After several years of planning and lots of funding for renovations, the Blue Ridge Discovery Center has finally got a permanent home in the form of the old Konnarock Lutheran Girls School in Smyth County.
The newly restored three-story building has the first floor set aside for education and dining, the second for school kids on field trips, the third as apartments for science scholar residencies, and a finished basement for offices, storage and labs. Additionally, there’s a wheelchair ramp and a room on the first floor to accommodate guests with disabilities.
Now the main difficulty is getting out the word that it’s there. The center calls itself a “a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring, discovering and sharing the natural history of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Outside partnering with local schools, particularly the Grayson County Public Schools system, few people in the region are aware of the center, and though now it has a place to host visitors, the center is hoping to expand its presence.
In its new ability to host events in a permanent structure that it owns along with some of the surrounding property, the BRDC is undergoing some growing pains, in that it’s figuring out what direction to take things in. Currently, the center has six full-time employees, a seasonal summer employee and a shifting volunteer pool, according to office administrator Elena Hurley.
Hurley said that the organization is planning a summer rally now and hinted that more than one seasonal rally may become the norm.
“We’re taking it one step at a time,” said Hurley. “As more people know about us, we’ll be able to grow and grow. We’re figuring out what works.”
The center does a lot of teaching in local after-school programs (specifically elementary schools in nearby Fries and Independence, both in Grayson County) and offers camping field trips, usually focused on a specific topic (birds, wilderness survival, river ecology), but is looking around to see what else is possible.
“Our big main focus is kids and getting kids excited about everything,” Hurley said. “The kids in this area already, we’re really trying to tell them, ‘Look at what you have! Look at how interesting this is!’ and raise a bunch of naturalists in this area. A lot of the kids I’ve dealt with are really, truly interested and get so excited: ‘I didn’t even realize all of this was here!’”
That said, the center is still open to adults and anyone with a focus on nature, especially Blue Ridge natural history.
“We are taking in several groups from all over the place,” Hurley said. For instance, “An adult group is coming from Canada to research moths. So we are reaching out very far.”
Hurley has her own personal reasons for doing what she does: A relative went to the girls’ school back in the day, and she took classes at Virginia Tech from Kevin Hamed, assistant professor and herpetologist in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and was delighted to see him again, teaching about salamanders at the center. She even held her wedding there recently, and there’s talk of allowing the center to be a wedding venue for nature-minded folks looking for a special place to take their vows.
They’re also looking forward to creating a visitor’s center. At present, the center doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, although there’s some. People might order a T-shirt online and come by in person to pick it up, decide to donate something, or hear about it and pop by on their way to Whitetop Mountain, but the BRDC doesn’t lend itself to casual tours (although the staff tries to be polite and informative). A visitor’s center will provide that link for casual live contact with the public and perhaps make the center a more obvious and well-known stop for tourists and naturalists.
According to Hurley, the community is pleased with the changes and growth the BRDC is causing.
“A lot of local people are excited and saying, ‘Oh, you’re bringing so much life back here,’” she said.
The Blue Ridge Discovery Center, which was founded in the late aughts with no home base, was implemented to bring education and love of the Blue Ridge’s natural history to children.
It’s funded through fee-for-services programs; local, state and federal grants; private donations; and private foundation grants, according to Executive Director Aaron Floyd. “We do not currently have an endowment but are working towards that as our next fundraising effort after the center construction,” he said.
The old school location may be headquarters for the BRDC, but the center’s interpretive materials will be found in nature itself, not as exhibits within the building. “It’s about hands-on learning experiences and programs,” said Floyd.
However, it does offer some educational experiences directly on campus.
For instance: the American chestnut shingles that still cover one outside wall and the porch of the school. They’re home to plant life, such as moss, plus aphids that winter wrens come to feed on, the occasional woodpecker and a screech owl that lives in one of four holes on the side of the building and has raised three families from it.
(In keeping with that theme, the small office facility that sits catty-corner from the main building is covered outside with similar-appearing tulip shingles.)
Bark tiles are carved from the tree, then steamed and flattened before being used as building material, and as a small ecosystem by the local flora and fauna.
The building is on the National Registry of Historical Places, according to Floyd. Its place in Blue Ridge natural history goes back some decades.
