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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.

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Our story begins with George Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in America. After visiting Asheville, North Carolina, in the late 1880s he fell in love with the beautiful mountain town and decided to build his sprawling Biltmore Estate there. He hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds and gardens of the 5,800-acre estate. Olmsted, in turn, wanted to make it a showcase for the world.

But why there? And why then? At the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was well underway in America. Though many think of it as the Age of Steel, it really was the Age of Wood. Wood was being consumed at an alarming rate, sparking fears of a timber famine. The best way to avoid a timber famine, some argued, was to manage our forests for perpetuity. Olmsted saw the worn-out farms and forests surrounding Vanderbilt’s home as a golden opportunity to introduce scientific forest management to the United States.

Carl Schenck in woods (FHS473).

At Olmsted’s urging, Vanderbilt decided to hire a forester to scientifically manage the woodlands. So in 1892 he hired Gifford Pinchot, who later became known as the “Father of American Forestry” and established the U.S. Forest Service. Over the next three years, Pinchot initiated the first large-scale forest management plan in the United States, making a name for himself and the Biltmore Estate. Before Pinchot left in 1895, Vanderbilt purchased 100,000 additional acres of mountainous woodlands and asked Pinchot to find a man to manage the land. At Pinchot’s recommendation, Vanderbilt hired Dr. Carl Alwin Schenck, a German forester, to replace him.

Schenck came to the United States knowing little about the forest conditions he faced. But word quickly spread about the tall man with the funny-looking mustache who could be seen on his hands and knees planting acorns, or refused to cut down every tree in the woods. Curious young men began showing up looking for work, and soon were asking questions about this new science called forestry. To answer their questions, Schenck opened the Biltmore Forest School in 1898, the first school of forestry in America. Essentially a one-man operation, he’d lecture to them in the morning and show them the practical side in the afternoon. As Schenck noted with pride, “My boys worked continuously in the woods, while those at other schools saw wood only on their desks.” Filled with school pride and thoroughly versed in the art and science of forestry after just a year’s training, many of his students went on to become leaders of the forestry movement.

They worked hard, but they played hard, too. In the early years, the Biltmore boys frequently could be found in town drinking and carousing and getting in trouble. Schenck solved the problem by hosting parties in camp. A deep and abiding admiration grew between teacher and students as they drank beer and sang songs around the campfire.

Rowdy students were the least of Schenck’s worries: 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 immigrant, battled with American conservation leaders over the future of America’s forests. Schenck didn’t shy away from a fight if he felt his ideas were under attack. He took on Pinchot and United States presidents with equal gusto.

When Vanderbilt fell on hard times in 1909, he fired Schenck. Undeterred, Schenck simply took the school on the road, traveling across America and throughout Europe, showing his “boys” forestry and logging operations in different places. He taught them in railroad cars and lumber camps. Everywhere they went was a classroom. But when Schenck’s school began losing money and students, he closed it and returned home to Germany in 1913. There he survived two world wars and even advised the Allied Occupation Forces on how to restore his beloved German forests after World War II.

He never forgot his boys, and they never forgot him. Some fifty years after the school closed, those students still remaining gathered at the old school grounds high in the mountains of North Carolina to dedicate the Cradle of Forestry in America National Historic Site.

Carl Schenck with Biltmore Forest School students (FHS337).


The Forest History Society, in collaboration with the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association, is producing and distributing First in Forestry: Carl Schenck and the Biltmore Forest School. It 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. The film is being made by Bonesteel Films of Asheville, NC. We expect to show it on PBS stations around the country.

Our film will mix interviews with leading scholars and experts with historical photographs and recreation footage to vividly tell this incredible story. The story weaves together broad historical events with personal stories, highlighting individuals who, often acting in opposition to the prevailing attitudes, created sweeping changes with national implications: George Vanderbilt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Gifford Pinchot, and of course Carl Alwin Schenck.

In addition to the story of Carl Schenck, the documentary will explore larger themes such as:

  • The establishment of forestry in America;

  • Early forest restoration efforts;

  • Philosophical differences regarding forestry education and forest management between Carl Schenck and Gifford Pinchot;

  • European vs. American philosophies about the role of government in land management and economics;

  • Urban vs. rural attitudes regarding land use;

  • Local vs. national approaches to forest management.

While entertaining and informative, this film will serve many audiences and purposes. It is an effective way to educate the general public about the topic through PBS-sponsored broadcasts in North Carolina and beyond. It will 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 will 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.

Filming First in Forestry, 2014


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. But to do so, we need your help. To become a supporter of the film, visit our Donation page. As a thank-you, we’re offering the following:

  • Those giving at the $100 level or higher will have their names listed on the film's Supporter web page;

  • Those giving at the $200 level or higher 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 $300 level or higher will receive the above and a complimentary copy of the film on DVD once it is produced.


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 PBS's The American Experience series, the History Channel, 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.

Cradle of Forestry Overlook