“When you come to Blowing Rock I advise you to say: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ for you will need it unless your legs will carry you over the 30 miles of road on the Cone Estate.”
~ Greensboro Daily News, 1930
During his latter years, Greensboro textile magnate Moses Cone assembled a 3,500-acre country estate near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Now part of the National Park Service, Moses Cone Memorial Park sits on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It has two lakes, two mountains, endless carriage trails, and a 13,000-square-foot mansion featuring crafts by regional artists. The park is free and open to hikers, carriages, and horseback riders.
Thanks to my riding buddy Tim, I got to experience this magical place on horseback. Tim hauled Mystic; his horse, Laea; and me in his powerhouse white truck and trailer. The drive took about 2.5 hours from Flintrock Farm and brought us through Boone, home of Appalachian State (recipient of Moses Cone’s largesse), and Blowing Rock. As we traveled, the landscape transformed from flat expanse to rolling hills to deep green, cloud-shrouded mountains.
“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” Tim confessed as we unloaded the horses in the ample parking lot designed specifically for horse-pulling rigs.
I fully sympathized. I’ve ridden Laea a few times, and she’s a sensitive, high-strung, energetic handful. She spooks with the speed of a sidewinder and the agility of a gazelle. This outing marked her first extended trek on unfamiliar trails, where we were likely to encounter hikers, runners, and other horses.
To Tim’s surprise and delight, Laea settled right in, leading all the way. She spooked slightly at a few logs and rocky outcroppings, but was clearly engaged and interested. Mystic ambled behind, slowed down by the ouchy gravel on the carriage paths.
We started by riding up Rich Mountain, a five-mile trek that took us to a gentle pinnacle with a stone-walled picnic area and panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A young hiker took our picture, memorializing the moment. As we held up our phones to capture the view, I wondered, “Would Thoreau have used a cell phone?” The hiker smiled and shook his head. “Absolutely not.” With that, he took his walking stick and set off down the mountain.
On our way down, we stepped over dozens of cow pads and passed an empty pasture. “I wonder where the cows are?” I mused. As we wound through the woods, we heard moaning, mooing sounds. The sounds got closer. Laea and Mystic’s ears swiveled and pricked upright. A few hundred feet ahead, a tan cow and a black cow stood in the carriage path. The tan cow retreated to a hillside as we got closer, but its friend was too curious to move. Laea, bless her heart, stood her ground, and we eventually shooshed the cow out of the way.
Our next stop was Trout Lake, where Mystic and Laea splashed like toddlers.
From there we rode to the manor house, the grand Colonial Revival that Moses and Bertha Cone built as their country retreat.
After Moses’ death at 51, Bertha summered at the estate for her remaining 39 years. She was said to be a firm but kind lady who was particularly proud of her black surrey with brass fittings. She was apparently a perfectionist, especially when it came to the condition of the carriage trails. One former tenant farmer reported that she rode in her surrey with a book in her lap. If a rock or stick jarred her even slightly, she would record its exact location and have estate workers smooth the spot.
Last, we rode to the Cones’ gravesite about a mile from the manor house. The path was less rocky, so we managed a sustained trot. I looked at Tim, posting comfortably on a relaxed-looking Laea, and felt I’d never seen a happier man. The Cone cemetery was surprisingly scant: one big monument for Moses and Bertha, and two small gravestones for her sisters. The couple had no children—perhaps a disappointment to them, but certainly a benefit to the communities and causes to which they willed their estate.
Our horses were clearly tired as we headed back to the trailer lot, where they grazed in tall grass before stepping easily into the trailer. All in all, we’d covered almost 15 miles and spent five hours in the saddle. It would be hard to imagine a better day.
But Tim was already imagining a better one—when we’d come back again, this time with protective boots on our horses’ feet, to enjoy the rustic pleasures of a beautifully preserved bygone era.