By Lauren Stepp
Before American textile mogul Moses H. Cone earned notoriety as the “Denim King” and established his 3,500-acre estate near Blowing Rock, he was a peddler.
In the late 1800s, Cone began selling door to door for his father’s grocery firm in Maryland. Cones from Bavaria, a family history written by Sydney Cone in 1960, describes the young salesman as quite adept in his craft. The 16-year-old was “five feet ten, square and spare, handsome, with arresting brown eyes.” Despite his age, bankers and leaders of southern towns “hung on his every word.” Cone even prompted his father, who emigrated from Germany in 1846, to expand the company’s reach to the Carolinas.
“The slow pay and no pay customers are in bunches,” Cone told his father of eastern Virginia. “The soil is worn out for tobacco, [the] climate [is] too cold for cotton [and the] trees too lumbered out. There’s no market yet for select meat.”
Cone was a natural-born businessman. In the years to come, he and his brother, Ceasar, would liquidize their father’s grocery venture and found Cone Export and Commission Company. Realizing the profitability of textile manufacturing, they opened three mills in Greensboro and allied with San Francisco-based Levi Strauss and Company. Cone’s prestige as the Denim King grew from there. But few know of Cone’s private life on Flat Top Manor in the High Country—a life in which he was a naturalist first and a textile magnate second.
In 1892, hoping to build an isolated refuge, Cone and his wife Bertha purchased property in Blowing Rock. They would soon amass approximately 3,500 acres and hire architect Orlo Epps to design a 23-room, 13,795-square-foot mansion. Cone was also interested in cultivating the land surrounding his home. He heeded advice from Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service, to plant groves of white pine, hemlock, sugar maple and rhododendron. He fenced in grazing pastures for a herd of whitetail deer imported from Pennsylvania and stocked lakes with bass. He even adopted sophisticated farming practices.
“Moses began planting apple orchards on the estate in 1898 and had a keen interest in pomology,” says Rita Larkin, communications director for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF). “Sixteen commercial-grade varieties were grown for market and 59 varieties for use by the family.”
BRPF is working to renovate Flat Top Manor, replacing and repairing the doors, windows, railings, columns, roof, wood siding and porch ceiling. “Even the smaller details such as the dentil work around the former windows will be repaired,” says Larkin. “It’s a massive project.”
Slated for completion in late summer or fall, the project aims to preserve the estate for future generations. This was important for Cone. Well before Flat Top Manor became part of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1950, he and Bertha allowed community members to walk the carriage trails and picnic on the grassy hillsides. Such hospitality was taboo among wealthy land barons, signaling that no matter his status as a king, Cone never forgot his humble beginnings as a peddler.
Flat Top Manor is located near Blowing Rock, at Milepost 294 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. To learn more about the renovations at Flat Top Manor, visit BRPFoundation.org.