Pine Mountain school in Harlan County celebrates 100th anniversary, looks to future

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 31, 2013 

BLEDSOE — The garden spot Tevis Nolan's parents used when she was a girl growing up in Harlan County had been fallow and overgrown for 25 years, and she didn't know how to grow a garden and preserve her own food.

But with the help of staffers from nearby Pine Mountain Settlement School and the Grow Appalachia program, she has had a garden the last two summers that produced so well Nolan was able to give neighbors fresh vegetables and canned food that will last through the winter — more than 75 quarts this year alone.

What's more, having fresh food and learning better ways of cooking allowed her to cut her diabetes medicine by half, Nolan said.

Nolan, 53, a disabled former factory employee, said she had always worked to be self-sufficient. "This program helps you do that," Nolan said Saturday.

The story is one example of how Pine Mountain Settlement School, which held a celebration Saturday to mark its 100th anniversary, still influences its community and the wider world a century after it was founded. The school on the north face of Pine Mountain has evolved over the years; now, with a new director on board, there is a good deal of discussion about what it should do to continue to adapt and thrive.

The settlement school, a National Historic Landmark, was founded in 1913. William Creech, a local man who wanted better education in the area, recruited Katherine Pettit and Ethel DeLong to start the school and donated land for it. Pettit, of Lexington, had helped start Hindman Settlement School in 1902. DeLong, a New Jersey native, worked at the Hindman school.

"I have a heart and cravin' that our people may grow better," Creech wrote in one letter.

Pine Mountain and Hindman were among scores of schools — some called settlement schools, others mission schools, institutes and private academies — established in Appalachia in the late 1800s and early 1900s by progressives and church officials from outside the region interested in trying to improve education and living conditions in Eastern Kentucky.

James Greene III, a Harlan educator who wrote his dissertation on Pine Mountain, said the founders of settlement schools were motivated by the idea that educated, middle-class people should live in poor places and show ways to improve by being good neighbors. Newly educated, idealistic young women played a key role in the rise of settlement schools.

"You weren't doing to others, you were doing with others," Greene said. "There was this impulse to reform."

Some critics have said the people who came to run the schools came with misconceptions and tried to impose their own culture at the expense of the students', but supporters say Pine Mountain and other settlement schools actually did a great deal to collect and preserve music, art and other facets of mountain culture.

Pine Mountain was a boarding school from 1913 to 1949, with students living there during the school year. In addition to education in traditional subjects such as reading and science, they learned practical skills such as woodworking, weaving and farming. The school operated a number of community-service programs through the years as well such as a hospital, community health initiatives, and a program to take books to people by horse.

With the spread of public schools in the 1920s and 30s and better roads, the need for boarding schools waned. Pine Mountain responded by operating a public school for Harlan County students beginning in 1949. In the early 1970s, when the county built a school not far away, Pine Mountain adapted again, establishing an environmental education program for which it ultimately became nationally known. More than 3,000 students from schools across Kentucky and elsewhere come for environmental education each year.

Most settlement and mission schools closed as the 20th century wore on, though some others in Kentucky adapted.

Hindman Settlement School has become known for its arts programs, help for people with dyslexia and an annual writers workshop, for instance.

Oneida Baptist Institute in Clay County switched from boarding local students to teaching students from outside the county and even international students. Red Bird Christian School, also in Clay County, has recently undergone a renaissance, planning to reopen its dorms to board students in the fall of 2014 and starting a campaign to raise a $20 million endowment by 2021, director O. Taylor Collins said.

On Saturday, dozens of former students and teachers returned for the celebration of Pine Mountain Settlement School's 100th birthday, each with a story of how special the school has been to them and others.

The school property includes more than 800 acres — part of it a state nature preserve — with dozens of rare and endangered plant and animal species, said Marc Evans, a board member who also is with the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust.

The school, which has long had close ties to Berea College, has a number of programs in addition to its environmental education mission, such as a summer reading camp, reading and math programs in local schools, and workshops on dry-stone masonry, quilt-making and woodworking.

The school worked with 42 families this year to produce food through the Grow Appalachia program, more than double the number in 2010, said Maggie Ashmore, who coordinates the program for the school. Families produced more than 38,000 bushels of food in 2011; this year's total is not available because the gardens are still growing.

Even with all that's going on at the school, there is a good deal of discussion on how it could or should change as it embarks on a second century.

The new director, Penne Lane, and trustees said there are a lot of possibilities, such as expanding the environmental education program and environmental research; producing handicrafts; expanding the school's farming operations; and developing co-operatives to produce and market food.

"You may see Pine Mountain Pickles out on the market someday," Lane said. "We must encourage the development of a sustainable, place-based economy."

Linda Reeves, who chairs the board of trustees, said she would like to see the school train teachers in environmental education, in addition to teaching students. There's even been some talk of returning to being a boarding school, Reeves said.

Whatever the changes, the school will stay true in its commitment to the community and its mission to educate, trustees said.

"We have been able to keep abreast of the changes in society and the needs in society" for a century, Reeves said. "I don't see that stopping for us."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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