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The bright yellow truck with the three black stripes down the side crosses Kimberly Avenue onto Griffing Boulevard, rumbling beneath tall hemlocks and white pines, passing houses of stone and

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

The bright yellow truck with the three black stripes down the side crosses Kimberly Avenue onto Griffing Boulevard, rumbling beneath tall hemlocks and white pines, passing houses of stone and

When Milk Reigned at Biltmore

The bright yellow truck with the three black stripes down the side crosses Kimberly Avenue onto Griffing Boulevard, rumbling beneath tall hemlocks and white pines, passing houses of stone and brick. Just beyond Lynwood Road, the boulevard becomes a true boulevard, a single lane for each direction split by a luxuriant median of roses and Japanese dogwoods and hemlocks and grass as shiny as emeralds.

The truck stops at the fourth house on the right, the one with the stone walkway through the front yard and the Mercury Comet station wagon and Volkswagen Beetle in the driveway. A man in a white button-down shirt emerges from the truck and walks over to the side porch, carrying three bottles of milk.

It’s 1966, and Peter Sprague is 8 years old, the eldest of five kids. He lives here at 20 Griffing Boulevard in north Asheville. It’s summertime and school’s out. And it’s Monday or Wednesday or Friday, and the milk is running low. Sprague has been waiting expectantly for the truck to roll up, the one emblazoned with the words “Biltmore Dairy Farms — Quality Dairy Products Since 1897.”

He and his sisters run out to the front of the truck and reach into the freezer for a Winky Bar popsicle. Fog and steam come billowing out. In the back of the refrigerated truck, bottles and bottles of milk are stacked on shelves, along with buttermilk and cottage cheese and butter, too, all products of Biltmore’s highly prized herd of Jersey cows.

“We were just wide-eyed, 8-year-old kids,” says Sprague, who is now 56 and a fuel operations manager for Ingles grocery stores.

In the years since ’66,  his family moved out of that house on Griffing Boulevard, the glass milk bottles became paper cartons, and the Biltmore trucks turned down their last leafy streets, making their last doorstep deliveries, putting the cap on an era that lasted generations.

• • •

The era of Biltmore Farms milk began in Asheville in the 1890s. A young intellectual from New York named George Vanderbilt had traveled to the area by train and become so enraptured by the mountains he decided to build a home here. At 26, he had already traveled much of the world — he could speak eight languages — and had inherited a fortune from his family. The Vanderbilts were among America’s aristocracy, reaping great riches in railroads and steamships, and young George wanted to bankroll something big.

Gazing out on the French Broad River valley, its wooded bottomland the only flatland around, he envisioned his own French country estate, à la the châteaus of the Loire River valley. Those were all self-sustaining estates, raising their own poultry and pigs, milking their own cows. Vanderbilt acquired vast acreage for his estate, up to 228 square miles, with ambitions of making a sterling example of modern farming.

As his magnificent château was under construction, opening its doors to a wowed world in 1895, Vanderbilt went about cultivating his passion for the land. For all his urbanity, he was a country gentleman at heart, willing to get dirt beneath his fingernails. He aimed to provide food and dairy products not only for his family and guests, but for the scores of people who worked on the property. Biltmore Estate historian Bill Alexander says Vanderbilt bought his first herd of dairy cattle in 1889. During the next several years, he imported Jersey cows — renowned for producing rich milk — from Vermont, and later from the Rockwell Park Stock Farm in Rowan County, one of the most respected breeders of high-quality Jerseys at the time.

In 1894, the dairy farm produced so much milk that it was far more than the estate needed, so Vanderbilt donated the surplus to local hospitals. That same year, an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat made this observation: “Imagine having a Vanderbilt for your milkman — flavoring your coffee with cream from the dairy of a multi-millionaire. It is enough to make one smack his lips and imagine the product is richer than that of ordinary dairymen.”

Three years later, Biltmore Farms was bottling and delivering milk to homes around Asheville and to its first wholesale customer, the Battery Park Hotel.

Milk was big business.

Before milk cartons, there were glass milk bottles, Biltmore Dairy delivered thousands of them to eager customers around Asheville, and as far away as Georgia. photograph by Courtesy of The Biltmore Company

Vanderbilt expanded his family of Jerseys, importing 11 cows — a Golden Lad bull named Golden Blaze and his daughters — from the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel. As the estate’s farm manager, George Weston, noted, “the cows promise to make very heavy milkers.” The cows were sheltered — pampered might be a better word — in the estate’s Main Dairy Barn, whose top-of-the-line stalls, completed in 1902, had central heating in winter.

The barn’s sanitation standards were the crème de la crème of the dairy industry. In 1942, Biltmore Dairy Farms published a souvenir booklet for the American Jersey Cattle Club, outlining the barn’s use of a full-time veterinarian and dairy bacteriologist. As cited in a thesis called The Udderly Fascinating History of Biltmore Dairy Farms, the booklet extols the staff’s “vigilant supervision” and use of “the latest and most modern of scientific apparatus” to ensure a healthy herd.