In 1967, the property was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service; it was home base for the Konnarock Trail Crew, responsible for the trails around the property. In 1974, the first Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally was held there. The property was deeded back to the community in 2006, after which the Konnarock Retreat House group formed to raise funds for the building’s restoration. In 2017, the KRC gifted it to the BRDC.
Technically the old school building is perched in Smyth County while Konnarock is Washington County, “but we have a Troutdale address which is Grayson [County],” noted Floyd.
“The building is in some ways unlike any other building I’ve ever seen,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said during a visit earlier this year; Kaine was one of the legislators responsible for securing a final round of $50,000 funding needed to get the school ready for use. “Using bark, cutting bark as shingles, I’ve just not seen that on any building in Virginia or anywhere. And since chestnut is essentially wiped out, you’ll never have a building like this again, so these old buildings take a lot of TLC or they’re gone, and when they’re gone you can never replace them.”
The Konnarock Training School, also known as the Konnarock Lutheran Girls School, was founded in 1922 after Laura Copenhaver and Rev. Kenneth Killinger (her cousin) gave a talk about the lack of educational opportunities for Appalachian girls at the Women’s Missionary Society, an organization in the Lutheran Church in America.
Killinger and Copenhaver addressed the national gathering of the society concerning the need for educational opportunities for women in Appalachia. A small appointed committee agreed that a boarding school for rurally raised girls, usually poor and lucky to get so much as a seventh-grade equivalent education, was important. Konnarock, near the railroad, was selected.
It started out with five students, who lived and received lessons at a house leased from Theodore Roosevelt’s sister. Late in 1924, the building as it’s known today opened its doors, and didn’t close them until 1959 when better public schools were available for the people it sought to service. Along the way, it added a separate dorm and classrooms for boys as well.
And, earlier this year, it reopened them once again, for the BRDC to have a permanent home.
“We had a wonderfully successful pressure test of the facility during the Rally with around 175 people using it during the day,” said Floyd, by email. “It was a perfect support structure during a rainy cold weekend. To have a variety of breakout rooms for programs was amazing. The chapel for lectures, dining hall for discussions, the large porch for gathering up, the library for studies, and the classroom for arts and crafts.”
The rally in question was the 48th Annual Mount Rogers Spring Naturalist Rally, a weekend event in early May, which this year was faced with wet weather. The rally is sort of the all-ages version of the summer camps the BRDC throws for kids. Participants sleep and eat at the school and spend all day and part of the night engaged in field trips out in nature.
It’s also something of a misstatement to say that the school was shuttered every year since it ceased to function as one; as Floyd said, “This was the first time in 30-something years bringing that event back to that building since 1984. That was a big thing, for us to make that happen, but we kind of pushed the limits of our capacity.”
He added, “With that being said, we have paused until summer camps to keep working on the property as a whole, so we’ve had no more programs since the rally.”
Part of the work is on the Accessible Interpretive Trail, a 0.65-mile feature that will include a riparian corridor, restored wetland, wildflower meadows, rain garden and northern hardwood cove forest. The trail will offer a smooth path for those with mobility issues but also allow for, say, mothers pushing strollers.
Scott Jackson-Ricketts, the BRDC founder (who’s since moved on), was a cheerleader for not just the center but for the Grayson County segment of the Blue Ridge Mountains in general.
After a childhood spent in central Illinois, he ended up in Appalachia. Jackson-Ricketts envisioned an outdoor learning environment to pass along the lore, knowledge and love of the local ecosystems, and thanks to introductions to like-minded people, made by Floyd, he started planning in the early 2000s.
“The eastern mountain corridor provides us with a combination of boreal, piedmont and riparian birds, trees, other plants, insects and all those associations that accompany elevational ecosystems,” he said in a paper written in BRDC’s early years. “…What excites me the most is the wildlife, and its potential as classroom.”
Over the years, the BRDC, even before it developed a permanent location, led learning opportunities of all kinds. These included a 2016-2017 partnership with Grayson County Public Schools to offer astronomy classes with a spotting scope; kids used it to examine Saturn’s rings and the moons of Jupiter. Birding, raising trout and creating field sketches were also offered.
“A lot of it has to do with engagement and creating activities where the information holds with the kids. Hands-on activities offer a long-lasting impression,” Floyd said at the time.
