Apalachee School House
Turns a century old
Sunlight enters the vacant room in columns, drawing a soft line of luster on the wooden floorboards and seeping through the rear of white wooden seats. A yellow flower rests several rows ahead, on a newer chair – one with a synthetic leather cushion and cobwebs wrapping around its metal legs. The school children that first sat in these spaces, watching classmates recite Shakespeare on stage, would now be in their 100s. But members of the original class have since passed away and what’s left are the stories of their descendants, and of course, the preservation of a Morgan County landmark.
Dr. Sandra Shockley, a retired school board administrator, now owns the Apalachee School House, a gift from her husband, John. Though John had lived in Morgan County most of his life, it wasn’t until he met Sandra as a 4-H counselor at Rock Eagle that the long-abandoned school house, which was built in a mere 90 days in 1911, breathed life once more. On her way home one day, Shockley noticed an almost dilapidated Colonial Revival house on Lower Apalachee Road that was being used for hay storage by a local farmer. Her impulse: to ask her husband for the most elaborate and expensive gift she had ever been given.
“I looked at it, and I said if that ever becomes for sale, I want you to buy it for me,” Sandra recalls telling her husband. “Not just buy it, but buy it for me.”
And so in 1995 John Shockley bought his wife a school house.
Then immediately, Sandra began the restoration.
She hired a consultant and began sending pictures of the interior and exterior structure to the state for approval of a national historic landmark status.
“It was the hub of the community, and that’s why John and I wanted to acquire it,” she said. “Education is sacred. I wanted the ambiance of the building to be of such quality that it would merit having recognition. I wasn’t just coming here to slop some paint on the wall.”
The highly extensive restoration took several years, while Shockley fed her own money into the project after refusing to apply for grants, claiming autonomy over the restoration process and its future usage.
The second floor one-room theater, where children would meet daily for morning devotional, suffered some of the worst conditions since the school house ceased operations in 1956.
“Upstairs, every one of these boards was taken down, flipped over and all the fecal matter from birds and squirrels were cleaned out,” Shockley said.
For Ayla Crippen, Shockley’s daughter, that particular room strikes childhood memories of a mischievous propensity for adventure. “There was hay upstairs, and there was a shoot outside one of the windows where they would throw down the hay, and so we would sneak over here,” she said. “The place was in complete disarray and we would go up the steps even though we weren’t sure they would cave in on us.”
From a dusty, bare banister to cracked windows and rotting floorboards, the entire house was remodeled. Each room’s original hardwood doors, which are still in use today, were the one exception. By 1999, the building was listed under The National Register of Historic Places, and although Shockley rents it out for wedding receptions, ceremonies and her Daughters of the American Revolution meetings, she’s turned it into a local art gallery. The paintings, murals and artwork from friends and acquaintances span all ages, even school children.
On its 100th Anniversary Saturday, Jan. 14, the Apalachee School House came alive with not just a lovely collection of fine art, but with musical fare. The musician, Johnny Few, is a distant relative from a member of the school’s first graduating class. He’s also Shockley’s cousin.
Few, whose loose graying hair, blasé demeanor and weathered face reminiscent of “Crazy Heart’s” Jeff Bridges, catches Shockley’s attention with a catchy piano medley. She begins to sing along in a pleasantly, Southern-rich timbre, almost emulating Dolly Parton. Their voices and personalities are a perfect match to the ambiance of the room.
Apalachee School House is distinctly Southern.
It reminds Jeannette Estep of her four-room school house in Pennsylvania, where she grew up. The desks were the old fashioned wooden ones with a desk inkwell, she said.
With morning devotions and traditional etiquette, the Apalachee School House nurtured upcoming debutantes and Southern gentlemen. Yet, some students were forced by familial obligations to drop out and help on the farm.
Etta Mae Few Curtis was one of those students. Though she has since passed away, her son, Joe Few (no relation to Johnny Few) brought his sisters to the 100th anniversary to take a leap back in time when his mother recited poetry in front of the class. Curtis and her sister, Ruth Few Curtis, were students in 1914. Few said his mother and aunt would often visit the school house and show their children their “roots.”
One day, Few recalls, Ruth was chewing gum and the teacher asked her to throw it away, but instead Ruth placed it just outside the window, where she accidently fell out when she went to go get later. She was not badly injured, however.
“The verbal sharing is something that gives them a positive nostalgic remembrance,” said Shockley, who discovered that Joe Few’s grandfather, Andrew Jackson Few, built the fire escape on the back of the original building
Shockley encouraged descendants of teachers and students of the school to write sayings and memories on a chalkboard she re-installed. One person wrote, “Children are the heritage of the Lord. Psalm 127:3”
Shockley doesn’t have a master list of students or principles. It’s something she’d like to work on, but may be a project too big to handle right now, she said.
But after reviving a century of history, it’s hard to imagine what Shockley can’t accomplish.
Printed in the January 26, 2012 edition