The start of a new school year is a time of moaning for some students and one of rejoicing for others. It also allows those of us who have long left the hallowed halls and ivy-covered walls to reflect on our favorite nostalgic memories. Such was the case on Aug. 29, 1965 when Dorothy Hamill, the late Johnson City Press-Chronicle writer, wrote an article about Cedar Creek Academy that once was located in the Gray community of Washington County.
Dorothy obtained her facts from A. Preston Gray, who resided in Kingsport and had attended the school. The original edifice consisted of a large room downstairs and a smaller one upstairs. The property was bordered on one side by a well-fenced farm and on the other by a dirt road. Preston quipped by saying that the road often provided the school with frequent student breaks, which occurred anytime a shiny horse-drawn buggy, log wagon pulled by panting oxen with bowed heads, or a threshing outfit went by. The latter caused the air to became permeated with the smell of wood smoke and hot cylinder oil.
Preston recalled two teachers. One brought his bicycle to school. It was the first bike that many of the children had ever seen before. During recess, the teacher rode the two-wheeler around the playground with youngsters following him like guards protecting a presidential car. Gray envied another professor because he could afford celluloid cuffs that rattled when he erased the blackboard.
Those were the days when zinc water buckets and dippers were standard equipment in schools. Brass-toed boots became badges of distinction for boys. Many youngsters carried an assortment of comic valentines for their sweethearts and sticks of white Long Tom Chewing Gum in their pockets.
Pranks were a regular occurrence such as throwing a musket cap in the pot bellied stove and watching it explode, inserting a pin in the folding seat, which gave out a mysterious ting when pulled out and filling a squirt gun from the water bucket and producing a sudden shower onto the blackboard.
The school maintained a tradition of planting trees on school property twice a year, once on Arbor Day and again at Christmas. In addition, the building became a platform for orators, such as the Tennyson Literary Society that met there on Friday nights.
Other sources of entertainment included listening to 78-rpm phonograph records of such recording stars as Ada Jones and Billy Murray, lectures by humorists Josh Billings and Eli Perkins and a performance from actor Bill Nye. Another popular event was attending “Magic Lantern” presentations. The device was capable of projecting slide images from plates onto a screen or wall. The subjects were generally travel logs.
“There was good music too,” Gray remembered, “with banjo, fiddle, harmonica and autoharp. One entertainment was held to raise money to supply a bell for the belfry; nickels, dimes, quarters and silver dollars came rolling in.”
In those days, teachers worked for very low wages. A principal once told Gray of asking for a raise from $19 to $20 a month and being rejected. Teachers routinely furnished erasers, crayons and wood for the stove at their expense. A school tradition was for teachers to treat students at Christmas; failure to do so meant a ducking in the frigid waters of nearby Cedar Creek.
Gray concluded his interview with Hamill with these words: “The only day I remember missing was when my teacher advised me to miss school and attend a circus at Johnson City. It was worth far more than a day in school.”