Preston Jones admits he’s looking for something a little different than most Harlan Countians of his generation.
While hundreds of young people leave the mountains each year heading to college or careers in larger cities, never to return, Jones, 29, traveled the opposite direction. He found his job by heading even farther up into the mountains where the historic Pine Mountain Settlement School is located on 625 acres on the north side of Pine Mountain.
“This place is so unique,” said Jones, who serves as the assistant director of the school. “People come up here and ask what is Pine Mountain Settlement School. Is it a museum? Is it a park? In some instances, it is all those things. It’s hard to tell people what we do here because we do so much. When I read what the founders of this school wanted to accomplish, it motivates me to carry it forward and do my part.”
Jones, a 2005 graduate of Harlan High School, also left for a bigger city when he headed to the University of Kentucky after two years at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. He earned a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil sciences, then returned home to work in the coal industry.
“I had worked for our cousins, Rick and Randy Brock, in their lab. I also worked for Pete Poynter at Cumberland Valley Engineering. I managed both of those labs. We did water analysis, along with coal and rock,” Jones said. “I thought I’d do some work in environmental engineering eventually. I learned a lot on the job and moved up through the companies.”
Jones eventually became concerned about his future in that field with the downturn of the coal industry.
“It didn’t seem viable. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do long term, praying about it, then a job opened up over here,” Jones said. “I had interned over here when I was in school with the Grow Appalachia project. I worked over here during the summer.”
Jones worked his way back to Pine Mountain Settlement School in 2014 to oversee the Grow Appalachia project.
“We monitor energy usage and work on alternative energy projects,” he said.
Not long before he found Pine Mountain Settlement, Jones said he found something even more important to his life, his relationship with God. Jones is now the youth leader at Sunshine Baptist Church.
“I was searching for something. I think we’re all searching for something, and that’s the only thing that will fill it,” Jones said. “I think that is what turned me around. It put my feet on solid ground and gave me direction in life. That’s been all the difference. I firmly believe God guides us. We’re his children and trying to live his will the best we can. I try to seek his will in all that I do and let him lead me. I feel I’m where I need to be. I didn’t even interview for this job. They just hired me, and I had been searching for nine months.”
Jones said had been offered jobs at several labs around the country but he wanted to stay close to home.
“Christians should be good employees,” he said. “We have to live up to a certain standard. If we believe what we say, we should be a little different and have a higher standard for ourselves. That’s a motivator for me.”
Jones eventually moved up to the assistant director position at Pine Mountain Settlement School, which is led by director Geoff Marietta.
“We work well together, and Jeff has a good vision for this place,” Jones said. “It’s been good to be a part of what is going on here.”
“Preston embodies the core mission of Pine Mountain Settlement School — enriching lives and connecting people — in everything he does. He is incredibly smart, a problem-solver, and has high expectations. He is also a man of God and a Harlan County mountain man in the truest sense,” Marietta said. “This unique set of traits and skills means Preston can not only write and secure tens of thousands of dollars in grants and oversee 15 staff responsible for operations of our campus, but also do so in a humble, kind and mindful manner. He can just as easily fix your tractor or till your garden as he can advise on the chemical composition of inorganic fertilizer or articulate a vision of economic prosperity for the region. Preston is a gift to Pine Mountain Settlement School and Harlan County. We are lucky to have him.”
The school was the dream of a local man, William Creech Sr., who was troubled by the area’s lack of educational opportunities, and the prevalence of social problems and rampant disease, according to the Pine Mountain Settlement School Web site. He donated land for the school and recruited two women, Katherine Pettit, of Lexington, and Ethel DeLong, a New Jersey native, to establish and run the new institution. These two women enlisted the help of architect Mary Rockwell Hook, of Kansas City, to draw up plans for the campus and its buildings.
“He wanted a brighter future for his children,” said Jones, who said a staff of approximately 22 people currently run the school, which includes 15 buildings.
From 1913 to 1930, Pine Mountain served as a boarding school for elementary and middle school age children. By 1930, many communities had elementary schools, but most did not offer educational opportunities beyond the eighth grade. Pine Mountain evolved into a boarding school for high school students. The school stressed academics, but also encouraged students to develop their interests and talents in vocational and artistic fields. In 1949, Pine Mountain began a joint educational venture with the county school system to operate a community elementary school. The community school operated until the early 1970s when Green Hills Elementary School opened and Pine Mountain Settlement School began to focus its work on environmental education.
“They built these buildings out of local material. All the buildings are sandstone and the timber was from here,” Jones said. “It’s just amazing the way the school was designed and the curriculum they had. That pioneering spirit was amazing, and it inspires me.”
Despite its many connections to the past, Jones insists there is still a lot of relevance to the future at Pine Mountain Settlement School.
“We have to think about all our options,” he said. “We have to put things on the table that weren’t on the table before as far as economic development
Pine Mountain has always been about experiential, applied education. I learn that way, too. I like to apply what I learn. Students were keeping dairy records here in the 1920s from the cows they were milking.”
The school currently provides instruction in environmental education, Appalachian culture and crafts to students and adults.
“I think there’s a lot of untapped potential,” Jones said. “Jeff has really been driving us to think outside the box. We’ve got a lot of responsibilities. To have this passed down to you, to be a steward of what has been here for over 100 years, it’s a big challenge. We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’re always trying to offer new programs with bee keeping and organic gardening. We’re doing a program on small market principles next week. We’re trying to create workshops. We also have community meals, highlighting local foods from our 5-acre farm.”
Jones lives in Putney with his wife, Elizabeth, and their children, Layla, 9, and Enoch, 4. His parents, Chris and Carolyn Jones, reside in Harlan.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134