The WPA Builds: Burning Springs School, Clay County, Kentucky

My first – and as yet, only – experience in Burning Springs, Kentucky, had nothing whatsoever to do with ignitable springs of natural gas.* No, I was in Clay County for work, and after completing my tasks, I set out (as is my wont) to wander the area. And off to the side of US 421, I glimpsed a roofline that piqued my interest and walls of stone.

The facade and north elevation of the Burning Springs School.

All of the openings were boarded up, but with vertical boards painted white, which somehow appeared less forbidding and sad than the standard plywood sheets. Six window openings across the front of the building must have once allowed the morning sun to pour into the classrooms, and no doubt distract many a student.

Two flues poked out from the hipped roof, and exposed rafter tails echoed a common stylistic practice in domestic architecture of the time – historic bungalows teem with exposed rafter tails.

Entry doors.

The native stone glowed in the April sunshine, and I was transfixed by the quiet building, and its place in Clay County history. I’ve no doubt (though my uusual archival sources have failed me) that this was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project from the 1930s.

South elevation and facade.

Between 1930 and 1939, 1,758 education-related building projects were completed across Kentucky as part of the WPA. I’ve written about some of them before, including the Swampton and Big Rock schools – but those were well-documented projects.

I could find nary a mention of Burning Springs in the Goodman-Paxton Collection, or in any of my other go-to secondary sources.

A recessed arched entryway on the side elevation.

The roof seemed sound, and the openings secure – so even though I will admit to my frustration at being unable to unearth the story – I feel like the school building will last a bit longer.

WPA schools in Kentucky were built primarily (but not always!) in rural areas, replacing earlier (often log) one and two room schools. The WPA schools were often built of stone – and built last. These buildings served not just to educate the school age children, but as community centers for residents of all ages.

I’m not sure what the plans are for the former Burning Springs school – or if the current owner has any plans for the building. But it would be a wonderful thing if the mellow walls of stone could once again echo with voices and energy.


*Burning Springs, just some four miles into Clay County from Jackson County, was christened thus very early on (late 18th century, perhaps) for springs of natural gas in the area. The post office in Burning Springs closed in 1965, but there is still a school – new and modern – north of the stone school on US 421.


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  1. JACK O'DONNELL says:

    wonderful stonework. the wpa shines so many years later. you can find out about ownership at the county court house. the clerks are usually chatty and knowledgeable about what public records don’t reveal.

  2. Lois Reid Cottongim says:

    Went to school there in the 50s. Not this building but Quonset huts beside this. Best I can remember, 4. Classrooms and the principals office maybe. We could buy ice cream just inside the front door.

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