PERRY — The Houston County school board has built several new schools in the past few years, but they’re now paying attention to one built more than a century ago.
This past autumn, the board bought a building that used to house the Spring Hill School, a 103-year-old structure on U.S. 41 three miles north of Perry in front of Rehoboth Baptist Church.
The school was brought to the board’s attention in September by Ellie Loudermilk, an author and technology coordinator at Perry High School who’s also vice president of the Perry Area Historical Society.
While doing research a few years ago for her book, “A Ramble Through Olde Perry,” Loudermilk talked with Wofford Sinyard, who does printing for the board, and he showed her a 1915 booklet from the state Department of Education titled “Educational Survey of Houston County Georgia.”
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The 41-page publication goes into great detail, including pictures, about the 27 schools for white students in the county and Fort Valley High and Industrial School for Negroes (now Fort Valley State University). Other schools in the county for black students were mentioned, but with no details.
The booklet describes the Spring Hill School, in part, this way:
“Teacher: Miss Laura Talton, Perry, Ga.
“Location: 3 miles east to Lakeside, 3 miles south to Perry.
“Building: Value, $700; one class room, 24x30x12; no cloak rooms; small veranda; floors oiled and well kept; painted.
“Equipment: Good home-made double desks; medium blackboards; one U.S. history map; good charts; no globe; reference dictionary; framed pictures; library in good case; water from nearby neighbor’s well.
“Organization: One teacher; 6 grades; 28 pupils; 32 weeks’ continuous term; sewing club; no community clubs.
As Loudermilk did further research on the school, she uncovered a few more facts: The board purchased the property for $13 in 1904 from Anna E. Ingram. After 1915, partitions were added, making it a four-room school. In 1925, following school consolidation, the school was closed and the property was sold to H.G. Gordy and Johnny J. Rogers.
Rogers converted the building into a home, adding a front porch and bathroom, and he built a store beside it.
When Rogers died in 1945, his widow sold the store to her brother, Felix Daniel. He kept the store open and lived in the old schoolhouse until his death at age 91 in 1981.
The lot and schoolhouse became the property of Rehoboth Baptist Church later that decade, said the Rev. Warren Rogers, the church minister of youth and music.
“For a long time, the building was the original chapel for the church,” Rogers said, adding that the church marked its 20th anniversary last year. It was a mission church of the Rehoboth Association, and the founder was the Rev. Boe Stanley.
Lately, the building has been used for Sunday School education, he said, but the church has outgrown it. A new building for music and youth education is nearing completion and should be done by mid-March.
“Several years ago, some of our older members recognized the significance of the building, and we felt it would be a good thing to give it back to the community,” he said. “It was obvious to give the school system first choice. I know they have got some grand plans for it.”
The schoolhouse will be moved to its new location on the playground of the former Perry Elementary School in the spring, Loudermilk said.
The board plans to renovate the interior, possibly to return it to its one-room status, said David McMahon, the school system facilities director. The move and renovations would cost $18,000.
“We’ve got a unique opportunity here,” Loudermilk said. “People are interested in funding the restoration, and the historical society will manage the funds.”
She said she would like to see the building put to use, perhaps as a community center.
“I’d like to see it used, say, for storytelling events for children,” she said, “and not just be a monument of the past.”
An exhibit of period school paraphernalia would be instructive to today’s young students, she added.
“It would give them a sense of what their great-grandparents experienced,” she said. “It would tell them, ‘This is the way they learned.’”
THE MISSING CENTERPIECE
The 1915 survey was thorough, with a picture and wealth of detail about each white school. One of them stood out from the others: Fort Valley High School.
It alone was given a full page for its photo, and its construction and furnishings put it at the forefront of Houston County education.
On Page 33, it was described as “a modern structure costing about $40,000, with twelve class rooms, large auditorium, cloak rooms, laboratory rooms, storage rooms, office, closets, etc.”
It was situated on 4 acres, “facing four streets, centrally located, elevated lot, with some good trees; ample playgrounds, improved and equipped with about $200 or $300 worth of play appliances ...”
It was a fully accredited four-year high school with 12 teachers for 11 grades of 465 pupils total. The booklet, describing the school’s organization, stated it was “having for its ideal always the service of the children and the equipping of them as fully as possible for environment in which they must live.” In today’s terms it would be analogous to preparing students to compete in a global economy.
The impressive-looking, two-story school came in for one more bit of extended praise: “This school has a unique system of renting textbooks to the pupils which is attracting attention. They rent the books at half cost price, and then save money for the system. County, as well as local boards, might well imitate this illustration of good business judgment and ability.”
So what happened to this centerpiece of Houston County education built in 1912?
The building no longer stands, and Peach County was created in 1924 from parts of Houston and Macon counties, with Fort Valley as the county seat.
More to the point, said James Khoury, a former Peach County Commission chairman and local historian, a fire in the late teens or early 1920s damaged the school to the extent that another high school was built in the mid-1920s — the building now at the corner of Knoxville and Vineville streets. The second floor of the 1912 school was damaged and the structure became a one-floor elementary school, which Khoury attended in the 1950s. C.B. Mathis, facilities director for Peach County schools, has the floor plans of the newer high school in his office, and a trophy case in a hallway of the school board’s offices in Fort Valley contains a picture of the first graduating class in 1926.
The 1912 school was later abandoned and demolished, and the site is now Everett Square Park in Fort Valley, Khoury said.
ERA OF SEGREGATION
While educational facilities for black students were not ignored, neither were they up to the same standards as those for whites. The 1915 survey treated it in this fashion under the heading “Negro Schools”:
“The matter of negro education has not been neglected in this county, and considerable stress has been put upon its proper direction.
“The Fort Valley High and Industrial School, reported herein, is generally regarded as one of the best negro schools in the State. An intelligent negro Farm Demonstrator, Otis S. Neal, under the patronage of the U.S. Farm Demonstration Work, and working constantly among the negro farmers of the county, has his office at this school. Under patronage of the Jeanes Fund, and directed by the County Board of Education, Mattie Wilder works constantly among the negro rural schools, giving emphasis to industrial education, sanitation, etc.
“By the help of these agencies, and under direction of the County Superintendent of Schools, the negroes have instituted the custom of holding district school fairs, which have stimulated a wholesome and intelligent interest in their public schools on the part of both races.”
The white schools were described in great detail in the survey, and county schools for black students were not. The booklet contained two photographs of unnamed schools for blacks under the heading “Houston County Negro Schools.” The schools were described in this manner: “Some improvement is shown in the betterment of the negro school houses; and the photographs herein of the two last ones constructed by the County Board indicate improved styles of school architecture. Some of their school houses are models of cleanliness.”
Contact writer Jake Jacobs at 923-6199, extension 305.