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Visiting the Biltmore Estate

Asheville is a pretty cool place to visit, but the reason most people may have heard of it before is because of the largest home in the US – the Biltmore Estate.  We love to tour homes like this, but we opted to do something different this time. There are just as many reasons to tour the house as there are to skip it.  I’m about to dive deep into unpopular opinion territory here. I rarely do this, but I really feel that it should be said.

biltmore estate

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Why Would You Skip the Biltmore Estate Tour?

I know some people are thinking that, so I’ll tell you why.

  1. We were more interested in the grounds, the gardens, and the nature views.
  2. We decided to splurge on ourselves in the environment instead of seeing how they splurged on the home.
  3. It is expensive.  I saw the Palace of Versailles for much less. I actually took my family of 9 to Versailles for the same price as 2 adult tickets would cost to tour the home. Yes, there are lots of reasons why Versailles would be less including government owned which leads me to my next reason.
  4. Fundamentally, the funds for visiting the house would go to the upkeep of a home built by the rich for the rich, still owned by the wealthy family that profits from its existence. Imagine leaving your grandchild enough money to build the largest home in the country and then after he was done living a life well-lived in it, the public paid to see it and maintain it. Now add that you’re a robber baron and you left excessive amounts of wealth for the next few generations to live well after you’re gone. Pretty cool for you but I’m not sure why people sign up to hand their hard-earned money over just to see things they can’t touch or take pictures of. (Don’t worry, it’s probably just me and my unpopular opinionated thoughts.)

Robber Barons

For those that have forgotten or are unaware:

A robber baron is an American capitalist that became wealthy through exploitation and/or unethical practices.  They are the very reasons why we have laws like the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 (link to the actual government document because I love primary historical sources) which prohibits monopolies and cartels, as well as, activities like price-fixing. 

When you research this topic, you will find flowery statements throughout every website that make it seem like it wasn’t that bad, just a businessman making money.  The kinds of language that blames the person that got scammed or the small business that had to close because it couldn’t compete for not being “smart” enough to keep up. 

It neglects the fact that these businesses orchestrated and created pitfalls that made it impossible for their competitors to even meet them at the starting line.  I don’t know about you, but I never forgot the teachings I learned as a child about some of the greatest names in American history. 

Not only were other businesses harmed in the making of those fortunes but, workers were exploited and some of these industries began during slavery (but that part is rarely ever mentioned).  The very tactics that they used to create this wealth that lasts in their families today, includes tactics often associated with organized crime now, such as, intimidation, violence, corruption, conspiracies, and fraud.

Your streets, towns, and schools bare the names of many of these historic powerhouses like John Jacob Astor, John D. Rockefeller, George Pullman (I actually grew up in the Pullman area, his is a good story if you’ve never heard it.), and J.P. Morgan.  Textbooks don’t always teach this, and we seldom actually make the connection, but have you ever noticed that every important name in history was always somehow involved in the lawmaking. Look deeper, they married into political families, they created private trusts, they paid kickbacks, and more.

Many references like to point out that what they did was not illegal.  There are many things that we can do that aren’t illegal but are still wrong.  Furthermore, if the wealthiest person in a town is connected to the people that make the laws, why would the very practices that make them money be illegal? It wouldn’t. 

Now, some will tell you that these wealthy individuals were great philanthropists.  They were, they donated up to 50% of their earnings at times.  But most of the time it was after they had already done all the bad that they turned around and did a little good. Let me put it this way:

I buy 10 acres next to your 5 acres.  We both sell apples from our land.  You sell yours for $1, I have double the number of apples that you have so I sell mine “3 for $1”. (why 3? It’s just business.) No one buys your apples anymore because they get such a good deal at my shop.  You can’t make any money, but being the kind and fair person I am, I offer to buy one of your acres.  Every year, you and my other neighbors have a hard time, but I rescue you and I keep buying your land.  You can even come work for me.  Because I am kind AND fair. Over time, I own the whole town.  Everyone works for me or starves, some work for me and starve, no worries though.  I’ve made so much money that, being the kind and fair person that I am, I will donate 10% of everything I make.  I’ll open a school in my name and a railroad station and a library.  I am kind and fair. 

You may be having a lightbulb moment right now, and you’ve been wondering why we say – shop at small businesses.  But, now, it all makes sense.  You may even start to recognize some patterns in our modern life of places that we give our money to and watch them get bigger and bigger until they are unstoppable. I’m not saying any names, don’t need that kind of heat in my life.  I will say that “robber barons” is synonymous with low wages and trying to prevent and break up labor unions.

What does that have to do with the Biltmore Estate?

