I had a U.S. Postal — handwritten — letter last week from a lady who lives near Whitesburg. She is compiling a book about the history of Letcher County schools, past and present, and was asking if I’d be willing to share anything I remembered about the schools I had attended in my youth. I only have her snail mail contact information but I believe she may be onto something that needs doing. Next week I hope to have a better way, than snail mail, of seeing if we can do something to assist her effort.
In the meantime, I thought I’d get a column out of her request because, thanks to Mr. Parkinson and the residual effects of at least three strokes, I can only type with the middle finger and thumb of my right hand and I haven’t been able to write anything legibly with pen and paper for over a decade. Writing is slow going for me. A column that used to require an hour or two of time and effort now requires the better part of three days. I’m simply too stubborn, at least so far, to give up the habit, but it isn’t getting any easier.
What I really need to do is locate at least a dozen old columns I have written over the last 40 years about my school days, but that is much easier said than done. The first 10 or 15 years of those columns did not involve a computer but there are carbon copies of them around here somewhere. I wonder how many people under 40 years of age have ever seen an actual “carbon copy”? Or, for that matter, a typewriter used to make one? By 1982, even I usually had easy access to a Xerox machine. On the other hand, I doubt that anybody under 40 actually reads this column.
I spent all eight years of “elementary school,” commencing in the fall of 1955, at Blair Branch Grade School — decades before middle schools had come into vogue. When I was in first grade, Blair Branch had three rooms, about 100 students and three teachers. One room housed about two dozen first and second graders for one teacher. The so-called “middle room” was for third, fourth and fifth graders and had upwards of three dozen students for one teacher as did the “big room” for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
By 1963, our school was down to an enrollment of about 70 and my eighth-grade class in the spring of 1963 was the last one to graduate Blair Branch. That fall, eighth graders were bused to Letcher Elementary. Over the next three years the remaining Blair Branch students were “consolidated” with Letcher. Both Letcher Elementary and Letcher High School were named for the community of Letcher, not the county.
In the 1950s there were still upwards of 40 or more small community grade schools similar in size to Blair Branch scattered throughout Letcher County. In fact there were three other schools located less than three miles from ours. By the mid 1960s there were fewer than a dozen elementary schools countywide. In the 1960s Letcher County had five high schools. Now we have two and one of them is an independent school system that is not governmentally affiliated/ operated with the county schools.
I am not going to argue whether or not this consolidation was good or bad. I do believe strongly that it forever negatively changed the ways the community residents cared for one another and interacted socially. On the other hand, it drastically improved the quality, content and economic efficiency of education. There is simply no way that the school system could financially afford that many schools today and still maintain any semblance of the academic opportunities we now enjoy.
I know that hundreds of central Kentuckians from numerous counties are Letcher County natives who spent at least a few of their early years in schools similar to Blair Branch or one of Letcher County’s high schools.
Please be thinking about it. If I am able to track my letter writer down, let’s see how many photos of old Letcher County school buildings, as well as personal experiences we had within them, we can come up with.
I hope to make this easy for you in next week’s paper.