If you’re looking for old time music or Appalachian crafts in beautiful historic spaces, look for these schools built during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Many of these striking buildings were constructed using local stone. Now they are being re-purposed as vibrant community centers filled with local history, art, music and traditions in western North Carolina small towns and communities near Asheville - in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
Fortunately, many of their one-time auditoriums are now performance spaces for live traditional music. Many are included on the Blue Ridge Music Trail. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, rural mountain schools such as these were often the go-to performance venue for early bluegrass musicians traveling the region. So this music, in many cases, has come full circle.
10 Historic Schools to Visit
The Valdese Old Rock School (400 Main Street West, Valdese, NC) near Morganton is home to a nationally recognized concert series called Bluegrass at the Rock. Bands have included Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, The Lonesome River Band and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. The music series runs once a month from October through March and is held in the school’s 500-seat auditorium. (Photo at top of page) Go to their website.
Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center (121 School House Drive, Robbinsville, NC) is located in one of the prettiest spots in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Graham County. The 1926 stone Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center has a terrific series over 10 Saturdays – from June through late August – called An Appalachian Evening. Stecoah is also the site of a huge Blue Grass Festival the 3rd Saturday in May and a Harvest festival the 3rd weekend in October. Their gallery is open year-round with a fantastic selection of local art and craft. Read more.
Marshall High Studios is uniquely located on Blanahassett Island in downtown Marshall. Built in 1925, today it features 28 studios - most of them original classrooms. It's surrounded by a town park that hosts farmers markets and art festivals, complete with an outdoor stage for concerts. Stop by to visit with artists and watch them at work.
Cowee School (51 Cowee School Drive, Franklin, NC) This impressive old stone school was built by the WPA in 1943 closed as a school in 2012. It was re-purposed as the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center by community leaders and is the site of a Southeast Bluegrass Association Jam every third Saturday of the month. The site also holds a concert series mid-month from June through October. Read more about the historic Cowee community.
Historic Hazelwood School (112 Virginia Avenue, Waynesville, NC) is now home to Folkmoot, an international folk festival held each summer. You can also enjoy events throughout the year in the renovated school, built in 1923. Read more about Folkmoot.
Fines Creek Community Center (Fines Creek, NC in Haywood County, near Clyde) recently upgraded their acoustics and sound equipment through a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to better accommodate local jam sessions. The old school is ready to host its annual Fines Creek Bluegrass and BBQ Festival held each year in August. Previous bands and cloggers have included Cold Mountain Bluegrass, Hill Country Band, Ole Towne, Fines Creek Flatfooters, Mountain Tradition, Carolina Blue, Tri-County Connection, The Weary Travelers, Southern Appalachian Cloggers and the trio of Carol Rifkin, Jeanette Queen and John Fowler. Go to their website.
Ebbs Chapel Performing Arts Center (271 Laurel Valley Road, Mars Hill, NC) This lovely stone building hosts traditional, old-time and bluegrass music throughout the year. Check their website to see who’s playing when. Go to their website.
Union Mills High School (6495 Hudlow Rd, Union Mills, NC) was built in 1946, is now home to the Union Mills Learning Center in Rutherford County, north of Rutherfordton. It's a nonprofit facility for life, health, education and friends. Find a variety of programs. The Music at the Mills concert series is every first Friday night of the month. Music starts at 7 PM and the admission is always free. Supper is served at 6 PM. Their big Bluegrass & Arts Festival is held each May.
Mill Spring School (156 School Road, Mill Spring NC) is now an Agricultural Center for Polk County. The Mill Spring Farm Store features local produce, meats, jams, arts and crafts. Many events throughout the year. It's located in the Tryon Foothills Wine Country, near Columbus.
The Historic Banner Elk School (185 Azalea Cir SE, Banner Elk, NC) was built in 1939 as a WPA project during the Great Depression and served as an elementary school for 71 years. The town purchased the school in 2014 and making plans for public use. Right now, the school grounds is home to many events, including the farmers market, art shows and the famous Woolly Worm Festival.