Gardens to Gables

Goodbye, Small Town School

Although I would never willingly repeat high school again, there are some wrinkled, furtive wisps of memory I wish I could chase down. You look at the world differently as a teenager (beyond the hormones and the belief in one’s immortality) and I passed by so many enchanting landscapes and fascinating buildings with nary a second glance. My architectural spidy sense had not fully developed, and yet these grainy home-movie memories of evocative structures in which I trudged haunt me.

My memories of landscapes from childhood are about as unfocused and blurry as this old family photo.

My memories of landscapes from childhood are about as unfocused and blurry as this old family photo.

The best were the other schools visited as part of our academic team league (arise and hail the nerds!). Our school bus creaked and groaned across miles of winding two-lane roads, and deposited us on another team’s turf. We were only exercising our brains, and might have been really looking forward to eating at Pizza Hut afterwards, but still – you get an interesting perspective on another school’s facilities when you are visiting the library rather than a sports field.

A section of the 15-minute USGS Springdale quad map (1929) showing Tollesboro in Lewis County, Kentucky.

A section of the 15-minute USGS Springdale quad map (1929) showing Tollesboro in Lewis County, Kentucky.

Earlier this year, I found myself in Lewis County, and guided by some buried sense of direction, headed toward the small town of Tollesboro. Lewis County is the 13th largest county in the Commonwealth by square miles, but like so many Kentucky counties, it is rural and fairly small population wise. Tollesboro is closer to Maysville, the county seat of Mason County than it is to its own county seat of Vanceburg (I wonder if that explains why I found hardly any secondary sources about Tollesboro? Perhaps some natural enmity historically existed between the two communities…).

I was so glad to see the high school in Tollesboro, Lewis County, Kentucky, still standing.

I was so glad to see the high school in Tollesboro, Lewis County, Kentucky, still standing.

I remember the name more than the school building itself, which is a handsome two-story brick building, built in 1936 by (I believe) the Works Progress Administration. It follows the style and form so popular during that period between the World Wars – lots of natural light and classical elements on the facade. It is no longer used as a school, and as I was unable to discern its current function, I didn’t get close enough to determine if the customary WPA plaque was on the building. (The greater part of trespassing is knowing when not to trespass.)

The site of Deming School in Robertson County, Kentucky.

The site of Deming School in Robertson County, Kentucky.

Even while I greatly enjoyed seeing Tollesboro (and there are some wonderful buildings there) it wasn’t the shadowy school of my memory. For that, I turned to Kentucky’s smallest county – Robertson. Founded in 1867 as the 111th county, Robertson County is very tiny and predominantly agricultural. As I made my way through downtown Mt. Olivet (which looked like a stage set), I could conjure up no memories of having been there before. And – I was too late.

The steps are still there, and the pillars to either side, but the school is gone.

The steps are still there, and the pillars to either side, but the school is gone.

Deming School burned in the summer of 2013. The school, built in 1927, was brought down by a fire reported to be the work of an arsonist. As I scanned the internet, trying to discover anything I could about what happened, I was struck by the emotion expressed in the news articles.

Deming School was more than a school and educational facility – it had been a landmark, and very much, it seemed, the heart of Mt. Olivet. Although my link to Deming was tangential – I stared at the empty site in disbelief, because the photos of the fire which had engulfed it plainly showed that it was the school I recalled in bits and fragments, and admired so in my pre-architectural historian days.

Fullscreen capture 5122015 124744 PM

I returned home that evening in a somber mood. I had failed, by virtue of timing, to chase down that memory. And a town had lost an incredible building home to so many memories – true, plans were to demolish the school anyway, but perhaps a creative idea for a new purpose for Deming School could yet have been found. We will never know now – and my resolve to pull off the road, camera at the ready,  whenever I see something interesting – has been further strengthened.

 

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3 Thoughts on “Goodbye, Small Town School

  1. Debbie Arnold on May 12, 2015 at 4:49 pm said:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, Janie-Rice. The closing, and sometimes destruction, of our small community schools is a great loss to those of us who have wonderful memories of our time there. I spent eight years in Little Rock Elementary School (Bourbon County). There were never more than 150 students in the entire school. Every teacher knew every child’s name, their parents’ names, and most of their grandparents. We had a sense of community, of belonging, and acceptance that can’t be found in today’s mega schools. Unlike many of the old schools, Little Rock Elementary lives on with a new identity, that of a family home. I smile every time I drive by. Thanks for an excellent article.

    • JR Brother on May 13, 2015 at 8:45 am said:

      Thank you so much! I feel like I could write dozens of posts on historic schools I’ve encountered – and I couldn’t agree with you more about the devastating impact school closure has on small communities. Bigger is not always better…I am so glad Little Rock has been preserved and is being used. A bright spot of encouragement in a sometimes dismal culture of waste and teardowns.

  2. Linda Morgan on June 25, 2015 at 1:24 pm said:

    hello just read your story really enjoyed it,I can remember Mt Olivet school the stairs and the jym and lunch room my papaw Harold Clayton Poe was a bus driver plus he was also on the first school bus along with my mamaw Louise Neil

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