Thursday, September 1, 2016

Back to School in Swain County

Swain County Schoolbuses, circa 1927
Source: Asheville Citizen Times, February 6, 1927

It's that time of year! The children of Swain County (including my own) have returned to school to start the 2016-2017 term. In lieu of a lengthy blog post this week, I'm sharing a few old pictures and notes/stories about the schools in Swain County in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Please note that 1) the pictures are not necessarily related to the text; and 2) some of the pictures are not of the highest quality, as they were pulled from old newspapers and old books.


Hightower School/Church on Needmore Road (still standing as the Hightower Church)
Photo provided by Linda Banwarth (with many thanks for this priceless piece of history).

What follows is an account of 'Bill Hamilton's'  first day of school.'Bill' appears to have lived in the greater Japan/Almond/Judson area and wrote about those communities for the Bryson City papers in the late 1800s.  As I cannot place a Bill or William Hamilton in Swain or Graham counties in the appropriate time period via the census records, it is possible that 'Bill Hamilton' was a pen name.  He was a very articulate man, and therefore it should be noted that his story below is strictly written 'tongue in cheek'. I have copied it verbatim from the newspaper in which it appeared.

"....My father, seein that I needed some schoolen, started me ter school, my first time in life so a week or so before hit was ter commence my good old mother, who was taken, hit seamed a relarm in amount of interest in her 'dear sun' learned me the A.B.C's and by good management and acasional use of the rod of kerection, succeeded in learnin me the alphabet, so on the morning school commenced. She fixed me dinner, consisten of a corn dodger, a piece of meat, and a quart bottle full of Butter milk and off I put ter the school house four miles distant.

In due time I arrived on the spot, quietly deposited me dinner under the door steps of the old log school house, and in I went, thinking I was a lucky boy, and one god had endowed with extra ordinary mental ability as soon as matters of that kind are ever done. I tooked a seat and that teacher told me to 'off with hat' which I did with rapidity, and flutter bation of mind. Then turning to me lesson (The Alfabet' and axed me what tha first letter was, I studied a little looking first at teacher then tha letter, and ter save me from Halifax I couldent annountit for him. Now said he 'You get this letter in your mind so you can tell me what it is by dinner time,' and left me ter work out on me own edecation with fear en trimlen , so I ruminated and spelt, quirked, twisted and choked and spelt at the tarnel old letter and never did make hit out. For I hade clean forgotten the name of hit, when dinner was announced I was one of the fust ter leave my seat. Fur I was a gitten tarnations hungry, an made for me dinner basket under the door steps, where I had place hit that morning, and lo and behold the tarnations free goer Hogs, had done wound that matter up. Havin clearned up every speck of dinner septen that big bottle of milk, which was found atter some sarchin.

Durin play time I axed a boy what the name of the fust letter was, and I kept sayin it over til the teacher hollered 'Books' and in we all went, me with the balance, still sayin over that letter. Dreekly that 'teacher' cum ter me, says 'Bill ye got that letter yet.' An I looked and every body in the house was looking right at me, I got excited, could feel me heart a beaten in me years, occasionally turnin blind, last I made out to get me mouth off and say 'A' very well said the teacher what is the next. Here I stalled again, Last he said 'what is it that stings boys sometimes' 'Yellow Jackets' said I. 'Oh you num skull you Bees' don't you know, so that is 'B'.

Now it is of no use ter say, that I said no more lessons that afternoon, and went home that evenin, proud ter say that I had at least gone to school one day in life....."
Bill Hamilton's Letter, The Bryson City Times
August 7, 1896

Fairview School, 1938
Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Georgia

First Almond School circa 1926/1927 (A newer school would be built shortly after this picture was taken, prior to the impounding of Fontana Lake; the new school sat on the current site of the Almond Boat Dock. The newest Almond School, where my brothers and I went to elementary school and where my parents worked, is now the site of Southwestern Community College's Swain County Campus).
Source: Asheville Citizen Times, February 6, 1927

Here's a description of a typical school day at the Cherokee Training School:

'.....The weekday program of exercises fitly illustrates the excellence of the superintendent's management, and explains the high order among schools which the Cherokee training school has attained. It is as follows; morning bell, 5 o'clock; breakfast, 5:30; industrial work, 6 to 9; school exercises, 9 to 11:15; dinner, 12 n; industrial work, 12:30 p.m.; school exercises, 1:30 to 4; industrial work, 4 to 6; supper, 6; recreation, 6:30 to 7; evening study, 7; evening prayers, 8; retiring bell, 8:30.'
Donaldson, Thomas. Indians, Eastern Band of Cherokees of North Carolina. 1892

Cherokee Training School and Students, circa 1889/1890
Source: Report on Indians, Taxed and not Taxed in the United States (Except Alaska), 11th US Census, 1890

The Old Soco Schoolhouse near the Macedonia Mission
Source: Report on Indians, Taxed and not Taxed in the United States (Except Alaska), 11th US Census, 1890

