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Despite the fact that we were able to stay in Nova Scotia longer this summer than any of the previous three years, when the time came to fly South, it seemed that the season had been entirely too short.  When it dawned on us that Canadian Thanksgiving coincided with fall break in the U.S. academic year, we booked tickets back to Nova Scotia.  For those of you who don’t know about Canadian Thanksgiving, Wikipedia should set you straight.

The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been trying to find a northern passage to the Pacific Ocean.  Frobisher’s Thanksgiving celebration was not for harvest but for a safe return to Newfoundland. During his search for the Northwest Passage, he avoided the later fate of Henry Hudson and Sir John Franklin. (Australian readers may recognize Franklin, Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania before his ill-fated adventure). Frobisher’s ceremony in 1578 was one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations by Europeans in North America.

French settlers crossed the ocean and arrived in Canada with explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604. They held feasts of thanks in the settlement of Port Royal, in what they called Acadie. They formed ‘The Order of Good Cheer’ and shared their food with their First Nations neighbours. After the Seven Year’s War ended in 1763 handing over of New France to the British, the citizens of Halifax, held a special day of Thanksgiving.

At the end of the American Revolution, settlers from the colonies who remained loyal to Great Britain fled the newly independent United States for Canada. They brought the customs and practices of the American Thanksgiving to Canada. The first Thanksgiving Day after Canadian Confederation was observed as a civic holiday on April 5, 1872 to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) from a serious illness.

The Wikipedia write up on the Canadian Thanksgiving is somewhat thin on information, but it seems likely that celebrating in October rather than November has to do with the earlier onset of winter in most parts of Canada. In the Annapolis Valley, where we are, harvest was in full swing when we arrived on October 8.  The valley is the bread basket of Nova Scotia.  On the weekends, urban dwellers from the big city (Halifax) drive up in droves to gawk at vegetables for sale at farm stands and look over the pumpkins in the fields.

There are pick-your-own pumpkin patches, and the selection process seems to take on the import of a religious rite.  In the nearby town of Windsor, a farmer named Howard Dill became so obsessed by the squash that he bred the biggest pumpkins on the planet for four years in a row.  His seeds, called “Dill’s Atlantic Giant,” have produced specimens weighing 1689 lbs (767 kilos).  He died two years ago, but his unstinting efforts brought a boom in tourism to the town.

For a dozen years now, the town has held a pumpkin regatta, in which adventurous mariners carve their “personal vegetable vessels” to race against one another on the Lake Pesaquid, an arm of the Bay of Fundy.  I have failed to attend the event every single year, but it is on my list.  This year it was held on Sunday, the day we had selected for our own particular family Thanksgiving.  And I was the chief cook.  So I’ve inserted some else’s photo.  It’s a good one.

I enjoy the harvest aspect of the season, but for me it is a melancholy time.  Winter is on its way, after all.  I will admit that its harbinger is sheer magic.  It happened one morning a few days after Thanksgiving.  I looked out the window and there it was– frost on the field.  It was beautiful.


I got an invitation the other day to re-visit Biltmore.  My sister and I made a pilgrimage there in the Spring, but I never got around to writing it up.  The leaves will be turning now, and I’m sure the parkland is very beautiful.  Pretty soon they’ll be decorating for Christmas.

If you’ve been to Washington, DC any time in the last couple hundred years, you’ve undoubtedly wandered by the White House and been astonished at how small it is.  How could the First Family of our country get used to living in such a confined space?  For the Texans, especially, it must have seemed a very tight squeeze.  But then they had their other homes, their ranches, Camp David and a private jet to get out of DC.

Families like the Dukes, (who made a fortune with an addictive, but entirely legal weed), built their mansions in Durham or bought townhouses in New York and lived very well, thank you.  Unfortunately, the tobacco mansions in Durham were torn down to make way for office buildings or freeways.  Durham is very big on freeways.

The one man who made up for the lack of ostentatious palatial splendor in this state was a non-native.  His name was George Vanderbilt.  He was the youngest son of Cornelius, who, according to family legend, took a $100 loan from his mother and turned it into a fortune with a shrewd investment in a ferry service across the New York Bay.  He turned that ferry service into a fleet of steamboats, then invested in railroads when they were a license to print money.  Like James Buchanan Duke, Cornelius was a born money maker.

His youngest son, George was not particularly interested in the family business, but by the time he came along the family fortune was substantial.  George was an avid traveler and collector.  And he had a real nesting instinct.

When George visited Asheville with his mother in 1888, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the mountains of North Carolina.  He promptly began buying parcels of land and hired two of the most distinguished designers of the 19th Century to create his house and grounds.  It would be called Biltmore, from Bildt, the Dutch town where his ancestors had come from, and “more,” the old English word for open, rolling land.

Richard Morris Hunt and Frederic Law Olmstead designed an estate that would become the largest private residence in America.  It remains so today despite the Silicone Valley billionaires.  Work began in 1889 on a 375 foot, four story stone house modeled on the architecture of the French Renaissance.  The interiors were inspired by English country estates.  Setting an example that William Randolph Hearst would follow, George went on extended buying trips to Europe for art and furnishings.

photo courtesy of Duncan32205

Limestone was shipped down from Indiana, marble from Italy.  A private railroad spur was laid from the town to the Estate.  A kiln churned out 32,000 bricks a day and a woodworking factory sawed oak and walnut for floors and panels. Olmstead started terraforming some of the 125,000 acres that Vanderbilt accumulated, creating a 250 acre pleasure park and a series of gardens around the house.  He had a nursery created for the millions of plants he required.

After six years of construction, Biltmore was opened on Christmas Eve, 1895.  Three years later, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris.  Their daughter, Cornelia, was born and grew up at Biltmore. The  Vanderbilts  had a large staff, which is handy if one lives  in a house with 250 rooms.  There are 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and an indoor swimming pool. There is a priceless collection of furnishings and art.  All the modcons available at the turn of the century were incorporated into the house– even an elevator.

The Estate is now managed as a private, for profit, family-owned enterprise by William Cecil, Jr.  great grandson of George Vanderbilt.  There are 1700 employees, which makes it one of the largest employers in the area.  The Biltmore has its own hotel on the extensive grounds, a winery and farm.  It is a pricey place to visit, but it still has over a million visitors a year.  Unless you are very lucky, you’ll be rubbing elbows with some 3,000 fellow “guests.” It’s no longer a place where you wander around with a glass of sherry, enjoying the amenities.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside,  so if you want to see the rooms on view you will have to plan your own visit.  You could always make me an offer for my souvenir book. It’s a hard cover, and it has William Cecil’s signature.  I’ve only got the one copy, but it you make it worth my while, I’ll scribble my name, too.  The pictures are really, really nice.

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