For most of my life I searched for information about my Danish immigrant father, a prominent early 20th Century Seattle Contractor. I titled my memoir “The Mysterious Builder of Seattle Landmarks: Searching for My Father.” The mystery was that my mother never told me about him. It took me most of my life to learn why. One reason was their 42-year age difference. My 25-year old mother, a Ukrainian Canadian immigrant, was Hans Pederson’s nurse. His business ruined by the Depression, he suffered through the first month of my life in 1933 until felled by a stroke, he died at 69.
My research taught me about the lives of my parents and what they faced during the Depression, I stopped blaming my mother for what she couldn’t reveal. As her cousin said, “It was a desperate time.” The above photo of a Montreal soup kitchen says it all.
Denise Kiernan’s ” The Last Castle, The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home,” tells the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt who made his fortune during America’s 19th Century Gilded Age. His son George took his share of the family fortune to Asheville, North Carolina where in 1898 he completed construction of the Biltmore, a home of vast proportions. Set in the Pisgah Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Pisgah later became America’s first National Forest. Noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed the grounds. The Biltmore was America’s answer to European royalty.
The home spawned the development of the city of Asheville. The Vanderbilts built schools for children of the people who worked for the Biltmore Estates Industries developed to serve the Vanderbilts along with the royalty, millionaires, presidents artists, authors and other luminaries who passes through the Biltmore’s doors.
After the 1929 stock market crash, Cornelia, granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, found the Biltmore too expensive to maintain. She sold the forest, cut funding for the village of Asheville as well as for the Biltmore Industries. Cornelia ultimately opened the home to the public to traipse through and gawk at the grandeur.
Today Asheville is thriving and the Biltmore remains a popular tourist destination. In 2018 you can buy a ticket and a self-guided tour for $79. You can buy books showing Christmas trees and decorations, and others showing the gardens in bloom.
Even though the Biltmore fell on hard times during the Depression like everyone else, the Vanderbilt’s did provide a cushion from ruin for those who had served them.