Sunday, November 18, 2018

Landscapes of Old Schools - White Oak (Updated)

At the request of superintendent Charles Carroll, a representative from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction performed a complete survey of Swain County's schools. The survey was begun in September 1932 and ended in June 1933. The report produced provides fascinating insight into the state of schooling in our mountain county during the Great Depression, and even better - contains pictures of the schools that were visited. I will be using this report in upcoming articles to highlight the past (and current) landscapes of the old schools that once dotted Swain County.
(Note: shortly after publishing the original article on the school, Clifford King - mentioned below - called to update me on true location of the school, which is not what I had previously understood the location to be. He graciously volunteered to take me to the school site so that I could see it and take pictures. We made this trek today [11/25/2018] and I have updated the article accordingly.)
White Oak #1 School
Source: Swain County Schools Consolidation Report (1933)
Swain County once had two one-room schools that bore the name "White Oak". White Oak #1 was situated at the confluence of Sawmill Creek and the Little Tennessee River. Thanks to Lillian Thomasson's extensive research for her book on the early educational history of Swain County, we can know with certainty that the school was operating  at least as early as 1892. It likely operated from at least 1890, as an article in the 1890 Swain County Herald mentions White Oak as a voting location.

Source: 1936 Wesser Quadrangle, USGS;
Discussion with Cliff King

During the time the school was in operation, no "School Board" proper existed; instead, the school districts were represented by "School Committeemen". During the year in which the consolidation survey took place, White Oak was represented by William Thomas Davis (1865-1952), William Roby Howard (1876-1952), and Abraham "Abie" DeHart (son-in-law of William Roby Howard), all of whom lived in close proximity to the school.

William Thomas Davis
Source: C Todd Young on

William Roby and Susan (Slagle) Howard
Source: Swain County Heritage Book

Abie DeHart, wife Lizzie (Howard, daughter of William Roby Howard above), and children
Source: Greg Gilbert on and Mother June (DeHart) Gilbert
Schoolteachers known to have taught at the school were Lucy Henry (as there were several Lucy Henry's living in North Carolina, her full identity is not certain), Vonnie West (1886 - 1976), and a Ms. Wilhide (first name unknown).
Vonnie West
With an enrollment of 33 students and an average daily attendance of 24 at the time of the 1932/33 survey, it is certain that hundreds of Swain County children attended the school over the years it was in operation. Few of their identities are known, however, some are, including:
  • Fred Ammons (father of faithful blog reader Ed Ammons)
  • Rufus King (father of another faithful blog reader, Cliff King)
  • Some of the children of Abie DeHart
Fred Ervin Ammons
Source: son Ed Ammons

Catherine (McHan) King with children Mary Jane and Rufus Veary
Source: Cliff King/Fran Rogers

Children of Abie and Lizzie DeHart
Back Row L-R: Lambert, Percival, George, and Onley
Front Row L-R, Ralph, Kate, and Arvil
Source: Greg Gilbert on and mother June (DeHart) Gilbert
Another family whose children attended White Oak was that of William Roby Howard. Recently, I had the great honor of talking to his youngest child who is the only member of the family still living. Lexie (Howard) Winchester was born in January 1926 and attended the school for about 2 years - for 1st and 2nd grades (she went to the Bryson City School after the White Oak school was closed). At the age of 92, she is likely to be the last living former pupil there. She had some fond memories of the school that she shared with me, and I hope you'll enjoy them. In places I have moved text around to make the reading more linear, but Lexie's speech is copied almost verbatim.
"I lived off 28 south, but there was a trail we always walked on to school. The schoolhouse was right on the Tennessee River. I walked about 2 and a half miles down there every day. I always kind of liked school, you know? I always went to school - I never laid out.  I was the only one of the 12 children who finished high school. They all quit when they got old enough - you could quit school when you got through the 7th grade. My other siblings - by the time they were grown, they moved other places where they could find jobs. There were no jobs here at that time.
Three of the Howard girls. Lexie is on the right and appears to
be around 6 or 7 - the age at which she attended White Oak.
Source: Lisa Sutton (daughter of Lexie Winchester)
There was one woman - Miss Henry was her name. I guess she was my 1st grade teacher. There was a Miss Wilhide who taught there at one time but she was not my teacher - she was there before I ever went. She taught 1st through 7th grades there. The school year went the same in the little country school schools as in Bryson City - 8 or 9 months.  The schoolhouse faced the playground - the boys played ball and the girls played whatever. There was no equipment of any kind. (Note: Rufus King reported that there was a swing that hung off the large oak tree that White Oak was named for, however, Lexie did not remember it. Lexie's son, Larry, stated that the boys would chase the squirrels up the tree.)

