Article

Apple Orchards at Cone Manor

Black and white photo of an apple orchard covering hillsides leading down to a small lake in a valley
View of the apple orchards from the house, circa 1940.

Moses Cone is best known as a wealthy, American industrialist, whose textile mills were the world’s leading producers of high-quality denim fabric in the early 1900s. But Moses Cone was also a farmer. The orchards on his Flat Top Manor estate produced award-winning fruit. Once quoted in a newspaper as saying “I love apples,” Moses was an enthusiastic supporter of commercial apple growing in the mountains of western North Carolina.

At the time that Moses was developing his estate, the North Carolina State Board of Agriculture was promoting western North Carolina as an ideal location to grow apples. Due to the favorable climate and soil conditions, the board claimed that growing apples could not fail to be profitable.

Moses began planting apples on his estate in the late 1890s—even before construction began on his home there. He directed the planting of about 32,000 apple trees in four orchards, totaling almost 200 acres. Flat Top orchard was 82 acres, China orchard was 81 acres, and Saw Mill orchard was 25 acres. The fourth orchard, Green Park, was located on property across town from the main estate. We do not know the size of the Green Park Orchard. Overall, the property was 72 acres, but only a small section could be planted because the land there was too steep.

Watercolor illustration showing two views of a golden-colored apple. Top view is whole apple. Bottom view is apple cut in half with core and seeds showing.
Grimes Golden was one of the many varieties of apples grown on the estate. This illustration was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s.

The 80 varieties of apples grown on the estate were what we call heirloom apples today. The majority of trees were commercial varieties, which stored well and could be shipped successfully. Several select varieties, which were more flavorful, but too fragile to withstand shipping, were grown specifically for the family’s consumption. Records were kept of varieties that performed well, those that showed promise, and those that were not as desirable to grow.

Estate Manager A.C. Moody estimated that nearly half of the cost of estate maintenance went into pruning and spraying trees, mowing the orchard, and harvesting the apple crop. Annual pruning was done between February and May, though some pruning was also be done in summer to control fruit production.

Spraying trees to control damage caused by insects and disease was one of the most time consuming orchard tasks. Spraying began in April and continued to September. Moses and his wife, Bertha, consulted with the North Carolina State Horticulturalist for the latest information on chemicals to use, including lead arsenic. In the early years, workers wore knapsack sprayers to treat trees, but eventually the Cones upgraded to a horse drawn sprayer with a gas powered pump.

These chemical sprays left a lasting legacy on the Cone estate. There were no environmental regulations regarding the use of chemical sprays at the time. As a result, today as you walk the carriage trails near orchard locations, you will see signs warning against digging in soil due to chemical contamination. Even though spraying operations ceased 70 years ago, the National Park Service continues to monitor chemical levels to understand and determine the impacts of the routine spray practices used by many orchards around the same time period.

In the early days, workers hoed the orchards to control weeds, but this contributed to erosion on the steep hillsides. In later years, grass under the trees was cut short by hand, using a scythe.

To prevent rabbits from damaging the trees by chewing the bark, axle grease was applied to the tree trunks. Traps for rabbits were set and a bounty was paid to the children of estate workers for rabbit skins. Moses made a note that no one was to be allowed on the estate with a gun unless they were hunting rabbits for the supervisor.

Apple varieties ripen at different times throughout the summer and fall. Picking typically started in late June and lasted until late autumn. All employees on the estate, plus their wives and children, worked to harvest apples. Thirty-two families lived on and maintained the estate. In addition, Bertha Cone placed advertisements in local newspapers to recruit extra harvest workers.

Workers wore a picking vest that held either a half or full bushel of apples, depending on the worker’s ability to carry the weight. When their vest was full, workers carried it to an apple sled to empty into fruit crates. Inexpensive apple sleds were used to move the apples from the fields to the carriage trails, where they would be loaded onto a wagon or Ford truck. Sleds provided a smoother ride than wagons on the steep slopes of the orchards. A sled could glide over holes, ruts, or rocks in the fields. Individual apple crates weighed approximately 175 pounds when full, so moving them from the sled to the wagon or truck was strenuous work.

Once picked, the apples were stored in one of several apple houses on the estate. The main apple house was located in the Saw Mill orchard near Bass Lake. Today it’s known as the “apple barn.” There were also three smaller apple houses in China orchard and one in Green Park orchard. Only the Saw Mill orchard apple house remains today.

Two pink apple flowers bloom on a tree branch.
Apple trees bloom in spring.

Trent Sliker

Bertha Cone advertised her apples for sale in newspapers throughout the Southeast. Estate records indicate that grocers in many large cities purchased Cone apples to sale in their stores. These were usually shipped by railroad car to the store. Bertha also bought newspaper advertisements indicating that a truckload of apples would be available for sale on certain dates in specific cities. Large trucks drove the estate’s narrow carriage roads to the Saw Mill apple house to be loaded for these sales. They then headed to cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, where the customers could buy bushels of apples off the trucks. Apples were also sold off trucks to mill workers at the Cone textile mills.

Moses Cone died in 1908, well before the orchards had matured sufficiently to produce much of a commercial apple crop. After his death, his wife, Bertha, took over management of the orchards. She directed maintenance activities such as pruning and spraying trees, harvesting and packing fruit, and set the selling prices of apples. Letters between Bertha Cone and her estate manager indicate that she was very involved in directing day-to-day orchard operations and was respected by workers on the estate.

In addition to selling apples commercially, Mrs. Cone would send “premium” apples to friends and family. These were handled with extreme care—each apple wrapped individually in a piece of purple tissue paper before being packed into a shipping box. Mrs. Cone insisted that freight charges be paid in advance by her estate manager to avoid special handling charges being added to the bill when recipients picked the apples up.

Moses and Bertha Cone intended Flat Top Manor to be financially self-sustaining. Profits from the commercial sale of apples offered one means to offset the cost of running the estate. In many years, the orchards did provide a small profit, but other years were leaner. Like all farming, growing success was dependent on the weather. Late freezes during spring could destroy the bulk of the apple crop in a single night.

Bertha Cone managed the orchards until her death in 1947. When ownership of the estate was transferred to the National Park Service in 1949, the orchards were no longer maintained as a commercial enterprise. Now, seventy years later, most of the orchards are gone. Only a small number of apple trees now survive on the estate. These trees are now over 120 years old and are dying off.

When you visit Flat Top Manor today, try to picture the estate as it looked in the past. Stand on the porch and imagine the orchards covering the hillsides in front of you. Smell the sweet aroma of the apple flowers, carried on the wind to the manor house in the spring. In fall, picture the bright red fruit hanging from the trees. It must have been something to see.
A black and white newspaper advertisement selling apples from the Cone estate.
Bertha Cone placed advertisements in regional newspapers to sell apples grown on the Cone estate. This one ran in a Greensboro, NC paper in October, 1914.
Choice Mountain Apples
From the Famous Flat Top Manor Orchards of
Mrs. Moses H. Cone
Blowing Rock, North Carolina

This Orchard is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains where Apples grow to perfection. Flat Top Manor Orchards contain 30,000 trees, which are sprayed by experts to insure the fruit maturing without blemish.

We will offer the people of Greensboro and Guilford county the opportunity to enjoy of luscious Apples, and at prices as low as ordinary Fruit is usually sold.

The First Car Will Be On Sale Early Next Week at the Following Dealers:
Foster and Caviness
Petterson Brothers
W.I. Anderson & Company
Z.E. Noah & Brother
Proximity Mercantile Company
White Oak Department Store
White Oak Store No. 2
Revolution Store Company

Flat Top Manor Orchards
Blowing Rock, North Carolina