Keeping the School

In today’s world of free, compulsory education, we may fail to appreciate our schools.  Sure, our young folks may give some thought to whether or not they should go to college and which university they’ll choose.  But the idea that finishing high school would be any more difficult than the senior term paper or required science project is pretty foreign to us.  But it wasn’t always so easy to get even a basic education.

While preparing last week’s article about Elbert Hall and realizing the degree of dedication that was required for him to finish high school, I began to remember other such stories and thought I’d look into the history of Clarkrange High School.

The History of Fentress County, Tennessee, by The Fentress County Historical Society, 1987 lists this building as the Clarkrange Elementary and High School 1926 - 1952.  However, those dates do not correspond to the building dates given elsewhere in that book, and students of that day recognize this building as the Elementary school.

The History of Fentress County, Tennessee, by The Fentress County Historical Society, 1987 lists this building as the Clarkrange Elementary and High School 1926 - 1952.  However, those dates do not correspond to the building dates given elsewhere in that book, and students of that day recognize this building as the Elementary school.

Prior to 1919, Fentress County had just one county high school which was located on the North side of Jamestown, near the present day location of York Institute.  There were a handful of private academies but none near the south side of Fentress County.  The people in the Clarkrange community desperately wanted a school to be located closer to their homes and farms so they began to work together to make that happen.  That a county as small as Fentress today has two high schools can still be attributed to that community spirit.

Initially, the high school could only offer grades nine and ten and was located in a room of the elementary school. After completing tenth grade, students would have to find another school to finish their final two years in order to get a diploma.  Some of the choices were Fentress County High School, Stockton Valley Academy in Helena, Cumberland Mountain near Crossville, and Pleasant Hill Academy in Pleasant Hill.  Given the locations of these schools, it’s easy to understand the urgency the community felt to secure a full four-year school right at home.  In 1927 their dream was realized when Clarkrange High School offered ninth through twelfth grades.

It was a small milestone.  Locals had already built a building to house the school in 1924, using free labor and donated materials.  But there were no buses and unlike Pleasant Hill Academy which had dormitories for both male and female students, Clarkrange was strictly a day-school which presented a significant problem for students living more than a few miles away.   The school would have to maintain an enrollment of sixteen students to remain open.

1938 Geometry Class Picture taken on the steps of the old high school building. Wasn't it a neat idea that they sat in a triangle since they were studying geometry?

1938 Geometry Class
Picture taken on the steps of the old high school building.
Wasn't it a neat idea that they sat in a triangle since they were studying geometry?

Clarkrange had a high school, now the community turned its attention to keeping the school.  It seems obvious to mention that prospective high school students would have to have successfully completed the eighth grade; however, it was actually difficult to find sixteen students who met that qualification.  Some of the smaller schools were struggling to even keep their doors open; remember from Mr. Hall’s story that he had to finish his eighth grade year at a new school because Roslin closed due to lack of a teacher.  Moreover, the farms were spread from Roslin to Campground and Grimsely to Rinnie.  Even those farms that could spare a child from the labor intensive work had no means to transport them to the school.  Those people living close enough to the school quickly saw that they would have to board students in order to keep their school.  Homes were opened and board was earned by helping in the home and on the farm.  The students were all accustomed to hard work and realized the golden opportunity they had been given; they worked willingly for their sponsoring families.  This practice would last at least into the early 1940’s before transportation was available to bring students in each day.

I don’t know (and would love for some of you to enlighten me if you have this information) how students would have known where they could find a room but I suspect that since the whole community was so eager to see this succeed that there was a very active grapevine that would send a student along to the right people. 

This recruiting and boarding plan certainly brought new blood into the community.  Mr. Denton Little, who would teach for many years in both the high school as well as several of the area elementary schools, would meet his wife Bessie as she boarded with Oscar Turner’s family.  Mr. Little always remembered the first time he ever saw her as she was sitting on their second story porch when he passed by.  Bessie and her sister Fonzie hailed from Byrdstown but met and married in Clarkrange and raised families there.  The schools were also bringing in teachers from distant communities; Denton Little’s family had come just one generation earlier to teach as did Mr. Harry Martin who moved in from Sale Creek, Tennessee.  These single teachers were also boarding with local residents.

Clarkrange High School faithfully trained the leaders of the community and the county.  It trained doctors and veterinarians who would return to Clarkrange to care for their neighbors and their neighbors’ stock.  It trained the teachers that would continue the tradition.  It taught the men and women who served in all sorts of capacities during World War II for the cause of freedom – during the war years, they even offered classes in aeronautics!

The little schoolhouse the community built themselves lasted until the early sixties when a modern building replaced it a few miles north.  By then a fleet of buses ensured that any child in Fentress County would be transported to one of the county’s high schools.  There were modern facilities and new education standards for the teachers.  But the community’s pride had not changed, they were still proud they had kept their school. 

1961 Faculty on the steps of the original Clarkrange High School building. This would have been the last faculty in that building as the school moved to the new building in the fall of 1962.

1961 Faculty on the steps of the original Clarkrange High School building.
This would have been the last faculty in that building as the school moved to the new building in the fall of 1962.

In just a few short years, Clarkrange High School will be one hundred years old - I certainly hope a celebration is planned.  Of course none of those original supporters are around to join the celebration, but their stories remain. We still hear about the men and women who wanted an education bad enough to leave home and to work hard to achieve it.  And we as a community are still dedicated to keeping our school.