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School column stirred interest



The most commonly queried e-mail I have dealt with over the last week has had to ask how many students attended Blair Branch Grade School, my elementary alma mater, during the 1950s and early 60s.

“On Old Blair Branch. On Old Blair Branch. Grand old school of favor. We are loyal sons and daughters, gaily we go right on, marching right on—-“

By the time I was in eighth grade the school “fight song” had become an old memory because, from fifth grade upward, we didn’t have a principal who could carry the tune in a coal bucket. Neither of the other two teachers seemed much interested in singing.

When I started first grade, there were 11 kids in my class and 11 in the eighth grade. My best guess is that the entire student body was about 85 in 1955. When I finished eighth grade in the spring of 1963, there were 8 students in the class. I can name every one of them. I have an old Mountain Eagle clipping that says the school had 68 students that year, but that our class would be the last one for eighth graders.

In 1963, Blair Branch’s eighth graders were “consolidated” into a new school at Letcher. By 1966, every student at Blair Branch had been reassigned to the new school and Blair Branch Grade School was an empty building. The building burned a couple or three years after the school closed. After 60+ years of surviving overheated, potbellied, heating stoves fired by adolescent schoolboys, Blair Branch Grade School burned to the ground without a fire in one of the stoves. My dad used to say that hell was going to be a lot hotter than the school fire for whoever had set it.

Another e-mailer wanted to know where the gym was located.

We had an open-air gymnasium that consisted of most of the ground on the 1.5-acre lot that was not occupied by the schoolhouse. “Restrooms” were situated between a “coal house” that sat behind and off to right side of the school. There was no plumbing or running water in the toilets. Bags of quick lime were used to scoop into the “toilet holes” to keep the smell down.

We had an octagon-shaped merry-go-round made of 2-inch galvanized water pipe that sat atop a steel axel/spindle in front of the building. The center of the merry-go-round was fitted with ball bearings that made it very easy to push and spin much, much faster than common sense safety should have dictated. I’d like to have a dollar for every bloodied knee, knuckle, palm, elbow, shoulder and head caused by that contraption but, to the best of my knowledge, it never sent anybody to the hospital.

A basketball court sat directly behind the school building. If it was raining or the court was muddy, we passed the ball when it wouldn’t dribble. A lower court, situated in front of the coal shed and toilets, was used for dodge ball, red rover, hopscotch, numerous marbles games, tag, etc.

Usually, once a month or so, a couple of students stayed a few minutes after school to oil the pine floors.

We kept five-gallon cans of low-grade petroleum lubricant and used an industrial size mop to wet down the floor. By morning the oil would have soaked into the floors and this kept the dust down and made the floors easy to sweep.

The only “running water” in the building consisted of three water faucets located directly behind the heating stoves. In cold weather, if the faucets had not been used for half an hour or so, the pipes would get very hot. If someone went to get a drink of water, the experience was often like an eruption of Old Faithful and hot water would shoot all the way to the ceiling.

When the “pump house” froze solid several times each winter, two students would walk to a neighbor’s house and draw buckets full of drinking water from her well. Most of us used a dipper to pour glasses of water into cups we kept at our desks, but if someone drank directly from the dipper, nobody paid it much attention.

Needless to say, we kept the water bucket as far away from the stove as we could place it but we still had to sit it outside to cool off from time to time.

Since the old school days column has resonated so well, we will continue it again next week.

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