Few things are more nostalgic than the thought of an old schoolhouse with its resounding bell, tin ceilings, rough-hewn wood floors, black potbellied stove, desks with inkwells and slate blackboards. The rope or hand-operated bell’s toll echoed across the vast countryside each weekday, beckoning youngsters to and from school.

A 1912 poem, “Song of the School Bell,” by John Everett says: “Each day at nine are loudly sung, Clear greetings from my iron tongue, While children rush with romp and race, As though to meet my fond embrace.” This device’s distinctive wistful sound caused scurrying little feet to react each time it interrupted the silence. Community schools served the learning needs of rural children until farms grew larger and families became fewer.

When my great grandfather, Samuel Bowman, died in 1905, his obituary notice acknowledged that he once attended Swadley's Schoolhouse and “obtained what, at that time, was a fair education.” Not being familiar with this center of learning, I found reference to it in a 1969 Johnson City Press-Chronicle article by the late Dorothy Hamill.

The original school was built about 1870 by Henry Swadley on land along Oakland Avenue near the base of Master Knob. Noah Sherfey was principal and teacher; he was also a local minister. Four years later, a larger building, carrying the identical name, was erected on land just a few yards from the former school.

About this same time, Pastor Sherfey purchaseda hand-operated bell for the new facility. Noah’s son, Paul Sherfey, later inherited the bell from his father, describing it as being slightly larger than 4×7 inches. The solid brass bell, according to Sherfey, had a distinct tone, was clear, loud and commanding; it could be heard across a fairly wide vicinity.

During the 1875-76 school year, students in the advanced history class were engaged in a study about Princeton University in New Jersey. The youngsters were so engrossed by the Ivy League institution’s name that they successfully convinced school officials to change the name of their school to Princeton School.

Noah taught at the newly named school for two years and then became employed at Union School on the Bristol Highway. The educator returned to his former institution about a year later. Sherfey served at Union School for another stint, eventually becoming a teacher in Sullivan County until shortly before his death in 1918.

Paul acquired the program for the closing of school in 1879, written in his father’s handwriting. The ceremony began with music, an address of welcome and a series of declamations and recitations by students. Mrs. Leighton wrote and read an essay on “The Beauties of Nature” and J.W. Scalf made a presentation on Indians. Another interesting relic was an 1883 contract for Noah to teach penmanship at Princeton during a 10-day summer period. The agreed upon pay was one dollar.

Paul Sherfey also inherited a collection of 13 pens from his father; some had broad, flat, serrated points and were termed shading pens, being of varying widths. An additional possession was a speech written by the senior Sherfey and delivered before a group of educators asking for “Uniformity of Textbooks.”

Although the old school bell’s metallic tongue no longer articulates for the students, the old building continues in service today as Princeton Arts Center.  

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The end of each high school year signals the distribution of much anticipated annuals. I purchased a 1925 Science Hill High School yearbook, The Wataugan, having belonged to Billy Joe Crouch, a senior with impressive student credits.

I find it heartrending that what was once a priceless possession of Ethie, as he was called, became an object of financial gain eighty-one years later. This was the fifth volume of the Wataugan. The school year began on Monday, September 8, 1924 and concluded on Tuesday, May 26, 1925.

This educational institution is alternately referred to in the periodical as Johnson City High School and Science Hill High School. Two students, Ada Gray and Mallie Martin died that year and were each honored with a four-verse memorial poem. The senior class motto, color and flower were “Post proelium praemium” (After the battle, the reward) and “Purple Iris” respectively.

Surprisingly, the 70 senior photographs were not alphabetized. The sophomores and juniors had their photos displayed but without their names. I recognized one prominent individual, Howard McCorkle, the president of the sophomore class. He later became superintendent of Johnson City public schools. Of the 27 faculty members listed, I recall three: E.E. Hawkins, A.C. Graybeal and Margaret King. The latter was my principal at Henry Johnson School when I attended there between 1950 and 1956.

The library had bookcases that were attractive pieces of furniture, each containing five shelves and placed side by side. A view of one wall shows seven such units.

Men’s sports included football, basketball and baseball; the ladies had only basketball. The cheerleading squad comprised three ladies and two men. Two unusual photos were made of the baseball team. The first shows them facing the camera with “Johnson City” embedded on their shirts. The second is an unflattering posterior view containing the names of their sponsors: Quick Service Tire Company, Hotel John Sevier, Free Service Tire Company, Joe Summers Agency, Masengills, Harrison’s Studio, Tenn. Nat’l Bank, Busy Bee Cafe, Tenn. Trust Co., Unaka City Nat’l Bank, Vee Bee Grocery and J.C. Steam Laundry.