The Main Dairy Barn, which grew through the decades to accommodate hundreds of cows, would be gussied up in 1983 to become the Biltmore Winery at Antler Hill Village. Well-dressed tourists now sip chardonnay and white zinfandel where uniformed farm workers once wrung teats and dodged manure. (Even Biltmore manure was top quality — the landscaping and farming staff coveted it for fertilizer.)

Early on, the popularity of Biltmore milk, butter, and ice cream spilled well outside Asheville, into the Piedmont and upstate South Carolina, into east Tennessee and north Georgia. In the 1930s, Biltmore Farms opened its first depot off the estate, along with a bottling plant in Charlotte.

Many of the diary workers and their families lived on Biltmore Estate. photograph by Courtesy of The Biltmore Company

By the 1940s, Biltmore Dairy Farms had opened distribution depots in Winston-Salem; Greensboro; Greenville, South Carolina; and as far away as Wilmington. Also around this time, the dairy was rearing some of the handsomest, most productive Jersey cows in the world. Many of Biltmore’s cows became grand champions at national Jersey competitions and state fairs. One world champion, named Financial Madam Bess, was such an overachiever that she needed milking four times a day and produced more than 21,000 pounds of milk in 10 months. The Biltmore herd garnered great acclaim across the country, which only pumped up the prestige of its dairy goods.

In the 1950s, demand for Biltmore Dairy Farms products was gushing. One of Vanderbilt’s two grandsons, George Cecil, was put in charge of the fabulously profitable dairy enterprise; the other grandson, William Cecil, assumed management of the not-so-financially-healthy Biltmore House. George Cecil is now chairman of Biltmore Farms LLC, which has shifted completely out of agriculture and into home-building and hotels.

• • •

At 89 years old, Cecil still keeps a tight schedule, coming to the office, he tells me, “enough to make a nuisance of myself and go home.” As I’m on the phone with him, he says today is out of the question for a face-to-face chat about the once-bustling bovine business. He has a meeting at 12:30, then another meeting, then something else later. A busy man, George Cecil. So he refers me to the book he wrote, 24-pages long with a mouthful of a title: A Short Chat On Trees and Cows and Happenings, Ice Cream, Hotels and Things. 

But I’m persistent — this is George Vanderbilt’s grandson on the line — and I want the scoop. I ask about the Biltmore Dairy Bar that he opened back in the ’50s next to the milk bottling plant on Hendersonville Road. The place was legendary, its fans legion. They came for that fabulously fatty ice cream, made with 16 to 18 percent butterfat. What it must have been like on a Friday or Saturday night. “Packed,” Cecil says, and then again points out that I can read all about it in his book.

Still, I keep nursing the call. Let’s talk about the milk — what made Biltmore milk better than the rest? “The good quality of it.” Can one still find such quality in the milk on today’s store shelves? “I don’t think so, but I’m prejudiced.” Anything come close? “I wouldn’t venture a guess.” His answers come in drips rather than gushes; he leaves all the elaboration for my reading pleasure.

He tells me he has a copy of his book in the office, located at the fashionable Biltmore Park Town Square with its offices, townhomes, movie theater, and restaurants. By now, Cecil is out of the office, so I go in search of the people who remember gulping Biltmore milk and licking Biltmore ice cream. But where to find them in this town of edgy young people and trendy retirees? They’re out there, perusing the aisles at Ingles, or downing sandwiches at Little Pigs BBQ, or selling homes to all the newcomers who, like George Vanderbilt, fell for Asheville. “I’ll talk to you, as long as you don’t call me an old-timer,” says Carol Pennell, who at 58 is anything but. She’s a real estate agent on lunch break who remembers the Biltmore milk truck pulling up to her house. “And the truck was so identifiable by the way it looked — that really rich, orangey yellow and black.”

Pennell’s parents had what she calls “an open-ended account” with Biltmore Farms. “When our parents were home and the guy delivered the milk, we could order a whole thing of Winky Bars and just put it on our parents’ tab.”

Her parents caught on, of course. But such heavenly treats sometimes call for devilish antics. And the milk was delicious, too, not quite like anything she’s had since. “It was just pure. I mean, it was before the days of all kinds of percentages of milk, us ordering lattes with different kinds of milk. And, you know, there’s not anything better — a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk. I grew up here, and Biltmore milk was all that we drank.”

You can also get a big, buttery taste of Biltmore’s dairy legacy at the Creamery at Antler Hill Village, right where Biltmore’s dairy barns used to stand. Let assistant manager Jackie Thomas dig out a hunk of vanilla ice cream, advertised on the menu as a Biltmore Farms original. Thomas says Hunter Farms in High Point provides the store with the original vanilla recipe — replete with that high butterfat content — letting the low-carb generation sample the ice cream Southerners once screamed for.

