Attending School In The Mountains
In the 1940's
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by Frank Shortt
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Buchanan County in Southwest Virginia has always been a dark, dreary place due to the fact
that it is surrounded by mountains on either side. Moonshining and illegal alcohol consumption has not helped either. It is a place
where lumber industries and coal mining have dominated the economics. The lumber companies and coal mining companies have always raked
off the largest share of profits to be had in the county. Their “company” stores controlled the lumberjacks and miners’ ability to
ever get ahead. Charging three prices for an item that could be gotten at a regular store in the vicinity was as common as the “soup
beans” the miners ate for breakfast, dinner and supper. No wonder the miners drank to forget….
The small two- roomed schools where the children of the mountainous regions of Buchanan County attended were hot in summer and really
cold in winter. These schools were at the mercy of a school board in Grundy, the county seat. They seemed to care little for the mountain
children and only for the welfare of the schools where their children attended. Thank God things have gotten better as time has passed.
Had they been required to spend one winter in one of the small schools, they would have done a better job of policing them. As it
was, the teachers depended on the larger boys to tend the stoves. Whoever arrived first would be required to build the fire, after
first having shooed the roosting hoot owls off the long stovepipe. One time one of the boys stuck his tongue to the stove and could
not extract it until the stove heated up and melted the frost.
Coal was used to heat the
rooms and had to be hauled in by someone contracted by the county. Usually the coal was of a lesser grade therefore making it difficult
to start the fire and having the room heated before the other students arrived. Sometimes snow and ice had formed on the coal pile
and the coal would be too wet to burn and would put out the fire. This caused much consternation on the part of the teacher. She had
much more responsibility than the school board that hired her. The heaters were of the Burnside variety, burning one up on one side
and freezing him to death on the other.
The floors of the schools were of rough pine which
had to be oiled in order to keep the dust down. Children who went to school barefooted, and there were many in the springtime, would
oftentimes get slivers in the bottom of their feet. Barefoot season was from May until the first frosts. If a child wore shoes during
that time he was either going to church or a special event requiring him to “spruce up”. When a student wore shoes every day, he was
referred to as “hifalutin”.
In the schools, there was usually one room referred to as the
“little” room where the first through third grades attended. The “big” room was for fourth through seventh grades. The greatest goal
of those in the little room was to be in the big room. It seemed to their young minds that this was a major promotion. Children who
failed any grade in the first through third were tormented by the other children. “You didn’t make it” ha ha ha ha haaa! “Now you
have to be with the little kids”. It was not unusual to see children who were a head taller playing with the “little room” children.
It was often said of these children, “He packs a razor in his lard bucket”.
was always a hard thing to obtain in these schools. There was invariably a “pump house” containing a large pump with a huge steel
handle. This handle had to be pushed up and down in order to extract water from the well underneath. Talk about a hernia maker. If
a larger student did not happen to be present to help a younger student, the younger student usually went back to the room without
a drink. Most students were so poor they didn’t have a drinking cup of their own. Cups were devised by rolling up a piece of pulp
paper into a cone and then trying to hold the water long enough to get one’s lips wet. Needless to say, most of the smaller children
went thirsty throughout the day.
Toys for the children were scarce or nonexistent. The
county did not provide any balls or bats for baseball. The children usually found a stout limb or sapling and made a bat. The ball
was usually one that a more fortunate student brought to school. This ball was guarded like a precious jewel. If it landed in the
creek, it would have to be laid up in the cloakroom for a period of time until it dried out. Sometimes the end result was a twisted,
deformed mass of leather. It was played with nonetheless.
The playgrounds were of native
soil. If one of the children brought a basketball to school, a bushel basket was punched out at the bottom and, thusly, basketball
was played. Ever try to bounce a basketball on rocky soil? The ball will usually go careening of in every direction instead of the
way one wants it to go. The basket only usually lasted a short time. If it rained over the weekend, goodbye basket!!
Hard rubber balls were used for “Annie over”. The ball would be thrown over the roof of the school and if one on the opposing team
caught it, he would run around the building and tag as many of the opposing team as possible. These tagged ones had to stay on the
“taggers” team thereby increasing the number of the team. Sometimes the “tagger” would choose to throw the ball at an opposing team
member. That hard rubber ball would really sting. When one side or the other was diminished, the team with all the students was declared
the winner. This game required a great amount of energy and integrity.
Another great pastime
was to go down by the creek and dig arrowheads. A lot of students became archaeologists and did not realize it. Quite a few large
and beautiful arrowheads were found on the banks of Grassy Creek. The old Cherokee trail ran parallel to the creek and the native
tribes would most assuredly camp in the bottoms and level places alongside the creek. This is where the Grimsleyville school site
was chosen. Built by Tom Grimsley, an early inhabitant, the school was named thusly. Many times Tom and his descendants would be plowing
the fields next to the creek and would unearth all kinds of artifacts of Native Americans that inhabited the region before the Europeans.
Ah, to have those artifacts now….
If a forest fire broke out near the school the larger
boys were excused to fight the fire. Every boy knew where the fire equipment was kept and a mad dash would be made as soon as “fire”
was called out. These fires sometimes lasted several days and the boys would only be required to fight the fire until men arrived
from the mines. More capable hands would take over so that the boys could go home to tend their chores that most assuredly awaited
The two teachers remembered most by those who attended Grimsleyville School in the
forties were Murtis and Lucy Wade. They were transplanted Easterners and didn’t quite understand the mountaineer children. Nevertheless,
most of those under their tutorship were shaped into model students who moved on to Garden High School. Some of these students went
on to become very good examples of how a “hillbilly” can accomplish anything that a student of better means can accomplish.
Move along down the dusty road
One toe wound with a dirty rag,
Stopping to inspect each flower,
Shouldn’t be late,
no time to lag.
Murtis and Lucy won’t put up
With nonsense such as you dish out
They’ll paddle your behind until
You dance a
jig and give a shout.
Study hard, you hillbilly boy,
Do you want to be a miner?
Slaving in the depths of the earth
to show, not ever?
Such is the life of mountain boys,
Working hard in the fields of home,
Slaving to get educated,
get up and roam.