Timeline and History of Narrow Ridge


Narrow Ridge founder Bill Nickle acquired 40 acres of land on the north side of Log Mountain and bordering Hogskin Creek in northern Grainger County. This initial purchase anchored Narrow Ridge in the Hogskin Valley.

The preliminary charter was drafted for what was at this time called simply Narrow Ridge, after a concept articulated by Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber: “I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but then certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed.”


In this year the Jake Jones Farm went up for auction. The farm, divided into several tracts on either side of Hogskin Creek, contained parcels that would eventually constitute the physical core of Narrow Ridge.

Construction on the Nickle House, known today as “the Log House,” was completed.


Bill Nickle, as both minister and citizen, became deeply engaged with larger community initiatives in northern Grainger County. Bill was instrumental in helping to establish Washburn’s first volunteer ambulance squad, first PTO, and first school band (the latter aided by a local benefit concert featuring Guy Carawan).


Bill left Log Mountain in 1980 to become director/manager of Camp Wesley Woods in Townsend, TN, a position he held through 1989. While at Wesley Woods, Bill oversaw the implementation of the first church-sponsored environmental education program in the southeast.


Bill Nickle and MacGregor Smith met for the first at the Churches Challenge in Health Workshop at Lake Junaluska in western North Carolina. This chance meeting led to a series of interactions and exchanges that led to a renewed vision, as well as fiscal solvency, for a resurgent Narrow Ridge.


Enlivened with a new vitality and aided by the generosity and goodwill of Mac Smith, Leslie Gibbens, and former Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger Mike Wilburn, Narrow Ridge embarked on a campaign focused on land acquisition and expanding programmatic offerings.

Major land acquisitions included Mike Wilburn’s purchase of two tracts of land on behalf of Narrow Ridge. The Jake Jones House (renamed the Wilburn House), Aunt Becky Minton House, and what is now the Becky Barn were the only substantial structures standing on the tracts at the time of the land transfer.


Grounded in the emergent philosophy and practice of Earth Literacy, a phrase coined by Mac Smith and expanding on the insights of “geologian” Thomas Berry, the first Earth Literacy workshop was held at the Manfred Center in Miami, Florida in this year. Both Mac Smith and Bill Nickle were present for this monumental gathering. Earth literacy, as theory and practice, served as the framework from which Narrow Ridge articulated its three cornerstones: community, sustainability, spirituality.

The original 1972 charter for Narrow Ridge was replaced with a new charter to reflect the incorporation of this orientation and Narrow Ridge became Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center. Attorney Neil McBride provided pro-bono legal assistance to establish the organization’s 501(c)(3) status and bylaws.


Narrow Ridge hosted its first student group, from Southwest College in Winfield, Kansas, in the Log House, launching the current era of experiential Earth literacy programs.

The renovation of the Aunt Becky Minton House was completed. The resulting structure was renamed the Mac Smith Resource Center (MSRC). MSRC was retrofitted with a composting toilet system and a solar array. The structure marked Narrow Ridge’s first experiment with strawbale construction (employed for the kitchen addition in 1995). In addition to being Narrow Ridge’s nerve center, MSRC also houses the organization’s resource library and archives.

Ted Keiser transported Cedar Bottom, a simple and cost-efficient structure designed as a low-impact and highly portable dwelling for Miami’s homeless population, via U-haul truck from Miami to the Hogskin Valley. Once on site, the structure was reassembled and fitted for a solar power array.


Continuing it’s engagement in the local community, Narrow Ridge hosted the first annual Hogskin History Day Festival, an annual event that continues to the present.


Narrow Ridge further cultivated the organization’s third cornerstone (community) with the establishment of the Hogskin Valley Land Trust. The Hogskin development was modeled as a Community Land Trust (CLT). Drawing from earlier examples including Gramdan villages in India and moshav communities in Israel, the community land trust model was pioneered in the U.S. at New Communities in Albany, Georgia in 1967. The CLT model is one emphasizing sustainable, placed-based community development. The Hogskin Valley Land Trust marked Narrow Ridge’s entry into this arena.


Construction on Narrow Ridge’s first completely site-built and purposed eco-facility, Persimmon Point, was completed. The structure was the first on site to incorporate composting toilet and rainwater catchment systems into the original design. Likewise, Persimmon Point was designed to operate completely on a solar photovoltaic array.


