Anyone else might have been discouraged upon opening a forgotten room at the Crossnore School and Children’s Home on Reynolda Road.

Not Brad Rauschenberg.

He squinted at dusty piles of photographs, maps and documents and saw opportunity. Rauschenberg is a retired academic, and his business card explains why: archaeologist, historian, photographer, author, among other pursuits.

The Children’s Home had long been an object of fascination both professional and personal.

The home and the 212 acres upon which it has sat for more than a century, is regarded as perhaps the most valuable piece of undeveloped urban real estate in North Carolina. Developers for years have gazed longingly at the property.

So when Rauschenberg was afforded a chance to sift through some of its history, he could hardly contain his glee. In a decorous, academic sort of way, of course.

“Do you know how many people drive by there every day?” he asked. “I really enjoyed it. It brings to light what took place for all those years on those fields over there.”

Historical slideshow

The United Methodist Church’s Western Carolina Conference opened the Children’s Home in 1909 as an orphanage and operated it as such well into the 1980s. Along the way, it adapted by adding residential programs, foster care and counseling services for kids whose parents had been ground down by substance abuse.

But what came before? So much beautiful land that close to Winston surely didn’t just sit unnoticed and untouched.

The answer might come as a surprise. It was occupied by the Davis School, a military preparatory academy for high-school aged boys.

Old black and white photographs and copies of 19th-century panoramic bird’s eye mapping — essentially aerial drawings of landscapes and towns — purchased by the Children’s Home helped flesh out some of the details.

The Davis School, Rauschenberg said, moved to Winston-Salem in 1890 from its original home. It was started in 1886 by a Col. A.C. Davis in La Grange in Eastern North Carolina near Goldsboro.

“Some of the boys got meningitis,” Rauschenberg said. “So they brought the school to Winston.”

(Around that same time, a small financially strapped school named Trinity College relocated to Durham with a big boost by one Washington Duke. We all know what became of Trinity College.)

Davis School didn’t fare nearly as well. Initial enthusiasm showered on the military school by leading lights in Winston — remember, this was before Winston and Salem hyphenated — waned before financial difficulties forced it to close in 1897.

The property was sold and the school’s original buildings burned before the Methodist church bought it.

But the Davis School did help establish the notion that the property was a safe, healthy place for young people.

Rauschenberg knew of the Davis School — its relative short stay was well-documented — but the items he found at Crossnore were intriguing. He cataloged what he’d found and had some of the photos and bird’s eye panoramas framed at his own expense.

“It took three months (to sort),” he said. “I was there every day from 9 to 5.”

Painting a picture

For all his excitement about finding things related to the Davis School, other items related to the founding and expansion of the Children’s Home were equally as appealing.

An agricultural plan produced by a firm in New York showed how the land might be cultivated and planted. “Some of those trees are still there,” Rauschenberg said.

At one time, the home had its own linotype machine used in an in-house print shop. It was a bulky, expensive piece of equipment brought to campus via a rail line that ran right up to the home

The kids, Rauschenberg said, used it to produce their own newspaper, playbills and other documents. And they likely learned a marketable skill along the way.

But the most interesting items to an untrained eye are the arresting photos showing teachers and students.

“Those really gave me emphatic feelings for those kids over there,” Rauschenberg said. “You can tell they were taken care of.”

For the time being, some of the newly framed objects sit on couches and chairs in Rauschenberg’s living room like honored guests.

Because he’s a historian, Rauschenberg appreciates the 2016 merger between the Crossnore School of Avery County and The Children’s Home, which left the place on firmer financial footing, and the Piedmont Land Conservancy’s intervention to buy development rights to part of the campus.

Preservation matters to people like Rauschenberg, so he’s pleased that he might add to the efforts by saving small pieces of local history.

“They saved a lot of stuff,” he said. “But it was my privilege to catalog it.”

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ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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