*This essay was prepared for Women's History Month at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in the Spring of 2002 by Helen Wykle, Special Collections, D.H. Ramsey Library.

"I do the best I know how; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said about me won't amount to anything."  Fred Seely

Women have historically struggled with equality in the work place, in politics, in their families, and in many other arenas where they rub shoulders with men. When women discuss their successes or failures in one or many of these areas of their lives, they often reflect on the support and on the obstacles they have encountered along the way. Men are often given as the obstacle to success: "Men are always favored in promotion ...." My father always preferred my brother ..." "You know how it is with men and politics, they always like to win...."  "My boss is a bully...", "I could have had that job ..." The idea that men succeed and that women struggle is a pervasive idea in our culture. The idea that women often fail to take risks or lack an entrepreneurial spirit is an idea that has also dogged the gender through the years. Most women who have aspired to advance in jobs, in politics, in sports, in the sciences, have no doubt that the "glass ceiling" does exist. Most women today continue to share with one another stories of male domination, co-option, bullying, harassment, and other subtle and not-so-subtle displays of power and authority. Yet, most of us can also find in our histories those men who have been supportive, who have been true mentors, and who have encouraged us along our career journey, or who have "just been there for us" in time of need. This is the human connection that needs no gender boundary to give it exceptionality. This informal discussion today is about one of those men who appears to have provided extraordinary support to women. It is not presented as an exemplary study of mentoring and entrepreneurship, but more as a snapshot of an historical time period when men and women were struggling with relationships within and without the work-place. It will reveal something about a figure who is well-known in Asheville, but it may also call to mind something about yourselves and your relationships.  
What is a mentor? 

Mentors are individuals willing to give back to their communities by assisting both women and men to grow in some area of their lives. It is particularly used in business and here at the university we have a mentoring program for our faculty and staff. Often mentors are gender-paired. The idea being that women can best serve as better examples for women and vise-versa.  Mentors are viewed as wise and trusted counselors, willing to share their knowledge, skills, experience, and most importantly, serve as respected role models.

Mentors are generally seasoned entrepreneurs who are recognized within their communities and their work for excellence and leadership. They can be women or men of any age or background, who are succeeding in spite of past and present obstacles. A mentor is the one person in front of whom every question is a good question, and the uninformed is an opportunity to teach as long as the protégée is attempting learn. Often mentors are self-selected by the protégé. Sometimes the protégé is  assigned to a mentor. Sometimes the mentorship is informal and neither acknowledges the mentor/protégé relationship but the process is clearly one of mentoring. 

What is a protégée?

Protégées are individuals who are new to an area of endeavor. They are eager to learn from entrepreneurs with more experience and expertise. They, in fact defer to the expertise, the wisdom of the entrepreneur mentor. Often, one of the cardinal rules is that the protégée must treat the information provided by the mentor with confidentiality and respect and there is clearly an aura of trust on both sides. Mentoring was born a twin. Together the mentor and the protégé produce a community of wisdom that strengthens the fiber of all our lives. 

During the period following the turn of the century, the idea of mentor and protégé were not familiar terms nor was the concept practiced in the organized manner that we find in today's work-place. The idea that a women could be a co-equal in the work-place was still evolving. Even Fred Seely's encouragement of entrepreneurship was typically supportive of occupations that were "woman suited" and not of those that placed women in positions of true equality. His concern for women and their careers was, nonetheless, sincere and was clearly demonstrated throughout his life. The rich documents of the Biltmore Industries Collections chart his efforts to support, chastise, encourage, chide, and nudge women to find themselves in the emerging economy between the wars. .

Historical Context:

During the early years of the twentieth century the role of women in society was dramatically boosted by the right to vote.  It was during this period that women began to find mentors and men who were willing to take them into positions of responsibility and trust. Some women, like Asheville's Exum Clement who was the first woman lawyer to have an independent practice in the South and who later became North Carolina's first woman legislator, found the way eased by the Suffragettes who had rallied behind the 19 Amendment. "Brother" Exum, as she was called by her colleagues in the Legislature was elected just a brief time before the ratification of Amendment 19. Her election, by a landslide must have had sound backing from the male leaders in the community. Elizabeth Blackwell who became the first woman doctor in the United States spent her early years here in Asheville. She said "Said to be impossible, I will do it ..." She was encouraged in her ambitions by the family who hired her first as a governess. And infamous women like Frankie Silver who killed an abusive husband was the first (some would say) woman to be hanged in western North Carolina. Those who might have advocated for her did not. For good or ill women in western North Carolina have been "firsts", have been progressive, and have been mentored by men and have thrived or have not been mentored and have thrived ...albeit with much more difficulty. 

