Memories: School Days in Marion County

Everything is in full bloom right now across the Sequatchie Valley as the temperatures are gradually warming up and even more so this week. Memorial Day is just around the corner and the unofficial start to the summertime season filled with time outdoors enjoying all the natural resources our beautiful valley has to offer whether it’s fishing, boating, swimming, or just enjoying the sounds of nature from your own patch of ground. And with summer comes summer vacation for our area school children, and for many of those in their last year of high school — it’s the start of their adult lives after graduation this coming weekend!

How long ago did you graduate? I think it’s a question many of us ponder this time of year and reflect on the many memories of our youth and maybe find a little disbelief in exactly how long ago now that it was…but that’s okay! Wisdom comes with age, right?

Maybe all that wisdom you learned in your school years was learned at one of the many great schools that’s existed right here in Marion County, and there’s been several! Especially ‘grade schools’ or ‘grammar schools’ (what we now know as elementary school). Let’s take a look back at just some of the schools that have helped educate and shape the residents, past and present, here in our valley.

Let’s start with the high schools. Here in 2017 there’s definitely a strong sense of passion and school spirit with our area high schools. Most of that passion is fueled by our love for one of the area football programs. Whether you’re a Whitwell Tiger, South Pittsburg Pirate, Marion County Warrior, or a Richard Hardy Hawk; no doubt you’ve got pride in your school! But before there were the four main schools we know today, there was one very noteworthy school that started all of the higher or secondary education in our area… The Pryor Institute.

Pryor Institute, Jasper, Tenn. (date unknown). Photo courtesy of Mrs. Betty (Roy) Wooten. (See Old Schools, Teachers & Students of Marion Co.,TN. by Nonie Webb)

Touted as one of the most influential co-educational institutions in the entire Sequatchie Valley, the Pryor Institute was founded in 1887 by Jackson and Washington Pryor and Col. A.L. Spears, and educated students of all ages and from several states.

The beautiful building which can only be seen today in pictures, paintings, or in the beautiful mural painted on the walls at the current Marion County High School, was located on the grounds where Jasper Middle School is now located. The property was sold to become the Marion County High School in 1910 and the building was later razed to make way for the new high school building, which is now Jasper Middle some time in the 1960s.

So let’s somewhat settle the score about that thing that so many in Whitwell and South Pittsburg like to bring up around football season when nitpicking “Jasper” about the name “Marion County High School”… You see, technically it was the only true high school at the time it opened in 1910. There were some other schools around, but nothing was officially organized in such a manner as MCHS. South Pittsburg had a school, but it wasn’t considered exclusively a high school. We’ll get into that more in a moment, but technically this was the first official ‘high school’ to bear the name. I’m sure the debate will linger and the “Marion County Tigers vs. Jasper Warriors” and similar cheerleader banners will live on, but it’s all in good fun and rivalry.

1958 MCHS Yearbook showing the old Pryor Institute building and then-home of the school. (From Google search)

Since it opened in 1910, Marion County High School has grown and prospered, moving to the new and current school building some 70 years later. Along the way, MCHS has become one of the largest schools in the county and has quite the following for the school’s athletics programs — especially football! In recent times, the Warriors have made it to the State Championship game in Cookeville for the past three years — 2014, 2015, and 2016. And while they didn’t win, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the ‘Ridley Rowdies’ or Warrior faithful, as they simply pat each other on the back and say, “Next year!” Another note, MCHS has the longest-running rivalry in the state with the South Pittsburg Pirates and they have the longest-running play-by-play radio announcer for their football program in the state of Tennessee. Local fan and resident, Dave Daffron, has been calling the plays over the radio for the Warriors for over 30 years now. That in itself is quite an accomplishment!

The Olive Branch Masonic Lodge, #297, once home to Sam Houston Academy is the oldest public building in the county… (Staff Photo)

But education wasn’t just limited to MCHS or Pryor Institute that came before it. We can go back even further to the years following the Civil War and what’s considered Jasper’s first public school and still stands as the oldest public building in Marion County.

