Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver (29 August 1868–18 December 1940), Lutheran lay leader and founder of Rosemont Industries, was born in Columbus, Texas, and was the daughter of John Jacob Scherer (1830–1919), a native Virginian and Lutheran minister, and Elizabeth Katharine Killinger Scherer. Her siblings included John Jacob Scherer (1881–1956), a Lutheran minister and president of the Virginia Synod. The family returned to southwestern Virginia in 1871, and two years later her father founded Marion Female College (later Marion College), in Smyth County. At about age ten Laura Scherer began teaching Sunday school classes and was soon writing plays that the college produced. She graduated from Marion Female College in 1884 and two years later joined the faculty. For more than twenty years Scherer taught English and occasionally courses in mathematics and astronomy. On 26 August 1895 she married Bascom Eugene Copenhaver, who for many years served as the superintendent of Smyth County schools. They had four daughters and one son.
Lutheran Lay Leader
Copenhaver wrote fiction, poetry, and dozens of pageants for the United Lutheran Church in America (later the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), which by the first decade of the twentieth century had begun publishing her work. Many of the pageants, such as The Striking of America's Hour: A Pageant of Christian Liberty (1919), The Way: A Pageant of Japan (1923), and The Way of Peace: A Pageant (1924), she wrote in collaboration with her younger sister, Katharine Killinger Scherer Cronk, also a prominent Lutheran lay leader. One of Copenhaver's poems, "Heralds of Christ," was set to music and became a well-known hymn included in various denominational hymnals.
Interested in missionary work since her childhood, Copenhaver became a member of the executive committee of the Women's Home and Foreign Missionary Society of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Southwestern Virginia in 1916. By the summer of 1920 she had been elected to fill an unexpired term on the Literature Committee of the Women's Missionary Society of the United Lutheran Church in America. The committee published periodicals, textbooks, devotional booklets, and other materials for distribution throughout the country. Elected chair in 1928, she remained in that office after the committee became the Education Department in 1937.
On 27 September 1922 Copenhaver addressed the biennial convention of the Women's Missionary Society on the need to minister to the people of Appalachia. Her speech inspired the society to create a committee to conduct mission work in southwestern Virginia. Also as a result of her efforts, the Women's Missionary Society established the Konnarock Training School, which opened in Smyth County in 1925. A public elementary school with a private boarding division, it provided academic and religious education as well as practical training for boys and girls who did not have access to other public schools. Copenhaver continued giving lectures and attending Lutheran and interdenominational missionary conferences around the country during the 1920s and 1930s.
In addition to her teaching and missionary work, Copenhaver advocated strategies for developing the region's agricultural economy. By the spring of 1921 she had joined the Marion-based Virginia Farm Bureau Federation as its director of information. Copenhaver addressed farmers' meetings on such topics as improving the financial conditions of family farms and developing rural churches, homes, and schools. At the annual meeting of the Southwest Virginia Cooperative Exchange in December 1922 she emphasized the importance of cooperative marketing of farm products in order to improve the standard of living for farm families.
Copenhaver had already begun practicing such cooperative strategies by facilitating the production of textiles out of her home, Rosemont. She hired women to produce coverlets based on traditional patterns and using local wool. What became known as Rosemont Industries advertised in national newspapers and women's magazines and expanded its offerings to include a wide variety of rugs, bed canopies and fringes, and other household items. The women themselves created some of the designs, while they adapted others from antique rugs, paintings, and even designs Copenhaver copied from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although many of the items were hand-woven, -knitted, or -crocheted, others were manufactured on machines operated by men. Copenhaver was primarily concerned that Rosemont produce textiles "worth owning" while also providing women with profitable employment. Rosemont's textiles quickly became popular around the country and also attracted customers from Asia, Europe, and South America.
Recognized for her civic work, Copenhaver was encouraged to become a candidate for the House of Representatives early in the 1920s, after women gained the right to vote. Writing anonymously in the November 1922 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she contemplated the idea but decided that she could not leave her family for politics. Copenhaver had a lifelong interest in education and in 1925 served on the district committee for southwestern Virginia in a statewide campaign emphasizing improvements in education. She was also active in such organizations as the Marion Woman's Club, of which she served as president in 1926.
About this time Copenhaver met the writer Sherwood Anderson, who had recently settled in the area and acquired two Marion newspapers. They became close friends, and until her death he often turned to her as a critic and editor of his work. Through this friendship he met and in 1933 married her eldest daughter, Eleanor Gladys Copenhaver, a leader of the Young Women's Christian Association. Copenhaver continued to write. Her work appeared in such periodicals as Scribner's Magazine, which in June 1928 published her article on Elizabeth Henry Campbell Russell, a Methodist lay leader.
During the last several years of her life Copenhaver suffered increasingly poor health. She fretted to her son-in-law that a fulsome 1937 biography written for the Works Progress Administration made her sound like a "smug uplifter," and she hoped it would be "buried for good." Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver died at Rosemont on 18 December 1940. She was buried in Round Hill Cemetery, in Marion. Her sister, Minerva May Scherer, longtime dean of Marion College, headed Rosemont Industries for two decades. In September 1960 some of Copenhaver's children incorporated the business as Laura Copenhaver Industries, Inc., which continued to manufacture traditional textiles into the twenty-first century.
Birth date on Death Certificate, Smyth Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA), in undated letter from sister Minerva May Scherer in Copenhaver materials, ULCA Biographical Files, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Archives, Elk Grove Village, Ill., and in Hilbert H. Campbell, ed., The Sherwood Anderson Diaries, 1936–1941 (1987), 316 (entry for 29 Aug. 1940); variant birth date of 28 Aug. 1868 in Mildred Manton Copenhaver and Robert Madison Copenhaver Jr., comps., The Copenhaver Family of Smyth County, Virginia (1981), 107; Biographical Files, Virginia Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration of Virginia Papers, Accession 30432, LVA; some biographical material in Sue Ruffin Tyler research assembled for "The Women of Virginia" project, Tyler Family Papers Group D, Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.; Smyth Co. Marriage Register; correspondence in Sherwood Anderson Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago (including second and third quotations in Copenhaver to Anderson, n.d., but after Sept. 1937); Marion News, 19 Oct., 21 Dec. 1922; Marion Democrat, 17 Jan. 1928; Marion Smyth County News, 19 Jan. 1928; Anne Ruffin Sims, "Rosemont Workers," Commonwealth 4 (Feb. 1937): 12–13 (first quotation); [Laura Copenhaver], Rosemont: Marion, Virginia (n.d.); Thomas W. West, Marion College, 1873–1967 (1970), 22 (portrait), 29–30; Margaret Ripley Wolfe, "Sherwood Anderson and the Southern Highlands: A Sense of Place and the Sustenance of Women," Southern Studies, new ser., 3 (1992): 253–275; James E. Gay, Konnarock Training School: Its Spirit Lives On (1998), 4–5, 31; obituaries in New York Times, Richmond News Leader, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Marion Smyth County News, all 19 Dec. 1940; tribute in Lutheran Woman's Work 34 (1941): 38 (portrait).
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Marianne E. Julienne.
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