Joe Fuller and Bob McConnell share a passion for the Southwest Virginia region and its rich history. McConnell has worked hard to help promote and preserve it, creating what Fuller calls 'a living legacy.'
Bob McConnell has lived his entire life in Scott County, Va., and his volunteer record reflects the passion and devotion he has for his hometown area. If you have ever visited the Daniel Boone Wilderness Road Trail or enjoyed a visit to The Blockhouse and The Wilderness Road Blockhouse Visitor Center in Natural Tunnel State Park in Duffield, Va., you have benefited from the contributions of McConnell.
After graduation from Shoemaker High School in Gate City, he attended Emory & Henry College and, after graduation, went to work for Eastman. He continued to live in Scott County because of his strong ties, and commuted to Kingsport - even when most of his co-workers found homes closer to work in Kingsport. He currently lives on the farm where he was born, after purchasing it in 1965.
McConnell is a scientist by trade but said, "I've always loved history and been a prolific reader of history since I was young."
In 1994, he was having a conversation with a local hotel manager about promoting tourism in Scott County and the point came up that they should use what's here to showcase the area. Because of McConnell's deep roots and connection to the land, not to mention that he is a history buff, he became interested in how the Wilderness Trail could be used as a learning tool for locals and visitors.
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What started out as a promotion for tourism has developed into a full-time volunteer career for McConnell. In the beginning, he participated in the early forming of the Wilderness Trail from Kingsport to Cumberland Gap and the identification of 25 historical sites along this part of the trail. McConnell assisted in securing funds from the Virginia Tobacco Commission for signage along the path.
He was focused on driving the local economy and bringing tourists to the area to visit the Wilderness Trail. During this time, funds received with the assistance of Congressman Rick Boucher provided a replica of the John Anderson Blockhouse to be placed inside Natural Tunnel State Park.
Craig Seaver, interim director of Virginia State Parks and former park manager at Natural Tunnel State Park, said "Bob was instrumental in securing funding and working with state, private, federal, and various non-profit groups in obtaining funding for the Wilderness Road Blockhouse Interpretive Complex at Natural Tunnel State Park. This was a challenge as it was a federal and privately-funded project, constructed on state land, by a non-profit organization known as the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association."
Since the completion of the blockhouse, McConnell enjoys the experience of living the history and sharing his knowledge with visitors. In fact, his wife, children and grandchildren join him in living history events. The McConnells visit classrooms in historical period dress and talk about history. McConnell credits his wife for getting him started in the Chamber (of Commerce) and Rotary Club and said, "I'm blessed that my wife has supported me in all my endeavors."
"Bob has been a dedicated volunteer to his community, tourism, and state parks. Not only has Bob been involved in numerous initiatives, but he has established a living legacy by involving his entire family, including his teenage grandchildren in telling the story of our heritage and history of Southwest Virginia," said Seaver.
"You can read a lot about Early American history, but until you are standing around a wood fire, making soap, boiling down salt and smelling the gunpowder and smoke, until you've actually experienced them, you can't really immerse yourself deeply in the history. It changed my focus from only the economical aspect to the educational aspect of it," said McConnell. "History books today have little information about Daniel Boone and what happened during the frontier days. By creating exhibits and having living history events, we have an opportunity to tell history as it really happened and it is necessary for us to get it right. My goal is to create a historical venue to teach children and adults about what really happened during that time period."
"I love what I do, and working with the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association has been a wonderful experience for me and a way to add value to my community. If we lose our past, we lose our future," said McConnell.
Joe Fuller, Scott County Chamber of Commerce treasurer, has volunteered with Bob over the years and said, "Bob and Wanda have participated in more than their share of events and activities, including major events like what was formerly called Siege at the Blockhouse each spring and now called Frontier Harvest and Trade Faire."
"Through Bob's efforts and partnerships, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association has enjoyed great cooperation and support from Virginia State Park management, and particularly helpful has been the park manager and staff at Natural Tunnel State Park. Also, through Bob's efforts the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association received a Northeast Tennessee Tourism Pinnacle Award."
Fuller says it well.
"Bob has a keen sense of frontier history and articulates it better than most. No one I know is more deserving than he to be recognized as an unsung hero."