I cried piteously on the first day of kindergarten, as my mother left me with a room of strange adults and even stranger children. My mother and the comforts of home were promptly forgotten, however, and I threw myself enthusiastically into, if not academics at that tender age, at least into the new experience. By first grade, I was an old pro, and loved school passionately -a love affair that continued through college and graduate school. The allure of being a professional student still lingers, but I have yet to figure out how to make that work financially.
The story of schools and education in Kentucky is fraught, and I am not the professional to address the Commonwealth’s approach to educating its citizens, nor do I wish to venture down the rabbit hole of education reform, school district funding, and standardized testing. But I do love historic school buildings…
Schools, like rural churches, fulfilled a myriad of roles in rural Kentucky , often becoming a focal point in a local community. Rural schools are a resource fast disappearing within the Commonwealth; across the country, neighborhood schools (both urban and rural) have long been under siege from consolidation and funding issues. In 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named historic neighborhood schools to its 11 Most Endangered Places list. The NTHP did a great job of summarizing the threats to schools: “historic neighborhood schools are being demolished or deserted – the victims of deferred maintenance, consolidation, development pressure, inadequate government funding, policies promoting the construction of mega-schools in outlying locations, and an often misplaced belief in the superiority of new school construction.”
Like the post office, and the general store, rural schools hold the heart of a small community. When the school closes, and the students board the bus to travel across the county to a new, larger school, a bit of that community dies. I’ve looked at one and two room schools in several counties in the Bluegrass, and these schools share many design characteristics – which I think I will write about in another post! The first wave of consolidation in Kentucky, from around 1890 to 1930, saw many of these frame, one-room schools being replaced by sturdier, larger buildings, with lots of windows and a Classical influence in the design.
I found the Rectorville Consolidated School in a ramble through Mason County last month – I don’t think I stopped in the middle of the road and drove in reverse back to the site – but this is not an unknown occurrence when I am out in the field. Sitting on top of a hill, the sun glinting off jagged angles of the building, I didn’t know at first what it was, other than it was an institutional building of some sort.
My circuitous route that afternoon, plotted quickly in the morning with the aid of my beloved USGS topo maps, sent me to Rectorville, located about five miles southeast of the county seat of Maysville. I hoped there might be some vestiges of the community still left on the landscape.
The 1876 Illustrated Atlas of Mason County, Kentucky (Lake, Griffing & Stevenson of Philadelphia) depicts Rectorville in the Orangeburg precinct of Mason County. A cluster of houses snake along the road, along with a store, post office and School No. 52. Rectorville had a post office from 1873 to 1915, and was a crossroads community, much smaller than nearby Orangeburg, which had platted streets and a more formal layout. The school on this map was replaced by a new consolidated school on which construction began in 1915 – part of an ambitious plan of consolidation and school improvement in Mason County steered by the Superintendent of Schools, a Miss Jessie O. Yancey. New schools were also built at May’s Lick, Washington, and Orangeburg during this time.
The new Rectorville Consolidated School was a handsome brick building, built on a raised basement, with a slightly recessed center entrance and large double-hung windows. Students entered through double doors, which featured sidelights and an eight-light transom. The gabled portico with stucco columns was added later, likely in the 1930s. A postcard view (date unknown) shows the school prior to its slow decay.
The school opened in 1916, and served students in grades one through ten. The ninth and tenth grades were moved to Orangeburg in 1934, and in 1971, the school closed its doors for good. No one was around in Rectorville when I spied the lonely school, no one who could tell me about a time when its plaster wasn’t crumbling, and its roof collapsed. In 1989, the Kentucky Historic Sites Survey documented the Rectorville Consolidated School, noting that it was an “excellent example of a regional school form” and in “good condition.”
Adaptive reuse of some buildings is always problematic – schools and churches in rural areas are often just left to molder into the ground. The saving grace for some – and I stress some as a small, teeny percentage – of these buildings is their inclusion in the Historic Sites Database at the Kentucky Heritage Council in Frankfort. Homes, schools, stores and assorted other buildings long since vanished from view are preserved through images and words, captured by folks passionately committed to the history of our Bluegrass, and the stories that the past conveys to us.