The Olive Branch Lodge, Number 279, F. & A.M. building, has been an important part of Jasper and Marion County’s history through the years. The 1857 Greek Revival building was constructed by Alfred White, a black slave, and was completed in the 1850s.

The building’s rich history includes hosting county meetings about secession before and during the war, and it later served as a hospital for both Federal and Confederate Civil War forces. Following the war, it served as the Sam Houston Academy, what’s considered Jasper’s first public school, from 1868 until it closed in 1922. While the school is long gone, the beautiful old building survives and still houses the Masonic Lodge, which remains very active to this day.
Now let’s fast forward a bit to the roaring 20s and the town that was to be the steel and iron capital of the south — South Pittsburg.

Old frame school in South Pittsburg as seen around 1910. Photo courtesy, Helen Clay from South Pittsburg Historical Preservation Society collection

South Pittsburg was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1920s. The Industrial Revolution had been good to the United States’ south, especially following the Civil War, and they city was right in the heart of it with coal mining taking place all around the area, several blast furnaces were in operation in South Pittsburg just prior to the turn of the century, making coal into coke which could later be used in the production of steel and ironworks. South Pittsburg saw new industry with the river readily accessible for transport and the new railroad branch line from the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad running right through the heart of town. Companies like the H. Wetter Manufacturing Company (later U.S. Stove Company), Blacklock Foundry (now Lodge Manufacturing), Eagle Pencil, Oxley Stave Company, South Pittsburg Milling Company, and others.

S. Pittsburg’s brick school circa 1930. Photo courtesy Carolyn Millhiser, from South Pittsburg Historical Preservation Society collection

With the growing town came the need for schools and it was in the 1920s that what we now know as South Pittsburg High School was officially chartered. First accredited in 1923, South Pittsburg High School quickly grew much like the city it was located in.

Simply known as the “City High School” to many, that’s how it was referred to in a January 8, 1926 article in the South Pittsburg Hustler about the school’s alumni banquet. According to the article, “A five-course dinner was served by the home economics class, under the supervision of Miss Mildred Raulston, who has charge of this department. Tables were placed in the primary rooms, which were decorated with holly and mistletoe, the place cards were in the school colors, black and gold.”

Yep, your read that right! BLACK AND GOLD!  It hasn’t always been the Orange and Black we know today! That came later.

The Brooks-Fuqua Gymnasium, as seen in 2017 at SPHS (from school website)…

Prior to becoming what we know as South Pittsburg High School today, classes had been held in a wooden frame building between 5th and 6th streets facing Cedar Avenue from Elm Avenue in a building built around 1898. The city moved the school to a new and more modern brick building on Cedar between 7th and 8th Streets in 1924 on the grounds where the school stands today.

The frame building became an apartment complex following the move and stayed as such until in burned in 1931. The new and modern brick building served as both a grammar and high schools until the new grammar school (South Pittsburg Elementary) was constructed in 1938 on the grounds where it stands today. The brick structure was razed in 1941 except for the gymnasium built in 1949 and replaced with the present and more modern facility that still stands on “The Hill” in the Midway area of town in 1965. The gym was replaced in 2008 with the new Brooks-Fuqua Gymnasium.

Our country’s history has it’s turning points, for sure, and prior to desegregation and Brown v. Board of Education, Marion County was no stranger to segregated schools just like many cities and towns across the southeast. But Marion County had always had the desire to give everyone an opportunity to learn.

According to an article by Merzeller Moore Burnett, The Tennessee Legislature in 1867 provided a good school law even though the people were not prepared to make use of it. This was the first law passed in which anything was done about the education of Negros. The school law of 1867 established the office of State Superintendent of Public Instruction which had been abolished in 1844. It also established the office of County Superintendent of Schools, the examination of teachers and the creation of schools for Negros.