Western North Carolina  is  a curious blend of urban and rural. In population women today have a slight edge over other parts of the state. Something in this area must appeal to women. I believe it is the urban environment of Asheville that has given the area a certain energy and that the ease and relative comfort of rural dwelling appeals to the rustic in women. What ever the reason or the combination of reasons, women come and stay and have a firm affection for this part of the country. This is not a new phenomenon. In the early part of the century the energy was palpable in Asheville and young women, older women, and families came to Asheville in large numbers. In 1921 the population of Buncombe County was approximately 97,937 and of those some 50,425 were women.  The growth in industry, in tourism, in business, and in medicine was enormous in the early years of the century.  The city of Asheville saw unprecedented growth in its architectural skyline. Huge amounts of money were expended and entrepreneurs were everywhere. By the early 1930's it all began to crumble as the Depression devastated the economy. Over the ensuing decades the city of Asheville struggled to pay back an enormous debt that had been encumbered by men too full of power, and enthusiasm or one might say,  misled by  unbridled optimism. It is during the period from 1900 to the middle 1930's that the story of Fred Seely and his relationships with the women whose stories will unfold here, takes place. 

"Drying Blanket in the sun. Talbert, Harris Island." Outer Hebrides, Scotland (bilt234), Biltmore Industries Archive

Fred Loring Seely - 
Biltmore Industries

Fred Loring Seely was born in Monmouth, New Jersey on December 22, 1871. He died on March 14, 1942. His life as chemist, inventor, architect, executive, philanthropist, civic leader, pharmacist, manager and most of all, friend of many, is a story of a true Renaissance man. He was the son-in-law of E.W. Grove, one of Asheville's leading builders. But if one looks at the evidence, it is Seely who maintained the framework for Grove's success. From all evidence he was a diligent and a hands-on manager; almost obsessive in his attention to detail. But, he was from all evidence, also a man of compassion, with a large heart and an even grander vision of service to mankind. The Biltmore Industries Archive is largely the record of his achievements. 


Mr. Fred Loring Seely, Asheville Philanthropist, civic leader, inventor and son-in-law of the late Mr. E.W. Grove. 

He was the architect and builder of Grove Park Inn and for his own home "Overlook" on Sunset Mountain. In nineteen hundred and seventeen [1917] he became owner of the Biltmore Industries which he personally directed. He also had active direction in remodeling of the Battery Park Hotel in nineteen hundred and forty [1940]. 

He was a leading executive of the Paris Medicine Company, which was founded by Mr. Grove. In nineteen hundred and seven [1907]he founded and published the Atlanta Georgian. As a Newspaper Publisher, he waged relentless warfare on the hiring-out of convicts by contract and [the] abolition of the plan followed. He also championed vigorously the cause of prohibition. He was instrumental in bringing the American Enka Corporation to Buncombe County and was a director of this company. He was also a director of the Wachovia Bank and Trust Company.

Mr. Seely was known for his charities: he provided milk for the poor and under-nourished children of this city and contributed very largely to the needy and suffering, especially to the Oxford and other orphanages and to orthopedic clinics. He was a 33 [degree] Mason and also an outstanding churchman. For several years he served as an associate utilities commissioner for the state. He was active in Boy Scout work and one of the national incorporators. 

He was born in Monmouth, New Jersey December twenty-second, eighteen hundred and seventy-one and died in Asheville, North Carolina March fourteenth nineteen hundred and forty-two."  

Seely's early life is sketchy. He apparently did not have a formal education, but was obviously a quick study and an autodidact. 

In 1917, just four years after the completion of the Grove Park Inn,  Fred Seely purchased Biltmore Estate Industries from Edith Vanderbilt. He changed the name to Biltmore Industries and sub-contracted with Charlotte L. Yale and Eleanor Vance, the founders of  Biltmore Estate Industries, to produce woodwork derived from the original patterns that Yale and Vance had designed. He erected new buildings to house the craft industries and bought equipment to make the production of wool yarn more viable. This new venture came in addition to his responsibilities as the manager of the Grove Park Inn. E.W. Grove, his father-in-law and owner of the Grove Park Inn refused to sell the hotel to Seely but leased it to him to manage. Seely managed the hotel until 1927, the year of Grove's death and the year Seely lost his legal bid to own the hotel. Jealous to the grave, Grove left his hotel to his wife and son and daughter. Though Seely was married to his daughter, Gertrude, Grove made no concessions to Seely and the Inn passed into the hands of what one advertisement described as "more liberal management." Seely's note scribbled next to the advertisement found in his files takes issue with that characterization.

