PIECES OF THE PAST: Orange Surprise

Tacy Callies Pieces of the Past

Left: The Biltmore Estate’s 125th anniversary ornament pays tribute to the tradition of giving oranges as Christmas gifts to the estate’s employees. Right: A new ornament celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

This past summer, I drove up to Asheville, North Carolina, and was able to visit Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the nation. Officially opened on Christmas Eve of 1895, George Vanderbilt’s “country home” contains over 4 acres of floor space, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces.

As I browsed through the gift shop, I saw a beautiful Biltmore Christmas ornament that had a wreath of oranges surrounding an image of the house in honor of its 125th anniversary in 2020. Imagine my surprise!

When I asked about the story behind the ornament, I was told that every year the Vanderbilts had a big Christmas party for the employees in honor of the opening of the Biltmore House on Christmas Eve. The Vanderbilts would give the staff oranges and candy as presents.

Keep in mind that oranges were hard to come by at that time — and expensive, too. So, this was considered a real treat by the employees. George’s wife Edith and their daughter Cornelia continued the employee Christmas parties after George passed away in 1914. It is a tradition that is still in place today.

The card included with the ornament states that “The inspiration for this unique commemorative comes from a story shared by Edith Cauble, whose parents worked on the estate. In her oral history, Edith recalls: ‘Christmas parties where Mr. Vanderbilt stood on one side of the front door of the house in tails, and Edith stood on the other side wearing a long velvet dress giving out oranges and candy. In the banquet hall there was music, and Cornelia would run around with the other children.’”

George Vanderbilt spent most of his inheritance on Biltmore, so he needed the estate to be self-sustainable. He created a dairy, sheep, hog and poultry farms, and a substantial market garden for produce. Biltmore Dairy proved to be the most successful of the farming enterprises and provided the estate with “a financial cushion that would see it through George Vanderbilt’s death, two world wars, the Great Depression and beyond.”

Vanderbilt also wanted to preserve the surrounding beauty, so he enlisted the services of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City and Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. From their collaboration came a self-sustaining estate of 125,000 acres and the nation’s first planned forestry program. After George’s death, Edith sold 87,000 acres of the estate to the U.S. Forest Service for less than $5 an acre.

Today, Biltmore remains a family business, with the fourth and fifth generations of George Vanderbilt’s descendants involved in day-to-day operations. Much like our industry, environmental stewardship and best management practices have been integrated over the years, which have earned the family the Triple Bottom Line Award from Sustainable North Carolina. The award is given to for-profit businesses that demonstrate the successful integration of all three aspects of sustainability — social, environmental and economic.

But that ornament reminded me that 2022 is the 60th Anniversary of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, which warrants its own ornament … and now one is available! Orange you glad I went into the gift shop? 

Visit FloridaCitrusHallofFame.com if you’d like to order an ornament. Take time to browse the many videos and digital collections that have been added to the website over the last 10 years.

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and a “fruit-full” new year!

Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.

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