McReynold’s High School and Gym, circa 1948. Photo from South Pittsburg Historical Preservation Society collection

It was some time later, but in September of 1920, the secretary of the county school board of education was authorized to pay A.V. Johnson the sum of $125.00 as rent for one year’s use of his store building at South Pittsburg, Tennessee, where the black elementary and high school was taught. A member of the board and the secretary were requested to procure a suitable house for the school, and if possible to make arrangements with the city to have the county elementary and high school for the black students taught with the city black students under similar conditions to that which prevailed the last year. These facts should give some idea about the conditions that were prevalent concerning the schools for African-American students in Marion County prior to 1920.

A committee of black citizens formed a committee in 1919 that went before the board of education in the interest of a high school for black students. The committee recommended that the school remain in South Pittsburg. The Marion County school board agreed to build a school for the students, named McReynolds High School, named for Brown McReynolds at the suggestion of one of the committee members, Dr. W.J. Astrapp, a black physician in town.  McReynolds High School was completed in 1921. The school served Marion County’s black population before desegregation for both high school students and elementary age students for a time until it burned in April of 1965. location of McReynold’s High School and the remaining Gym…

Following the fire, many of the students moved to the high schools in South Pittsburg, Jasper and Whitwell except for some who remained for classes in the school’s gymnasium, which was made into a makeshift or temporary school for one last year with the final graduating class for McReynolds being the Class of 1966. Afterwards, Marion County Schools were fully integrated schools.

According to one local historian, Dennis Lambert, McReynolds High School also served as the high school for African-American students from nearby Bridgeport. Today, the old McReynolds gymnasium stands at the foot of the mountain in front of the old City Cemetery on N. Holly Avenue. You can see it behind Color Craft Studio’s building along US-72 as you enter South Pittsburg, standing as a silent reminder of this historic school complex and a time when the color of your skin made a difference in the quality of your education in public schools.

In recent years, the City of South Pittsburg was looking for options on what to do with the dilipidated old gymnasium building. In 2011, then-mayor Mike Killian and commissioners were exploring options, but the building has remained standing since.

Coal was king in the north end of our county around the once county seat, Cheekville. You might better know it as “Whitwell” today, named for Thomas Whitwell, a Welsh metallurgist who co-founded the Souther States Coal, Iron and Land Company, was once named Cheekville. And yes, it was the county seat for a time before that was moved to Jasper.

With the population in the town booming at the turn of the century with so many folks moving to the town for the dangerous, but steady employment in the mines, education was hardly an afterthought. Other areas of the county had seen success with schools, and the citizens of Whitwell felt they had the same right to education for their children. So with that, in 1923 Whitwell High School was officially accredited.          

Other schools had served the area around Whitwell as grammar schools prior to WHS opening, but for the most part if you wanted an upper grades or secondary education in Whitwell, you’d need to travel to Jasper or South Pittsburg for that. And a secondary education was almost unheard of for many students prior to 1923, with most leaving grammar school and going straight to work on the farm or in the mines.

Whitwell High School circa 1949. Photo courtesy Delwyn King from Nonie Webb’s Rootsweb page..

Whitwell High School opened in the large brick building located on modern-day Main Street (or Old Dunlap Road) and stayed in the school building there until the new high school was built along Highway 28 in the late 1970s with the first graduating class being the Class of 1978. Whitwell’s elementary school was built adjacent to the high school,  with various sections built between 1929 and 1949, later became Whitwell Middle with elementary classes being moved to Crossroads Elementary in neighboring Powells Crossroads or Griffith Creek Elementary on Whitwell Mountain.

The high school building was razed following the move to the new building and the old elementary-turned-middle school building was partially razed in the past 2 years, following the middle school’s move to the new $11 million facilities opened in August 2008 adjacent to Whitwell High and the modern day Whitwell Elementary.
Aside from the schools now under the operation of the Marion County Board of Education, we have a unique school set up in Marion County. It’s not a private school, but rather an independent school district. We’re talking, of course, about Richard Hardy Memorial School in the Richard City area of present-day South Pittsburg.