At Biltmore Industries Seely found a new business into which he could pour his energies. Under Seely's direction, the weaving industry expanded into an internationally known craft enterprise and the other crafts were gradually phased out. The successful years of management are documented in the voluminous correspondence of Seely. In both his business and private letters the correspondence reveals a man who never stopped learning and growing. He wheedled, finagled, bullied, and sometimes pleaded. He most often got his way, but sometimes he did not. True to the spirit of the benign dictator he tempered his managerial style with a personal touch.  When he believed in the individual, his generosity was large, as in the case of the Japanese photographer George Masa. When he did not see potential, he was quick to retaliate and the individual was either fired or reprimanded. He felt a particular obligation to the disabled. His work for the deaf and for the physically disabled is remarkable, particularly for the time and grew out his personal experience. He had a younger brother and a younger sister who were deaf.  While he discriminated against Blacks and Jews as guests in his hotel, he was from all evidence a fair and just manager and a loyal friend to all, regardless of race or ethnicity. He subscribed the the Negro Worker, a publication of liberal bent that kept him apprised of  issues with his African American work force. That work force was enormous. His son Fred Seely, Jr. suggests that some 750 African Americans were hired to build the Grove Park Inn and were paid an "unheard of" salary of a dollar an hour for their labor. (No convict lease here!)  While he refused to take Jews as guest in his hotel he had many friends among the Jewish community. He traveled broadly, was a Mason, supported the Progressive education movement as seen in his philanthropy to Antioch College, the Berry School in Georgia, and Smith and Bryn Mawr.  He was particularly attentive to women's issues though his correspondence often reflects an unwillingness to give up any authority. Kind and demanding, gentle and tyrannical, he was frequently at odds with something. He could be quick to anger if he felt his honor or his authority was at question. For example in an exchange of letters with a lawnmower company Seely shows little tolerance for the company's inflexibility in responding to a request to see a piece of equipment before buying it, but more, he is outraged that someone could have so little faith in mankind.   

Business Management

Excerpt from Montague Manufacturing Co., New York letter replying to Seely's request to see a lawnmower before buying it:

"In answer to letter of May 19th, it is contrary to our policy to send machines out of town on approval. ...In this way, you would be risking nothing and at the same time we would be having the necessary protection against that thing called human inertia which causes inattention to goods in which one has put no money - in other words when the goods belong to the other fellow. We do not mean that you would come under this class. What we mean is, that it is our established policy not to send goods out-of- town on approval just as you very likely have definite policies covering your hand-carved wood, weaving and other excellent products."


Seely's reply:

"...just because I do business on the basis of having faith in humanity and make a good living at it, I do not care to have you send the equipment in the manner you outline. I am sure I have a business that is many times larger than yours with something like 50,000 customers scattered to all parts of the world and I send anything a customer may be interested in entirely on approval. I have found that by actual audit that my losses are so small that it does not even pay to insure the goods although the shipments run into hundreds of thousand dollars a year. It may not be of any interest to you to have your good[s] used at the Grove Park Inn although for your interest I am enclosing a list of some of our prominent guests. As I have said, however, I believe in the gospel of having faith in humanity and am really not very anxious to do business with people who haven't.

No doubt, this will sound rather strange to you especially from a person who was born and brought up in the hard boiled surroundings in which you live. [New Jersey]" 

The Grove Park Inn
Seely is perhaps best known for his design and  construction of the Grove Park Inn. It is a monument to his extraordinary abilities. His construction in just one year (begun in 1912 and completed 1913) and under budget still astounds us, but a journey through his personal papers quickly reveals the level of personal attention, motivation and energy that such an accomplishment required. He first had to convince E.W. Grove to fire the architect and allow him to submit the plans for the building of the hotel. He also took 10 months off and went to Princeton where he "read" for the degree in Architecture. The conception of the hotel is pure Seely. He imagined a hotel that would be "of the mountain" on which it was born. It would grow out of the earth and stone and would blend into the surroundings but would offer a peaceful retreat where travelers could find quiet and contemplative days and generally re-create themselves. He demanded that guests acknowledge their fellow travelers and not engage in loud and boisterous behavior. He put the hotel elevators in the stone chimneys to reduce the noise created by the mechanical wenches and he established behavioral guidelines for his guests that some described as draconian.  His innovation and inventions are many, some he patented. 

"People who are not up on a thing are usually down on it."