I’m so glad you asked.  I was going to tell you anyway though.  The Biltmore Estate was built by the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  He built it about a decade after his grandfather’s death.  So, Cornelius worked hard, it’s the American Dream, right?  I mean, I guess if you idolize money and are willing to have the most, no matter what.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was the first of the Robber barons.  He basically wrote the playbook and then met his match with John D. Rockefeller.  By the end of the Civil War, he was the richest man in America with a net worth more than $65 million.  In today’s money, this would still be more than Jeff Bezos currently.  He was the ultimate survivor, living almost twice as long as the average man during his time.  He controlled the steamboat industry and then later moved on to the railroad industry.  The Hudson River Steamboat Association bought him out for $100,000 with annual payments of $5,000 because they couldn’t compete with him and his very cheap fares. By 1852, his competitors offered him $40,000/month to go away.

Some of his wealth was attributed to his competitors paying him to exit because they couldn’t compete with him.  He purchased many of them, including the Erie line that connected Chicago to New York, by force in a hostile takeover where he simply bought up shares to get majority control.

When you search for information on Vanderbilt, it’s almost like no one wants you to talk about it.  You only find bits and pieces here and there that provide details of the true nature of business he engaged in.  Instead, he is praised for being a cunning and shrewd businessman repeatedly, on news sites, encyclopedias, and investment informational sites. 

Besides the business tactics he used which would now be considered illegal, he wasn’t much nicer to his loved ones.  Despite having more than 13 children and a second wife (much younger bride), he left most of his $90 million fortune to one son. His wife and daughters received the least, ranging from $200,000 to $500,000. 

No, I don’t hold this against the family left behind to pick up the pieces and deal with the aftermath of how he really made his money.  Those details really started to come to light to the general public in the decades after his death.  But I still don’t really want to walk through a home with the original leather on the walls of the breakfast room.

I’m not saying I’d never go inside.  Just not on this trip.  I wanted to enjoy the great outdoors instead.  I never want to glorify extreme opulence to my children.  There’s something strange to me about wandering around a house that exists only to be the most opulent home in America and still is to this day.  I never want to forget about the people that worked hard, lost dreams, had bad health, and couldn’t keep up because they were playing an unfair game in life that they never had a chance at winning. 

I’d rather stay at the Inn, which still supports the efforts, community, and legacy but also gives me a bit of opulence for myself. 

Walk the grounds catching the morning sun breaking over the mountains in the distance.

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Order room service for breakfast.

Have an impromptu photo shoot with my family.

This is how I YOLO (You Only Live Once).  I hope you find ways to live your best moments too in ways that suit you.

Staying on the Estate:

Your ticket options are: (children under 9 are free, 10 – 16yo are 50% off)

  1. From $64 per person – self guided tour of the house and access to gardens, village, and the winery.
  2. From $76 per person – adds the audio guided tour.
  3. From $284 per person – custom 2-hour tour with an expert guide.

There is no ticket option for accessing just the grounds.  However, you can save up to $8 by booking online a week in advance and there are AAA, military, or senior discounts also.

If you want to just enjoy the gardens and grounds, I recommend staying at the Village Hotel or the Inn.

The Village Hotel is casual with 3 types of rooms located close to the winery, restaurants, and shops of Antler Hill Village.  Rates fluctuate but may be as low as $140/nt.  AAA, AARP, and military discounts apply.

The Inn is a 4-star luxury escape with 6 types of rooms, offering exceptional amenities. Rates can be as low as $220/nt, AAA, AARP, and military discounts apply.

The Cottages offer private escapes and can be as low as $640/nt. 

Save more tips:

Weekends are usually more expensive.

If you like to gamble, a last-minute stay during off peak season could score an even better discount.  It pops up within 24 – 48 hrs of the stay if available.

Check the special offers pages for package deals.

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28 days ago

Really interesting post! I really appreciate your thinking (I mean to be honest, I normally prefer the grounds in this sort of estate anyway.)

I have always been uncomfortable with the way some Americans seem to worship rich/unethical folks like Cornelius Vanderbilt. I feel the same way back home in the UK with the way people love Royalty and the upper class people who are way over represented in our government and media.

Anyway, if this is an unpopular opinion, at least you have one person on board with you. 🙂

Daphna
28 days ago

This is a great post! We also decided to skip it! The entrance fee is excessive, and the older I get the less I care about doing “everything” and the more I just choose what we would enjoy most.

28 days ago

I’ve heard the Biltmore estate is really spectacular but your story convinced me I need to visit ASAP! Thanks for posting

Finally someone said it. I guess I can sort of see why these mansions or stately homes are appealing to some people, but it just doesn’t sit well with me. I find it hard to admire or be impressed by a life of excesses. If anything, I feel rather sickened by the obscene amount of money spent on something totally unnecessary. And I’m not even talking about the oppression involved. I think you’ve articulated that part very well.

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