By David Rogers. July 29, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Bushwhacked, hacked, slashed, ripped, gashed, torn asunder — any of those are apt descriptions.
COVER IMAGE: Now you can see right through the switchbacks on the historic “Maze” segment of the Moses Cone Estate carriage trails — over shredded stumps and debris. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
A large number of local residents — and visitors — are up in arms this month because of the National Park Service’s mutilation of rhododendrons along sections of the Moses Cone Estate carriage trails. Given the Parkway’s “master plan” for restoring the Estate to what it might have looked like when Moses and Bertha Cone were inhabitants of Flat Top Manor, if this is what restoration looks like the locals are wanting nothing to do with it.
Broad sections of the rhododendrons along the carriage trails have been hacked to oblivion, the tranquil ambiance that characterized the unique feature of the Estate disappearing with them. With the rhododendrons, what was around the corner of carriage trail switchbacks remained unseen, adding to the mystery and even romance of the trails — treasured by hikers, horseback riders and runners. Now you see right through the switchbacks over spiky stumps and shredded limbs and leaves.
…what used to be sturdy trunks supporting massive amounts of foilage now ripped up and left in gnarled masses of bare, upright sticks.
A little below the Apple Barn, at least a hundred yards of rhododendron and other growth on both sides of “The Maze” segment have been shredded away, what used to be trunks supporting massive amounts of foilage now ripped up and left in gnarled masses of bare, upright sticks.
Adding to the consternation for what many feel was done without any rhyme or reason is that a couple of years ago a more proper rhododendron pruning was successfully contracted and professionally executed on the Duncan Road segment, a source told Blowing Rock News. “Why this?” she asked.
“Both the timing and the way these were virtually destroyed was all wrong,” the source said. “Even if these had just been pruned, instead of bushwhacked to the stump of a trunk, this is the wrong time of year. Most of these were still in bloom and that is NOT the right time one horticulturist at NC State told me.”
Given that the timing was all wrong, the trails were freely navigable, and they did not appear to have been diseased in any way, theories abound as to why the National Park Service would take such drastic measures.
It was fun to hear them make up stories around the mystery.
“I think they must have gotten some funding and bought a new toy,” one Blowing Rock resident speculated to Blowing Rock News, requesting anonymity. “Whoever is responsible for what I can only call ‘trash cutting’ apparently doesn’t live here nor value the Estate’s natural and historic value.”
Another resident has been walking the Cone Manor trails for more than three decades. As they were growing up, she encouraged her children to join her on long weekend walks they called “adventures.”
“I know there are obvious beginnings and ends to The Maze,” she said, “but it fires up kids’ imaginations to hear that they will be walking in a maze. Before, every time they went out there, what was around the corner of a switchback was hidden by the rhododendron, something maybe unexpected. It was fun to hear them make up stories around the mystery.
I am reminded of those booby traps we uncovered in Vietnam.
“Now you see right through,” she added, “and what is left on the ground is ugly as all get out. Horticulturists have more scientific ways of pruning back shrubbery, including rhododendrons. This was done as if they don’t want the rhododendrons to grow back. And to make matters worse, much of what they cut down had not finished blooming.”
If left as photographed by Blowing Rock News over the weekend and earlier this week, there is an added danger: In many places the trunks have been left with a foot or more of exposed wood, many little more than spikes sticking up from the ground.
“I hope no one stumbles out there and falls on those spikes,” one elderly military veteran said to Blowing Rock News on Monday. “When I served in Vietnam, the Viet Cong often constructed these booby traps. They dug a pit and placed bamboo spikes at the bottom and covered the with a thin, camouflaged material. Man, you did not want to fall into one of those. The way these rhododendron trunks have been turned into jagged and splintered spikes, I am reminded of those booby traps we uncovered.”
Adding to the tragedy of these normally hardy plants’ loss and contributing to the carriage trail ambiance is their role in Blowing Rock and High Country history.
“…Moses Cone sought to provide himself and his family with a retreat from their busy city life,” explains Cultural Landscapes Inventory, a document complied and authored by the National Park Service in March 2014. “…Flat Top Estate was more than a country retreat and a display of wealth; it was also the setting in which he could experiment with scientific agriculture through his orchards and farm activities.” (CLICK HERE to retrieve the full document)
On page 52 of the document, the narrative specifically mentions the Cones’ purposeful planting of rhododendron as well as trees and other shrubs along the carriage trails. And in looking at old photographs from the period (also found in the same document), the estate back then was not as heavily forested as it is now — and the rhododendron and other shrubbery lining the carriage trails really stand out.
Planted by the Cones, the rhododendron were an intentional feature of the carriage drive system…
“Beginning circa 1900, trees and understory shrubs were planted by the Cones along the margins of the carriage drives, as well as the margins of Bass Lake. Early species of trees are known to have included white pine and sugar maples, and understory shrubs included mountain laurel, roseby, and Catawba rhododendron. Many of the trees planted in avenues have survived, but are in poor condition…In contrast, the rhododendrons and mountain laurels have flourished and spread.”
That the rhododendron were an intentional feature of the carriage drive system is found on page 59 of the National Park Service’s document.
“These carriage drives primarily extend through a wooded landscape and therefore form narrow open corridors set between dense walls of evergreen shrubs and beneath the ceiling formed by the tree canopy.” Note: a North Carolina State University report describes the Catawba rhododendron as an evergreen shrub. (CLICK HERE to read the full description)
While the document admits that periodically the spreading growth of the shrubs need to be cut back it adds, “However, these native shrubs continue to survive and grace the margins of the carriage drive.”
Well, they survived until July of 2020. Their future is now suspect and the carriage trail experience just won’t be the same without the rhododendrons lining their path.
Our multiple calls to National Park Service and Blue Ridge Parkway officials over the past three days have yet to be answered for comment.