Orville Richard Hardy, 1868-1927. (Photo from Ancestry)

Richard Hardy Memorial School was founded primarily as a public grammar and middle grades school in 1926 as Dixie Portland Memorial School, based on founder and industrialist Richard Hardy’s passionate vision for education.Orville Richard Hardy, the man who inspired what would become Richard Hardy Memorial School was born June 29, 1868, in Pentwater, Michigan. He studied education at the University of Michigan and graduated in 1891. He served as school superintendent at two Michigan school districts following his graduation before he left education to work as a salesman with Prang Educational Co. for four years. He was then a director with New York Life Insurance Company when he was recruited to help organize the Dixie Portland Cement Co. in Deptford, Tennessee. Plant construction began in 1906. In 1914, he became president of Dixie Portland Cement, the heart of a company town that became Richard City.

He received the cooperation of Dixie Portland to build a school to honor employees who had served in World War I. The school was Dixie Portland Memorial, which opened in 1926 and was hailed as a model for other administrators and school planners. Hardy, who also lived in Chattanooga, was chosen to fill the unexpired term of Chattanooga Mayor Alexander Chambliss who was appointed to the state Supreme Court. He continued in the role as Chattanooga’s mayor from October 1923 until April of 1926.

Richard Hardy Memorial School. Courtesy RHMS...

It was in 1926 — the same year the school was opened and dedicated — that Hardy left for New York after being named chairman of the board for the new Pennsylvania-Dixie Cement Corp. (Penn-Dixie Cement), which was created after the merger of the Marion County company and four other Dixie sites with other large cement companies in the eastern United States. Sadly, on August 14, 1927, Richard Hardy died. The School name was changed to honor it’s founder to the current Richard Hardy Memorial School. Hardy Elementary School in Chattanooga is also named in his honor.

Richard Hardy Memorial School as it stands in present day… (Archived Photo)

The beautiful and historic building in Richard City was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1982 and was given to the Richard City Board of Education by Dixie Cement Co. in 1985 for the sum of $1. Ten years later in 1995, the school added grades 9-12, and has since seen many upgrades to the facility. From upgraded electrical wiring to the addition of central heat and air, a new cafeteria, gym, and more classrooms — Richard Hardy Memorial School still stands a great educational institution on our county’s south end serving pre-kindergarten age children through 12th grade. Richard Hardy celebrated it’s 90th anniversary in 2016 by selling commemorative skillets made by neighboring Lodge Manufacturing.

Now that we’ve covered all the area high schools, let’s look back at where the foundations of that education began for so many children in Marion County. For some, it might’ve been the only educaiton they received before going to work in the fields, on the farm, or in the area mines or other trades of the day. For some of us it’s not too far in the distant past that we attended some of these schools before they were closed and consolidated into the four county elementary schools we now have today.
With these grammar or grade schools some of the dates are harder to pinpoint in regards to when they opened and first held classes as many were born out of home schools and simple one room school houses much like we’ve seen on TV’s ‘Little House On The Prarie’ or ‘Avonlea’, but we’ll nail down dates we have historic record of here as best possible. Pictures also tend to be scarce, but there are some locals who’ve preserved what remains from these schools through their love of local history and ancestry on sites such as and
Before the elementary schools began to consolidate in Jasper, Whitwell, and South Pittsburg, nearly every community across the Sequatchie Valley had their own grade school. Some of the smaller schools like the Battle Creek Institute served the small farming community of the time. With its’ share of Haskew and Hargis children (two prominent Battle Creek families) passing through the doors, it operated until it was later merged into the South Pittsburg school.

Hale’s Bar School in 1939 (from National Archive/Rootsweb)

On Marion County’s eastern edge, the communities of Haletown/Guild and Ladds had two schools that served area children. As the area sprang to life in the early 1900s with the construction of Hales Bar Dam in 1905 by the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company (later TEPCO) before being taken over by TVA in 1939; the community of Guild (named for Josephus Conn Guild, Sr., a prominent engineer on the dam project) and Haletown along the river thrived and flourished with many new homes being built as part of a booming community built for workers who helped construct the dam. The Ladds area still remained mainly rural farming but had its share of school children. By the late1940s, the area nearest to the dam was largely deserted with many of those workers having long moved to other places. The community; however, remained with homes still being built closer to US Highway 41 well into the 1960s. The area has seen some recent interest with newer homes being built close to the historic dam site.

