How We Became Caretakers of a Historic Appalachian Homestead

Reader Contribution by Lydia Noyes
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For years, long before even our marriage was a certainty, my future husband, Ian, and I dreamed of Big Laurel Learning Center. Ian had been on numerous week-long visits and to summer camp sessions at Big Laurel; I knew of it simply through his glowing accounts.

Big Laurel took on a life of its own in our heads, the great pipe dream and “what if” question of our abilities. We saw the place as the perfect destination to mesh our skills and passion, a place that we could both be of benefit to and benefit from. We even found a way to get paid to live there.

Everything seemed so perfect — in concept. But actually packing every belonging into our midsize SUV and driving the nine hours to make this dream a reality catapulted our idealist optimism from the comfort of theoretic to the stark uncertainty of reality.

Still, the leap into the unknown was made. Newlyweds of two weeks, we crossed state borders, and moved into a living organism of a derelict mansion on top of a mountain with far more rooms than we could ever heat in the winter. This house depends on massive barrels of rainwater, and a passable wifi connection means traveling a mile down the road to the neighbors. Forget cell service; that’s only accessible at the bottom of the mountain.

And our closest neighbors and coworkers? They are two Catholic Sisters that are more frequently seen on quads than afoot.

A ‘Mountain Call’ to an Appalachian Land Trust’s Historic Site

Some key facts to understand the place where we now work and live:

JASMER is an Appalachian land trust started by the visionary Edwina Pepper in the 1960s in an attempt to prevent the segmenting of land in the region as coal companies bought large tracts for strip mining. It now holds about 500 acres.

Edwina Pepper lived on the mountain ridge in a rambling, forever-growing stone house with her great nieces and nephews. There they created a sustainable homestead and specialized in crafts, such as wood working, pottery, essays on mountain living, organic gardening and the promotion of Appalachian culture.

A big contribution they made was creating the Mountain Call, a journal that they published in the home and distributed throughout the community. Edwina’s work and this home were mentioned in the June 1979 copy of National Geographic. Ian and I now reside in Edwina’s old home, the Knob House.

In the early 1970s, Edwina Pepper advertised in the Mountain Call for two teachers to come and form a school on the mountain ridge in order to educate the local children that couldn’t make the hike everyday to the school below. This call was answered by two nuns, Sister Kathy O’Hagan and Sister Gretchen Shaffer. They formed the Big Laurel School, a one-room school that was operational from 1976-1988.

Now, the sisters still live on the mountain and run Big Laurel, though the school has been transitioned into a retreat center that hosts groups year-round for educational service opportunities that teach about Appalachian culture, environmental sustainability, and the effects of coal mining on the region.

Americacorps Placement as Homestead Caretakers

Ian and I have taken Americorps positions at Big Laurel, which means for the next 11 months, we will be living in and maintaining Edwina Pepper’s old home, working in the local schools as teacher aids, and doing whatever we can on the premises of Big Laurel to help further its mission as an Appalachian ecological learning and retreat center.

In essence, we have been granted access to the sandbox of our dreams. Scattered throughout the property are abandoned buildings, chock full of goodies left behind years ago: High quality garden tools may show up in one shed, while another reveals sewing machines, drill presses, and chicken feed dispensers.

Fruit trees are being choked out by the encroaching forest, and the old chicken coop can be seen through the heavy brush that has grown up around it. This place positively groans with the weight of its own history, and it’s in desperate need of some caretakers. And that is the job that Ian and I have enthusiastically taken on.

Adventures in Remote Living

This blog is going to be a record of these adventures. As two relatively inexperienced homesteaders, can we actual adapt to such a rural lifestyle? Will Ian and I be able to keep chickens alive in the winter? Will the garden’s heavy clay soil impede the growth of anything we plant? Will the loneliness and isolation caused by our useless cell phones make us go crazy? Will our idealistic dreams be proven naïve and leave us disheartened and bitter by next summer?

Right now, there is no way of knowing the answers to these questions, so the only way to go is forward with as much passion and enthusiasm as we can muster. And I can hardly wait to get started.

Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with two nuns and help to run a sustainable homestead mountain ridge retreat and ecology center that resides on a 500-acre land trust. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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