Here is a snippet regarding very early schooling in Swain County in an article written about John Sadoc Smiley, Swain County Schools' first superintendent:

  ".....In 1871......there were 15 primary schools, with teachers doing work through the seventh grade. It wasn't until Lucian Holmes, a college graduate, came here to teach the Bryson City school that it went higher. Mr. Smiley received his education in the little one room schools, going to his first school in 1854 in Macon County; his second on Little Alarka and in 1856 was in school at Cold Springs, these three being the free schools of Macon County at that time. (The reader is reminded that though these locations are known to be in Swain County today, they were in Macon County at the time - Swain County was not formed until 1871)  Mr. Smiley....taught the first school in Bryson in 1871-1872 that had a four months term. In those days the teachers were examined by a County Board of Examiners. In 1881 the office of County Superintendent of Public Education was created and the place given to Mr. Smiley which he held for nine years. His opinion was that he wasn't 'literary enough, but that he went ahead and did the best that he could but was criticized anyway'. He worked for uniformity of textbooks; for a higher standard of teaching and for a longer term. Mr. Smiley says that folks hadn't been used to schools and (he) thought that they ought to be as long as a working day, from sun-up to sun-down. The first schools opened at 8:45 and closed at four. In speaking of the work of some of the pioneer teachers, he said, 'their work was noble'."

Article on John Sadoc Smiley, written by Anne D. Bryson
Asheville Citizen-Times, May 6, 1928

Reverend John Sadoc Smiley, circa 1928
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times, May 6, 1928

Source: North Shore Historical Association newsletter, 1990

Asheville Citizen Times, 1927 and 1928
Linda Banwarth
National Archives and Records Administration, Atlanta
North Shore Historical Association newsletter, 1990
Report on Indians, Taxed and not Taxed in the United States (Except Alaska), 11th US Census, 1890


  1. John Sadoc Smiley was my great great grandpa. Arthur Lee Smiley Sr., his son was also Superintendent of Swain County schools for a time if I'm not mistaken. Arthur Lee Smiley Jr. was "Red" Smiley of the bluegrass duo "Reno and Smiley".
    I have a problem with the picture of Hightower Church and School. I remember the building as an L shape but the L was more of a squared up 7 with the top of the 7 having a partial basement under it. It didn't line up with the front of the building as the picture shows. If this makes any sense.
    The road in front of the church/school is accurate. I remember an old road that came across the hill, in front of the building and continued on over the hill and through the gap to Bull Holler where it joined where Needmore Road goes through now. At that time Licklog Road was up against the hill on the other side of the creek.
    The outhouse, when I went to church there, stood at the right center of the picture. There was a spring to the South a hundred yards or so with a drinking fountain below it. The fountain stayed stopped up most of the time and the spring stayed full of litter. One time we even found some of the locals' illegal beverages in it.
    My mother went to elementary school at Hightower School (1931-1938) and graduated from Almond High School (1938-1941) in the 11th grade (no 12th grade back then.) My father went to White Oak School on lower Sawmill Creek. He graduated the 7th grade about 1933 and never went to high school. I'm not sure there was even a high school accessible at that time. I went to the Almond Elementary School that still stands as a SWCC campus.

    The dates above are estimated.

    1. Hi Ed -
      I was hoping you would comment because you always have great input on these blogs. To my eye, the Hightower School picture looks as if it was taken in the late 1800's/early 1900's, so I'm wondering if the building might have been somewhat reconfigured after that time. It's interesting that your mother went to school there, as there was a state survey of the county schools in 1931 that recommended the closing of most of the small schools in order to consolidate them into the larger schools. I was unsure as to whether or not the school board had acted on some (or all) of the recommendations. It would seem that they did not, as your parents attended two of those schools. Do you happen to know exactly where on lower Sawmill Creek the White Oak school was, Ed, and why it was named 'White Oak'?

      I loved my time as a student at Almond School - I have a lot of great memories.

  2. Wendy,

    It would have had to have been the very late 1800's when the picture was taken. Did you notice the wooden basketball goal on what looks like a pine pole? Basketball wasn't invented until 1891.
    I am not sure of the exact location of White Oak School but I am fairly sure, according to what Daddy told me, it was down near the river. Perhaps in sight of it but above the flood plane. I am not so sure but I think the swinging bridge was built so children from across the river could come to White Oak School. I don't know the derivation of the name.
    I failed at first to pick up the fact that you attended Almond School. I went there from 1956 until 1964. I also have some great memories from those days. We had a black and white TV in the auditorium where we watched (or tried to) President Kennedy's funeral, Alan Shepherd's ride into space and John Glenn's first orbit of the Earth. The TV was so "snowy" sometimes we could barely make out the image. Cowan Wilkle was the principal then. When did you go there and what were your parents' jobs there?

    I appreciate what you are doing here. It looks like you don't have a lot of readers but it is top quality work. I sure hope you will continue it.

  3. I did see the basketball goal but didn't know that the sport was not invented until 1891 - great to know for the purposes of dating pictures.