The senior class’s play, “The Charm School,” was presented in three acts. Billy Joe Crouch had the part of George Boyd, “an expert accountant.” Another page contained jokes, personalized with the names of both teachers and students. Even the superintendent got into the act: “Supt. Rogers (addressing the student body): ‘Never be sure of yourself, students; no one but a fool or a hypocrite is sure of himself.’ Jordan: ‘Are you sure, Professor?’ Prof. Rogers: ‘Absolutely sure, my boy, absolutely sure.’”

The last several pages of the annual contained old ads, one purchased by 13 well-known area doctors: Dr. E.T. West, Dr. H.R. Miller, Dr. Ward Friberg (my delivery room doctor), Dr. L.K. Gibson, Dr. G.E. Campbell, Dr. J.W. Wallace, Dr. N.E. Hartsook, Dr. W.E. Swan, Dr. J.G. Moss, Dr. H.M. Cass, Dr. R.C. Miller, Dr. C.R. Smathers and Dr. W.S. Weaver.

A page near the end of the yearbook had these poignant words: “If this little volume does nothing more than bind you a little closer to the school we all love, and in later years, become a source of happy reminiscences of high school days, we shall not have worked in vain.”

Mr. Crouch, your work was certainly not in vain.  

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 It was known as the school held together by chewing gum, but on March 4, 1974, all the chicle in the world could not have saved it. The massive three-story brick edifice at Roan Street and Fairview Avenue fell victim to a huge wrecking ball.

A 1936 student handbook offers a glimpse of what it was like attending classes there. The school opened in September 1922 with Miss Regina Eiseman as principal. By 1936, enrollment was 1078 students. Mr. A.E. Sherrod was principal and Mr. Roy Bigelow, Washington County superintendent. This melting pot school initially served the seventh and eighth grades, the ninth grade being added in 1938.

Prior to that, students attended classes at Science Hill High School, located a few blocks south down Roan Street. Junior High School had 68 classrooms, 2500 volume library, bookstore, gymnasium, cafeteria, large U-shaped basketball courtyard and a large 1000-seat auditorium. In addition, the Home Economics Department had an impressive five-room “model home,” containing a living room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen and bath.

The academic year was divided into two semesters: 7B, 8B and 9B for the first and 7A, 8A and 9A for the second. Required subjects for 9A were English, Algebra, Civics, Spelling, Writing, Guidance and Library. Electives for 9A were Latin, Manual Arts, General Science, Sewing and Cooking, and a choice between Music, Physical Education and Bible. Students needed 148 credits to graduate to high school.

The school utilized a “Junior Patrol,” consisting of 13 specially selected students wearing wide white belts, carrying bright red flags and directing pedestrian traffic around the facilities. The facility provided a first floor room where students could park their bicycles during the day. They were rolled through the northeast Myrtle Avenue door and down the steps to a designated room.

Cafeteria food was priced at five cents per item with four crackers allotted with a bowl of soup and two with a salad. A slice of bread was allowed with each vegetable purchased.

Football, basketball and tennis were the main sporting events. The official school song, sung to the tune “Till We Meet Again,” contained these highly spirited words: ”Junior High, the school I love best; Junior High, the fount of joy and jest; Junior High, where friendships true; Make the world a brighter hue; Junior High, where loyalty’s the test; Junior High, whose mottos well professed; He profits most who serves the best; Junior High, All hail! T-E, A-M, T-E, A-M. Team! Team! Team!”

These astute words were found in the handbook: “Many thrilling examples of honest mutual admiration between victor and vanquished may be gleaned from the history of warfare, as when Grant handed back the sword of surrender to Lee.”

 The school published a student paper, initially called “The Broadcaster,” so named after a student contest. Later, the publication was renamed, “The Junior High News.” An annual school tradition was the graduating class’s “farewell” drama, performed on the auditorium stage. The 1936 play was titled, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Junior High School’s once imperative task was successfully relegated to its offsprings, Indian Trail Middle School and Science Hill High School, allowing the long deceased, gum-reinforced institution to rest in peace.

If you have other remembrances of this old school, let me hear from you. 

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Harriet Barkei, formerly of Johnson City, wrote me sharing additional memories of West Side School. We attended separate classes there during the 1949-1950 school year.

She remembers an early morning ritual: “The school had a bell tower, and the principal, Mr. Mahoney, pulled the rope hanging in the upstairs hallway and rang the big bell every morning to call us ‘youngins’ to school.” Ms. Barkei recalled that there were three entrances to the building:Watauga Avenue (west side, with “Built in 1907” inscribed over the door), Main Street (north) and the side facing downtown (east).

