Life at the Manor
Afternoons at Flat Top Manor on the Moses Cone estate just outside Blowing Rock were once filled with family and friends who played bridge, enjoyed reading and dined with neighbors, such as artist Elliot Daingerfield.
While the house was completed in 1901, Cone spent only a short time on the estate. He died in 1908. His wife, Bertha Lindau Cone, continued to spend summers there and oversaw operations of the estate until her death in 1947.
Insights into the daily activities of Bertha Cone and family members who stayed at Flat Top Manor are part of an historic furnishings report prepared for the National Park Service by graduate students in the public history program in Appalachian State University’s Department of History.
The report will be used by Blue Ridge Parkway staff to inform tours and design exhibits on the Cone and Lindau families, as well as the employees who worked on the estate.
The house now serves as a visitors’ and craft center.
“Because the house no longer is furnished, we have tried to identify what furniture once was there and how it was used,” said Neva J. Specht, a professor of public history and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences who managed the project.
Carrie A. Streeter and Joseph W. Otto served as graduate research assistants with the project.
“I tried to pull together as many facets, as many little threads as I could to make it human by writing the report as if it were happening in real time,” Streeter said. “Often when interpreting a person, you might focus on what they accomplished, but the story of how they got there often is more interesting.”
Oral histories from people who lived at the manor or worked on the estate, including grandnieces who spent time there in the 1930s, provided the researchers valuable information about daily activities on the estate and how rooms were furnished and used, as did correspondence between Bertha Cone and the estate manager and a journal that Cone kept containing information about “hiring help” for the estate.
When Bertha learned a pack of wild dogs were killing sheep at the estate, she wrote the manager that she would send a pistol to him to take care of the problem.
Bertha Cone’s 12-page will specified who would receive each object in the house, providing further information about furniture and furnishings.
“The will is really detailed. From it, we know what furnishings were in her bedroom,” Specht said. “Some of the furniture bequeathed to family members still exists, which adds to the historical record.”
In addition, photographs kept by relatives show furnishings that were in portions of the house.
Flat Top Manor has 23 rooms, five bathrooms and a basement.
The interior was furnished with items the Cones purchased during their around-the-world trips taken early in their marriage or from business trips taken by Moses Cone.
Visitors who came to the house when Bertha Cone and her sisters, Sophie and Clementine Lindau, were summering there were probably received in the parlor or the library that was located to the right of the house’s entrance.
“If you were a friend or family member, you probably spent most of your time playing cards or games and reading on the second floor in a living space,” Specht said.
The bedrooms and most of the bathrooms were located on the second floor. Children of guests and servants stayed on the third floor.
A billiards room was located in a back room on the first floor. “Bertha had purchased a brand new billiards table in 1917, long after Moses had died, and we could never figure out why,” Specht said. “It turns out that her nephew, Norman Lindau, who used to visit every summer, really liked to play billiards, so we think that might have been the impetus for her to purchase the billiards table.”
Norman also liked to read aloud from classic literature well into the night, possibly fueled by a stash of chocolate bars he kept in his bedroom.
Although a man of leisure, supported by family money, he listed playwright as his occupation.
“Norman was an orator and into plays,” Streeter said.
He would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. loudly reading from Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, according to his wife’s diary.
The Cone Estate was part of the country estate or country house movement during Gilded Age when industrialists were building houses in the Adirondacks, Asheville, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“They were supposed to be working estates. Some had livestock. Moses Cone was interested in apples and planted thousands of the fruit trees on his estate. The owners of these estates were supposed to model good farming practices,” Specht said.
Oral histories and other documents showed that Bertha Cone read “The Progressive Farmer” magazine and was always looking for new ways of running the estate.
She established the first Grade A dairy in Watauga County, which provided milk and butter primarily for the estate but some was sold locally, including to Appalachian State Teachers College.
“Bertha was so fond of the fresh cream and butter from the dairy that she arranged with the estate manager to ship fresh dairy projects to Baltimore,” Sheets said.
A special box insulated with hay would carry the milk products by wagon to the train station in Lenoir for shipment to Baltimore, according to information provided by dairy manager Lloyd Coffey to a former National Park Service manager.
The stories of the Cones, as well as other industrialists of the 1900s, fascinate the public, Specht said.
“The idea that you could spend a whole summer in leisure is out of most people’s realm,” she said.