Alta Schrock (1911 – 2002) was truly a woman of firsts. Born in Grantsville, MD, she was the first Mennonite woman to obtain a PhD, and held several teaching positions throughout the region. Her mission work in post-war Germany led her to see up close the effects of poverty on its citizens Realizing that the poverty in her own Appalachian homeland was just as pervasive, she left a comfortable teaching post at Goshen College in Indiana to return to her home with a unique idea of how to help the struggling people of her region — to create a place where local artisans could share their work and their craft to future generations as a way to continue in Appalachian traditions and more importantly, to earn their way out of poverty.
Alta recruited dedicated members of her community, and the board known as Penn Alps was formed in 1958. The idea was to build a craft shop to feature the artwork of local artisans but board members felt that they also needed a restaurant in order to draw in travellers.
Grantsville has always had a rich history as a transportation hub, located along one of the first major transportation lines (The National Road) going east to west, travelled at first by foot and by horseback, then by carriage, then, of course, automobile. As weary travelers made their way west, restaurants, taverns, blacksmiths and other businesses cropped up along the road to service them. Through donations, the group bought a stretch of land known as Little Crossings, next to the original stone arch bridge which bore thousands of travellers heading west. The property held a 135 year old tavern and inn, an old blacksmith’s hut, and sat next to a plat of land with over 50 spruce trees. With the help of countless volunteers who cleaned, rebuilt, and renovated, Penn Alps Restaurant and Craft Shop opened In 1959.
During those first years, Alta drove all around the region into neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, talking to the people who called the mountains home and who still knew how to work at some long-forgotten crafts. By 1960, there were over 600 artisans selling their wares at Penn Alps, many who were handicapped, unemployed or single mothers.
Part of the vision was to teach this artistry to young generations and to preserve the heritage of the area. So as old log homes and other historic structures in the area were in danger of being torn down, Alta and her board would raise money to purchase them and have them disassembled and then reassembled within the grove of spruce trees.
In fact, Alta’s own home, a little cabin she used to do her writing, was brought to the village in 1970, and housed the first resident artist. Other homes were donated by families in the area along with a treasure trove of history. The structures were used to house resident artisans as well as hold workshops to teach these early American crafts to others including weaving, pottery, caning, building furniture, basket weaving and more.
Penn Alps dining room was expanded in 1968 and the craft shop in 1993, with the addition of a concert hall on the second floor where concerts are held every summer. In 1998, the entrance was enlarged to allow for better flow for guests and to sell packaged goods. Much of the original building is still used in the restaurant, which offers many traditional Pennsylvania Dutch foods.
Spruce Forest Artisan Village continued to grow and at one point was home to 10 resident artisans and hosts up to 60,000 visitors each year.
Then in April, 2020, the unthinkable happened. A freak storm with 80 mph straight line winds tore down most of the beloved spruce trees doing unimaginable damage to almost every building on the campus, some irreparable. What trees didn’t fall had to be cut down, leaving a very changed landscape. Then because of Covid-19, the entire area was under quarantine, and the village shuttered its doors for the first time in over 60 years.
Although the restaurant was able to re-open last May, the structures in the village needed to be assessed for damage. Even those with minimal damage were unable to re-open and be able to follow CDC and Maryland mandated Covid Guidelines so Spruce Forest remained shuttered through 2020.
It felt like the end of an era, but supporters knew that Alta would never have given up on her dream and they were determined not to either. The boards of both Spruce Forest and Penn Alps along with other area business leaders got together and assessed their options.
In the true spirit of Alta Schrock, they decided to look at this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Local businesses and organizations chipped in and helped remove the debris from damaged buildings as well as trees and stumps. Greenscapes was hired to map out a plan for rebuilding and reopening the Village and fundraising as well as grant writing began.
Thankfully, several of the buildings only suffered minimal damage. These include the Glotfelty House (1776) and home of Ann Jones, Weaver, the Winterberg House (1820), a former stagecoach stop and home of Potter Lynn Lais, and the Markley House (1775), the oldest structure on the property and studio of renowned bird carver Gary Yoder. Bear Hill School, home to wood turner Gene Gillespie suffered minor damage and has been re-opened. The Eli Miller House, a 19th century structure moved to the village in 1976 and home of metal sculptor Mike Edelman has been repaired as well as The Hostetler House (1800) which will continue to serve as home to guest artists.
