Secrets of the Blue Ridge: High School Days Crozet Style

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In the fall of 1924, Crozet High School classes moved from St. George Avenue into a modern, new ten-room school builiding located just north of downtown Crozet near the Ballard farm. Compared to today, this c. 1937 image shows little change in that building's facade. Image courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.

As a youth, Marguerite B. Washington attended school in Crozet. After graduating from Madison College, she returned home and taught classes for a short time at the Mechums River School before returning to her high school alma mater.

During a 1976 interview, the 81-year-old retired school teacher recalled, “I had a high school diploma and then nine months at Madison College. Then I could teach.” Throughout her 39 years of teaching at Crozet High School, she continued to take classes and ultimately obtained her master’s degree.

She candidly shared many school memories from her days as a student as well as from a teacher’s perspective. “One year in Albemarle County, you couldn’t teach if you were married,” Mrs. Washington recalled. “That was the idea of the crazy superintendent. One teacher got caught. She got married while she was teaching and she had to stay out that year. Also, you couldn’t wear your rolled stockings below your knees. You had to have the most conservative dress.”

The first public school in Crozet was said to have been located a short distance north of the C&O rail depot (current Crozet Library). Started in 1894, the one-room school soon became overcrowded and was replaced in 1899 by a three-room school located on a half-acre lot on St. George Avenue, next door to the Episcopal Chapel that had been erected there the previous year. In 1903 the founders of Crozet Baptist Church erected their first church house on the lot on the other side of the new school building. One of the school’s three rooms was assigned to high school classes—thus was established Crozet’s first high school.

Because of Crozet’s growing appeal and prosperity, that first high school building was bulging at the seams within eight years. It was replaced in 1907 with what was believed to be Albemarle County’s first brick school building. The new two-story schoolhouse featured four large classrooms and the principal’s office on the first floor. The entire second floor was a large auditorium. The first graduating class in ’08 numbered four.

CHS received accreditation in 1919; the preceding years were ineligible because the school’s annual session had been four weeks shorter than required. As the school population continued to grow, new rooms were carved out of the second-floor auditorium, including a furnished laboratory designed into the upstairs space.

By 1923 the upstairs auditorium was no more, having been completely turned over to classroom space. A small high school class was even meeting in the principal’s office. Sixth graders were meeting next door in the Baptist Sunday School Building and first and second grade classes were taught in a private home down the street. Construction of a new ten-room school building was begun that summer a short distance away on the road to White Hall.

During the 1923–24 school year, Crozet High’s nine seniors watched from afar as the impressive new school building took shape. The girls’ basketball team won the league championship for the second consecutive year. The boys fielded teams in basketball, track and baseball. The seniors, together with the junior class, designed the school’s very first student annual. Included in its pages were photos taken at the nearly finished school that would not graduate its first class until 1925.

Over the course of its 17 years of service, Crozet High School’s St. George Avenue facility graduated a total of 85 students, many of whom went on to higher education and professional careers. The county’s first brick schoolhouse would continue to serve the Crozet community for another 37 years in private hands: as church classrooms and, later, residential apartments.

From the fall of 1924 through the spring of 1953, the “new” Crozet High School became the go-to place for many of the happenings around town. In addition to educating an ever-increasing student population, public events were held on its grounds and in its spacious auditorium.

PTA meetings and fund-raisers, spelling bees, cake walks, amateur night, traveling performers from stage and radio, minstrel shows showcasing local “personalities” and students alike—many were the reasons for the community to gather at “the school.”

Crozet School’s ball diamond was popular for both school and independent league play. Some games drew enthusiastic crowds numbering in the hundreds. Play was halted, however, when the annual Crozet Firemen’s Fourth-of-July gala was held there. This was genuinely the event that brought together villagers and rural-dwellers. Amusements, food and games of chance for young and old caused the parking lot to fill to overflowing, and packed the ball field. In the afternoon the fleet of foot lined up excitedly for the holiday’s greased pig chase, a popular event that had many cheering for the pig and others wondering if the prize was truly worth the personal sacrifice. At the close of the evening, fireworks wowed the crowds, goodbyes were exchanged and errant youth were gathered.

Harvest times in the region were accompanied by seasonal downticks in school attendance. Military demands created by the world’s escalating hostilities caused some to postpone their final days of schooling and instead to enter their nation’s service. These personal decisions impacted school enrollment for several years before and during WWII. Crozet High was not immune to these obligations. Sadly, and occasionally tragically, not all of the departed students returned to the safety enjoyed by his or her schoolmates.

Over time, Albemarle County school administrators formed a strategy to consolidate most of the county’s high schools, and, in 1953, Albemarle High School was ready for the county’s white students. The separate but not-so-equal facility for the county’s Negro high school students, Jackson P. Burley High School in Charlottesville, had opened in 1951, consolidating three high schools into one.

That fall of 1953, a new era began throughout the county: high school students would no longer spend their entire scholastic careers attending school with only their neighborhood peers. For some communities, a piece of their common fabric was forever altered. Many smaller communities never had the luxury of a local school. The residents of Crozet were fortunate to benefit from the efforts of their early leaders who strived to establish and then maintain a high school for 54 years.

Often high school yearbooks include tongue-in-cheek features such as last will and testaments, class prophesies and student-voted popularity contests. The Crozet High School Class of 1924 included a class poem in their Volume Number One edition of “The Wheel.” This excerpt from their final reflections summed up the nostalgic feelings of many who still recall their own high school days:

Could Time, his flight reversed, restore
Those treasured hours we hold so dear,
Bring back again those happy days
Which vivid to our minds appear.

Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County, Virginia. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003-2009 Phil James