Berea: The Other Cradle of Forestry in America

“The Cradle of Forestry in America” heritage site is widely touted as the birthplace of science-based forest management. George and Edith Vanderbilt of the nearby Biltmore Estate…the castle-like home of which is the largest private residence in America… are credited with establishing this legacy.  Approximately 87,000 aces of the Vanderbilt’s “Pisgah Forest” tract became the core of the Pisgah National Forest, established in 1916.

The 6,500 acre heritage site, on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, is in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, NC.  Created by Congress in 1968, the site’s purpose is to “preserve, develop, and make available to this and future generations the birthplace of forestry and forestry education in America.”

I just got back from visiting the Cradle of Forestry a couple weeks ago, with my wife, on our honeymoon.  Yes, we’re such “Nature Nerds” that this is where we went for our honeymoon.  We also went to nearby Mt. Mitchell (highest mountain east of the Rocky Mountains), saw a plethora of waterfalls in the area, plus hunted gem stones and ate at the Yellow Deli near Hiddenite, NC.  Had a great time.

The Cradle of Forestry site has a lot to see, and is quite a complex.  It features a large, modern visitor’s center with displays and interpretive programming.  From there, visitors can walk a long, meandering trail through the adjacent forest to see Carl Schenck’s forestry school…a small log cabin built to house that is claimed to be the “first forestry school in America”, established in 1898.  Also, there is Schenck’s “fachwerk” house…a timber frame building he constructed using the traditional German methods, another log home where area arts and crafts demonstrators work, a tiny cabin called the “Hell Hole” that housed forestry students (named so by them, as it is so tiny and uninviting) an old sawmill, a steam locomotive used for transporting logs, and plenty of beautiful trees in between.

Carl Schenck was a German forester who was hired by the Vanderbilts to establish and operate a forestry school to train foresters to work in forest management in America. I got to thinking about the date the school was established…1898…and decided to look into when it was that our first College Forester, Silas C. Mason, established a forestry program and began to make purchases to create the Berea College Forest.  “Surely, it must have been about that same time”, I thought…remembering that Mason’s original forest management plan was written in 1907 and was reviewed by none other than Carl Schenck.

Well, a little research revealed some very interesting information.  As it turns out, I found evidence that Silas Mason started teaching forestry classes at Berea College in…1898!  Well, well, well…it seems that there is more than one “cradle of forestry” then, eh?

Now that Berea College has a Forest Outreach Center to welcome visitors to the Berea College Forest, and has preserved Silas Mason’s log home…the “Forester’s Cabin” in front of it, it behooves us to get the word out that our own Silas Mason and the Berea College Forest deserves more recognition that it has been granted.

I wondered what happened to Silas Mason and continued to research him.  It turns out that in 1906 he was recommended for a position as a dendrologist to work for none other than Carl Schenck. He turned it down for a position with the US Department of Agriculture…where he was tasked with helping to develop date palms and olive trees suitable for agricultural producing in Southern California.  He travelled extensively in Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria searching out and researching the best varieties and brought back seedlings to the United States and finished out his career in sunny Southern California.  Several of the government papers he wrote on date palm cultivation are still available in print.

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