Supporters and staff of the Reynolds Homestead gathered online to celebrate 50 years since the 1970 dedication of the historic Patrick County property as a Virginia Tech community outreach and forestry research center.
The homestead had planned to mark the anniversary with numerous public events on the property in Critz, Virginia, about 65 miles southeast of Blacksburg, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration shifted to a Zoom gathering. People who played key roles in transforming the rundown former plantation marked the occasion by sharing memories of the journey, followed by a toast to the homestead’s 50 years of service.
Among the attendees were several Reynolds descendants, including Richard S. “Major” Reynolds III, whose great-grandfather A.D. Reynolds was born in the home and whose grandfather Richard S. Reynolds Sr. founded Reynolds Metals. He has served on the homestead’s advisory committee for 40 years and remembered the dedication and its importance not only to the Reynolds family but to the community as well.
“It was reclaiming something that had been a landmark, putting it back together,” he said. “From there, the homestead prospered and grew and has become more and more important to the community.”
Formerly known as the Rock Spring Plantation, the homestead was built in 1843. It was the boyhood home of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. It was also home to many slaves. Ongoing research of the homestead’s enslaved workers includes a slave cemetery that holds at least 61 graves.
“The history of this place extends much further, to when the Cherokee Nation lived in these hills and when scores of Africans and their descendants were enslaved on Rock Spring Plantation,” Director Julie Walters Steele said. “There are many stories about this land and this place that are yet to be told.”
The story of how the property became part of Virginia Tech started in 1967, when a member of the local community, Nannie Ruth Terry, stopped to check on the old homestead and found a pony living in the brick home alongside the Reynolds family’s antique piano. She started a quest to save the home and wrote a letter to Nancy Susan Reynolds in New York, inviting her to stop and visit. That sparked a friendship and a plan to save the homestead.
Today, the homestead, part of Outreach and International Affairs, serves as a community hub of learning and culture, following the vision set five decades earlier by Nancy Susan Reynolds. At the grand dedication on the lawn in 1970, she called for programs designed to improve the quality of life in Patrick County, both culturally and economically,
She was “forward-thinking and insistent,” said Ray Smoot, vice president for finance and treasurer emeritus and former CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation. “Her sense was that it was important that programs address cultural matters and economic and employment matters. That one or the other wasn’t likely to have impact by itself.”
Today, the restored home is filled with Reynolds family heirlooms and historical displays. It holds regular tours and hosts school field trips. To one side of the home, across a small paved roadway, stands the Community Enrichment Center, built in 1978, with an addition in 1992. The two-story building holds several meeting spaces where community members gather for classes, art exhibitions, children’s activities, and more.
Residents of Patrick County and beyond celebrate their weddings on the lawn and enjoy nature while walking along the beautiful LEAF trail. They earn scholarships for college, attend concerts and festivals, and listen to scholarly lectures on a variety of topics. The surrounding 780 acres of woodland serve as the Reynolds Homestead Forestry Resources Research Center, where researchers and students study forest biology.
“The Reynolds Homestead has impacted the lives of individuals of all ages from its Head Start children to participants in the College for Older Adults program,” said Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement. “Its educational programming has kindled curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking; expanded civic and cultural understanding; and promoted and enhanced health, well-being, and quality of life for residents throughout the region.”
One local resident, Janice Pendleton, has had a lifelong connection to the homestead. As a teacher at a nearby elementary school, she brought students for lessons on forestry and to visit Victorian Christmas programs each year. Her own children “became regulars” for summer and fall art classes. She served as a tour guide in the home. And after retirement, Pendleton and her husband enrolled in the College for Older Adults and became active volunteers.
“I not only attend classes but I also teach. Volunteering is my way of giving back to a place that has been a meaningful part of my life for more than 38 years,” Pendleton said.
The homestead plans to mark the anniversary with a three-day celebration June 18-21, 2021. Among the plans are a farm-to-table dinner; Bushels and Barrels Local Food, Wine, and Beer Festival; and an afternoon of celebrating more than five decades of service. Staff are also collecting memories and photos leading up to the event.
– Diane Deffenbaugh