Thick with designations, including “Heritage Education Center” and “North Carolina Cultural Treasure,” Historic Johnson Farm is also one of only three farms in the U.S. owned by a school system (in this case, Henderson County Public Schools). The late-1800s house sits on a former tobacco farm, now a lovingly preserved green space with 10 original structures and 15 acres of trails, forest, and streams.
Bachelor brothers Leander and Vernon Johnson, the family property’s last owners, made vital improvements in area education, and their legacy carries on with Ingrid McNair, the venue’s Farm Director for the past eight years (and Farm Administrative Assistant for seven years before that).
McNair’s duties have been legion, as exhaustive as those of any old-fashioned farmer. Thanks to an axed budget, she has long been the Farm’s sole paid employee, taking on the mantles of business administrator, gardener, groundskeeper, custodian, general tour guide, school-field-trip guide, storyteller, animal caretaker, volunteer coordinator, preservationist, historian, special-events coordinator, and communications liaison.
Although looking forward to a new, more laidback phase in her life, she talks to Bold Life about the surprising joys of all-consuming work.
BL: How did Vernon and Leander Johnson turn their farm into a future education center?
IM: [In later years], they ran it as a summer boarding house along with the farm, and loved welcoming children visitors. The brothers were educated and interested in progressive farm practices. They lived frugally, and directed any extra money to children in need. If they saw that a child touring the farm needed dental work, they quietly funded it. We’re lucky to still have many of their letters, which richly describe daily life on the Farm, and their delight in it.
To take on so many duties, you must find a lot of your own delight in the farm.
From my very early days at the Farm, I realized I was incredibly happy to drive there every day. I loved my work with the visitors and volunteers so much. We experienced several bad years coping with funding cuts, and an increasingly trimmed staff. Eventually, I was the remaining staff person and de-facto manager.
Some might picture it as a lonely and daunting job.
Not at all. I’m far from being a one-woman show. We’re heavily dependent on a devoted volunteer corps: We have an amazing group of women who keep our gardens immaculate, a wonderful group of men who maintain our grounds and buildings, and docents who make every visit special for guests.
What is a typical workday like for you?
You never know what it will bring. We may get surprise visitors, I might spend the day nursing a sick animal, or be engaged in a maintenance project or special event. Or we might be showcasing the talents of the Blue Ridge Heritage Weavers in our converted guesthouse. My favorite days are field-trip days. I love seeing a school bus roll in. The kids are inquisitive and excited, and children from all socio-cultural backgrounds get to learn about us. It’s an equalizing experience.
Retirement! I’m ready to pass the baton to a new, energetic leader. I’m ready to see my four grandsons more, travel with my husband, and take a break from my 365-day-per-year animal-caretaking schedule. But I will remain a volunteer.