Bringing People Back

Turn-of-the-century Stalk Cutter

This turn-of-the-century stalk cutter is part of the old-time farm equipment collection at Albemarle Learning Center in Chowan County.

The land — it has cast a spell on humans since the dawn of time. It has sustained us and nurtured us from the beginning. But as farmland around us has been developed, trees cut down, and wetlands filled in, our everyday reverence and respect for the land has diminished. Many of us may be far from our roots, but the vision of two people in eastern North Carolina bears witness that the land is still crucial to our communities.

There was a time in rural North Carolina when a child either “put in tobacco” in the summer or knew somebody who did. There was likely a farmer in the family, if not then, not too many generations back. But as air conditioners and televisions brought us indoors, off the front porches and out of the sand lots and creek beds, town folks and country folks alike lost touch with the land and the culture of the land.

Bob Harrell wants to change that. He wants to reconnect people, especially young people, with their culture or their agri-culture. And he has made a good start at the Albemarle Learning Center (ALC) in Chowan County. Harrell, a retired Baptist minister, understands something about the power of connections. In fact ALC started because he noticed a special connection happening before his eyes.

Harrell had always kept a pony for his grandchildren to ride. He noticed that his granddaughter, Ashlee, who has Down Syndrome, connected with the pony in a special way. She found a special joy in her relationship with the animal and the animal seemed to reciprocate. That inspired Harrell to invite her physically and mentally challenged classmates out to ride, which led to a therapeutic riding program, which led to the formation of a board, the purchase of an 80 acre farm, and the construction of a $300,000 facility five miles north of Edenton.

The facility now houses The Oasis Project, an alternative learning program for at-risk students who have experienced severe behavior, attendance and/or academic problems. Part-nering with area school systems, ALC offers what Harrell calls, “hands-on experimental learning and maturing opportunities.” The kids from Oasis help the disabled youth with their riding activities, often leading to first-time feelings of self-worth, and they learn animal care and flower and vegetable gardening, employing math and earth science skills.

Beverly Patterson, folklife specialist at the North Carolina Arts Council, knew of Harrell’s work and told him about the Annenburg Rural Challenge, a program to promote “place-based” education. He applied for a grant and was awarded $500,000 over three years to provide training for teachers to use outside-of-the-classroom projects and activities to enhance the teaching of math, science, environmental education, and rural folk history and culture. The project demolishes the walls which separate the schools from community and the community from schools, and in this case marries learning with the rich agricultural heritage of northeastern North Carolina.

The new building houses a lab and kitchen where students can experiment with the many edible and non-edible products that come from peanuts, corn, and soybeans. The Cannon Foundation provided $15,000 to equip the lab and kitchen. And North Carolina State University has placed a math and science specialist on the premises to help students understand the relationship between their own learning experiences and the environment and community.

Fourth- to sixth-grade students from Perquimans, Chowan, and Gates Counties now come regularly to the ALC, which also includes a collection of turn-of-the-century farm equipment and machinery to demonstrate old-time farming practices. “We want to reconnect them to their rural heritage, to show them about peanuts and cotton. For instance, they learn how the cotton becomes the jeans they wear,” says Harrell.

To help make that reconnection, ALC has brought on board Ginger Morelock, a folklorist funded by the Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. She will serve as a cultural specialist in collaboration with the schools, guiding teachers who engage in folklife documentation projects with students. She will help develop materials and models to incorporate folklife/folklore into the curriculum, and she will help identify individuals who are community tradition bearers. Students will learn the ins and outs of folklore field work while learning of their heritage. It is expected that as students do community research, talking with their “elders” and learning about their local culture and ecology, they will become citizens who have something of value to contribute to their communities.

One student already engaged in the program commented, “It has brought me back to my grandfather.” And maybe students will soon connect the taste of peanut butter from the local grocery with that autumn smell of freshly turned peanuts in the fields around home.