The Franklin News-Post|
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
|Historic mission school still focuses on youth|
Any youngster looking for outdoor challenges can find them at Phoebe Needles, including mastering the ropes courses.
Monday, June 4, 2012
By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer
More than 100 years ago, a mission school for children who lived in the remote mountains of Franklin County was formed.
It was one of many mission schools in the county at the time, and the only one left that is still in operation.
The Phoebe Needles Center is no longer a mission school, of course, but the center will be a beehive of activity and learning for youth this summer as annual camps get under way.
Rev. John Heck, executive director of the Episcopalian-sponsored center and rector of St. Peter's Church, said everything from outdoor education to the arts will be included in various week-long residential camps, as well as day camps.
Heck said the ropes course is popular as well as a zip line. A swimming pool was added in 2008, and the center now has a volleyball court. Tubing and hiking are also on the outdoor agenda.
"The camps build self-confidence," Heck said. "(Campers) will try to do things here they may not try otherwise" because there are no preconceived expectations of what they can and cannot accomplish.
Those accomplishments may include such challenges as rock-climbing or the high-ropes course.
Heck said the staff of counselors are college-age and include local and international students. This summer, a counselor from England will be among the staff, as well as one from Wales and one from Poland.
Staff and campers form solid friendships over the course of the week, he said. "It's amazing to see the connections made."
Heck said volunteers with expertise in various areas also come in to help. Campers can learn how to identify trees, plants and wildlife in the Nature Camp or how to do many house remodeling projects in the Outreach Camp.
In other words, Heck said, there is something for everyone, depending on interests.
The camp, which started 14 years ago, is accredited by the American Camp Association. Only 25 percent of camps across the country receive that accreditation.
Although new dormitories and a cafeteria have been built in recent years, campers will also find themselves in the midst of history, Heck said, with the school, the house for teachers and St. Peter's, still standing and used.
"We're in the early stages of trying to get this property on the National Historic Registry," Heck said, adding that the school was built in 1917, the house in 1910 and the church in 1915. "They would do a Historic District here."
The exterior of the school has not changed, he said, and it even has the "underground" rooms outside that were used for toilets.
The property sits on 85 acres, and the Blue Ridge Parkway is not far away.
Heck said that the mission school was needed simply because of limited transportation and a lack of good roads.
"Some people spent their entire lives in this area," he said, because even a trip to Rocky Mount was a very big deal.
The mission school closed in 1943 when bus transportation became available, and it was then used as a community center.
Heck said the center is now used by many for retreats and meetings.
"Lots of families for generations have their reunions here," he said.
But this summer, starting June 17 with the Middler Camp (rising seventh and eighth-graders), the center will again focus on youth.
Camps are open to all rising fifth through 12th-graders. Programs include backpacking, canoeing, climbing, rappelling, arts and crafts, swimming, hiking, environmental activities and more.
Heck and his wife, Delia, who is a professor at Ferrum College, moved to the center 14 years ago. Both say they, as well as their two sons, Peter, a fourth-grader at Callaway Elementary, and Benton, a seventh-grader at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, love living at the center.
For more information about the camps, call the center at 540-483-1518 or visit the center's website, phoebeneedles.org.
Here's a brief history of the center, which is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia:
The school was the vision of Esom Sloan (who is buried on the property) and the Rev. William T. Roberts. They built a mission school for mountain children and a church on the site where the current center exists today.
A two-story school was built in 1902. The first floor had two classrooms and the upstairs provided housing for two teachers. Emmanuel Church was built in 1903.
The school provided education for the mind, body and spirit for as many as 120 children at a time. In 1911, a larger house was built for the teachers. This house exists today as the oldest building on the property and serves as the rectory.
A snowstorm destroyed Emmanuel Church in 1914. Construction on the new church, Saint Peter's, was begun in 1915 and put into use by 1921, although it was not completed until after 1924.
In 1917, Arthur C. Needles, president of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, donated the money to build a new school. The school was named in memory of his daughter, Phoebe, who died of meningitis at age 6. Mr. Needles founded the Phoebe Needles Hall Corporation and served as president of the board until his death in 1936.
Twelve teachers served the school during its 40-plus years of operation. Miss Caryetta Davis (or "Miss Etta" as she was known) served as principal for 30 years.
A mission center was operated by Episcopal deaconesses (trained by the United Thank Offering) for 20 years after the school closed. They provided social services for people throughout the community.
In the late 70s, the center began operating as a conference center. An expansion and renovation program began in 1998 to upgrade the facilities allowing the center to host a wider variety of groups and serve a greater number of people.