(Lydia Hastings is working at FLOC’s Outdoor Education Center as the Marketing AmeriCorps VISTA. She originally joined the OEC staff over the summer as the Kitchen Coordinator.)
A common theme resonates with the hundreds of people who visit the Outdoor Education Center’s (OEC) wilderness retreat every year – punctuated by peaceful wind through the trees or the running waterfalls — and that is the unfamiliarity of being surrounded by woods and wildlife. It’s easy to take these silent pleasures for granted and assume they will be there for all generations to enjoy. However, it takes a lot of foresight and planning to ensure that these areas stay as pristine as when the early settlers found them.
With population growth and land development on the rise, there are fewer wilderness areas and open spaces around Washington, DC. Despite these trends, the OEC and Rolling Ridge Foundation (RRF) have made a wilderness experience possible in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Children and adults alike can come and reconnect with nature through the dedication of the RRF and foresight of the Niles family, who purchased and donated the acreage to ensure this land would not be developed. Instead, it would be utilized for education and the enjoyment of nature.
Henry and Mary Cushing Niles are to thank for this great contribution of land the OEC now enjoys. They first bought a parcel of land on rolling ridge in the early 1950s for a second home. As the years passed and their love for the area grew, so did the acreage. The family continued buying small parcels of land and by the 1970s, the property’s boundaries reached upwards of 1,400 acres. The Niles’ wished to have the acres open to the public for education purposes. They wanted to see it continue to stay wild and have it enjoyed by all who visited the property. It was around this time the Niles family created the RRF and turned over 600 acres to the foundation. The RRF began leasing the land out to nonprofit organizations looking to expand on outdoor education and humanitarian purposes.
According to Anna Hess’s Natural History of Rolling Ridge, by 1993 the entire property was handed over to the RRF, with the exception of a few acres that were sold to the National Park Service to add to the Appalachian Trail Corridor. In 1971, For Love of Children began leasing some of the property in order to bring inner city DC students out into the wilderness for exploration and adventure.
Today, the OEC leases 250 acres of land (in addition to the 100 acres owned by FLOC) and still brings students into the field to experience nature. The OEC is dedicated to showing their participants the most authentic wilderness adventure experience possible. The Rolling Ridge property is an invaluable parcel of land filled with enchantment and the silent pleasures its visitors can enjoy for years to come. Without the foresight of the Niles family, none of this would be possible.