Guild School and children in 1936-1937 (from Jean Watkins on Rootsweb)

This boom in housing and the number of families resulted in the two schools in the community. The Hale’s Bar School, which was a stone and frame construction located near the dam along present-day Hale’s Bar Road. Our local county historian and esteemed author, Mrs. Nonie Webb, has penned many fascinating and interesting books about the Haletown area — specifically the lock and dam and the Hale’s Bar School. She has published two books on the school, “Hales Bar School 1920 – 1941” and “Hale’s Bar School, Teachers, & Students 1922 – 1963.” Both books are a wealth of information of the school and the community that it helped educate from its’ opening in the 1920s until it closed.

Guild Elementary School continued to operate in the community through the 1950s at it’s location just off US 41 near the former Marion Memorial Bridge. The school was later closed and students merged with the new Jasper Elementary which was built on Betsy Pack Drive (also now shuttered but used by the school board for overflow offices and storage).  Sometime after its’ closing, the school building burnt. The rock wall that was in front of the school is scarcely visible today.

Guild also had a school for African-American students for a while during this time.

Other communities in Marion County also had schools, such as Whiteside, Kimball, Sequatchie, Foster Falls, Looneys Creek, Sunnyside, Aetna Mountain, Coppinger Cove, Ebenezer, Francis Springs, Inman, Jumpoff, Orme Mtn., Monteagle (still in operation today), Mt. Olive, Victoria (Colored School), New Hope, Pot and Skillet Schools in the Cash Canyon/Mullins Cove area along the river, Browder Switch School, Coburntown School, Oak Grove School, Red Hill School, Shellmound School, and many, many more!

Some families even opened schools — the Nunley School, Burnett School, Killian School, just to name a few. And it wasn’t uncommon for churches or businesses to open schools (i.e. – Richard Hardy’s beginnings which we covered earlier) — Lodge School, Gains Chapel School, Hick’s Chapel School, among others.

The schools that have remained since the 1960s have included Whitwell Elementary, which closed briefly when Crossroads and Griffith Creek took over school for elementary aged children in the Whitwell area. Both Crossroads and Griffith Creek closed their doors after the new Whitwell Elementary opened adjacent to the high school in recent years. Jasper Elementary built it’s new building in Jasper behind Marion County High School in the late 90s and closed the school on Besty Pack Drive. It was used for the county’s alternative school under the name Marion Academy until 2011. It’s now used for central office overflow and storage. South Pittsburg Elementary’s building which was constructed in 1938 fell victim to a devastating fire on February 25, 1993, which displaced students to various locations within South Pittsburg while the site was cleared and prepped for rebuilding. The new school opened in the middle of the 1994-1995 school year and continues to serve children in the community today. Monteagle Elementary is also a school with a history. The school has been upgraded and added-on to many times over the years and remains a beautiful school serving the children in the Marion County portion of Monteagle.

Nonie Webb, who we mentioned earlier has done a great job collecting all of the information possible on these schools and has a list of those historic schools online. She also authored a book specifically on the schools in Marion County — “Old Schools, Teachers, & Students of Marion Co., Tennessee.” And as we mentioned before, the dates and duration of many of these (particulary older) schools and their existence is pretty tough to nail down, but there was no shortage of educational outlets for the young minds of the 1800s and 1900s in Marion County.

If you have memories or picutres of any of these schools, we’d love to hear them and share them here. You can send those to us at

So while we’re celebrating the Class of 2017 over the coming week, take a look back to the past and remember your Alama Mater(s) and the teachers, staff, and people that got you to where you are today!


Reported By: Logan Carmichael


Information retrieved from:

Remember! Support your local geneologists, historians, and historic preservation groups and museums! These are the people that keep our history alive!

In Memory of Robert “Bob” Hookey, former chairman of South Pittsburg’s Historic Preservation Society, who passed away on May 1, 2017. Bob was instrumental in the founding of the group and saving the Princess Theatre. He was not only a devoted family man, but also devoted to his community and its history. He is and will be greatly missed!




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