    I attended Almond from approximately 1980 to 1984 (2nd through part of 6th grade). Dad taught 4th and 5th grades for quite a few years out there and had Jack Williams, Oma Taylor, and Gilda Dukes among his co-workers. My mom later became the librarian out there during the time it was Swain County Middle School. They worked out there when Danny Whatley and then Robert White were the principals. I enjoyed a lot out there - the fall festivals held in October, playing on the playground and on the baseball field, wondering about what was in the Quonset hut in the back, attending assemblies and putting on musicals in the auditorium, etc. I even get nostalgic about eating in the old cafeteria there and enjoying the freshly waxed wooden floors in the fall!

    I do remember taking a 'field trip' across the 4-lane to Mr. Wikle's rock shop. :-)

    I get an average of about 250 reads on each blog - much more on certain ones - the race riots entry was read by over 2000 people. Few comment, but I mainly do it because 1) I really enjoy it, 2) I think it's important work, and 3) It makes me SO happy to know the enjoyment it brings to people such as yourself. :-)

    1. I have recently discovered this blog and i am loving it. I also went to almond elementary school, I am a little younger but Mr. Robert White was my principal as well. Danny Whatley I deffinatley remember my older sister and cousins talking about how wonderful he was. I remeber Mrs. dukes and I had Mrs. Taylor as a first grade teacher, although I will have to say she was not my favorite.What was your mother the librarians name if you dont mind me asking? Thank you for this blog i have enjoyed all the information that you have shared.

    2. Do you have any more info on the Dehart family? i read an a blog you posted "more about the DeHarts" but i cant find it on this site anymore....?

  4. Oma Lee Marr Taylor was the best teacher I had in school. She was a robust figure (she had a good figure but proportionally larger than average). She was mild mannered and level headed. Just a nice person was my thoughts at the time. She was my teacher when I missed my one and only word on a spelling test. She is 83 and still amongst (I love that word) the living as far as I know. I wonder if she remembers me like I do her.

    Gilda McHan Dukes was my 3 cousin 2x removed. She wasn't there when I was.

    There was two Quonset huts when I was there. One next to the ball field and the other around back. F L Day was the janitor when I was in the eighth grade. One day he came into the class room and asked Mr. Wikle (who also taught eighth grade at the time) for six of the biggest boys in the room. I was 12 years old and weighed 149 pounds and none of it was fat(at that time.) Of course I was chosen to go. He took us out the right auditorium door and there in front of Quonset hut sat an Italian Isetta automobile. The kind that opened in front. A Steve Urkel car! I didn't think about the little car again until I saw a version of it on TV. Anyway, Mr. Day told us to get around the car and pick it up. We did and sat it in the Quonset hut. This one was setting on cinder blocks and was a foot or more off the ground. Quite a step up but we sat that little car up in that little building.

    I appreciate what you are doing here by allowing me to be back home for a little while, albeit it vicariously! Thank You!


  5. My mother used to sing the Almond High School song. I can only remember a few words.
    🎼 Black and Gold for Almond High School ♫
    ♫ Black and gold for Almond High School ♬

    Apparently the school colors were black and gold.

  6. Linda Fuller BourdonSeptember 5, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    I love this web site. I am a descendant of Annie Brendle Smiley, John Sadoc's mother and my GGGrandmother. I'm also interested in anything on Hamrick, Fuller, Dobbins, Cunningham as well as Brendle, Smiley. I love this picture of the school and John Sadoc Smiley.

    1. Diane Cunningham IsraelFebruary 21, 2019 at 6:24 PM

      Hello Linda,
      Annie Brendle Smiley is also my great great grandmother. John Sadoc's daughter Martha Jane Smiley is my grandmother. Just wanted to say hello cousin!
      Diane Cunningham Israel

  7. Hi Linda -
    Thanks so much for your readership - it means the world to me and keeps me motivated to write this blog.

    I have two blogs up with members of the Brendle and Cunningham families - one is 'A Goldmine Branch Childhood' and the other is entitled 'Departed this Life'.

    I have a better picture of John Sadoc Smiley as a younger man but preferred this one for the article as he looks the role of the seasoned 'professor'. I have an immense respect for this man and will write more in the future regarding him.

    Would you mind sending me information regarding the Fuller line you descend from? I'd enjoy chatting about that. I also try very hard to write stories specifically geared toward the family histories of my interested readers. The email address is

    Thank you again!

  8. Very interesting as I have been doing some Smiley research for a family member whose mother was Edith Smiley Moore, born at Japan(Jay-pan) about 1923. Edith was dau of Floyd Smiley,county surveyor.
    Don Byers

  9. I am looking for information on the Bryson City High School that I have a class ring from for 1927 which was found years ago. Is there anyone who might have any records for this school? Or would they be with the Swain County High School records? I didn't know there was a Bryson City High School, so I was confused when someone showed me this ring and wondered if there was anyway to find out who it belonged to. Sure the graduate is gone by now, but some family members might still be in Bryson. Any help you could give would be appreciated. Thanks, Robin Davis