A treasured landscape — some 200 acres of farmland just minutes from the heart of Winston-Salem — is the site of a new hiking trail.

Tall grasses on rolling hills blow lazily in the sun reflecting the light; a red-shouldered hawk keeps tabs from high above; and Peters Creek slowly trickles on through. For generations, commuters, bikers, and walkers have passed by this huge swath of pastureland on the northern edge of downtown.

The United Methodist Church founded The Children’s Home here — an orphanage, school, and farm — back in 1909. Administrators there announced the merger with the Crossnore School in 2017, and that day the calls from developers throughout the region and across the country began.

Piedmont Land Conservancy (PLC) Executive Director Kevin Redding says the prospect of that land being developed one day has been a long-held fear. 

"Hundreds of thousands of people are going to move here over the next 25 years," says Redding. "We know what the demographics are going to be. So, our interest is in preserving what makes this area special today, so that it stays like that for my kids and my grandkids and future generations so that they’re able to have that same quality of life that we all experience here every day."

Redding says PLC was able to collaborate with Crossnore and raise money to purchase what’s known as a conservation easement — a permanent agreement — on nearly 100 acres.

"It may not always be a cow pasture," he says. "It may be trees. It could be a forest. It could be a cornfield. But it will always be open. It’s never going to be a subdivision. It’s never going to be a strip mall. It will always be open space."

And soon it will be open to the public.

"We have this gem in the middle of the city"

In all, PLC raised $7 million dollars for the easement and associated costs. But an additional $1 million was earmarked for trail construction and long-term maintenance.

Brett Loftis is the CEO of Crossnore Communities for Children which provides trauma-informed care for children and young adults and works to break the cycle of poverty.

"So, the trail's about, kind of a front porch where everybody’s welcome," says Loftis. "And we want folks to come experience this gorgeous piece of property in the middle of downtown Winston, but also to kind of get to know our campus."

Loftis says the more people feel ownership of that campus and the work being done there, the safer it becomes for the roughly 60 young people who currently call Crossnore home. He adds that this land’s location — situated between the mostly white Buena Vista neighborhood and the majority Black Boston-Thurmond neighborhood — also presents a unique community-building opportunity for a city divided along lines of economics, race, and investment.

"We have really important relationships with the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood — wonderful neighbors that live there, many for generations," he says. "And we have wonderful partnerships with folks in Buena Vista. And our property is kind of a central place that connects all those folks. And we really expect people from all those communities to be using the trail together on a daily basis."

Tony McGee reflects.

Tony McGee surveys his recent progress on the Stuart & Emma Thomas Memorial Trail. DAVID FORD/WFDD

That’s music to the ears of longtime Boston-Thurmond resident David West. His family arrived here more than a century ago — long before University Parkway divided the community in half.

"I look at this trail as a mental health refuge," says West. "People can go there and, you know, decompress about things going on within the community, within themselves, and so on. This is something I feel that the Boston-Thurmond community needed."

West was born and raised in what he calls the eastern part of Boston. He delivered papers as a boy, knew all his neighbors, and visited the corner stores that popped up on practically every block. He says back then his only dealings with the western side of Boston — the neighborhood adjoining the then Children’s Home — was to attend school at Paisley, or swipe peaches in the night from the orchard that once grew there. His appreciation for that land later changed in adulthood as a juvenile court counselor placing children at the Home.

"I never looked at that campus — for me — as a therapeutic need," he says. "But going up there at the barn, seeing the animals, and then seeing the inner city, I saw this gem. We have this gem — g.e.m. — in the middle of the city. What a sight."

Today West serves on the Boston-Thurmond Community Network that began discussions with the land conservancy in March of 2021. He says people there are excited about accessing the new trail. They’ve been kept engaged and informed throughout weekly planning meetings with PLC. The trailhead connecting their neighborhood will be named for one of the community’s most celebrated former residents: decorated WWII soldier, educator, legislator, and activist Dr. Charlie Brady “CB” Hauser.

"Equitable access to this place that has previously been a boundary"

On the opposite end of the new trail, Tony McGee removes heavy brush and clears a path along the headwaters of Peters Creek. Trained as a landscape architect, he worked as an urban planner, and in rural economic development for many years, before turning to trail building. McGee takes a philosophical approach to turn underutilized land into a treasured destination.

"No one was coming down here until we built this trail," says McGee. "Once we build this trail, it’s a place. And we can involve the people that are gonna be using it — the people from the local neighborhoods — if we can bring them into the design and construction process, it’s gonna be more meaningful to them, they’re gonna learn early on where it is. They’re gonna feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this knowledge of this new trail. C’mon I’ll share it with you.'" 

Scanning the surrounding neighborhoods, McGee sees potential for more than just a trail.

"This property has had to hold the space and the energy of being a boundary between a lot of topics and a lot of material relationships that need to be addressed and talked about," he says. "And now that we have a new equitable opening to this place and a more equitable access to this place that has previously been a boundary, I certainly see it as an opportunity for multiple communities to come together and negotiate a new way of being together in this space."

When completed, it will be named the Stuart & Emma Thomas Memorial Trail in honor of a father and daughter who died in 2011. Wife and mother, Andrea Thomas, is a longtime PLC member. She says her involvement in the trail project began as a pandemic fluke when she was invited to a Zoom call update on the Crossnore property.

"Kevin Redding was talking about the whole campaign and how it had come to a successful close which I thought was so exciting," says Thomas. "And then he started talking about the idea of a trail. And it just kind of popped into my mind that it would be something that Stuart and Emma would love so much."

She says Stuart was an outdoorsman who took great pride in the natural beauty of his home state of North Carolina. Their children played lacrosse on the Crossnore field, and Emma was a cross-country runner who would have undoubtedly enjoyed the trail were she alive today. But Thomas says it was the bridge-building aspect of this land that sealed the deal for her.

"When I heard that the trail would cross the property and connect those two neighborhoods, that was one of the things that attracted me to the idea," she says. "And that I knew, as well as just the beautiful property, that that kind of community connection is the kind of thing that would have been very meaningful to both Stuart and Emma."  

The opening celebration for the Stuart & Emma Thomas Memorial Trail is scheduled for Saturday, April 22, at Crossnore Communities for Children's campus in Winston-Salem. The event is open to the public with family-friendly activities and talks.

*Update: The opening event for the Stuart & Emma Thomas Memorial Trail has been postponed by two hours due to weather and will now take place at 4:00 p.m.

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.