It was in the late 1870s that merchants of this section of the state came to know a young Hebrew grocery drummer who traveled the mountains on horseback soliciting orders for the Cone wholesale grocery firm doing business in Jonesboro, TN. He was an attractive and interesting young drummer who had genius as a merchant. People just could not resist his selling qualities. When Moses Cone came into their places of business their selling resistance vanished.
They tell us poets are born. So are great merchants like John Wanamaker and A.T. Stewart. If you will study the history of the cotton mill business in North Carolina, you will see that the men who won the largest measure of success with cotton mills were men who were merchants as well as manufacturers.
The early manufacturers like the Holts and Steeles and Fries and Chathams, to mention only a few pioneers, were also great merchants. They had the genius to sell what they made. And that is true of the Cones, most of them, particularly Moses H. Cone, the oldest of a dozen children. As young Moses Cone traveled through these mountains and took orders for groceries, the lure of the heights and the valleys and the fine stuff of the people got into his blood.
He loved the bracing air, the cool water from its sparkling springs, the grandeur of the mountain peaks, the lovely and sweet meadows, and the music of the streams. They held him and went with him as later, Moses and his brothers made connections with big textile mills whose products they sold all over the country.
It was not long before Moses Cone saw that southern mills received too little because they depended chiefly on selling yarns and cheaper fabrics, and so he and his brothers resolved to construct finishing mills, which they did at Greensboro, and later at other places. It was selling before making that laid the foundations for the big Cone fortune. It was said they could sell anything they offered.
As young Moses drank in the glory of the mountains and traveled from place to place, he spent his spare moments in reading. He later said that any man could read himself into a good education. That is what he did. He had received only the sort of public school instruction which Jonesboro, TN offered in the late 1860s and early 1870s. But he had great curiosity. Everything that concerned man interested him.
He first learned men. He learned how to win them. Then he learned books. An indefatigable reader, he mastered what he read. With remarkable mind and keenness of intellect of the best of the Hebrew race, he was as keen for knowledge all his life as he was for orders in his youth as a traveling drummer. Economics, history, literature, art — all intrigued him, and by the time he saw the possibility of the Vision of Beauty he incarnated here and made it permanent in his noble estate he had become an educated man at the age of 40.
Thenceforward, he alternated business with the development of the Moses H. Cone Manor. He came here for his health after he became rich. The early lure held him fast. He purchased 3,000 acres of mountain and valley and meadow and set about developing it. He first bought land and started to build on the beautiful land that looks toward Lenoir. Later he caught the vision of Flat Top and Rich Mountains, and the farm which he converted into orchards of thousands of apple trees and into beautiful lakes.
Biltmore, near Asheville, is known the world over. Comparatively few people are familiar with the Cone Estate near here. Mr. Cone built a home that would be called a mansion in New York or a castle in the old country. It became in his last days the home of genuine and generous hospitality to his many friends and large family connections and so remains a place of delight to those fortunate enough to be friends of Mrs. Cone.
Indeed, she keeps the place as near as possible in every way to how Mr. Cone designed it, with his own constant improvements. The Cone apple orchard is one of the show places of America. Many see it. But the sight of sights on the Estate is the drive to Rich Mountains and to Flat Top.
On top of both mountains, Mr. Cone built observatories from which one can see five states on a clear day and feel literally that he is on top of the world. On Rich Mountain there are scores of haw trees—the most beautiful haw trees in all the world—and just now the red berries, to be crimson by September, are a riot of beauty and glory. Standing under the shade of such trees, you can see Grandfather and a score of other mountains.
Mr. Cone died early—soon after he had complete his home and laid off his 3,500 acre estate. He lived to see the work and to pronounce it good, and died at the comparatively young age of 50. But he achieved far more than most successful men of threescore and ten. His last days were brightened by carrying out his plans for the beautification of his Wautauga Estate. It is a memorial that will outlast his business structures, enduring as they are, and will give happiness to this and future generations.
From ‘Moses Cone Remembered,’ by Josephus Daniels (Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson; summered in Blowing Rock area), Greensboro Daily News, spring 1930; date not specified; online at www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/blri/moses_cone_estate.pdf