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First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School film project

The Forest History Society is excited to announce we're co-developing a new documentary film about Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School. First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School will be the first documentary film to examine the pivotal role that the Biltmore Estate's chief forester Carl Schenck and America's first school of forestry played in American conservation history. We hope you will consider supporting the production of this documentary film with a donation.


       The Story       |       The Film       |       How Can I Help?       |       About FHS Films       |       Film Supporters


The Story

In 1898 Dr. Carl Schenck, chief forester for George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate, established the first forestry school in America – the Biltmore Forest School. During its 15 years of operation, the Biltmore Forest School turned out nearly 400 graduates. Students spent a year in the woods studying forestry while doing hands-on, practical work to restore the Biltmore Estate's 100,000 worn-out acres. As Schenck noted with pride, "My boys worked continuously in the woods, while those at other schools saw wood only on their desks." Many of the school's alumni went on to play substantial and significant roles in shaping forestry in America by working as government or industry foresters or educating the next generation of foresters. Every graduate of the Biltmore Forest School credited their beloved Dr. Schenck with giving them the education and skills needed to succeed in the new science of forestry.

Carl Schenck with Biltmore Forest School students (FHS337).

In addition to teaching the first generation of American foresters, Schenck wrote some of the first forestry textbooks ever used in America, advised other private landowners about forest management, and developed the Biltmore stick for measuring tree dimensions, a simple tool still in use today. Schenck's accomplishments were considered important enough by the federal government that it preserved the school's buildings and grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America National Historic Site. Yet Schenck and his contributions to American forestry and conservation tends to be overshadowed by his contemporaries Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, and John Muir. We feel that the best way to reach the largest number of people possible about Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School is with a PBS-quality documentary film.


The Film

The Forest History Society, in collaboration with UNC-TV and the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association, proposes to organize, produce, and distribute a documentary film on Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School. The film will provide a window onto American environmental history from roughly the 1880s through the 1920s, and conclude with a look at the Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site today.

Carl Schenck in woods (FHS473).

At the heart of any good film is tension and drama, and the history of the Biltmore Forest School and its founder is a story spilling over with both: Schenck was a German forester trying to introduce a new science in America; he worked for forward-thinking men who sometimes couldn't rise above their petty grievances; he conducted operations at a place built by Industrial Revolution money yet run like a medieval fiefdom; and Schenck, the recent immigrant, battled with national conservation leaders over the future of America's forests. Schenck didn't shy away from a fight if he felt his principles and vision for under attack. This is a man who so angered Gifford Pinchot that Pinchot denounced him as an antichrist!

But every good documentary has larger themes and ideas. Some of those include:

  • the Biltmore Estate and the birth of forestry in America;

  • environmental restoration efforts on the Biltmore Estate and what became the Pisgah National Forest;

  • philosophical differences regarding forestry education and forest management between Schenck, Gifford Pinchot, and Bernhard Fernow;

  • Schenck's eventual dismissal by George Vanderbilt and Schenck's decision to take the forestry school on the road nationwide;

  • Schenck's return to Germany in 1913 and service in the German army;

  • Schenck's return to the United States in the 1950s and recognition of his role in developing the profession of forestry here.

In addition to being entertaining and informative, this film will serve many audiences and purposes. It's an effective way to educate the general public about the topic through PBS-sponsored broadcasts in North Carolina and beyond. It'll provide a basis for an online educational module in K-12 classrooms, or it can be used in college classrooms or for public screenings. Once completed, a shortened version of the film can be shown to visitors at the Cradle of Forestry Discovery Center on the Pisgah National Forest before they tour the school grounds. In sum, the film will be enjoyed for years to come in many different ways.


How Can I Help?

To help kick-start our fundraising for the documentary film, our historian Jamie Lewis ran the inaugural From the Cradle to the Grave 30K Trail Race on May 18, 2013, and then the next day ran the Biltmore Estate 15K—a total of 45 kilometers. Jamie called this effort "The Dash for the 'Stache" in honor of Carl Schenck's famous mustache.

Dash for the Stache 2013 logo. Each of these races took place on the land where Carl Schenck worked and made history. We're suggesting a minimum donation of $45—that's a dollar for every kilometer he ran—with all proceeds going to the production of the film. We have a donor who has pledged to match every dollar donated at a 1:1 ratio, so the more you give, the sooner we can begin production of First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School. So please tell your friends and help spread the word. Of course, any donation is welcome and appreciated.

To become a supporter of the film, visit our Donation page. As a thank-you for giving at certain levels, we've established a few incentives.

  • Those giving at the $45 level will have their names listed on the film's Supporter web page;

  • Those giving at the $90 level or above will receive the above and have their name listed in the film's closing credits;

  • Those giving at the $180 level or above will receive the above and a complimentary copy of Carl Schenck's wonderful memoir The Cradle of Forestry: The Biltmore Forest School 1898-1913;

  • Those giving at the $360 level or above will receive the above and a complimentary copy of the film on DVD once it's produced.

We're very excited about showcasing Carl Schenck and his seminal work at the Biltmore, sharing it with you and other viewers in North Carolina and across the country, and introducing this important history to students of all ages.
Thank you to our generous supporters.


About the Forest History Society and Documentary Films

Established in 1946, the Forest History Society is the foremost library and archives in the world focused on forest and conservation history. We have a strong track record of research and publication in forest history and service providing access to our rich store of historical documents. The Society holds moving footage in its collections that is sought after by those doing documentaries, including the History Channel, PBS's The American Experience series, the Discovery Channel, and a variety of independent and public filmmakers. Some of this footage was used by the Society to produce two award-winning documentaries on forest history, Timber on the Move and Up in Flames. More recently, the Forest History Society advised on and assisted in the production and distribution of The Greatest Good: A Centennial History, the award-winning film about the history of the U.S. Forest Service that has enjoyed more than 8,000 showings on PBS stations around the country.

Many resources already exist to support the development and production of the film. These include the original memoirs of Carl Schenck held by the Forest History Society, which the Society has published as The Cradle of Forestry: The Biltmore Forest School 1898-1913, as well as archival records of students and visitors to the Biltmore Forest School. A wealth of still photographs taken by Schenck and his students are held at the Forest History Society and at the N.C. State University Library. These resources were digitized with the help of two NC ECHO grants that funded a collaborative project between the Forest History Society, N.C. State University, UNC-Asheville, and the Biltmore Estate. The Forest History Society has a librarian (Cheryl Oakes), archivist (Eben Lehman), and historian (James Lewis) who can provide support to the project. James Lewis has published extensively on the topic.