She further commented: “The principal’s office was opposite the Main Street entrance. The doors to the first floor rooms were on a diagonal, making the large inside hall an octagon. There were large cloakrooms by the side of each classroom. The classrooms had thick wooden doors with glass transoms on top that could be opened to let a breeze through without opening the door. Those were the days before air conditioning.”

Harriet remembered the little white chairs at the back of the room, where Miss Taylor held her reading circles: “My first grade readers were the Dick and Jane books, written in the 1930s. The famous sentence in those primers was “See Spot Run.”

By 1949, the school had switched to the John C. Winston Company, “Easy Growth In Reading” series, ten books authored by Gertrude Hildreth. Our first book was titled, At Play, with siblings, Bob and Nancy, and their pets, Mac (a black Scottie dog) and Muff (a calico colored cat). How well I remember these characters.

The former student recalled all six of her teachers: Mildred Taylor (first), Mrs. Deer (second), Miss Tomlinson (third), Mrs. Sisk (fourth), Miss Adams (fifth) and Miss Ruth Martin (sixth). The music teacher, Mrs. Meek, was one of her favorites: “When I was in the first grade, she saw that I had a loose tooth, and she tied a string around it and pulled it out for me right during music class.”

Harriet and I both remember the two unique disciplinary techniques used by Miss Taylor: “She would either shake your ear or grab you by the chin and rattle your teeth.” She further recalled the weekly assembly programs on the second floor: “We attended assembly every Friday morning. It always started out with Bible reading and prayer. I was the mother bear in the first grade play, given on one Friday morning and later repeated for a PTA meeting. What fun!”

Today, the only vestiges of this former grammar school are the block walls and concrete steps at the northwest corner of the property. Harriet recollects that these blocks matched the foundation blocks of the school.

The concluding lyrics to “School Days” seem to lament the passing of this and other old schools: “Member the hill, Nellie Darling; And the oak tree that grew on its brow?; They've built forty stories upon that old hill; And the oaks an old chestnut now. 'Member the meadows so green dear; So fragrant with clover and maize; Into new city lots and preferred bus'ness plots; They've cut them up since those days.” 

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“School days, school days; Dear old golden rule days; Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic; Taught to the tune of a hick-ry stick.”

Composers Will Cobb and Gus Edwards wrote that nostalgic song in 1907, the same year that West End School (later renamed West Side School) opened along what was then the west section of town. The massive box-shaped brick building stood on high ground at 265 W. Main Street in the southeast intersection with Watauga Avenue, facing the Holston Apartments to the north.

I attended the first grade there during the 1949-1950 school year. The principal was Mr. Mahoney; my teacher was Miss Mildred Taylor, for whom I have fond memories. Grades 1-3 were on the first floor, grades 4-6 and the auditorium on the second and the cafeteria and bathrooms in the basement.

Surprisingly, first grade students attended classes for only four hours each weekday, with students assigned a morning or afternoon shift. I was given a morning one. Miss Taylor's room was on the southwest corner of the first floor and contained several long tables as opposed to individual desks.

On our first day of school, Miss Taylor read us the Scandinavian folktale, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff. It involved three goats individually crossing a bridge and being targeted as a tasty meal by an ugly evil troll hiding under it. The story concludes with the biggest and tastiest goat physically and graphically disposing of the menacing troll. Miss Taylor’s foot stomping imitation, “trip, trap, trip, trap,” of the goats crossing the bridge still echoes in my memory. Perhaps she chose this violent tale to ensure that we behave in class, lest we fall victim to the same fate. The only punishment I received that year was a mild scolding, resulting from my talking to a cute little red-haired girl sitting at my table.

During recess, the boys played separately from the girls. We cared less what the girls did; they were out of sight and out of mind, at least for a few pleasant minutes. The boys tossed a basketball onto a sloped tin roof over a small storage shed that was attached along the east side of the building. We each fought for the ball so we could throw it back.

Twice a day at a designated time, Miss Taylor led us down some narrow steps to the basement bathrooms. On my first visit, I observed a long ceramic water trough firmly attached along one wall, something I had never seen before. After a brief few seconds of keen observation, I quickly added it to my restroom repertoire.

We next formed two lines on the steps leading back to the first floor, being instructed not to talk, not so much as a whisper. If anyone talked, we were instructed to point our fingers at the guilty parties until Miss Taylor arrived to identify and punish the offenders. This was my first experience at “finger pointing.”

Over time, West Side School slowly relinquished its role to Henry Johnson as the west end school. It was razed in 1961, making room for the Watauga Square Apartments.

In my next column, I will share additional West Side memories from Harriet Barkei, a former resident of our city.

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