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by Frank Shortt
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When the Route 460 four-lane Highway came up through Buchanan County, Virginia, a monument, precious to all the mountain children
around the Grimsleyville/Shortt Gap area, was demolished. With it a way of life ended.
Since the 1920’s the little two-room school
at Grimsleyville, Va. had served the upper Buchanan County community. Every Shortt, Osborne, Davis, Wade, Grimsley, Addison, Stilwell,
Keen, Clifton,Baldwin, Stanley, Rose, Pruitt, Horne and a host of others of Elementary School age attended there. There were several
teachers who served faithfully through the years. The two most remembered in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were the Wade sisters,
Lucy and Murtis. They had come out of eastern Virginia in the 1930’s as census takers, met two Wade brothers, married and stayed on
among the hillbilly element. They were strict, no-nonsense teachers who wielded a mean wooden paddle. Mr. Evans Edwards came on board
after Murtis retired. He became the favorite of most of the students as he was less strict than the Wade sisters.
School sat down in a flat bottom beside Grassy Creek, a feeder creek of the Levisa River. The school consisted of two rooms, one,
housing first through third grades and the other, known as the ‘big room’ servicing fourth through seventh grades. At each end of
the bottom used for the playground were roads leading down from Route 460. Just above the school was a pathway leading down from 460
for those who chose to take a short cut down to the school house. There were several mountain pathways heading up the hollows in the
surrounding areas. Some led to Davis Mountain, some to Osborne Mountain, and some to Horn Mountain. Some separated as they led upward
accommodating the different families being serviced by the school.
In a little vale below the school was Grassy Creek which was used
by the barefoot children, which most were, for wading, crawfishing, and other games that were played. There was a huge beach tree
sitting by the creek which was used by the children to sit underneath in the summertime and in the fall they sat underneath it cracking
the tasty beechnuts. During the early 1950’s a polio epidemic spread through the whole area so the children’s means of recreation
was forbidden them. All water was purported to be contaminated.
The County even had to come and test the only means of drinking water,
the water pumped from the well. Water was obtained by having someone pump the huge handle of the pump and holding a cup, if a child
was fortunate enough to own one, underneath the spout until the water came gushing out, sometimes wrenching the cup from the smaller
hands. Others, not so fortunate, rolled up the rough paper used for writing into a makeshift cup, which usually disintegrated as soon
as the water gushed from the pump spout. Some of the more inventive children resorted to cupping their hands and drinking from them.
Lots of water was wasted in those days!
Each room was equipped with a Burnside heater, using coal to provide heat for the entire room.
The first children to arrive in the morning built the fire and kept it going until the other children arrived. It has been said that
the Burnside heater was aptly named as it would ‘burn one up on one side and freeze one to death on the other’. In early winter coal
was sent up by the county and stored in the coal house. This coal was used by both rooms. Only taller students were sent to fetch
the coal as the drop-down door was almost as high as an adult. (Some of the older students had stayed at the school well past seventh
grade as they could not afford to go to high school at Garden Creek.) As an added comical relief concerning the stove, the story was
told that one enterprising young man walked up to the stove one cold winter morning and stuck out his tongue to lick some of the frost
off the stove. In doing so, his tongue stuck tight until someone built a fire and melted the frost. He sported a sore tongue for several
days and he never tested the stove again for moisture. It was also told by some of the alumni of Grassy School that they had to shoo
the hoot owls off the stovepipe before building the fire. Also, the teacher would have to wipe the owl droppings off the clock before
she could begin classes where they had roosted on the clock at night.
The only place for students to store their lunches was a cloak
room behind the stove. At lunchtime, their lunches were either frozen or the stove had put out too much heat causing the bread and
cheese sandwiches to curl up on the edges. One Pruitt boy would bring home-made biscuits with whatever his mother had to put on them.
On warmer days he would hide behind the old, sandstone rock that sat on the side of the playground cupping the biscuits behind his
hands so that the other children, who had store-bought bread sandwiches, would not see what he was eating. In truth, the biscuits
were much more tasty and wholesome than the store-bought bread. Most students brought either peanut butter or cheese sandwiches as
lunch meat was out of the question. More than one family depended on the County for subsistence, and peanut butter and cheese was
included in the fare.
There was hardly ever a mention at Grassy Creek School of someone being poor. We were all so poor that we dared
not look down on anyone else. The boys wore hand me down clothes. The mothers would sew dresses from flour sacks, wear them until
they were quite worn out then sew dresses from them for the oldest girl. When the oldest girl out wore the garment, it was handed
down to the next girl in age. This same pattern was so for the boys. Boys arrived at school wearing all sorts of garment mixtures.
Mountain mothers became very inventive in order to keep all their children clothed. One family of Osbornes had nineteen children,
and all from the same mother and father. There was always more help needed on the farm. Mountain children were bought one pair of
rough-out brogans each year just before winter. If the soles wore out, cardboard was stuffed inside to keep out the cold. Thank God
the fifties came along and coal took an upturn in price.
Demolishing the little two-roomed, white-framed school building ended an
era that will never again be experienced by the upper Buchanan County children.