Behind the counter, a giant black-and-white photo spreads across the wall like a mural, showing men wearing crisp white uniforms and bow ties. Each stands in front of a Biltmore Farms milk delivery truck. They’re lined up, straight-faced, much like a squad of police officers posing with their cruisers. “We get stories all the time — people coming in talking about how it was delivered to their home, just how they grew up on Biltmore ice cream,” Thomas says. “It’s pretty neat. They’ll come in and remember things. There’s a lady who came in here and picked her grandfather out of the picture.”

Thomas can also show you an old menu from the Biltmore Dairy Bar, listing a bounty of ice cream flavors — black cherry, butter pecan, cherry vanilla, chocolate. The Biltmore Dairy Bar is now a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant adjoined to the Doubletree Biltmore Hotel near the entrance to the estate. On this site in June 1957, Biltmore Farms opened a milk bottling plant; then, as now, it was a high-profile location. “For the first time since it came into existence, Biltmore Dairy Farms was really on display to the public,” Cecil writes in his book. “And the large number of yellow and black trucks caused quite a sensation.”

The popularity of Biltmore milk, butter, and ice cream spilled well outside Asheville. photograph by Courtesy of The Biltmore Company

The Doubletree Hotel features a museum that chronicles the history of Biltmore’s dairy business. You can see the only remaining horse-drawn milk wagon from Biltmore’s original fleet of 12. It’s painted in that attention-grabbing yellow with three black stripes down the sides. You can see all the blue ribbons won by Biltmore’s handsome Jerseys. You can see the old one-liter milk bottles that will stir your inner Rockwell. You can see cardboard cartons of various dairy products — Vitamin D milk, Biltmore Super strawberry milk, Biltmore Super chocolate milk, Country Love Neapolitan ice cream, milk shake mix, cottage cheese, even an orange drink.

• • •

Biltmore Dairy Farms chugged along through the ’60s and ’70s, but at the same time, supermarkets were changing the dairy dynamics. People could buy milk cheaper, and often more conveniently, at the grocery store. Home delivery routes were drying up. The last one put on the brakes around 1980.

Biltmore responded to the market changes by closing small branches around the region and merging them with bigger ones. In 1979, a corporate reorganization split the dairy business completely off from the Biltmore Company, which had also been running the estate. On into the early 1980s, Biltmore products were available in five states — North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia. But something else was happening around this time: Supermarket chains were supplying their own milk and dairy products from their own plants, siphoning sales away from Biltmore. The company eventually decided to get out of the dairy business altogether and “redeploy its assets into other fields of endeavor,” Cecil writes.

The company sold the milk and ice cream business to Pet Inc. in April 1985, and the Asheville bottling plant soon shut down. Cecil put a hotel in its place and kept the Biltmore Dairy Bar open, letting the hotel restaurant share the kitchen. “Finally, it just got so complicated with getting good help that we just chucked it and redid the whole thing and rented it out to Friday’s.”

Which compels the question: How did Asheville take to having its beloved dairy bar taken away? Not too kindly, he says. “Please don’t shut it down,” he remembers hearing. “But, unfortunately, we had to eventually,” Cecil says.

An old, plastic neon sign for Biltmore Dairy Farms, one of the few vestiges of the building’s former self, hangs on a wall inside the restaurant over patrons eating mozzarella sticks and French onion soup.

• • •

For years, the Biltmore Dairy Bar attracted ice cream lovers to a spot next to the dairy’s bottling plant. photograph by The North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, North Carolina

The longer I sit there and talk with Carol Pennell, the real estate agent on lunch break, the more she craves a cold glass of Biltmore milk and a Winky Bar. She remembers how her adolescent mind thought it so uncool for delivery trucks to drop by her house. Funny thing is, local farm-to-table food has become really hip these days, especially in a progressive town like Asheville. “You know, we’ve gone completely full circle from being almost embarrassed because someone brought you eggs and milk to your house,” she says. “We all wanted to buy it from the grocery store for the modern convenience.”

She now goes out of her way to buy milk directly from a local dairy farmer.

For most of the 20th century, the yellow-and-black wagons, followed by the yellow-and-black trucks, were as much a part of the landscape in Asheville as the peaks and knobs ringing the city, as familiar a presence as Town Mountain and Mount Pisgah. You’d see them motoring north of town on Merrimon Avenue, or east on Tunnel Road, or west on Patton Avenue, or south on Brevard Road. They tended to accounts in Woodfin, Weaverville, Candler, Arden, Fletcher, Swannanoa. They roamed the streets of Charlotte and Greenville, South Carolina.

And they turned down Griffing Boulevard, rumbling beneath the tall hemlocks and white pines, bound for the house with the wide-eyed kids waiting to feel the frosty air in their faces. Waiting to run into the house with a cold bottle of milk. Waiting to taste the cold creaminess that only lives on in their memories.

This story was published on May 28, 2014

Bryan Mims

Mims is a reporter for WRAL News. He was the 2012 Television News Reporter of the Year.