Museum hike explores history of Asheville Farm School

Melanie English
Special to BMN

Today, the Asheville area is home to a growing number of institutions of higher learning. But before compulsory education laws of the 1920s, few schools existed in rural Appalachia, especially around Riceville and Swannanoa.

The first hike in the Swannanoa Valley Museum’s Valley History Explorer Series on Saturday, March 12 will examine Warren Wilson College’s origins as a mission school. The two-mile hike, led by Warren Wilson College’s archivist Diana Sanderson and forestry professor David Ellum, as well as museum director Anne Chesky Smith, will interpret both the human and natural history of the college, once known as the Asheville Farm School.

Concerned with the lack of proper educational opportunities in isolated rural areas, the Women's Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in 1893 bought 420 acres in Swannanoa. The following year, the Asheville Farm School opened officially with 25 teenage boys in attendance for instruction in first through third grades. Because the students had no prior formal education, the mission school had a nonconventional grading system. By the turn of the century, the school offered instruction through eighth grade, and enrollment increased to nearly 150 students.

From its inception, the boys school emphasized academics, work and Christian service. Like other schools, the Asheville Farm School had a baseball team and marching band, but students also attended Sunday school, baled straw, drove mule-driven plows and gutted hogs. In addition to academic buildings and dormitories (many built with student labor), the campus had a sawmill, dairy barn, and piggery.

In 1910, the students dammed Bull Creek to supply electricity to the campus. Unfortunately, the dam was destroyed in the infamous flood of 1916. The following year, America's entrance into the First World War caused enrollment to plummet as older boys enlisted in the armed forces. During the Great Depression, as students felled pine trees from the campus to construct a log cabin library, the legacy of learning, labor, and service endured. The school's “Gospel Team” traveled around the region conducting religious services in rural churches too financial strapped to employ a minister.

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, the Dorland-Bell School in Hot Springs, and the Mossop School in Harriman, Tennessee closed, and the staff and students merged with the Asheville Farm School in 1942 to become the co-educational Warren Wilson Vocational Junior College and Associated Schools, named for social reformer and minister Warren H. Wilson (1867-1937).

The coeducational institute’s increasing inclusivity was an extension of the Asheville Farm School’s original mission to serve the disadvantage, despite its setting in the segregated South. Following President Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order No. 9102, the students voted to admit two Nikkei students whose families were relocated to an internment camps out west. In 1952, two years before the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation verdict, the school admitted Alma Shippy as the first African-American student, based on the recommendation of students who had worked along side him during a service project at a local church.

By the 1950s, nearly one-quarter of the student body was international, recruited from ravaged post-war Europe through the foreign missions of the Presbyterian Church.

The school graduated its last high school class in 1957 and became a four-year college in 1967. The mission school's tradition of service learning continues at Warren Wilson College today. Students are required to perform at least 15 hours of service each week. The school continues to operate a 275-acre mixed-crop and livestock farm, as part of its 1,100-acre campus.

While locals enjoy the campus' many scenic trails year-round, the Swannanoa Valley Museum's exclusive guided hike will explore the college’s history off the beaten path and will begin in the 120-year-old sanctuary of the Riceville Valley Community Church.

Space on the hike is limited, and hikers are encouraged to register early by calling 669-9566, emailing info@swannanoavalley, or signing up at

The cost of the hike is $20 for museum members and $30 for nonmembers. The proceeds benefit the nonprofit museum, founded in 1989 as Buncombe County’s primary museum of local history. More information about the museum and the Valley History Explorer Hiking Series is on the website.

The museum will hold an informational meeting on the full series at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10 at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts.