Brenda Martin plunged her hands in the stream and dug into the muck at its bottom to knock loose silt and any submerged creatures. One of her ecology students stood downstream, holding a fine-mesh cloth to catch what was dislodged.
“I would love to be able to teach every day in this kind of facility,” the Patrick County (Va.) High School teacher said as her students pored over what they removed from the water. “It gives the students a chance to see what they’ve been learning in class and apply it.”
During the 2010-11 school year, dozens of classes like Martin’s visited Virginia Tech’s Reynolds Homestead, a site on almost 800 acres in Critz, Va., 90 minutes from the university’s main campus in Blacksburg.
Much of the acreage is used for forestry research by the university’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, which is able to avoid some issues that can complicate such research – such as land being sold while a decades-long study is still under way – by using the homestead.
But a majority of the 15,000-plus visitors to Reynolds Homestead in a typical year come for programs run by Virginia Tech’s Outreach and International Affairs, which is responsible for a continuing education center on the property.
The education center’s modern building sits amid of other features that draw people interested in the region’s history, including the childhood home of R.J. Reynolds, which was built in 1843 and is a registered state and national historic landmark.
Since Reynolds’ daughter Nancy Susan Reynolds deeded the property to the university in 1969, the homestead has had a twofold mission. Not only does it support the educational and outreach efforts of Virginia Tech, but it also offers popular arts and cultural programs in a rural area.
Julie Walters Steele, the homestead director, explained that hosting classes from schools such as Patrick County High School is one way the homestead lives up to its mission.
“I am excited about the opportunity to expand opportunities for area schools to meld classroom learning and applied learning,” she said, then described other programs that take place at her facility. Those include monthly visits by Head Start preschool programs and a series of courses for adults 55 or older, which has seen its enrollment double since the program began about two years ago.
“Land wise, we’re located in one of Virginia’s largest counties, but population-wise, we’re one of the smallest counties,” Steele added. “We provide people an opportunity to drive a reasonable distance and participate in cultural events.”
The homestead is also the site of art openings, musical events, and lectures. And its director and staff make it a point to be involved in the region’s chambers of commerce and other economic development boards.
Thanks largely to the generosity of several foundations with ties to the extended Reynolds family – which was prominent in the metals industry, as well as tobacco industry – several improvements to the homestead have been completed recently.
The role of tobacco farming on the grounds is now highlighted with a period-appropriate tobacco barn. A new entranceway gate greets travelers seeking the off-the-beaten-path homestead. And an interpretive forest tour trail – part of Virginia’s Link to Education About Forests initiative – makes it easier for visitors, including schoolchildren, to learn about the natural history of Reynolds Homestead and the ecology of its grounds.
“It’s a nice place where teachers can come and bring their students and get real, hands-on experience,” said Kyle Peer, superintendent of the Reynolds Homestead Forest Resources Research Center, who led the Patrick County students around the trail.
Their teacher, Brenda Martin, agreed and said the homestead’s staff members were helpful in designing tours that supported her lesson plans. “I’m extremely grateful for having this facility to bring classes down to,” she added.
The Reynolds Homestead is isolated, largely wooded, and downstream from an undisturbed watershed, which makes it an ideal location for forestry research.
At the homestead, Virginia Tech researchers are working on multiple studies, including how different genetics, soils, and forest management affect tree growth; how logging and road affect water quality; and how the use of herbicides for woody plant and invasive species control can best be managed.
The Reynolds Homestead is one of only 10 of the state's museums, libraries, and archives chosen to benefit from on-site assessment and advice. It was chosen to receive a site visit from experts designed to improve the care of its holdings, which include furniture, art, glassware, and the R.J. Reynolds Collection of tobacco paintings from the 1930s and 1940s.
Reynolds Homestead is open for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Between April and October, the site also is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tours cost $5 for adults and $3 for children.
To arrange a group tour, call 276-694-7181 or email Beth Ford.
To find out what's happening when you want to come or to take a class, see the site's calendar of events.
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.