History & Nostalgia

An Old School With a New Purpose

By LouAnn Morehouse

Situated at one end of a little valley presided over by majestic Grandfather Mountain, with beautiful Beech Mountain sheltering it from the north, the village of Banner Elk has a well justified reputation as an especially pretty mountain town. The fine old stone and timber facades of Lees-McRae College (circa 1900) enhance that image nicely, as does the classic rock-built schoolhouse building (circa 1938) that anchors the view from across its wide green lawn at the center of town.

That grassy field has hosted many a visitor to the town’s famous Woolly Worm Festival every October for 45 years, and more recently, to the arts festivals and farmers’ market that take place in summer. Throughout all those festivities, the school has been a handsome backdrop. Its front yard served the public, but the school served the children. And it served them well, from opening day in 1939 until it was replaced by a new school in 2011.

When the school board decommissioned the old Banner Elk Elementary School, there was considerable concern among the locals as to what would become of the property. There it sat, a visible reminder of happy schooldays to practically every man, woman and child in the town and surrounding area. Generations of Avery County youth had been educated there; schoolchildren had become the parents, then grandparents, and great-grandparents of Banner Elk School students. Indeed, ask a local about their time spent at the Banner Elk School and the memories come flooding back.

Charles VonCannon, known locally and fondly as “Charlie B,” is a descendant of early Banner Elk settlers and a devoted advocate of the town. He recalls his first year at the school, in 1945, and his awe and pride at the building’s modern features. He remembers the weekly programs every Wednesday when each class in turn presented programs of interest to the rest of the school. Travel writer and native daughter Carol Timblin, who attended first through eighth grade in the ‘40s and ’50s, describes the school as the literal “center of the community,” and her teachers as devoted role models who were “all in the business of bringing up the children.” My own Dad, who grew up just outside of town and, with his sister and brothers, was among the first children to attend the school; at 93 years of age he can still lovingly recall which classroom belonged to each of his teachers. My cousin, Christy Smart, who was a student in the ‘70s and whose daughters attended in the ‘90s, says that as a child, walking into the school made her feel “enveloped in a loving atmosphere.” It’s the people who taught and nurtured them that alumni speak of, but they also remark fondly on the school itself, the memory-stirring scent of wood floors and books that still permeate the old building.

Back in 2011, as county administrators pondered how best to dispose of the property, developers offered visions of new business enterprises but townspeople and other like- minded citizens raised objections. It was unthinkable that the former school would be turned into a commercial space, they said. The school was and had always been a place for the community. Even if the children weren’t there anymore, it belonged to the community.

It took some time to get things worked out, but eventually the town and the county came to terms. After seventy-one years of serving children, the old school would serve the town of Banner Elk, and its friends, neighbors and visitors, as a community center. In 2014, the town entered into an agreement with the county to purchase the school for $1 million dollars at zero percent interest, payable over twelve years. Town Council agreed from the start that there were to be no tax dollars expended on the property, which meant that fundraising was an essential part of the plan. Council members and civic-minded individuals pitched in with their expertise and vision. There was plenty to be done; the structure was solid, but in serious need of refurbishment, and the groundwork had to be laid for a donor base to support the annual mortgage payment. It was a tall order for a little town, but without any interest in personal gain, people came forward to help.

 Then-council member Allen Bolick led the way. Inspired by what he and others saw as an opportunity to repurpose the building to benefit the whole town and generations to come, Bolick started sharing his vision with everyone who expressed an interest in the old school. There were quite a few of them, and they were generous with their time, expertise, and money. Bolick founded the “Team of 83,” a group of donors who pledged an annual contribution towards the yearly loan payment of $83,000.

And then the fun began: deciding what to do with all that room! First off, the school library was an ideal setting for, what else, a library and reading room. Bolick tapped the school’s most recent librarian, Donna Dicks, to guide the process. Dicks and her committee developed a novel concept, a book exchange, that provided the public with a place to trade books they had read for new ones without the formality of an organized, lending structure. It could be staffed by volunteers, and relied almost entirely on book donations to stock the shelves.

The Book Exchange opened in late 2014, exceeding the committee’s expectations right from the start. The site of the old school library had been beautifully restored thanks to a generous donor, and the space was comfortable and welcoming. Book donations poured in: quality hardcovers and paperbacks, for adults as well as children. Volunteers signed up to host, and the first community service of the Historic Banner Elk School, as it was known, got underway.

Not long after, Mayland Community College signed on to the project by renting space for leisure and lifestyle classes. As more people began using the building, awareness of its potential grew and more donors came forward with support. The hallways were restored, internet access improved, and more former classrooms were renovated.

In the ensuing years, much has happened to this grassroots effort. Between hands-on support and many instances of generous donors, grant funds and patronage, the old school is settling into its new role as the Banner Elk Cultural Arts Center, a 501(c)3 non profit.  

The building itself, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1938, has long been admired for its rockwork quarried from the surrounding mountains. In recognition, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

The Book Exchange has been joined by other culturally-minded enterprises: Ensemble Stage Professional Theatre, a repertory company presenting professional and community actors in performances throughout the year; and BE Artists Gallery, an artist-owned co-operative selling the work of more than 35 artists and craftspeople from the area. One former classroom houses editorial and business staff of our very own Carolina Mountain Life magazine. Another classroom is the peaceful, meditative confines of the Avery Community Yoga Studio. These innovative small businesses of the Banner Elk Cultural Arts Center have been attracting visitors and locals for some time, and were recently listed as a choice place to visit on the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area’s Blue Ridge Craft Trail.   

There’s still more to come. Town manager Rick Owen says there are some spaces left that offer possibilities for community use. The former cafeteria located in the rear annex of the main building is one, along with classroom space, and a beautifully landscaped back courtyard. An expanded parking area has been added, and a new side road nears completion; it provides direct access from the school to town hall and Tate-Evans Park, a popular venue for walkers, and the site of summer concerts. Plans for more improvements to the facility include in-ground electrical services added to the front yard for the benefit of vendors at the various outdoor events, as well as new sidewalks and street lighting.    

It’s been an eventful and productive eight years since the Town of Banner Elk took on the transformation of its fine old school building into a much needed community center. Owen says in that time more than one million dollars have been raised, with $583,000 in mortgage payments and more than $300,000 in improvements among the expenses met. He notes with satisfaction that, as decided from the outset, no taxpayer dollars have been expended for the project. Funds from the dedicated support of the Team of 83 donors, from revenues earned from the four Art on the Greene festivals, and from the annual benefit Golf Tournament (which alternates between Beech Mountain and Elk River clubs) underwrite the effort. Additional support continues to come from individuals and foundations that recognize the value of such a community asset.

Just five more mortgage payments are left, and then the building will be paid for. What comes next? More opportunities await! But one thing is certain: that schoolhouse aura—the scent of books and paper, wood floors, warm memories and happy voices—is sure to linger. And that’s a good thing.

Photo courtesy of Charlie B. and Penny VonCannon

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