Discovery center

Smyth County students who are part of the Enrichment Resource Program in Smyth County Public Schools recently visited Blue Ridge Discovery Center. There were 210 students in grades 3-5 participating in the two-week program.

Come visit the Blue Ridge Discovery Center on Saturday, Oct. 13, learn about its new home, and help preserve a bit of the former Konnarock School in a planned time capsule.

The center will celebrate its 10th anniversary with an open house at its first permanent site, which will be renovated with the help of a $500,000 federal grant.

The Appalachian Regional Commission has approved $500,000 in grant funding for the Blue Ridge Discovery Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring, discovering and sharing the natural history of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The ARC funding will go toward renovating the former Lutheran Konnarock Training School in Smyth County that will serve as a location for educational programs centered on the biodiversity of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Within three years of the project’s completion, BRDC expects to host 95 programs that will serve nearly 4,000 participants and receive more than 2,500 visitors annually.

“Southwest Virginia is known for its biodiversity and abundance of natural resources,” said U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner when they announced the grant. “We are pleased to announce these federal dollars that will increase local tourism and continue to spur economic opportunity.”

The center will also continue the tradition of the facility as a center of learning.

“There is such a great history,” said Aaron Floyd, executive director of Blue Ridge Discovery Center, about the Konnarock facility. “This is really a good fit because of that history of education and community service.”

The Konnarock site was operated from 1924 through 1959 as a vocational boarding and day school for girls in the Appalachian Mountains.

A non-profit restoration group called Konnarock Retreat House Inc., coordinated by the late Dr. Jean Hamm, began a project several years ago to turn the former school into overnight accommodation for up to 30 guests with dining room, kitchen, library, archives and large meeting room hosting spiritual retreats and attracting study groups with environmental, geological and archaeological interest in the surrounding communities.

The project estimated to cost upward of $2 million was abandoned due to lack of funding and participation. The property was then donated to the Blue Ridge Discovery Center.

Some initial improvements have already been made to the buildings and site, such as roofing and siding and restoration of the cottage now serving as the center’s headquarters.

The project to restore the former school building is estimated at $2.5 million, Floyd said, and a capital fundraising project is under way for phase two of the three-phase project to secure the property, renovate the building and operate the center.

The center has already raised $850,000 in private donations and pledges to match the ARC grant. Continuing funds will be needed for maintenance of the facility and programs.

The exterior of the building is in good shape, Floyd said. Most of the restoration needed is cosmetic and a modern upgrade of the utilities.

The project is expected to be bid out by the end of the year with work starting early next year.

A celebration of the past, present and future will take place at the anniversary celebration on Oct. 13 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be nature walks, scavenger hunt, children’s activities, apple-cider making, food, special announcements and collection of items for a time capsule to be buried on site. Visitors are encouraged to bring items related to the site and community for the time capsule. On display will be photos of the former girls’ school.

The story of Konnarock Training School began in 1922 when the Rev. Kenneth Killinger and his cousin Laura Scherer Copenhaver addressed the national gathering of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Lutheran Church in America concerning the need for educational opportunities for women in Appalachia. These individuals were particularly concerned with the five-state area that joined Southwest Virginia.

The WMS acted on Copenhaver and Killinger’s request and appointed two women to study the needs of the area. Cora Pearl Jeffcoat in North Carolina and Mary Phlegar Smith in Virginia agreed that the most pressing need in the area was a boarding school for educating mountain girls who would otherwise not have the opportunity to attend school. Most mountain schools were only in session about six months a year and at best taught through seventh grade. In addition, many of the homes were isolated and roads were frequently impassable.

The village of Konnarock was chosen because of its proximity to the other four states and because of the railroad connection there.

The Konnarock Lutheran Girls School closed in 1959.

In 1967, the U.S. Forest Service acquired the property as part of a much larger acquisition of 680 acres in the region, but the former school fell into disrepair as the Forest Service stopped using and maintaining the building.

In November 2006, the U.S. Senate approved a bill the House passed that September authorizing the transfer of the Konnarock School property from the Forest Service to the Evangelical Lutheran Coalition for Mission in Appalachia. President Bush later signed the bill, making way for the building’s eventual reuse.

ARC project grants are awarded to local and state government entities and non-profits. The ARC funds are then matched by local funding sources. In addition to the ARC funds, local sources will provide $1,750,000, bringing the total project funding to $2,250,000.

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