The Miller House (1835) was the home of the first Amish Bishop to the area and was restored in 1987 as an Anabaptist Peace Center. There was no damage and it is once again open to the public. The newest structure, the Yoder House, built in 2004, was also undamaged and continues to preserve the Yoder family history and contains many historical elements of 1900’s life.
One of the most popular stops in Spruce Forest has always been the Compton School House, the last and only log school in Western Maryland. This one room school suffered no damage and is now open for school tours and visitors, with a docent on site most Fridays from 11 – 2..
The Village Church (1930), the musical soul of the village, was moved off its structure by several inches by the storm, but remains structurally sound and will once again host musical performances throughout the summer and for Christmas in the Village slated for the first weekend in December.
Sadly, the covered bridge entrance to the village was completely destroyed by the storm as were the two buildings closest to it: The Red Shed, which was the original blacksmith shop and home to metalsmith Doug Salmon, was damaged beyond repair. You can now find Doug in the space below the potter’s shop in the Winterberg House.
Two of the hardest losses were the Esther Yoder Cabin, named for the original administrator of Spruce Forest, the other was Alta Schrock’s own beloved cabin, one she had built for herself as a place to write. It was moved to Spruce Forest in 1970 and was one of the first artists cabins. Although it was designated as damaged beyond repair, a group of volunteers have moved the cabin and plan to work to rebuild it in honor of her spirit.
The office and two of the guest artists’ spaces have now been moved to the Casselmead House or “The White House”. It had been used for a variety of things over the years including guest housing, storage and more, but volunteers gave the Casselmead an overhaul this spring with fresh paint and a deep clean and it now serves as the office for the Village as well as guest housing for docents and resident artists. The shed behind the building will be rehabbed as well for more artisan space in the future.
According to Spruce Forest Board President Kathryn Delaney, plans are close to being finalized for the rebuilding of the entire campus and she believes that it will be better than ever. “We are working with Greenscapes Landscaping and are close to having a final plan in place. It is just awaiting approval of both Spruce forest and Penn Alps board,” says Kathryn.
While full details are still being held under wraps the first steps will be to replace some of the beloved spruce trees blown down by the wind storm. “We will be planting 25 spruce trees in late July,” says Kathryn. “And now because we get more sunlight than we used to, we are also going to be planting several flower beds over the next several weeks. We have two naturalists on our board so we will be planting things native to the area.” According to Kathryn and Board Member and Colored Pencil Artist Lenore Lancaster, there are plans to widen and reconfigure the parking lot by about 6 feet so there will be more room for parking.
The entrance is slated to be rebuilt and future plans also include a children’s play area and most excitedly, a stage. “We do have musical performances throughout the summer”, says Kathryn, “but we are excited about the idea of having a place for concerts where people can come and bring their chair or a blanket and enjoy some good music on a summer evening.” There are also plans to install a sundial, which was one of Alta’s long held dreams.
Another possible project is restoring another property at the edge of the property, The Granary, across from Stanton’s Mill. Well known painter Lynford Yoder is looking for grant funding to turn the building into an art and framing studio with extra space for workshops.
Because both board entities are non-profit, all of the rebuilding will have to be funded through grants and donations, although Kathryn says many people have already stepped up to help. “It’s been really wonderful to see our entire community come together to help save Spruce Forest. It shows how much it means to all of us”
This summer, Spruce Forest will also have outdoor tents to house local artists on some summer weekends. Because the major goal of Spruce Forest is to encourage revival and preservation of early American arts and crafts, they will be looking for artisans that fall within that venue.
Spruce Forest is now open for the season. Penn Alps Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily. You can see updated hours and information on their respective websites at www.spruceforest.org or www.pennalps.com.
The websites are also both excellent sources of information about the history of the village, plus photos of the storm and the damage inflicted. While the future looks bright, there is still a lot of work to be done…and money to be raised. Please consider a donation to help continue with Alta’s dream. Donations can be made online at www.spruceforest.org/donate.
Spruce Forest is supported in part from Garrett County Arts Council Grantville Arts & Entertainment designation and Mountain Maryland Heritage Area.