Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
Built in 1943 on the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp by the WPA, Cowee School served thousands of students until it was closed as a school in 2012. It continues as an institution of learning, an outdoor venue for music and the arts, and host to a number of affiliates, classrooms, and programs. The school opened its doors to members of the media on June 17 during one of the school’s summer concerts, part of a series that runs through October.
Before a bluegrass concert by Carolina Blue, members of the media were invited to tour the facility and enjoy a dinner prepared in the facility’s kitchen, one of the newest additions to the school. The commercial kitchen provides small businesses with the opportunity to mass produce products without having to pay for a certified kitchen space. On the nights of concerts at Cowee School, hotdog and hamburgers are sold to help raise money for the center.
Another new addition at Cowee School is an outdoor stage, which will be first used next month for the Franklin Area Folk Festival.
“The Cowee School Arts & Heritage Centers (CSAHC) new outdoor stage was completed in April of this year,” said Bob McCollum, Advisory Board Chairman, CSAHC. “The stage will be used for the first time during the Franklin Area Folk Festival, to be held at the School on Aug. 19, and will be the venue for all of the main performers.”
According to McCollum, the addition of the stage was made possible by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, a major grant supporter and partner for The Cowee School over the last five years.
“The total cost of the stage was $10,500 with $6,600 coming from the grant and the remainder coming from donations received during our 2017 Fund Drive,” said McCollum. “The outdoor stage will allow us to seat much larger crowds than the auditorium inside and afford high profile entertainers.”
The Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center Summer Concert Series is in its fifth year. In keeping with its mission to educate and provide opportunities to experience traditional or heritage related practices, this concert series has focused on the Bluegrass music genre.
“Each year our concert organizer Barry Clinton has booked a mixture of award winning seasoned performers as well as up and coming new artists,” said McCollum. “For example, this summer we have multiple International Bluegrass Music Association award winners Becky Buller and Dale Ann Bradley as well as local regional groups like Carolina Blue. In addition to these concerts the school has also featured Gospel, Blues and Rock and Roll concerts and we intend to expand the variety and frequency of these events.”
The summer concert series is held on the gym stage at the Cowee School. The performances currently average around 100 people in attendance and continue to grow. One way to expand the series is during the booking process.
“Booking performers for the Concert Series begins in Summer with phone calls to agents representing the performers we want to book,” said McCollum. “Most performers will want to have their 2018 calendar year planned out and contracts signed by October or November of this year. The later you wait to book performers the fewer open dates there are and the availability of top quality talent declines.”
The concert series serves to further the facility’s mission to educate the community and preserve the heritage of the region, while raising funds for the operations of the center.
“The Concert Series is very important to the CSAC,” said McCollum. “It helps us fulfill part of our mission, as stated before, and has been one of our primary ‘first contact’ events that introduce local residents and visitors alike to the school and all it offers. During the concerts all of the tenants have their rooms open and people can see pottery making, weaving, painting, historical exhibits and the toy museum. This exposure leads to return visits wherein our instructors get students, the school gets volunteers and funding support, and the overall public awareness of the CSAHC is raised.”
According to McCollum, the facility has quickly become a sought after destination for performers, who enjoy the acoustics and atmosphere the heritage center lends to artists.
“Since the beginning of the Summer Concert Series word has spread among artists and their agents that the CSAHC venue is a great place to perform,” he said. “Bluegrass artists usually perform in festival or bar settings where background noise levels are high. They really enjoy the opportunity to perform in a venue where the audience is attentive and knowledgeable about traditional music and where the acoustics are superb thanks to a state of the art sound system provided through a grant from the Blue Ridge Heritage Foundation. People who have attended the concerts, but are not necessarily fans of Bluegrass music, have still expressed their amazement at the level of musicianship that has been brought to the stage of the CSAHC.”
The next concert at Cowee School is scheduled for July 15 at 7 p.m. when Tellico will take the stage. A Low country boil dinner will be served for $10 a plate prior to the band taking the stage. Admission to the event is $15 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 6-16.