By Jim Buchanan
It isn’t unusual for Jackson County public school students to miss school in February.
Snow, ice, even flooding are fairly common occurrences. However, in February of 1948, students at Sylva Elementary School missed school because of a very unusual reason:
The school was padlocked.
Condemned, in fact.
The school landscape in the county was very different in the 1940s from today. The county was planning for extensive growth as the baby boom kicked in, but was in an era of transition from a network of small schools to a wave of consolidations.
Sylva Elementary School, with 550 students, should have been among the county school system’s crown jewels, but Sylva Elementary School had a problem: It was falling apart.
And it was a hazard.
The Herald reported on the shuttering of the school on Feb. 19, 1948:
The people of Jackson County, and Sylva in particular, were jolted out of their complacency Tuesday when the word got around that Judge Don C. Phillips had executed an order to the Board of Education prohibiting the holding of classes in the Sylva Elementary school building and ordering the sheriff to padlock the doors and windows to prevent anyone entering the building from that moment until some provision is made making the building safe. The Judge’s order followed on the heels of a report by the grand jury sitting at this, the February term of Jackson Superior court, in which the jury reported the building in an unsafe condition. This order threw the entire elementary school system, affecting some 550 students, into a state of confusion, and started school officials casting about for some temporary relief. At this time nothing has been done, pending a meeting and report this Thursday morning at 10:30 of the Board of Education with an architect and engineer of an Asheville firm who inspected the building Wednesday afternoon.
Judge Phillips’ order is as follows:
To Frank M. Crawford, Supt. of Public Instruction of Jackson County, and W.V. Cope, Principal of the Sylva Elementary School, and C.C. Middleton, Sheriff of Jackson County,
Members of the Grand Jury visited the Sylva Elementary School at the request of the Principal and found it to be in a very dangerous condition. There are 550 children attending this school, which has already been condemned by the state inspector, and we, the Grand Jury, recommend that some action be taken immediately to relieve the situation.
Upon receipt of this report by the Court from the Grand Jury, the court made further investigation as to the condition of the building in which the Sylva Elementary School is located, and from such investigation the court finds the following facts:
1. That the building in which the children are attending school is in a highly dangerous condition.
2. That the building has been condemned for use as a school building by a State Inspector.
3. That in the recent bad weather the building has further deteriorated to the extent that it is likely at any time to fall or cave in and thereby take the lives of many children and the teachers therein if such event should happen.
The Court further finds as a fact that this is a very dangerous situation for a large number of children and the teachers and that the Court would be derelict in its duty if it did not take immediate steps to make an appropriate order for the protection of the lives and limbs of the children and teachers occupying this building. It is, therefore, ordered by the Court, upon the foregoing findings of fact that the Supt. of Public Instruction immediately cease to use the Elementary School building for the purpose of conducting school therein. It is further ordered by the Court that the Principal of the Sylva Elementary School immediately suspend classes in said building. It is further ordered by the Court that the High Sheriff of Jackson County securely lock and fasten all doors and entrances to this building in order that the same may not be used any further for the purpose of conducting school until the building has been made safe for such use. It is further ordered by the Court that the Supt. of Public Instruction and the Principal of the Sylva Elementary School appear before this Court at the County Court House in Swain County on the 3rd day of March, 1948, and show cause if any they have why this order should not be continued and made permanent.
Herald assails poor state of schools
In an editorial the Herald railed about the unsettling development, and the condition of county schools in general – it said the judge’s order could have applied to other schools in the county, and called the Beta and Dillsboro schools “nothing more than wooden fire traps.”
It also decried the hesitance of county residents to open their wallets to remedy the situation.
“The people of Jackson County are at the crossroads, or should we say at a dead end road. We were brought face to face with this fact Tuesday afternoon when our largest elementary school building in the county was ordered padlocked because of being unsafe for use. This order might have applied to several other structures now being used as class room buildings, such as the Beta and Dillsboro schools, which are nothing more than wooden fire traps, but when it comes to this brick building that has been in use only 19 years, it appalls us. School officials of the county have realized for some years that the buildings are in bad condition and that new buildings are needed. The present school board has given the matter considerable study and have proposed a building program. This, however, will take money, much more money than the school board can raise unless the citizens of the county authorize a bond issue through an election. Taxpayers have been reluctant to respond to such a plan, consequently nothing has been done to remedy this bad situation. Now something must be done at once and there appears no way out other than a bond issue with which to raise the necessary money. The state is not going to step in and build our schools, even if some idly think it will. This may be brought about within a few years from now, when enough counties send representatives and senators down to Raleigh who will pass such a measure. The richer counties, however, are not going to favor such a law. The Jackson County school board is now unable to even meet its current operating expenses; it is operating with a huge deficit, an inherited condition at the time they came into office brought about by unbusiness-like methods in the past and also trying to operate on too small a budget, a condition which should not have been allowed to exist. It is high time that the people of Jackson County were aroused as to the true status of their school system and become informed of facts that bring about such conditions. Unless the citizens of Sylva and Jackson County wake up and get busy about our school situation, we are going to be, and that day seems to be at hand, in a pitiable plight. Our children’s futures are at stake.”
Not the first condemnation
The county was already familiar with deteriorating schools. In 1947 Barkers Creek School, a one-room school that also served as a church, was condemned. Plans were in the works to consolidate five one-teacher schools in Canada, a task that would have to wait until roads were repaired in that section.
What stood out about Sylva Elementary was that it wasn’t ancient, having been built in 1929 to replace a prior rickety structure. In 1948 part of its upper floor collapsed.
On Feb. 26 the Herald reported that shoddy materials – particularly the mortar used in construction – and poor workmanship were plaguing the building, and that six rooms could never again be used. The estimated cost of repairing the building for temporary use was pegged at $5,000.
Plans were announced to move elementary students to Sylva High School, with high school students attending school Monday-Wednesday and elementary students Thursday-Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:40 p.m., and that the school year might have to be extended one or two weeks.
Local history expert Bill Crawford, who was attending Sylva Elementary at the time of its condemnation, says students were packed off to classes held at several area churches.
Sylva Elementary was eventually renovated and reopened, serving generations of students until 1974. In 1975 the building was torn down and its grounds are part of what was developed into Mark Watson Park.