Re-imaging Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School

“First In Forestry – Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School” – the new documentary film from the Forest History Society – tells the story of how a German forester and his small forestry school in western North Carolina helped launch the American conservation movement in the early 20th century.

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Based on Carl Alwin Schenck’s memoir Cradle of Forestry in America, the new documentary First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School is the first film to examine the pivotal role of Biltmore Estate chief forester Carl Schenck and America’s first school of forestry in American history. Though the conservation movement and professional forestry began on the Biltmore Forest—now preserved and celebrated as the Cradle of Forestry in America—Carl Schenck remains an unheralded early leader of both.

When George Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in America in the late 1800s, visited the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, in the 1880s, he fell in love with it and decided there he would build his house, still the largest private home in America. He hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds and gardens of the sprawling estate, which eventually would grow to more than 100,000 acres in all.

Olmsted recommended that Vanderbilt manage the forest primarily as a business to produce a steady revenue stream from timber sales, but also for recreation and a game preserve. At Olmsted’s urging Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot in 1892 as the estate forester. Pinchot, the first American-born forester, initiated the first large-scale forest management plan in the United States. After gaining national recognition for his work at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, three years later Pinchot prepared to move on, but only after recommending the purchase of more than 100,000 acres of woodlands for Vanderbilt. With Pinchot’s help, Vanderbilt hired Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck, a German-born and trained forester, to replace him and manage the forest for timber, game, fishing, and camping.

With so much land to oversee and replant, Schenck began hiring young men to help with the work. After three years of answering their questions while on the job, Dr. Schenck decided to teach them in a more formal setting and established the first forestry school in the United States. Schenck lectured in the mornings and the students worked the land in the afternoons, gaining practical forestry training in a one-year program. As Schenck noted with pride, “My boys worked continuously in the woods, while those at other schools saw wood only on their desks.” Schenck soon found himself at odds with Pinchot and other government foresters for his emphasis on logging in the study of forestry and his advocacy of a government-supported system of private forest ownership. Schenck was also frequently in conflict on the estate with the landscape department and, on occasion, Vanderbilt himself.

In 1909, after a disagreement with Vanderbilt, Schenck was dismissed. He then took the school on the road, teaching his students as they rode trains from one end of the continent to the other and even traveled to Germany and France to study forestry and logging operations. Unable to offer a college degree and losing money, he shut down the Biltmore Forest School in 1913. Schenck then returned to Germany, where he continued to consult and publish on forestry the rest of his life.

No matter what he did, the forest was never far from Schenck’s mind, and neither were his “boys.” They had remained in touch with their beloved “Doc” through two world wars. And in 1951 they brought him back to the United States for a grand tour of the forests they had seen together as teacher and student, including the Biltmore Forest—and perhaps to show him that they had become the men he expected them to be and had done the great things he prepared them to do.

The school and surrounding forest are now preserved as the Cradle of Forestry in America National Historic Site. To learn more about the site, visit


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