Claude Collins remembers the first time he saw Glenmary Brother Craig Digmann. He appeared to be loitering around the Vardy Community Historical Society property.
“No one knew who he was, but we asked if he wanted to come in,” Claude said.
Editor’s Note: Claude Collins died Feb. 15, 2017. His quotes included in this story are from January 2017.
Brother Craig was new to the area, recently transferred to Hancock County from Grainger and Union counties in Tennessee. When he first arrived, Brother Craig drove the back roads of Hancock County, scoping out his new home. He found the Vardy Community site, and an informational sign welcomed the public to the historical society’s meetings. Clearly, the historical society forgot about the invitation.
But Claude and Brother Craig formed a friendship. Claude introduced Brother Craig to Sneedville. He has been a “gatekeeper” of sorts. Well-known in the community, Claude gives immediate validity to Brother Craig. When people see Brother Craig with Claude, they know Brother Craig is OK.
Meanwhile, Brother Craig has sent many people Claude’s way, arranging tours of the Vardy Community with Union and Grainger county senior groups.
“I am all about bringing people together socially, and a lot of people are interested in the Vardy Community, so I started organizing tours,” Brother Craig said. “Many people have a false interpretation of the Melungeons, and this is a way to get from the horse’s mouth what the community is all about.”
Brother Craig has also been educating Claude about Catholicism. He answers any questions Claude has and gives him reading material about Glenmary and the Catholic Church.
“I’ve had a really wonderful experience with Brother Craig,” Claude said. “He’s all right, even if he is a Catholic! He has really impressed me. He has raised my level of thinking about the Catholic people.”
Brother Craig spoke at the Vardy Community’s Christmas gathering, and Claude’s niece, Charlotte Mullins, said Brother Craig’s discussion of the Christmas story was particularly effective.
“He did such a great job,” Charlotte said. “The way he explained the birth of Christ and everything leading up to it was so plain. Everyone really enjoyed it.”
But Claude and the Vardy Community were predisposed to like missionaries. Their lives were enhanced immeasurably by Presbyterian missionaries.
Claude is a member of the “melungeon community,” though he and his family never identified with that label. Melungeon means “mixed race” and grew to have a negative connotation in the region. People in the area used the term to classify Claude and his community as a mix of African Americans and Caucasians. In reality, their lineage also included European and Native American influences.
“The first time I heard that word, I was 20 years old at the University of Tennessee,” Claude said. “I started reading the (evening newspaper), and I saw a story about melungeons. All of the pictures were of my aunts and uncles. When I called my mom and said, ‘What is a melungeon?’ She said, ‘I don’t want to ever hear you use that word again.’”
Claude and his community were all working farmers in the area, but for many years, they were outcasts. They did not have the right to vote and were shunned by residents of their respective communities. So, they built their own community.
Their patron, Vardemon Collins, secured a number of land grants when he settled the Black Water area of Sneedville, Tenn., in the 1800s. He began farming the land, and his relatives continued the tradition, cultivating vegetables in the valley and fruit in the mountains.
People traveled by horse and buggy or by foot to come to the Vardy community, named for the patriarch, every day. Some came from as far away as Virginia, which is about 6 miles away.
Collins’ friends and heirs populated the community, but it began to thrive once missionaries settled it. In the early 1900s, missionaries arrived in the Appalachian Mountains and established a school, church and medical program.
Led by Mary J. Rankin, a Scottish woman with a bachelor in nursing and master’s in education, the area started a school. She taught using the Montessori method, hanging the lesson plans on the walls throughout the school. All of the children had the ability to work at their own pace. By the time the Vardy students were forced to integrate into the public schools, they were more advanced, because the quality of education they received in Vardy was superior to the Tennessee public education system.
“By the time I reached eighth grade, I had already learned all of the math lessons, so I did not take math that whole year,” Claude said. “We also had to check out a library book every week and return it on Sunday.”
Rankin, a registered nurse, administered school shots to all of the children and tended to the healthcare needs of the community, dispensing medicine from the infirmary on the school property and visiting people in the valley and the mountain who had health concerns. She also kept records on all of the children at the school.
“They knew more about you than you knew about yourself,” Claude said.
The school had a hot lunch program, provided by the food grown and raised on the school farm, and vocational training program years before the state of Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Education visited Vardy to study its vocational program before launching its own.
