Secrets of the Blue Ridge: George Mayo & the Blue Ridge Industrial School

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It took many hired hands to manage the hundreds of acres of farmland owned by Blue Ridge Industrial School. The boy students were trained in “farming, fruit-growing, stock-raising, blacksmithing, carpentry, and forestry.” (Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb)

George P. Mayo was the founding father of Blue Ridge Industrial School, known also by its acronym BRIS. A circuitous path led him to establishing that benevolent work in the rolling bottom land of Bacon Hollow, below Powell Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Greene County, Virginia.

Born in 1876 near Hague, Westmoreland County, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, Mayo was homeschooled for his primary education. His secondary schooling was completed in Richmond where a scholarship led him to Roanoke College and a bachelor’s degree. Another scholarship afforded his entry to Princeton University, where he was awarded his master’s, studying under, among others, theology professor and future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

He then entered Virginia Theological Seminary at Alexandria, graduating in 1902. By that time, Rev. Frederick W. Neve’s nearly single-handed mission work, begun in 1888 among the residents of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Albemarle and Greene, was bearing good fruit.

Rev. Mayo readily joined Neve’s work, being assigned first to Holy Cross Church near Batesville before moving to Crozet’s Saint George Episcopal Church and being placed in charge of the mission outposts in the Blue Ridge. By horseback and on foot, the new minister began to make himself known among his parishioners, learning about their lives and sharing his. Friendships and trust grew, and the people began to invest themselves in the greater cause.

Archdeacon Neve reflected on Rev. Mayo’s coming to the mission work in the Blue Ridge: “He [Mayo] soon realized that he could not accomplish much unless he lived among the people; and this suggested the idea of a Mission Home, which was ultimately built, and soon became the centre of an aggressive and valuable work. But Mr. Mayo was not content with the work he was doing, and soon conceived the idea of building an Industrial School, as the best means of giving the mountain children a chance to improve their condition.”

Direct appeals from Neve and Mayo to supporters of the mountain mission work during the winter of 1902-1903 brought a generous pledge of support to build what would be the first part of Mayo’s new work: a mission house in the mountains. As it turned out, raising the funds was the easy part.

The cannery at B.R.I.S. provided preservation of perishable crops for later consumption by the school, as well as teaching the steps of that process. (Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb)

“Mission Home,” as its principal benefactor requested it be named, was to be located near the Albemarle-Greene County line on a hilltop between the Bruce and Shifflett Hollows. Separated from most sources of building materials by many miles of difficult roads, as well as from contractors willing to work for the money the budget allowed, another reality of rural mission work became evident.

“I made my home with one of the mountain families nearby,” Mayo recalled, “and I purchased a pair of overalls and a saw and a hatchet, and each day I would take my place with the workers… We started building in July, and by the 16th of December, we were ready to move in and occupy the second story until we completed the ground floor.”

Then, in 1907, those hard-earned lessons of fundraising, purchasing land, overseeing construction crews and selecting able mission workers were reapplied to Rev. Mayo’s vision for an industrial-based farm-school to better educate and prepare mountain youth for the life challenges that awaited them. The school’s first classes were taught in a log cabin on the farm in 1909, even as work continued on the primary buildings of the boarding school that would form the nucleus of a project that some proclaimed as “the greatest achievement in Greene County.”

In its earliest years, BRIS was primarily an elementary school with a “desire to give opportunity to children whose ambition has already been aroused in one of the various mission [day] schools of the Archdeaconry.” The progress made by its students and ongoing advancements instituted by the school’s leadership led to it becoming Greene County’s first accredited high school. Its first diplomas were awarded in 1918.

Our Mountain Work, a newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese, published the daily schedule at the “School Farm” in 1912. Each day was structured necessarily from beginning to end, from everyone rising before the sun (4:30 a.m. May–September, or 5:30 October–April) and being occupied with work, study or recreation until lights-out at nine.

Deaconess Bertha Lawrence wrote, “…the pupils go back and forth from their books to manual work… [using] a different set of muscles every hour or so, more fresh air, and the valuable acquisition of an appreciation of time and its limits.”

In a 1914 volume of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, well-traveled writer and author Robert Bruère described his exploratory springtime visit by buggy to BRIS. “The dogwood and the crimson Judas trees were in bloom,” he wrote. “The road was fragrant with sprouting fern, its banks mottled with violets, yellow sorrel bells, and bloodroot blossoms.

Blue Ridge Industrial School, c.1915. On the left is Neve Hall, completed in 1909, the first building erected for the school and used in its earliest days to house the girl students. To its right is the Recitation Hall where classes were given and assemblies held. (Photo by Rufus Holsinger. Courtesy of UVA Library.) Additional images accompany the print version of this article.

“Through Simmon’s Gap, along the boulder-strewn bed of a mountain stream, over the hump of a crouching hill, down a steep path broken by gullies and jutting rock, across a plowed field and half-stumped clearing, I came at last to the Blue Ridge Industrial School and the home of the Rev. George P. Mayo.”

There, the writer Bruère encountered first-hand the realities of Mayo’s faith-inspired vision. Spread out before him was a “demonstration farm of more than five hundred acres; its sawmill and dairy; its dormitories, classrooms, workshops, and kitchens; its orchards and fields for every grain and grass and fruit… Mr. Mayo has informed the every-day life at the school with the deepest though most unobtrusive religious spirit, and because he believes that the only sound basis for a vital church today is the spontaneous religious emotion of a happy and prosperous people.

“During the afternoon I saw fine mountain girls baking bread and studying poultry, mountain boys harrowing after the plow and mending tools in the smithy. And morning and evening I heard them singing together and co-operating in work and in play—and through the children Mr. Mayo is trying to spread the spirit of co-operation and mutual aid throughout the neighborhood.”

Rev. George P. Mayo (1876–1954), with his most capable wife Patty by his side, led BRIS by word and by deed until 1944. In 1947, the school’s charter was changed to reflect the name that had been adopted in 1939: Blue Ridge School. Since 1962, Blue Ridge School has served as a private boarding school “dedicated to providing a sound college-prep education for capable and willing young men.”

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James 

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