Farm museum depicts early Virginia homestead
FERRUM, Va. — Imagine watching a farmer pulling the reins of two oxen that are plowing his garden, or seeing a blacksmith forming tools with heat and iron, or tasting fresh-baked bread straight out of an open-hearth oven.
Likely, you might not see this today on a typical farm, but that’s how a middle-class family lived on an 1800s German ancestry Virginia farmstead. “By the 1800s, the frontier had come and went through here,” says Bethany Worley, director of the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum (BRIM) at Ferrum College, which was established in 1913 and is a four-year, private liberal arts college of about 1,000 students in Ferrum, Va.
“There were no native Americans in this area by then,” Worley says. “It was just people coming here finding land that was similar to where they were from and making a life for themselves.”
The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum was established in 1973 by donors and grants, and the Blue Ridge Farm Museum was constructed in 1979, Worley indicates.
With the donations and grants, Ferrum College established the farm depiction “because our mission when we were established in 1973 was to identify, preserve, document and then interpret the folk culture of this region,” Worley says. “You cannot do it any better than having people actually take part in what the culture would have been here in 1800.”
The farm museum includes several structures including a main house, a smokehouse, a blacksmith shop, a small cabin, two barns, and a chicken house.
About three years ago, the Leo S. Scott family donated funds to build a pavilion at the farm museum.
He was the owner of Leo Scott Cabinets and a cattleman.
Typically from about April to mid-October, the museum hosts school and adult tours, with many visiting from the surrounding counties. Worley estimates BRIM conducts 40 school tours a year and says much of the curriculum that teachers teach is about the history of the area. BRIM offers lesson materials that fit in with the Standards of Learning.
At the farm, students can see Heritage breeds of hogs, sheep, lambs, oxen, chickens, and other animals that were present during the 1800s in Virginia.
Costumed interpreters conduct a variety of farm and household chores that the typical farm family would have performed such as cooking meals over an open hearth, performing blacksmith jobs, working gardens, and raising animals.
“We are as authenticated as it gets,” Worley says, “and I’m really proud of that because every detail over there is the way it should be and the way it would have been. We really want to present an accuracy of the full culture at that time, down to the last detail as we can.”
Interpreters’ costumes are extremely thick to match the period, so they can be really hot in the summer and warm in late fall.
The clothes are handmade, mainly by the lead interpreter Rebecca Boone Austin, who started working at BRIM in spring 1999.
“This job is fulfilling to me as it combines several of my interests—history, livestock and gardening,” says Austin, whose title is coordinator of educational outreach and interpretation at BRIM. “I also enjoy being around and teaching children, so the interaction I get with school children on field trips to the farm museum is very satisfying.
“Preserving the history of the region where I live is important to me, as I believe that connections to our past help us to better understand ourselves and look to the future with the ability to make choices that are healthy for us, our society and our planet,” Austin says.
During a typical museum tour, about four to five interpreters will participate, depending on the size of the group.
For a season, about six interpreters will rotate their time, and when necessary, work-study students at Ferrum College will assist. Additionally, a student each year is awarded a McBroom Student Assistantship internship, which is a 10-week endowment from the June M. McBroom family to lend full-time assistance at BRIM during the summer.
According to BRIM, the scholar usually has an interest in history, agriculture, recreation or sociology and experiences what it is like to work in a folk-life museum, learning “living history interpretation; digitization of archival materials; assisting with a grant-funded website; event planning; group programming; heirloom gardening, and heritage livestock management.”
About five years ago, BRIM started offering special events for homeschooled students, usually during the fall harvest or at Christmas. Students dressed in costumes and took part in the farm activities.
Other events were offered including cornbread tours, cooking classes on an open hearth and more.
Of course, with pandemic challenges in the state last year, BRIM was forced to shut down. “We’re now slowly opening back up,” Worley says.
She said she hopes to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.
She also had to let one staff member go but hopes to bring back that person when things improve. “Since the pandemic, everyone’s had to look at things differently and adjust, and that’s what we had to do,” she says.
Looking at other options, Worley dove more into virtual learning. Fortunately for her, in January 2020, she was taking steps to set up an online gift shop. As the pandemic heated up, she was able to upload the information. She also offered three online exhibits, which she said had done quite well.
The farm museum has existed for many years, so why continue it with all the challenges you’ve faced in 2020 and continuing into 2021? “I think now, more than ever, it is important to have,” Worley says. “I think this past year everybody just kind of thought about life and trying to make life simple, because it’s been pushed on us to rely on ourselves more to get things done.
“This new generation wants to know how to do things on their own, how to fend for themselves,” she adds. “That’s all you did here in the 1800s at the farm. You had to fend for yourself. Those people made it work.”
As a museum group, she indicates that BRIM can fulfill that renewed interest by teaching visitors how to can food, cook, garden, learn about their families’ history, and figure out the best way to carry on the tradition of their ancestors.
BRIM includes folk-life exhibits and collections, information on music trails and guides, and heritage archives that consist of images, recordings and documents of Blue Ridge life.
Upcoming under the Leo S. Scott Pavilion, BRIM will host a summer camp day with the Franklin County schools of Ferrum Elementary and Henry Elementary.
They will eat a picnic lunch and afterwards hold activities that educate them about the farm and the 1800 period, as well as the importance of the Crooked Road, a heritage musical trail in Virginia that runs along the college and museum.
Other events at the college have included the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival — which is scheduled for Oct. 23 — Blue Ridge Herb Lore Gathering, Christmas in the Blue Ridge, Crooked Road Dulcimer Festival, Homeschooler Day Camps, and Moonshine Heritage Car Show.
Worley says the majority of BRIM’s operational funding comes from Ferrum College. Other funding comes from donors, loaned out exhibits to other museums, and grants to create exhibits.
However, in the future she plans to grow an endowment so BRIM can become self-sufficient and experience more growth in tours, exhibits, collections and staff.
As part of the endowment, Worley hopes to establish membership funds to name BRIM after former director Roddy Moore, who is now director emeritus.
If successful in raising enough funds, the building name will become Roddy Moore Folklife Center. Some people have already made donations to the effort, she says, and she intends to roll out a membership campaign in June 2021.
Worley also hopes to add to its musical archives; preserve the ones that have been donated; and to digitize music, photographs, and documents on the Blue Ridge and Appalachia.
It’s unbelievable what we do have in the archives,” Worley says. “A lot of people have no idea what we’ve collected since 1973. People have been very generous with us. We want to be able to digitize a lot of our photographs, documents, music to get it out there in the world where everybody can enjoy, and for everybody to appreciate how special this Blue Ridge area really is because we’re very proud of it. We want everybody to understand life here and to realize how special it is.”
Her intentions are to also create portable exhibits so they can be easily hauled to other museums for display.
For more information or to schedule a group tour, contact BRIM by phone at 540-365-4416 or by e-mail at email@example.com.