In 2017, the BRDC announced its intention to make the Konnarock school its home. Seven years later, it’s finally where its leadership wanted it to be.
Which process has led directly to things like the wildly popular salamander class, led by Hamed at May’s Naturalist Rally.
The rally is important, he said, because “it keeps people connected back to nature, and every year we’re seeing that becoming more and more of a challenge. Kids who grew up in the Blue Ridge communities in generations before grew up connected to nature, and now we’re seeing that less and less.”
Hamed is a perfect example of what the BRDC seeks to offer and the kind of instructor through which it seeks to deliver: enthusiastic, informed and easy to talk to. He also had another, special connection to the building: His grandmother was a student there in its Lutheran days.
In an hour-long phone conversation, Hamed discussed the unique properties of the area around the Konnarock location that make for rare species of amphibians.
“I’ve been participating in the rally every year since ‘97, that was even pre-BRDC when it was just kind of a group of citizens that were keeping the event going,” he said. Now, however, his department can look forward to much more than just a yearly event.
“We’re pretty pumped at Virginia Tech. We’ll be teaching our field techniques at the Blue Ridge Discovery Center,” Hamed said. “Our students are just going nuts.” Previously, they’d been working at the Mountain Lake Biology Station, which Hamed said was good, but there are only four or five salamander species in Mountain Lake; at Whitetop, near the new BRDC base, there are 14 or 15.
Out of those, most are higher-elevation species. Those who study this ecosystem “refer to mountaintops as ‘islands in the sky,’” he said, analogous to the Madagascar Islands for their specific and distinct species. “They might as well be out in the middle of the ocean. It’s so cool that we have the diversity that we do.”
The excitement about studying this ecosystem isn’t just something Hamed feels.
“Students from previous years are upset they didn’t get to [go to the BRDC],” he said. “We’re so excited to be partnering with them; we’re excited with the mission they’re doing.”
Hamed said that everyone who comes to the rally for the salamander lessons has a list of the top three salamanders they hope to see. “Everybody loves to see the Yonahlassee salamander,” he started out. “It’s big, 6-8 inches, dark with a chestnut purple color going down their back.”
He was excited himself to be asked for his top three salamander species and he didn’t scoff at the idea that a scientist would be asked for a preference. Hamed said, “I always say they’re all my favorite,” and described it as a truism among members of his profession that “the best herpetologists are the kids who never grew up.”
“Number one, in my opinion, is the Weller’s salamander,” he said. “It’s a cool story in itself, only found in Whitetop and south to the Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. The thing I love to tell is that it was discovered by a 17-year-old [Worth Hamilton Weller], who fell to his death a little after his high school graduation looking for them on Grandfather Mountain.” They’re found only in that small range, and only at higher elevations, said Hamed.
“The second one is the Yonahlassee, that’s the big one. It’s just gorgeous,” said Hamed. Yonahlassee is a Cherokee name, meaning either “tail of the bear” or “trail of the bear.” The road up Grandfather Mountain is called Yonahlassee for the bears, said Hamed, and the salamander is named for the road, not the bears.
“The challenge with that one is that it doesn’t like cooler temperatures,” he said.
“It was a little too chilly for him at the last rally.”
His last offering makes for a touching tribute. “The third is the northern pygmy salamander, named after Jim Organ, who spent his whole life studying salamanders,” Hamed said. (This is reflected in the Northern pygmy salamander’s scientific name, Desmognathus organi.)
While the rally is only one event offered by BRDC, it provided a touchstone moment for Hamed. In the years before he was hired by Virginia Tech, at a rally class around 2005, he said, “I had a family that would come to the rally and bring their kid. … One son was interested in all things herpetological. He was 4 or 5 years old, bouncing around all over the place.”
He continued, “The thing was, when I first came to Virginia Tech, the same kid who was in that rally was in my class.”
If the Blue Ridge Discovery Center has its way, this will be the first of many such moments, as those who come to learn may leave to teach. The organization has always sought to create this dynamic by opening its doors–and now it finally has doors to open.
For more information visit www.blueridgediscoverycenter.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, find them on Facebook at facebook.com/blueridgediscoverycenter or call 276-388-3155.