Endangered Rural Virginia School Seeking New Life

Posted by | June 1, 2009

Please welcome guest blogger Sonja Ingram. Ms. Ingram is a Partners in the Field representative for Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This article first ran May 27, 2009 on the PreservationNation blog.

Being the field representative for Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I receive many phone calls and emails asking for assistance on a variety of preservation topics. When I received an email about the Konnarock School in Smyth County, my initial thoughts were that it would be a typical request for grant information — but I was wrong.

The Konnarock School in Hillsville, VA.

The Konnarock School in Hillsville, VA.

My first trip to Konnarock School in March of 2009 was an adventure itself. As I left Danville, I traveled across the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. Further up the Crooked Road travelers will find Bristol, Virginia, the birthplace of country music and Carter’s Fold, the home of the famous Carter family where bluegrass is still played every Saturday night.

But my trip did not take me that far west; instead I successfully navigated my way across Lover’s Leap near the town of Stuart, named after Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, then through the scenic Meadows of Dan and onto the aptly named town of Hillsville.

Penny Herring points something out on a tour of the school.

Penny Herring describing the building on a tour.

When I arrived at Konnarock School, located at the foot of Whitetop Mountain and near Mount Rogers, the two highest peaks in Virginia, I was met by two fantastic folks, Penny “the Penster” and Monroe Herring; and one very friendly dog, Buddee. Once we started discussing the school, I began to fully realize the importance of the Konnarock School and what it has meant — and still means — to this community in western Virginia.

The Konnarock Training School was built in 1924 by the Lutheran Church as a boarding school for girls. For the next twenty-five years, the school educated many girls in this rural part of Virginia who would not have received the opportunity otherwise. The school also engaged in extensive health, educational, and religious outreach throughout the mountains of Southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. A companion school for boys, the Iron Mountain Lutheran School for Boys and Young Men, was built in the 1930s.

The Konnarock School was built of native hardwoods and is sided with the bark of the American Chestnut tree, a species that is nearly extinct after its decimation during the Chestnut blight in the 1930s-1940s.

The school went out of operation in 1959 and later became a training center for the United States Forestry Service. The school became the property of Konnarock Retreat House, Inc. in 2006 with the assistance of Congressman Rick Boucher. Konnarock Retreat House, Inc. a non-profit formed specifically to renovate and bring new life to the school is currently managing extensive renovations to the school and has plans to use the facility for retreats and as a place to preserve Appalachian history and heritage.

Scattered school furniture inside the Konnarock building.

Scattered school furniture inside the Konnarock building.

As I was given a tour of the facility, Monroe and Penny (and Buddee) explained that when the school was in operation, it was locally and agriculturally sustainable way before the sustainability movement became popular. The school owned hundreds of acres in which fruits and vegetables were grown for the students and the community. It also had its own dairy.

As I toured the lonely rooms with scattered desks and chalk boards and the chapel with its missing stained glass windows, I tried to envision what it will be like in the future when the renovations are complete and the rooms are once again thriving with community projects. It is clear to me now that the Konnarock School was more than a school, it was the anchor for this rural community, and with the efforts of Konnarock Retreat House Inc. soon it will come full circle.

The Konnarock School team displays their certificate for being listed as one of Preservation Virginia's Most Endangered Places of 2009.

The Konnarock School team displays their certificate for being listed as one of Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Places of 2009.

Since my first visit, the Konnarock School has been listed as one of Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Places of 2009. Our hope is that this listing will garner further awareness to help raise the funds needed for the school’s extensive renovations.

If you are interested in helping the Konnarock Retreat House, Inc. with donations or otherwise, or if you would like more information about the school, please contact Jean Hamm at jeanhamm[at]yahoo[dot]com (replace the words in brackets with the customary symbols) or visit www.konnarockretreathouse.org.

Related article on Konnarock School here.

Konnarock+School Preservation+Virginia National+Trust+for+Historic+Preservation appalachia +appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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