Proposal for Adaptive Reuse
of Elkins Milling Company Building


This proposal arose from the convergence of two efforts in the Elkins community...

One was the desire to retain and utilize the now empty Elkins Milling Company building (Elkins Mill Building aka Darden Mill) on the Elkins Railyard. Slated for demolition by the building owners -- the Randolph County Development Authority (RCDA) -- a group of concerned citizens came forward asking RCDA to save the building. They argued that it is historically and architecturally significant and can contribute in a unique and meaningful way to the redevelopment of the Elkins Railyard and the future of downtown Elkins. Citizens for Historic Opportunity, Preservation and Education in Randolph County (C-HOPE) was formed as a new preservation and cultural organization with the goal of purchase and rehabilitation of the Elkins Mill as their initial project. RCDA agreed to delay demolition for one year for C-HOPE to demonstrate the feasibility of adaptive reuse of the building, and to demonstrate they could raise substantial funds toward the project. In fall of 2003, RCDA agreed that C-HOPE had shown they could successfully complete the project, and allowed C-HOPE to purchase the building.

The other effort is the need for a Discovery Center for the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area (AFHA) in the pilot community of Elkins. The AFHA goal is to provide community economic development in the region based on cultural heritage tourism. Because of the central importance of Elkins to the AFHA efforts, thematically, geographically, and as a population center with tourism resources, a strong AFHA presentation here is essential.

Proposed Use of the Building

Appalachian Forest Heritage Area

The Appalachian Forest Heritage Area (AFHA) is a regional, grassroots effort to integrate central Appalachian forest history, culture, natural history, products, and forestry management into a multi-state heritage tourism initiative to promote rural community development. Initially supported by a 4-year grant from USDA to West Virginia University (WVU) Division of Forestry and Extension Service, implementation is based on stakeholder partnerships.  The goal of this project is to create a sustainable Heritage Area based on the unified theme of forest heritage. Existing and potential forest-based historic sites, artisans, manufacturers, and working forests are being developed into a cohesive network of tourist destinations that provide high-quality products, programs, educational experiences, events, and visitor services. Support for small business and increased job opportunities in tourism, arts, retail, and wood industry businesses are an expected outcome. The AFHA mission is to work locally to conserve, develop, interpret, and promote a regional network of forest-based resources and experiences in the highlands of West Virginia and Maryland for the enjoyment and appreciation of residents and visitors in order to enhance economic and community development. The four primary goals are to:
  1. Develop a regional Heritage Area based on forest heritage.
  2. Develop and promote a cohesive regional network of forest heritage tourism destinations.
  3. Strengthen small businesses, communities, and grassroots organizations; foster local economic development; and build regional partnerships.
  4. Provide interpretation of a broad range of forest themes. The primary themes identified are forestry, history, nature, and culture of the central Appalachian Forest region.

Proposed Forest Discovery Center

            The proposal from the AFHA is to develop a Forest Discovery Center in downtown Elkins that will be in itself an attraction for visitors, a source of information to encourage visitors to participate in the broad range of activities related to the AFHA in Elkins and across the region, as well as a business incubator and training center for local community artisans. The Forest Discovery Center will include:
    Craft production and educational opportunities for residents and visitors
Artisans shop space will be established to encourage traditional Appalachian and forest-related handcrafts businesses. These will include:

More information on this component is detailed in the next section of this study.

    Forest Discovery Center exhibits and experiences that introduce the visitor to the four AFHA themes.
Professional quality photo and artifact based exhibits will be combined with media presentations. The most likely format will be sections of the exhibit space focusing on each theme, supplemented by media presentations and rotating exhibits. Thematic presentation will include

·Interpretation of forestry and forest management, especially the story of the development of modern scientific forestry and how forestry and the forest industry contribute to the natural and economic sustainability of the region.

·Natural history of the forest, including geology, ecology, tree species and health, plants and wildlife.

·History of how people interact with the forest over time, especially related to the logging and railroad era, using the example of the development of the town of Elkins as a boomtown railroad and industrial center. A pilot exhibit introducing elements of this theme is currently showing as a temporary exhibit at the Elkins Depot.

·Culture of the region including crafts, music, fairs, ethnic stories and folklore. This theme will be represented in the artisans work space, with video presentations, exhibits and special events opportunities such as storytelling and workshops.