“We learned how to sheer sheep, kill a hog, all skills that were important then but are now obsolete,” Claude said. “We had a home economics program, and we made our own chairs and desks as well as frames for pictures.”
It was one of the first schools to have electricity, powered by a Delco generator, and an audio-visual program. The preacher, Chester F. Leonard, would create glass slides of all of his vacations. They would use his pictures to decorate the schoolhouse.
“If he went to Florida one week, I went the next,” Claude said.
Once the students reached the fifth grade, they were required to work on the property, washing dishes, tending to the animals, working in the garden or performing other chores.
The school had nightly concerts, provided by college choirs that would stay for a week at a time, movies every Friday night and adult education programs for the Vardy adults.
Once a student graduated from eighth grade, the minister, if he thought the child had promise, would send him to a high school in Berea, Ky., or Warren Wilson High School near Asheville, N.C.
As a result, Claude Collins was 13 before he went into Sneedville, Tenn., the first time. He never had a need. Living atop the mountain, he had a choice, he could come down one side to the Vardy community or venture down the other side of the hill, heading into unfamiliar territory – town. He chose the former.
“Everything I needed, I received right here,” Claude said. “One time, they stopped the free lunch program for a month, because they didn’t feel everyone was contributing enough. I lost 13 pounds.”
Claude grew up 2.5 miles away from the Vardy School. He had to walk down the mountain to come to school and walk back up every day. In eight years of schooling, he only missed four days.
“It was just a dirt road down the mountain,” Claude said. “The area was so isolated. It was just wilderness. The only mode of transportation was a horse, buggy and sled.”
After graduating eighth grade, he attended Warren Wilson in North Carolina for two years until the superintendent of Hancock County Schools, who lived down the street from Claude, took him to Hancock County High School. But Claude was disappointed in the quality of education. There was no vocational program or hot lunch program and no free healthcare.
“We were so far ahead of Tennessee public schools, 50 years ahead,” Claude said.
In fact, Claude attended the University of Tennessee for his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. In his master’s program, his class studied individualized instruction in open space schools. For him, it was nothing new. He had studied in open space schools his whole life. His class came to Vardy to study the model.
But in 1977, the Vardy school closed, and the local children assimilated into the Hancock County Public Schools. The buildings in the Vardy Community began to fall into disrepair.
In 1998, someone asked Claude to organize an all-school reunion for everyone who had ever attended the Vardy school. He and some friends went down to the Hancock County Director of Schools office, got all of the rosters from 1910 to 1977 and sent letters to all of the people still living.
“We sent about 400 letters, and we had over 300 show up for the reunion,” Claude said. “We met on the side of the road on the Vardy property, and took up a collection to put up a historic marker for the school.”
In the meantime, a student who had bought the church building said that she would give it to the historical society if they turned it into a museum.
“She was going to charge us $10,000,” Claude said. “We got a grant for $5,000, and she gave the other $5,000 herself.”
After receiving the grant in 1998, Vardy residents began restoring the old buildings, collecting artifacts and finding old pictures to illustrate the history of the community. The old church is now full of memorabilia, and Claude gives many tours of the property.
The historical society also moved the log cabin of Mahala Collins Mullins, who was a matriarch of the Vardy Community and a moonshiner, log by log, from the top of the mountain to the historical property.
Mahala was a pivotal figure in the community. She had 20 children and many descendants, but the police were always showing up at her door to pour out the liquor she made from her peach and apple orchards.
Her cabin had burned once before, and after Mahala died in 1898, it stood largely unused.
“It was deteriorating,” Claude said. “The person who owned it just had it sitting there. She was a relative to everyone in the valley and we thought we should preserve it. We bought it and made it a museum.”
The cabin was on the ridge. They numbered all of the logs, disassembled the cabin, transported the logs and reassembled it on the museum property.
Though Claude has given many tours and enjoys telling newcomers about the progressive nature of the Vardy Community, he said perhaps the most meaningful occurred a few years ago. A man from California, who was a great-grandson of Mahala, came to visit the museum. He had grown up in Salt Lake City, and there were 14 kids in his family. He was fascinated by the history and wanted his entire family to come back.
“Ten of the 14 those children flew out the next year and gathered in the home,” Claude said. “They acted like it was the end of their journey.”
Claude still keeps in touch with the 10 siblings, and he invites all people who are interested in the Vardy Community to visit the museum in Hancock County. For more information about the Vardy Community Historical Society, visit its page on Facebook.