Rachel connection to the Museum runs deeper than just her role as Leon’s wife. Like Leon, she served as an educator, teaching Business Math and substitute teaching at Toccoa Falls Academy. She was instrumental in raising significant funds for construction of the Museum, much contributed by her family. She traveled with Leon on his adventures which served as inspirations for the Nature Awareness programs he conducted for schools, civic clubs and state parks. Rachel assisted regularly in these programs and also presented several programs by herself using the mounted birds that are now displayed in the Museum.
Appropriately the Museum bears both Leon’s and Rachel’s names. Also, there is a special remembrance of her in the Museum building, that you will likely notice when you first enter the foyer of the Toccoa Falls College Outdoor and Environmental Education Center.
First some background…
Rachel’s father, Rufus A. Pritchard, passed away when Rachel was only three years old. He was the song leader for his church and for other area churches during revival services. The family was quite poor when Rufus died, so the grave was marked with simple white marble pieces, right next to the grave of another daughter that had died very young.
Years later Leon and Rachel met at Toccoa Falls College and embarked on a journey of service to the Lord through ministering and teaching. When Leon and Rachel returned to Georgia in 1964 to serve at Toccoa Falls, they visited the grave of Rachel’s father at the Bethany Baptist Church Cemetery in Hart County, Georgia. They discovered that the graves were not well marked, only with the original primitive markers that were now worn and dislodged.
Rachel and her sister, Bonnie, had the markers replaced with headstones and Leon kept the original white markers with the other rocks and stones he collected over the years. His collection of stone was eventually used in building a fireplace in the log barn Leon reassembled in the back yard of their Georgia home.
When the Museum building was under construction Bill Bryson, the general contractor, visited Leon’s barn and was fascinated by the fireplace. He proposed adding a similar fireplace to the foyer of the new building.
Leon offered stone from his pile and was able to acquire additional stone for the Museum fireplace. Also a sizable amount of Pennsylvania “blue stone” was donated for the fireplace by Leon’s cousins, Dick and Sandy Button. Charlie Denson (now deceased), son of Rachel’s sister Bonnie, transported the stone from the Pennsylvania quarry to Georgia in his pickup truck.
The marble stone markers from the grave of Rachel’s father were in Leon’s pile of leftover stone. Bill Bryson told Leon he had an idea about how to use it, but he wouldn’t divulge his plan to Leon.
As the Museum fireplace was constructed, Leon had the opportunity and pleasure of assisting in laying the stone. This experience was special for Leon, since it brought back many memories of his experiences working with stone.
Bill Bryson’s secret was to cut the marble markers in half and construct a cross in the middle of the fireplace above the mantle. It was a beautifully executed idea. He also placed pinkish geodes, fashioned from bookends, at the bottom of the cross. Leon has said that the marble cross and geodes remind us of the blood that was shed for our sins.
The gorgeous mantle over the fireplace also has an interesting history. Bill Bryson’s neighbor lost a sizeable cherry tree during a storm the year that the fireplace was built. He visited the neighbor and asked what was going to be done with the tree. The neighbor intended to cut it up for firewood. Mr. Bryson asked if he could take the tree off of his hands. The neighbor agreed and Bill was able to fashion several amazing mantles out of it for his clients, including the Museum.
When you visit The Leon and Rachel Museum of Natural History next time, stop to view the fireplace in the foyer and recall the special history and message it represents.