We were all in one big room - 1st through 7th grade. The older kids, like kids who were in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, when the teacher was working with the older kids, they helped the little First graders with their spelling and arithmetic. The older kids helped the smaller kids a lot while she was teaching the higher grades, like teacher assistants I guess. (I asked about corporal punishment here.) They used a paddle, because I know I got it used. The older ones, I don't know what they used. But the little ones, they would just paddle your hand if you were talking or misbehaving. I got a lot of little paddlings on my hands for talking.

(I asked if she remembered it being cold in the winter). Well, it certainly was (cold). There was a woodstove in the schoolhouse - it was heated I guess with wood. I don't know if they used coal or not. It was an old fashioned stove with a stovepipe going out the top. That heated the whole room. There was no insulation, I don't guess, in the building. It was one big open room with a wood stove in the middle, why, you wouldn't freeze to death, but it was cold in there. When it snowed and was bad, there were times that they didn't have school when kids couldn't walk to get there.

(I asked if the teacher had boarded in the community.)Yes, I remember Miss Henry boarded with an old Dehart family that was not too far from the school. She lived there with the old lady and her husband.  If she had a car, I didn't know anything about it.

(I asked about friends or other classmates.) I don't remember any girls my age (at school). There was one family who lived right across the river from the schoolhouse - their name was Cabe. They had several kids. I think the girls were older than me. They had a boy about my age (Percival) that I went to school with but there were 2 or 3 other kids in the family and sometimes they would come to school across the river in a boat and take the boat back to the other side of the river when they got out in the evenings. Further down from where they lived there was a bridge across the river - a swinging bridge, they called it, but it was a good ways down from their house. Lots of times they would come across the river to school in a boat and go back home the same way - it was closer."

Lexie Winchester (left) with her mother, Susan (Slagle) Howard
Look at the dresses - they appear to be made of the same fabric.
Source: Lisa Sutton (daughter of Lexie Winchester)
Lexie would almost certainly have been in the 1st grade when the school survey was completed.  The inspector stated the following in his report about the school:
  • Organization: Census 40, enrollment 33, average daily attendance 24. Percentage of students promoted 43.2%. There is 1 teacher; index of teacher training - 600. There are 6 grades and the school term is 6 months.
  • Grounds: very inaccessible and wholly inadequate for school use.
  • Building: poorly constructed, inadequately lighted; very bad in all respects. Fair pupil desks and seats. Water bucket with dipper. Toilets are over the river (Note: this was corroborated by Cliff King, whose father had told him this), the whole situation is deplorable.
  • Recommendation: Make every possible effort to abandon this school at once. Consolidate and transport the students to the Bryson City School.
The White Oak for which the school was named.
Photo taken from the school site, looking toward the river.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Swain County paid heed to the recommendation. White Oak #1 appears to have been closed in 1934 but the school remained standing for quite some time thereafter. For a time, at least one family called it home. Cliff King also recalled playing in the empty building as a child - remembering a blackboard painted on the front wall and a bell in the attic. When he was older, he boated tobacco from his brother's fields across the river and hung it to dry in the old schoolhouse.

Sadly, Cliff related that the school was burned by arson in the early 1960s.

The school site - the playground would have been in the foreground.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Cliff King standing at approximately the site of the school's front door.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
Today, if you're willing to walk a bit and get a little wet, you can still visit the site of the old school. It's a beautiful, secluded, and peaceful spot along the river. Walk on the old road built by Joseph Welch and the old settlers of the county nearly 200 years ago - the road traveled by many a young child on their way to school. Stand on the river bank and touch the gorgeous old white oak the school was named for. Drink from the spring that supplied the students' water. Look across and up the river at the old tobacco fields and at the site of the Cabe home and imagine a little boy and his siblings setting out in their boat to come to school each day from there.

Looking upriver from the school. Floyd King's tobacco fields can be seen across the river in about the middle of the picture. The Cabe home sat on the hill to the right.
Photo by Wendy Meyers
And then stand in the playground area and imagine the children scampering about. If you sit still and listen quietly, you can almost hear their laughter.

Carol Cochran
Clifford King
C. Todd Young
Ed Ammons
Fran Rogers
Greg and June (DeHart) Gilbert (pictures of DeHart family)
Larry Winchester
Lexie Winchester (interview on August 18, 2018)
Lisa Sutton (pictures of Howard family)
Swain County, Early History and Educational Development (author: Lillian Franklin Thomasson)
Swain County Heritage Book
Swain County Schools consolidation report, 1932-33
United States Geological Survey (1936)