian region and those who built their lives in it. The Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is one such place, as contributor Danny Bernstein tells us.
Much of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina currently is closed due to ice, snow, and at least one rock slide. But visitors can still access some parks along the Parkway.
Anne Whisnant, author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, describes these as Bulges along the Parkway – areas of outstanding scenery where larger amounts of land ... offer Parkway travelers a wider array of facilities. No story captures the imagination as much as Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.
The story of Moses Cone is the legendary story of an immigrant who makes good in America and uses his wealth and influence to help and affect others. It starts when young Herman Cone leaves Germany in 1846, settles in Jonesboro, Tennessee, and opens a dry goods and grocery store.
Moses, the oldest of Herman’s 13 children, works in the family business, now relocated to Baltimore. Later, he and his next younger sibling, Ceasar, shift into textile production. And this is where they make their real money – manufacturing and selling denim material. The brothers move their operation to Greensboro, North Carolina, to be close to cheap land and labor and cotton supplies; they become the denim kings.
Having made his wealth, Moses and his wife Bertha wanted to build a country estate to display their hard-earned money. At the time, Blowing Rock, N.C., was a nouveau riche town, attracting many summer residents. Moses Cone bought almost 3,600 acres from local farmers. He promised previous owners that they could stay and work on his estate. It was considered a good deal at the time.
Orlo Epps, a prominent Greensboro architect, was brought in to design Flat Top Manor, the Cones' summer home. Built over a period of years from 1888 to 1891, the home was one of the earliest and grandest Colonial Revival mansions in the state. The 23-room frame house linked the Cones with American and Southern traditions and emphasized the family's identification with America.
Today, most of the ground floor of Flat Top Manor houses the Parkway Craft Center that sells top-quality pottery, jewelry, weavings, and other crafts made by the best crafters in Appalachia. A smaller room to the left, once Mr. Cone’s billiard room, is now a bookstore. The window glass is original and is thought to be Tiffany glass. Flat Top Manor was used in the movie, The Green Mile (1999) with Tom Hanks. Almost 115,000 people visited the manor house in 2008.
Until recently, the ground floor was the only part of the house that the public could see. But several years ago, the Blue Ridge Parkway opened the second floor for tours in the summer.
“Once you were invited upstairs, you knew you’d made it,” Interpretive Ranger Sandy Adair says.
If visitors just toured the rooms by themselves, the second floor would be just a bunch of empty rooms, painted white. But Ranger Adair makes the house and the Cone family come alive. She explains that the upstairs is bare because Bertha left all her possessions to her family, friends, and workers.
Moses and Bertha’s large master bedroom was the only one with a huge walk-in closet and a private bath with a claw-foot bathtub. The other bedrooms on the second floor were for family and guests. In particular, Bertha’s sisters, Sophie and Clementine Lindau, visited for the whole summer to escape the Baltimore heat. The Cones had no children.
The third-floor attic, closed to the public, housed a kitchen and rooms for nannies, servants, and children of guests. The Cones’ own servants lived in the laundry room building, one of many torn down by the National Park Service.
Mr. Cone wanted his estate to be self-sustaining. He planted apple trees and built several barns to sort and process apples. Only one barn is still standing. Remnant apple orchards contain a wide variety of old southern apples, some considered rare and in need of preservation.
The tamed beauty of the Cone estate is best seen by exploring its 25 miles of carriage roads. Like all parks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, these trails are well-maintained and signposted. Walking the trails is not a solitary experience. People hike, jog, walk their dogs on a leash, and ride horses. Horseback riding is allowed on all trails except the Bass Lake Loop. Horse people like to point out that Moses and Bertha developed the roads for horses and carriages more than for walkers.
The 0.8 mile loop trail around Bass Lake is flat, pretty, and handicapped accessible. Water lilies cover most of the lake.
The other popular hike goes to the Cone cemetery. Moses, Bertha, and Bertha’s two unmarried sisters are buried there. A green metal fence surrounds the four graves, which face east out to the great view beyond. Flat Top Road climbs through open meadows, continues past the turn-off to the cemetery, then switchbacks into the woods to reach Flat Top Tower (5.6 miles, 500 feet ascent - round trip).
If you want a little solitude, go to Rich Mountain (9.5 miles, 800 feet ascent - roundtrip). You’ll pass Trout Lake, the second lake created and stocked by Moses Cone. There are fewer visitors at that lake, partly because there is no loop trail around it. The top of Rich Mountain is marked with a low rock wall. Building rock walls was one of Moses Cone's hobbies.
Spring brings a wealth of wildflowers including bloodroot and spring beauties. Later, rhododendrons burst out in bloom. In summer, the sides of the carriage road show off spiderwort, bowman’s root, jewel weed, joe-pye weeds, firepinks and larkspur. The park is at 4,000 feet, so fall colors come early. In winter, if you’re lucky and get enough snow, the carriage roads offer a splendid cross-country ski adventure.
Where Did Moses Cone Get his Charitable Nature?
Do not be stingy, but live according to your position and your finances and be particularly liberal toward the poor, and charitable to the needy.
This quote comes from a letter that Herman Cone, Moses’ father, received from his much older brother-in-law as he, Herman, was preparing to leave Germany for the United States. Moses Cone certainly followed that advice.
During his lifetime, Cone was recognized as a great philanthropist; he practically adopted Blowing Rock. But what happened to his wealth and property after his death created his legacy.
Phil Noblitt, who retired as public affairs officer for the Blue Ridge Parkway, wrote a history of the Cones, titled A Mansion in the Mountains: Moses and Bertha Cone and their Blowing Rock Manor. When Mr. Noblitt first saw the park, he was intrigued by the juxtaposition of crafts being sold in a palatial home and wondered “What’s the story here?” A history professor at Appalachian State University encouraged him to research the Cones, as part of Noblitt’s M.S. in public history.
Moses Cone died in 1908 when he was only 51. Bertha became a young widow and never remarried. Moses didn't leave a will. Mr. Noblitt explains that this was not an accident. Moses didn't want his widow to inherit all his property, but he was not willing to tell her that himself. His siblings created a trust that eventually funded Moses Cone Health Systems, now a giant premier health care institution centered in Greensboro. Flat Top Estate would also go to the Moses Cone Hospital when Bertha died. No one realized that the heirs would all wait another 39 years until Bertha’s death in 1947. Two years later, the hospital donated the Cone estate to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Cone trust created "a park and pleasure ground for the public in perpetuity," in order "to make an everlasting memorial" to Moses H. Cone. The Cone textile mills are long gone but Cone’s legacy is the wonderful mansion and park he left behind for everyone to enjoy.
828-298 0398 - Blue Ridge Parkway information line for weather and road conditions - the number to have on your speed dial.
The Flat Top Manor entrance to Moses H. Cone Memorial Park is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 294. You can pick up a trail map at Flat Top Manor. The Bass Lake entrance is on US 221, just south of Blowing Rock.
Tours of Flat Top Manor are available on weekends in the summer. The tours are free but you must register. Call 828-295-5782 to reserve a spot.