If Walls Could Talk

Ronnie Mincey

Hello, everyone. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Oak Grove. I am a two-room school building in the Sharps Chapel area of Union County. Let me tell you a little about myself.

If you were to search for records on me, about the oldest you would find are from the registers kept by teachers. These registers were and continue to be legal documents. Still in 2018, registers are often used to verify a birthdate for a former student who has no birth certificate and needs proof of birth for social security, disability, and other benefits.

Many fascinating facts are recorded in the registers. Every Tennessee public school teacher was required to keep a register of his/her class, and each principal had to keep one for the entire school. The earliest registers contained detailed information on a number of students (e.g., attendance, age, grade to which assigned, grades given for subjects, graduation information, parents and their places of employment/occupation, addresses, phone numbers) and school related items (e.g., inventories, condition of the building, square footage, date of construction, value of property). At the close of each school year, every teacher and principal was required to sign and have notarized an affidavit located on the first page of the register that the contents were accurate to the best of their knowledge. All registers for the Union County Public School System are on file at the Union County Board of Education Central Office in Maynardville.

These earliest register for me is for the school term beginning July 25, 1932 and ending March 10, 1933. I’m so old that my memory sometimes fails me, so I will consider these registers as my “diaries”.

The student who lived farthest from me was a third grader who lived two and one-half miles away. A school day for him would have included a five-mile walk, round-trip. In the early days, there were lots of small schools located within walking distance, for motor transportation to and from school was not widely provided by either families or the district until the years following World War II. As district-provided public transportation to and from school for every child became more widespread, it became cheaper to consolidate many smaller schools into one larger school. This is what happened to me and three of my sister schools (Union, Rush Strong, and Big Sinks). The four of us were closed as schools and our student bodies consolidated into the brand-new Sharps Chapel Elementary School in the fall of 1965. The last register for me was for school term 1964-1965, when I ceased to function as a school.

But thanks to those registers, my memories are recorded. In 1932-33, my teachers were Mr. and Mrs. H. E. and Duetta Anderson, who lived in the Sharps Chapel community. There was no what is now called “Kindergarten”—we had “Primer” classes. Ms. Anderson taught 61 students in Primer through fourth grade (14 dropped and 11 were retained or “held back”). Mr. Anderson served as principal for the entire school and taught 56 students in fifth through eighth grades (17 dropped and 18 were retained) and served as principal.

And this, what would in 2018 be called “chronic absenteeism” and “high dropout rate”, signified the times. The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, and most of my students were from poor families that seemed to have more mouths than there were hands to feed them. Lots of students had to quit school to help work the family farms just to provide enough food for the family to survive. You will notice the dropout rate was higher in the upper than the lower grades, and attendance was better when there was less planting and harvesting to be done. That was why school started in July and ended in March—between spring plantings. Fall harvest continued to pose a problem for the attendance rate.

Teachers, along with doctors and lawyers, were considered in those days as some of the most highly regarded and well-paid members of the community. It was not considered nice to discuss money matters in those Depression days, but Tennessee public school teacher salaries were (as they are now) public record as they were paid with tax dollars. For the 1932-33 school term, Ms. Anderson was paid $75.00 per month, and Mr. Anderson $82.50. Only preachers shared the level of respect of these professionals, though they usually earned no salary at all, living on donations from the members of the flocks they served.

As will be noted later, the Andersons did not return to teach the following school term. Mr. Anderson did not list my original date of construction in his “Teacher’s Annual Property Report”, though his successor Nelson Chesney noted it to be 1895. Though at the time Mr. Anderson completed his report I was only 38 years old, he described my condition as dilapidated. I had two rooms, 1,008 and 740 square feet. Though my walls were described as “very good”, my steps “good”, my windows “fairly good” and my flues or chimneys “fair”, my floor was described as “poor”. My roof leaked in the valleys and had no gutters. Mr. Anderson called my doors “makeshift”. I had neither basement, ventilation system, nor paint at all. Mr. Anderson described my underpinning and foundation as “rocks and blocks of wood used for piers”.

I was heated with an “ordinary” stove; obviously, there was one in each room, as Mr. Anderson noted that one stove grate was needed in room two. The ratio of glass to floor area was listed as 1:13 in room one (Mr. Anderson noted that room one needed more windows) and 1:8 in room two. Both rooms had light from two sides.

My furnishings in 1932-33 otherwise consisted of 15 single and 42 double “patent” desks. Mr. Anderson described them as “new seats, good, old seats, great many (broken).” There was also one bookcase, six chairs, two recitation seats, 12 erasers and two coal buckets.
There were 18 square yards of blackboard, described by Mr. Anderson as “board painted and cardboard”.

In answer to, “What precaution has been taken for the safety of furniture, equipment, and supplies?”, Mr. Anderson wrote, “The windows and doors have been securely fastened.” He also noted on his affidavit page at the close of the school year: “The west door is locked and should be opened by the teacher next year. The other doors and windows are nailed.”

The source of water for the students and teachers was a spring not on the grounds (which consisted of one acre valued at $50 for the grounds and $150 for the building and heating plant discussed above). Arrangements for drinking were individual drinking cups and common dippers. There were no toilets for either boys or girls.

In summary, Mr. Anderson recommended more windows in room one, 48 additional square feet of blackboard, toilets, and “a new house” as the repairs and improvements needed at the end of the 1932-33 school year.

Times were going to get better for both me and the students I housed. Next week I’ll share how this happened.

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