A museum concept plan funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Consultation Grant has been completed to outline this portion of the Discovery Center.

Information center for the AFHA. As the AFHA initiative develops and grows, it will need multiple locations to disseminate information and interact with partners and visitors. Because of the primacy of Elkins as a pilot community, its central location in the region, and the strong development of thematically related tourism attractions, an AFHA Visitor Center in Elkins will be a necessity. This location in a significant historic building in the heart of the tourism development of the railyard and downtown makes the most sense.


    Gift shop, and possibly food concession to help provide earned income to sustain the Center.


Artisans’ Workshop Component of Forest Discovery Center



         As The Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, and the Elkins community, work to develop arts and crafts as a significant contributor to the town’s economic development, a number of venues to produce and present these products are needed. Elkins has been named one of the top 100 “Small Arts Towns” in the country. The Augusta Heritage Center has built a national reputation for workshops in heritage arts, and fills the city with its participants each summer. Building upon this start, further development of artisans production and marketing makes sense as a part of the economic diversification and heritage tourism development for the region

         Current craft development in Elkins includes:

The very success of these venues helps to point out a gap in what is offered. None of these have space available for working artisans in wood or industrial handicrafts to do their work and demonstrate for the public. Most local artisans work out of their home or a home workshop, often with limited space, and without access to the public. Wood carving and other handicraft wood products, basketry, dyeing, weaving, and metal work are a few of the types of craft activities that require larger space than is usually available in a home or retail shop.  Additionally, locations for classes, workshops, or activities for visitors or school children are limited.


         The artisans space proposed in the Elkins Mill Building could be developed in a variety of ways depending upon the needs and interests of available craftspeople. Options include:

This same space could be available on a by-the-use basis for individual craftspeople or hobbyists, or for organizations to use for projects. Weaving looms or quilting frames might be an example of this type of use.



As of 2004, visitation at the downtown Elkins Visitor Center, located in the Depot, one block from the Mill building, is 21,000 a year. Current ridership on the Scenic Train leaving from south Elkins is 17,000, and growing every year. Once the railroad bridge has been rebuilt to the railyard, these visitors will be embarking at the Depot. Assuming an overlap of 25% (Visitor Center visitors who also ride the train), this gives a baseline visitation of 32,750 per year.

If only 25% of these tourists also visited the Forest Discovery Center in the Elkins Mill building, only one block away on the railyard, that would give an attendance based on current levels of over 8,000 tourists a year. With the progress and increased visitation from the continued success of the train operation, and from the promotion of the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, these numbers should keep growing.

Cultural heritage tourism is economic development, bringing visitor dollars in to buy goods and services in our communities. Additional attractions keep visitors in town longer, and encourage them to spend more – thus creating more jobs in the community. In addition to the specific jobs created in operating and working in this center, the indirect spinoff for downtown and the whole community will be significant.

In addition, local residents and school groups would visit the museum and participate in the arts activities at the Center. The Mill building is adjacent to downtown Elkins, and within walking distance of Elkins Middle School and Davis and Elkins College.


Relation to the Railyard, Downtown, and the Community

RCDA has made the commitment to save and reuse the railyard for the benefit of Elkins and its economy. Through their efforts, the property was secured and the Elkins Depot has been beautifully restored. The railroad bridge will soon be rebuilt, and the highly successful Tygart Valley Flyer excursion train will be boarding its passengers at the Depot. A West Virginia Railroad Museum is being investigated. The community is looking forward to the tourists coming to ride that train being a vital economic force in the development of the railyard and the revitalization and continued success of downtown Elkins. 

When those tourists come to ride the train, they will also want other things to do on their visit. In addition to places to eat, to shop, and to stay over night, they will want additional attractions to see – attractions related to the railroad and the town. The more there is to see and do, the longer they will stay and the more they will spend in the community. And, as research on cultural heritage tourism continues to show us, they will want to see what is authentic, what is original, what is real.

