Miss Sarah Thompson Dunn (1908–2005) taught in the schools of western Albemarle County for 42 years. Between 1914 and 1970, as a student and as a teacher, she witnessed a multitude of changes in the public school system.
Her first teaching post was at Midway schoolhouse, between Brownsville and Miller School. “The school had all size desks,” Miss Dunn recalled, “a broom and dust pan, a coal scuttle and a water bucket. There was a flat-top stove in the center of the room and a painted-green wall for a blackboard. The toilets were outside.”
Before each school day began, there were many duties to perform: bring in kindling from under the schoolhouse and start the fire; get in a scuttle of coal; go to a neighbor’s house for a bucket of water. After a full workday of teaching all of the school’s grades, time was required for clean-up: sweeping the floor, removing ashes from the stove, dusting, and washing the windows when needed. “And every Friday I had to oil the floor after school.” Her first year of “teaching” paid $65/month.
The one-room concept had its advantages as well as challenges. “The older children in a one-room school helped the smaller children,” said Miss Dunn. “We walked on field trips. Lunch, often carried in a tin bucket with a close-fitting top, was whenever we wanted to eat. Children often shared lunches.”
Elizabeth “Bettie” (Via) Gochenour (1882–1957) wrote, “I have a faint recollection of my first year in [Sugar Hollow] school, when I was learning my A-B-C’s. Mr. Robinson was my teacher, the only man teacher I ever had. We had a one-room log house with a little window in the west end, up high, and then a long window on one side with a shelf along the width of the window, where the children could sit and write. Of course, we had to take turns. Mr. Robinson had a switch, possibly as long or longer than a buggy whip. If he caught you whispering, he gave you a little tap on the shoulder. That little log house was a crude affair. We had benches made from slabs—the first piece you saw off a log—turned bark-side down and legs put on. We didn’t have to sit on that bench long because Father made us a bench, a real bench, with a back to it. Were we proud!”
Louise (Wood) Austin (1909–1993), daughter of Joe and Winkie (Belew) Wood, attended first grade, 1916–17, at one-room Bellwood School on the mountain at Jarmans Gap. The school likely borrowed its name from nearby Bellwood Fruit Farm where her father, a teamster and game warden, helped prune fruit trees in season.
During a 1975 interview conducted by John Dooms, Louise recalled her earliest school days: “We walked to a little one-room school up [South Fork Moormans River Road, in Sugar Hollow] called Bellwood School. The teachers stayed and boarded with us. My first teacher was Miss Pauline Hamilton, from Shadwell, and the next one was Miss Delma Thacker, from Schuyler, Virginia. I remember the first day I went to school, the teacher asked me to say my A-B-C’s and I wouldn’t do it and I had to stand in the corner. I knew them, but I wouldn’t say them.”
In 1915, the Daily Progress reported, “In Albemarle County, last session, there were 178 teachers in the 115 schools…”
At Mountfair, north of White Hall on Brown’s Gap Turnpike, a new, two-story school with multiple classrooms was proposed in 1915, and land was purchased in 1916. When it was opened, it “cut out [five] small schools in this section, [including] the [Brown’s] Cove School, near Mr. Almond Bruce’s; the school near the lower gate on the farm of Mr. Hugh Antrim; Blackwell’s Hollow School; Bluff Dale School, back of Doylesville; and the school called Via’s School, back of Mr. James W. Early’s farm [off of Via Lane.]” A teacher reported, “The school children have taken a great deal of interest in making an exhibit for the Fair this year. This is the first school entry they have ever made. Owing to the numerous classes in the one-room schools in previous years, so little time could be devoted to extra work.”
“Large schools in [Albemarle County’s] mountainous sections are rapidly becoming depopulated…” stated a November 1929 news article.
“A thriving school conducted for years at Brown’s Gap near the dividing line of Albemarle and Rockingham counties has been abandoned for want of children. The school near Black Rock Springs [Via School, on North Fork Moorman’s River] not far from the Albemarle-Augusta line, has likewise passed into history for the same reason. Sugar Hollow, a school near the city’s source of water supply, provides only 18 children. Boonesville [Gentry School], once a three-teacher school has become a one-teacher school, while the Prize Hill School, only two miles away has been closed because of lack of attendance. All of the above mentioned schools are in or near the proposed Shenandoah Park area.”
Meanwhile, a reporter for Flint Hill School [on Ballards Mill Road near Millington] in 1926, said, “We have curtains for our windows now, and we try to keep our room as neat and attractive as possible.” That schoolhouse is, today, a private residence.
“The twelve children who have finished the fifth grade [in 1924, at Lone Pine School] and who are now attending the Meriwether Lewis School, are very much pleased with the new school truck, which operates between Free Union and Meriwether Lewis. Rockfield School, located near Ivy, in 1934, had only 17 pupils who attended classes in a one-room building.” In 1935, Rockfield, too, was consolidated with Meriwether Lewis.
Just west of Charlottesville, on or adjacent to Birdwood Farm, children attended Reservoir Public School, in 1909; Ridgeview School, in 1917; and Birdwood School, at Wood’s Crossing, in the early 1920s, before it was lost to fire in 1925.
In the Owensville community near Garth Road, white students attended High Point School in 1903, Garth’s Schoolhouse in 1914, and Woodland School in 1917. African American students attended Oak Union School. In the Batesville area were schools named Appleberry Mountain, Batesville, Edgewood, and Farina.
These school names and others, once a source of healthy pride and shared identity within rural communities, have slipped from social consciousness. So many little schoolhouses—most not mentioned here—are now only faintly recalled or long-forgotten. Each one, when its doors closed on that fateful “last day of school,” brimmed with special memories of a time and way of life now lost.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. 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 © 2003–2023 Phil James