Appalachian Heritage SchoolBy: Lacy Hilliard
Johnson County is no stranger to colorful residents. The beauty, seclusion and abundant access to wondrous natural resources make this region attractive to a plethora of personalities. However, one thing residents of Johnson County seem to share no matter their origin or individuality is a love of the land they call home. For a man whose feet, endurance and will have logged over 34,000 trail miles and 16 successful thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail; Johnson County has proven to be the perfect place to write the final chapter of a truly amazing lifetime expedition.
Warren Doyle began calling Johnson County home in 2009 when he purchased the historic Donnelly House in Laurel Bloomery. The home Doyle has since dubbed a “Poor Man’s Biltmore” has undergone an ardent metamorphosis since changing ownership. The Donnelly House, once known locally as a proud but weathered farmhouse famous for its intricate quilts and unique antique store has since become headquarters for the Appalachian Heritage School. Born of Doyle’s Appalachian Trail Institute, Appalachian Folk School can perhaps best be described as a celebration of all things Appalachia. Even through the addition of several bunkhouses, a classroom, a dance and folk music facility and the renovation of the original barn on the property; the Appalachian Folk Center is simply described by its founder as “A place for people to gather and share their thoughts.”
Doyle’s commitment to community is clear in his efforts to transform the Donnelly House. Local laborers built all new buildings on the property with materials purchased locally. “I plan to become extremely active in the community,” said Doyle. His respect for the 200-year-old farmhouse and its history is also apparent with many of the quilts still proudly on display throughout the extraordinarily unique home.
Doyle’s love affair with Appalachia is long and elaborate and is largely inspired by his mentor, Don West. Doyle spent his formative years working closely with West at the Appalachian South Folklife Center, an organization founded by West and dedicated to the promotion of Appalachian heritage. “Don West pioneered the thought that people should take pride in their Appalachian heritage,” said Doyle. It’s clear that Doyle intends to continue the work of his mentor who he describes as the “Martin Luther King of Appalachia.” Though the tones are similar, the mission of Doyle’s Appalachian Folk School will be carried out in such a way that is uniquely Warren Doyle.
In his time, Doyle has mentored dozens of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts but perhaps none is more famous than Jennifer Pharr Davis. Davis is the current record holder for the world’s fastest Appalachian Trail thru-hike – an accomplishment she largely credits Warren Doyle for inspiring. After all, the record Davis broke belonged to Doyle. On average an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is completed in about six months. Jennifer Pharr Davis completed the trek in just under 47 days. Davis is just one success story in many that have employed Doyle’s theories and philosophies on the trail.
The Appalachian Folk School held its first open house beginning on Friday, June 6. The event began with “34,000 Miles of Trail Stories,” a storytelling session with Warren Doyle. The festivities spanned several days and concluded on the evening of Tuesday, June 10 with folk musician Rachel Eddy. An Appalachian native, Eddy currently resides in Sweden and performs throughout Europe. Though Doyle isn’t yet ready to hang up his hiking boots and commit to the Appalachian Folk School full-time, the open house was intended as a means of welcoming the community to his home and his vision.
All of Doyle’s efforts are non-profit. Perhaps it is his lifetime career as an educator that inspires his desire to share knowledge, a pursuit he has not only dedicated his career to as a professor at Lees-McCrae College (among others) but also his free time through the Appalachian Trail Institute --training and leading thru-hiker hopefuls to the finish line in Katahdin, Maine and now in his retirement through the Appalachian Folk School. Either way, it is here in Johnson County where Doyle has chosen to invest his time and talents. A timeworn building on the property that contains a loft Doyle refers to as “The Roost” is where he plans to write his legacy when he “slows down.”
Doyle has many books for sale as well as used hiking gear and even some quilts left over from the previous owners. Consider stopping by and paying the Appalachian Folk School a visit. Its mission illuminates the ever growing need to promote, remember and treasure Appalachian heritage and perhaps will even work to ignite a sense of pride in those that never felt it before.