The whole concept of Heritage Areas, such as the AFHA, is based on partnerships, and on the concept that visitors come for an aggregate of interesting, thematically related, and authentic sites and experiences. Thus individual attractions support and contribute to each others’ success, they are not in competition with each other. This proposal is based on the concept that the proposed Forest Discovery and Artisan’s Center will be a significant contributor to the whole attraction of Randolph County as an arts and tourism destination -- that also will include Monongahela National Forest, Graceland and Halliehurst National Historic Landmarks, Augusta Heritage Center, Randolph County Community Arts Center, Allegheny Highlands Trail, Downtown Elkins Historic District, Historic Beverly, and all of the restaurants, specialty shops, lodging, and businesses that will contribute to and be a part of this visitor renaissance. The Forest Discovery Center will help to tie these attractions together thematically, and to tell a crucial piece of the story of the unique heritage of our town and our region.

The arts workshops component of the project will support and contribute to the development of Elkins as a small arts town and support job training and establishment of new arts-based small business. Arts and crafts are a significant economic force in our state, as demonstrated by the recent statewide study of the economic impact of craft businesses. Working in partnership with Augusta Heritage Center and the Randolph County Creative Arts Center, the Mill can offer a location for workshops requiring large spaces and facilities that neither of these other venues have room for, and can provide job training for future craft businesses.

The thematic exhibit space in this authentic, original building can tell the story of the founding and early history of Elkins, of the lumbering, mining, and commercial shipping on the railroad that built the town, of the men and women who made the dramatic success of Elkins happen. No one is currently presenting this story – even at the wonderfully restored mansions of Halliehurst and Graceland, the tour interpretation is almost exclusively about the buildings, not about the industry and economic base that made them possible. This center can be a keystone in the development of Appalachian Forest Heritage Area attractions, a featured product of the AFHA regional tourism development efforts. It will also encourage visitation to other sites throughout the region, providing key networking that will encourage visitors to extend their stay longer.


Suitability of Location


The Elkins Mill Building

The Elkins Mill building is – other than the Depot itself – the only remaining original building on the railyard. Built 100 years ago in 1902 and operated by the Elkins Milling Company, then later as Darden’s Mill, it supplied the community and surrounding area with flour, cereals, and animal feed. It provided significant employment for the community and shipping on the railroad. The Mill is an important link in telling the story of the early history of Elkins, its families, and its economy.

The Elkins Mill building is structurally sound and architecturally unique. This building is a surviving piece of Elkins’ history -- an architectural gem in the rough. The original post and beam structure of the building – built with huge native timbers – is still intact and strong, with the vast open spaces, the hardwood floors, and large wooden beams showing its fascinating structure.  This architecture with wide spaces makes it uniquely suited to the proposed uses for exhibits and workshops. Most commercial or residential historic buildings are broken up into smaller spaces, while new construction would be much less desirable or appropriate for use as a heritage center.

Many cultural heritage tourists are looking beyond lovely old houses and famous people, and are interested in industrial architecture and workers’ stories as well. Artisans working space in this industrial building will be especially appropriate as well as practical. The restored Elkins Mill building will be attractive and unique, and will tell industrial and forest heritage stories of Randolph County that are not available elsewhere.


Feasibility for Adaptive Reuse

An initial feasibility survey (Hart & Gioulis, 2002) of the building reported “The building appears to be structurally sound. . . . The building appears to be suitable for adaptive reuse, if the appropriate use and owner could be identified. . .  The mill building is significant historically for Elkins’ industrial history.  It should be retained if at all possible.” 


Capacity to Complete the Project

In less than a year, C-HOPE developed substantial citizen and organizational support for this project, and has demonstrated fund-raising capability in the community. Initially committed to demolishing the building, the Randolph County Development Authority was convinced by the C-HOPE efforts to sell them the building for this adaptive reuse project. The C-HOPE team to complete this project is composed of board members, volunteers, and staff of partner organizations. The commitment and organizational capacity that was required to successfully satisfy the RCDA concerns and raise the purchase funding will continue to be utilized to see this project through to completion.

In the two years since C-HOPE purchased the building, they have received two major construction grants totaling over $110,000 and leveraged private donations and volunteer work of over $50,000. The badly leaking roof has been replaced, and the wooden windows have been reconditioned and restored. Next steps will include siding restoration and doors.

C-HOPE is supported by a number of organizational supporters, including but not limited to Appalachian Forest Heritage Area, Mountain Partners in Community Development, Randolph County Historical Society and Elkins Historic Landmarks Commission. The expertise and resources of those organizations in assisting with fundraising, grantwriting, and project administration will be available to the enthusiastic C-HOPE volunteers to ensure that the project is completed successfully.