Narrow Ridge extended its use of the community land trust model with the establishment of the Black Fox Land Trust, including the Black Fox Wilderness Area, preserving over 100-acres of native forest habitat that has become central to Narrow Ridge’s programmatic offerings.

With an endowment from Mac Smith, in 1995 Narrow Ridge launched Earth Knows Press and published its first title, Down To Earth: Toward a Philosophy of Non-violent Living, by UT philosophy professor and long-time Narrow Ridge supporter, John Nolt.

Narrow Ridge’s fourth facility, Garden Cabin, was completed.


Narrow Ridge first offered the experience of the Vision Fast to participants. The Vision Fast, consistently considered a life-altering experience for participants, has been a mainstay of the organization’s programmatic offerings since its resumption in 2004.


“A Day Apart,” a new program offering daylong self-directed retreats for individuals and emphasizing the contemplative dimensions of Earth literacy diversifies Narrow Ridge’s programmatic offerings.


Venturing more directly into the arena of regional community development, with the assistance of Weyman Fussell, Mike Sosadeeter, Nancy Woodruff, and Debbie Sharp, Narrow Ridge secures USDA grant funding and administrative capacity to launch the Motherhood and Apple Pie program. The program assisted local mothers in developing rural micro-enterprises in the areas of horticulture and value-added food production.


After years of effort, Narrow Ridge finally secured title to the Inspiration Point land, reunifying it with the Wilburn House and Resource Center parcels, all part of the original Jake Jones farm. This high hillside pastureland has become a focal point for Narrow Ridge’s current programs and seasonal celebrations. Also situated on this land is the Earthrise Barn.


With Bill Nickle accepting a temporary position to direct the nascent Earth Lab program for the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, Mary Bryan and Sister Mary Dennis Lentsch expanded programmatic and organizational development with fundraising efforts, outreach, and workshops, including Mary Dennis’s Sabbath Days program. The latter offered bi-monthly themed day experiences featuring local and regional presenters.


Students from Miami Dade College (MDC) came to Narrow Ridge for a three-week Earth literacy Immersion experience, signaling the continuation of an on-going exchange between the MDC student body and faculty (via the Earth Ethics Institute) and Narrow Ridge.


College collaborations expand yet again as students from Carson-Newman College (CNC) in Jefferson City joined students from MDC for a weeklong social ecology course led by CNC professor Guy Larry Osborne. CNC students and faculty continue to partner with Narrow Ridge on many student projects and learning experiences, particularly through the college’s Bonner Scholars network. The Bonner Scholar network has brought students to Narrow Ridge from Maryville College as well.

Additionally, to provide funds in the event of legal disputes over conservation covenants on community land trust landholdings, the land trust legal defense fund was established.

Reaching out to the larger local community, Narrow Ridge resurrected earlier day-program offerings for ninth grade students at Washburn’s K-12 school.



Narrow Ridge became an active partner in the Grainger County Clean-up initiative, spearheading the development of Grainger County’s first mixed-materials community recycling center in Washburn.

Narrow Ridge hosted its first open Music Jam. The periodic music jam has proven one of Narrow Ridge’s most popular recurring events and draws large crowds to the site, many for the first time.


With regularly scheduled workshops and events, an established curriculum of programmatic offerings and strengthened partnerships with educational institutions and regional social and environmental justice organizations, Narrow Ridge witnessed a steady rise in organizational activity, initiatives, site use and community outreach.

Residents and leaseholders in the three community land trusts, together with active neighbors, and board and committee members have continued to cultivate a sense of community and togetherness united by a commitment to the place and the ideal that is Narrow Ridge.


Through focused reading and exploratory groups, including a series of presentations and discussions, Narrow Ridge staff, affiliates, and board members adopted principles aligning the organization with the international Transition Movement. Founded by British permaculture activist Rob Hopkins, the Transition Movement seeks practical ways to build community resilience anticipating a larger, global “transition” toward a post-carbon future. Such measures include strengthening local and regional economies in order to decrease reliance on the carbon-dependent global economy, developing affordable and accessible local energy and transportation systems, and generally observing bioregional strengths and limitations.


In continuing to honor the place-based community as a node of accumulated knowledge and memory embedded in the cycles of life and death which perpetuate the larger community of life, Narrow Ridge’s most recent achievement is a memorial to those memberships—local, terrestrial, and cosmic—of which we all are part. In April of 2012, Narrow Ridge was approved as host and guardian of the first Natural Burial Preserve in the state of Tennessee.