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One door closed, but many more opened with rebirth of Cowee School

fr coweeschoolAn old closed-down elementary school in the rural Cowee community in Macon County will soon reclaim its role as a community focal point and gathering place.


The former school is being remade and transformed into an Appalachian cultural center, a space where community groups and nonprofits can hold meetings, programs, workshops and performances. 

“There are a whole mix of uses on the table right now,” said Stacey Guffey, the center’s coordinator named by the county.

Gardeners have already laid out small, raised-bed plots for willing horticulturalists. Cowee Textiles, a fiber arts group, will soon be putting on weaving and quilting classes there. A pottery club has also reserved a room for studio space and hands-on demonstrations.

But those are only some of the organized pursuits. Guffey said the campus of the old school is usually hustling and bustling with impromptu doings.

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“I try to never forget to mention that there are always people using the track, playing ball on the ball field and using a picnic shelter,” Guffey said.

A kick-off party celebrating a soft opening for the Cowee community center was held last Saturday, featuring mountain music and dinner prepared onsite. 

The school has undergone a slew of improvements since the county commissioners got behind the project last fall. With nearly $70,000 pledged by the county for renovations last year and another $120,000 this year, the building is shaping up, Guffey said.

The classroom trailers out front have been hauled away; there is new audio equipment; lighting and seats for concerts; holes in the roof were patched up; old carpeting torn out; and the handicapped access fixed.

The school has also been rigged with wireless Internet access and the cafeteria outfitted with a commercial grade stove and new stainless steel table for food preparation. As one of its many uses, Guffey said the kitchen will be used for classes on canning and cooking put on by the Macon County Cooperative Extension Service.

This year, a large chunk of the county capital funding will go to upgrade the old oil furnace to an electrical heat pump. Guffey said the upgrades will pay off in the long run and save $22,000 per year in fuel costs.

But even with all the upgrades, the heart and soul of the building has not changed much from when it was a school serving the community.

“The community still treats this place like they’ve always treated it,” Guffey said. “And that’s as place to gather and have fun.”

Macon County Historical Society has plans to use the space for local history exhibits. 

The school’s alumni organization wants to showcase the school’s history. And even the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is planning an exhibit depicting the native heritage of the region. The Cowee area along the Little Tennessee River, dotted with ancient burial mounds and campsites, was once an epicenter of Cherokee civilization.

But the details are still being worked out by the tribe.

“Tribal members are going through a process to decide how to use the room,” Guffey said. “The ideas on the table are for educational displays on the Cherokee in river valley.”

The old library will be left open for a public lounge, meeting area, a book exchange and even movie nights. The school’s gymnasium will feature ping-pong, basketball, badminton, volleyball and other types of recreation.

Concerts, though, may turn out to be the big draw. The school is also a designated stop on the Blue Ridge music trail.

Balsam Range, a local bluegrass group, was set to be the first band to fill the 200-capacity gymnasium last weekend for the kick-off event. But they overfilled it, and the concert had to be moved outside.

This fall, Guffey has scheduled a music series, including Buncombe Turnpike, to play in the auditorium. He plans to start the series again in the spring with monthly sets in the auditorium and a big event in August

“I think we’re going to try to do one big yearly event,” Guffey said. “Where we try to pull the community together and try to pull school alumni together, outside.”

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