Hendersonville – Valley Hill School is earning extra credit with recent renovations. It’s on track to be used again as a school and partly as an antique tractor museum.
The museum now occupies what was the school’s gym. New property owner Kirby Johnson, Flavor 1st Growers & Packers co-owner, told The Tribune he hopes to open the tractor museum as early as spring 2022. He is awaiting roof shingles for it.
Johnson plans to open the museum mostly or only to school groups, with free admission. His aim is to “educate children on how farm we’ve come in 80 years, in farm equipment.” He installed a huge garage door in the gym that enables tractors to enter and exit.
The oldest of 13 antique tractors — mostly John Deere or International Harvester — is a 1936 Deere. Johnson said he rebuilt it using parts from three ‘36 Deeres. He is an avid tractor collector and restorer since 1981, when he was age 21. He refurbished tractors he or his late father Preston “Pete” Johnson drove on their family farm. He bought tractors from other farmers, refurbished and sold many, and kept some. He now owns about 30 antique tractors.
Even if most of the campus is used again as a school, odds are the museum will keep operating for another year, he said. “If the (next) school (there) does well and they want it as a gym,” he said, “then I’ll turn it back into a gymnasium and move the tractors to where I had them before.“
Meanwhile, two antique coal shovels are outside the gym’s southern side. A boiler remains in its basement, which offers further school space.
The 3.72-acre school site is off of Carolina Avenue, in the Valley Hill community. It is believed to have originated with the log cabin Ficker School, on an acre. Valley Hill’s three-room structure opened in 1905. It expanded to five rooms in 1919. Famed architect Erle Stillwell designed the structure that contained white clapboards and later brick veneer.
Valley Hill had seven feeder schools. By 1928, it was a union school for first grade through high school until high school students began attending Flat Rock High School in 1934, then East Henderson in 1960. Also in ‘60, Flat Rock Junior High took on Valley Hill middle grades.
Valley Hill fully closed in 1983, when it was succeeded by the then-new Atkinson Elementary.
Pathway Christian Academy operated on Valley Hill’s campus, from 1999-2007.
Johnson said he is on track to house another Christian-based, private charter school. A Northeast-based school group with many campuses liked the local site after visiting it, he said. Johnson said that group is midway into a two-year administrative process. The group should notify him by November 2022 if they want to run a school on the site.
If so, he said the school is on track to open in fall 2023. He prefers to sell the property. Options may include the group leasing out the gym to him or Johnson renting them the school for a tryout year.
His wife Sherry has Valley Hill School ties. Her mother Ann Ledbetter was its librarian. Sherry’s grandmother Edith Griffin cooked in the cafeteria for about 40 years. Kirby and Sherry Johnson live close by. They moved there after marrying in 1980. Kirby grew up in Dana. His farming empire is mostly in Mills River Valley.
Kirby Johnson estimates he is about 80 percent done renovating the main school structures. He bought the property in March of 2020. He told the Tribune he paid $175,000 for it and spent over $150,000 so far to renovate it — such as overhauling the gym. A boiler remains in its basement. He set up an office and plans to place two of the school’s student desks in it.
Johnson pleased many when his crew tore down the large old structure on the tract’s south side. It was deemed beyond repair. Gravel parking is now there. A play field is down a steep hill.
“Kirby Johnson and his team of workers have done an incredible job,” retired educator Barbara Blaine said. “They work so diligently.”
Johnson and his crew painted existing building exteriors, washed off graffiti, leveled ground and put in grass. “We put in hardwood floors, air conditioning and heat,” he said. “We’ve got two wings to finish.”
Upcoming expenses include for the gym roof, and phasing in more wooden flooring in the classroom building.
That building has two walls that divide what was the former cafeteria and kitchen — which has original tile into classrooms. It leads eastward into an annex with the library and principal’s office.
Wooden pieces from the torn-down structure were fastened onto school bricks and sold as keepsakes. The Henderson County Education History Initiative sold these brick-wood combo pieces along with various artifacts from the school in a fundraising sale on Sept. 12. The fundraiser split about $6,000 in proceeds with Johnson, Initiative Steering Committee Chr. Rick Wood noted.
The Education History Initiative paid for a new Valley Hill School plaque on a large greystone monument and dedicated it Sept. 12. It replaced the stolen 1951 plaque.
The plaque honors Julia Sophronia Trimble Redden (1878-1951). The Louisiana native taught upper grades in Valley Hill School starting in 1902. She was lead teacher/administrator until retiring in 1945. Her daughters Ethel Weaver and Harriet Bishop also taught.
Julia’s descendants at the plaque ceremony included grandson Arthur “Skeeter” Redden, 86. He calls her “dedicated” and a “trailblazer” among a mere trio of female principals in this state in the very early 1900s. Skeeter said Julia was a “strong-willed” disciplinarian with an authoritative deep voice.
Education History Initiative Vice-chr. Patsy Jones, who taught for 35 years, said Julia’s “leadership was a good example for future leaders…” Chairman Wood calls the Reddens a “pioneering” educational family.
Smart Julia’s son Monroe consulted with her when he was a congressman, Skeeter noted. Monroe served three post-WWII terms. His hunting lodge evolved into popular Deerfield Retreats in Mills River.
Monroe and brother Arthur J. Redden were attorneys. Skeeter is part of three generations of Redden lawyers.