Grove Park Inn Construction, 1913 (bilt0010b), Biltmore Industries Archive, D.H. Ramsey Library 

Special Collections, UNC Asheville 28804 (Photo by Robinson)Just a few short years after the completion of the Grove Park Inn, Seely built the Biltmore Industries. A complex of buildings on 20 acres adjoining the land of the Grove Park Inn. Completed in 1917, the same year that Seely purchased the Biltmore Estate Industries from Edith Vanderbilt, the series of buildings are, like the Grove Park Inn, organic in form. Their softly sculpted roof-lines echo the curvature of the roof of the Grove Park Inn. Over all the buildings have the feel of an English village with thatched roofs. There are elements of the City Beautiful movement in the design of the buildings, their relationship to site and their "cottage" feel. The long vista out toward the city of Asheville is still one of the city's best views. The construction of "Overlook," his personal residence followed the construction of the Industries.  Overlook will be familiar to many by its more popular name, "Seely's Castle." The "Castle" would later become the home of Biltmore College, the forerunner of the current University of North Carolina at Asheville. Seely's energetic construction during the first two decades of the twentieth century was consistent with the building "boom" that engaged the whole of Asheville.  It was during this time that most of Asheville's signature architecture was built and much of it by Seely's nemesis father-in-law, E.W. Grove. The Grove Arcade, the New Battery Park Hotel, the Vanderbilt Hotel, as well as the remarkable buildings designed by architect Douglas Ellington, and those by Richard Sharp Smith continue to give Asheville an aura of magnificence. Money flowed in from Grove and Seely's pharmaceutical businesses, and big deals were made. Many more big deals were hatched still-born. Seely, like his fellow architects, were caught up in the moment and it is these moments that we continue to pay homage to in our city and in this exhibit. 

Seely managed the Grove Park Inn for his father-in-law for nearly 27 years but was unable to convince E.W. Grove to sell him the hotel. The resulting animosity between the two put a strain on their relationship and on Fred Seely's marriage to Grove's daughter Evelyn. Seely had come to Asheville to work with Grove as a chemist. Grove's Chill Tonic and other "medicinal' remedies made both Grove and Seely large fortunes but it also made them bitter rivals. Grove's jealousy and his competitive nature were never overcome and Seely, talented and charming as he was, never was successful in  charming or winning the affection of his father-in-law. The correspondence and the ensuing law-suit in which Seely sued Grove for breach of promise were bitter and futile engagements for Seely. 

 A chronicle of Fred Seely's charitable work and his personal acts of kindness would be hard to describe in the brevity of this account. It is difficult to even describe in the context of a longer narrative. But the record of his charitable work is abundant in the correspondence he has left behind. Seely the philanthropist, Seely the friend, and Seely the comforter can best be interpreted through his letters. Some of those letters are in the exhibit, others are shared here in this Web site. This is not to say that Seely was self-promotional. He was not. We have records of his kind personal acts in the words of others from his voluminous correspondence. We know of his more public works, as well,  from newspaper accounts. The archival excerpts in this narrative and those that have been mounted for viewing, are but a fraction of the  archival material that researchers may use to draw their own conclusions about Fred Loring Seely. 

Seely corresponded with Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, William Jennings Bryan, Admiral Perry, Edgar Cayce and other well-known personalities. He was, as well, the confidant and benefactor for employees, for the needy in the community and for many social service agencies in Asheville, such as St. Joseph's Hospital, and the Crippled Children's hospital. His friendships spanned the social spectrum and his interests and abilities were equally far-ranging. It is hoped this small collection of letters will whet the appetite of the researcher. There is much work to be done on the life and work of Fred Seely. 

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort." John Ruskin 

It is in the letters of Fred Seely and in his files that we find the most descriptive accounts of the employees who made Biltmore Industries and the Grove Park Inn such extraordinary landmarks in the Asheville area. 

In the letters we can read into Fred Seely's relationship with women. From his letters we find he was both supportive and restrictive in his relationships. But, it is clear he owes much to his association with the many talented women who passed through his life. 

The files of five women who worked with Fred Seely or who had a business relationship with him, shed light on the role and activity of women in the period between 1913 and the early 1940's. The women are Miss Laura J. Hawley, an entrepreneur who ran a gift shop in the Grove Park Inn, Miss Annie R. Dukes his personal secretary in the early years with the Atlanta newspaper the Georgian and at later at Biltmore Industries,  Susanna Cocroft, a business associate, Mrs. Louise "Percie" Lea, wife of a prominent politician,  and Mrs. B.J. Palmer, a brief acquaintance. In addition to these women, the work of Fred Seely with various women's institutions and organizations and the relationships he maintained with female family members is of great interest. 

Helen Wykle, Special Collections Coordinator

"Miss" Annie Dukes

Laura Joy Hawley

Susanna Cocroft

Louise "Percie" Lea

Mrs. B.J. Palmer

Mrs. Herbert Root

Women's Institutions and Organizations

Mothers, Wives, Daughters