Perhaps it’s that I’m the son of a school principal, and had run of the various schools that I attended growing up. Perhaps it was the many reunions and covered dish suppers our family attended in various country community centers. Perhaps it was even because I spent college summers working maintenance – painting and waxing all of the schools in our district. It might, in some small part, have something to do with my own long career as an educator. Whatever the reason, I’ve always had a fascination with school architecture. Just about any school can be interesting, but what catches my attention most are the old wooden framed country schools.
Driving through the country these are easy to spot. The architecture is distinctive. The buildings tend to be squarish with hipped roofs. If it’s got an old bell tower, all the better.
Well, OK, they don’t all have to be white frame. There are some cool old brick schools, too.
Browsing this collection got me thinking about these old schools. They are great subjects for photography, and an excellent symbol of a bygone time. I wanted to see if I could find more of these old schools, and that meant making a list of potential targets using Google Earth.
I first went to my collection of South Carolina place names from the USGS’s Geographical Name Server. All (or most) of the schools in South Carolina are included in this list. When I did a search for schools in the database, I came up with over 5000 place names. That includes current schools still being used as such. The number was far too high, so I had to have a way to narrow it down.
In the GNIS data, items that no longer exist have “(historical)” appended to the name. That doesn’t necessarily mean the building is no longer standing. It only means that it no longer serves the function as that particular school. So, for example, “Shiloh School (historical)” is now a dilapidated building in Anderson County and no longer a school, but that old building is still a marvelous subject for photography. I went back to my SC Names database and queried it for schools that have the historical designation applied. That narrowed the number to just over 2000 – still far too large.
As I worked with the data I discovered lots of potential problems. First, there seemed to be duplicate names. In the image below, two locations are shown for “Peak School (historical)” a couple of miles from each other in Newberry County. You may have to click the image to enlarge it.
I came up with two explanations. First, the original school may have been built at one location, but when a new school was needed, it was built on different land and the school was moved. That new school also eventually closed. Both names are valid – there was a Peak School at both of those locations.
In some cases the same name was used for segregated schools. For example, the name “Calhoun Falls School” was used for both black and white schools, as seen in these two photographs from the SC Archives insurance collection.
Note the designation “colored” on one of the photographs. Also note the disparity between the buildings. The phrase “separate but equal” certainly didn’t hold up when you compared facilities.
…but back to my datasets…
I needed a way to narrow down my huge database so I could find historic schools that might still be standing. From personal experience I knew that many of these old buildings became community centers. I’ve attended covered dish meals at Long Branch Community Center and have gone to family reunions at the Kirksey Community Center, both former schools. Last year I had the privilege of attending the dedication of the Hope School Community Center, a former Rosenwald School. This trend continues today. In the district where I work the former Lyman Elementary School now houses the Middle Tyger Community Center, which is a vital part of the town.
I went back to my database and did a query for names that contained the phrase “community center”. It only came up with 26 hits, but it was a start. When I opened that dataset in Google Earth, I found several matches with locations of historical schools. I used the Google Earth overhead imagery and Streetview images to confirm that these buildings were still standing. Here is the Bethesda Community Center, confirmed through Google Earth:
As you can see from this image, sometimes there are discrepancies between where the GNIS database lists a location, and where that building actually stands. This often made finding the buildings in Google Earth difficult. As I located confirmed buildings I marked these in a separate Google Earth set. In addition to the buildings I was able to cross-reference and confirm, there were several that I had visited and photographed before, such as the old Shiloh school. I added these to my list of confirmed schools.
While searching for the schools I noticed some interesting trends. Many of these old schools have Biblical names – Shiloh, Bethesda, Ebenezer, Zoar, Mt. Carmel. In rural areas the church and the school were integral parts of the community. In some cases the school was started by the church, and was often built on land donated by the church (or, more likely, the same person who donated land for a church also donated adjacent land for the school.) In Newberry County this can be seen in the aforementioned Hope School, which is adjacent to St. Paul A.M.E. Church, and the old St. John School located on land belonging to St. John Lutheran.
When I would search for these schools in Google Earth I would often see only the church. This was especially the case if it was a large, growing church. They needed the land for new buildings, and preserving an outdated school house was not a priority. I quickly learned that if I spotted a large, new modern church building where there was supposed to be a school, I should just give up on finding the school. Smaller churches that preserved their historic character, such as St. John’s Lutheran and St. Paul’s AME, were more likely to keep the old school houses associated with them.
I also found that rural communities were the most likely to preserve old school houses as community centers. These were often modernized, as was apparently the case with the Bethesda Community Center shown above in Streetview. Long Branch Community Center has been bricked, and looks nothing like the old white frame building I remember. (It may be a new building, though. It looks very different.) Some of these are still vital parts of the community, while others have even lost their functionality as a center.
Many of these old buildings have fallen victim to suburban sprawl. If I had a mark near Greenville, Spartanburg, or any of the other larger cities in the state, more often than not I would find a housing development where the school used to be. If there are former schools in these areas, they tend to be the larger brick structures – not as easily removed to make way for houses.
One thing I do have to mention is that I’m proud of my old school, Gray Court-Owings. They have been able to modernize the school while retaining the distinctive architecture of the building. It still serves the original purpose for which it was built in 1910. Sometimes it’s easier just to tear down and rebuilt, what with changing building codes, population expansion, and other requirements. It’s still an impressive structure that looms over the community.
So, through a process of cross-referencing and just checking out interesting names, I’ve put together a pretty good list of old schools that I might want to visit sometime. The list is very much incomplete – there’s just no way I can filter through over 5000 locations. It will keep growing as I find more of these schools or confirm that they are still standing. The list includes a mix of white frame school houses, brick high schools, and some more modern buildings. I’ve put them together in a KML file and made them available for others who might want to download them.
Here are links to the Google Earth files used for this project. The last one on this list is my compilation of these schools:
- South Carolina Schools from GNIS Name Server – large file, KML format
- South Carolina Community Centers – KMZ file
- South Carolina Rosenwald Schools – KML file
- Historical Markers for Education in South Carolina – KML file, compiled from the Historical Marker Database Page
- Old Schools Still Standing – KML file
If you should come across other old schools that are still standing, and might be worth a visit for historic or photographic purposes, I’d love to hear about them.
- South Carolina State Archives Database Search – contains insurance photograph collection
- South Carolina Place Names
- USGS Geographic Names Information Service (GNIS)
- Fisk University Rosenwald School Database
- My notes on Rosenwald Schools
- Historical Marker Database – Education Markers for South Carolina
- National Register sites and historical markers in South Carolina associated with education /[complied by Christy Anderson]
[Columbia, S.C. :South Carolina Department of Archives and History,2001]. – printed brochure, link goes to library catalog reference.
- Vintage Images of Schools – Joe Bartolini has done an outstanding job of mapping the locations from the SC Archives School Insurance Photographs, and has placed them on this easy-to-read map.