A wrecking ball went to work Wednesday on one of Grovetown’s oldest and longest-running schools.
Demolition began on The Grovetown School, also called Grovetown Grammar School and Grovetown Elementary School in later years. It’s been used by the Columbia County School System for 75 consecutive years, mostly as a place of student learning.
“That kind of tugs at my heart strings,” said Don Thornhill, a former principal at the school and Columbia County School System assistant superintendent.
The original school building, built in 1938, now sits in a pile of rubble at the site on School Street and Ford Avenue. Asbestos problems made is unfit for occupation.
It served grades first through seventh.
“It was built with prison labor, built for $15,000,” said Charles Lord, a Grovetown historian and former pupil at the school.
Demolition of the school makes way for the construction of a new Grovetown Elementary School, said Tim Beatty, school system Facilities and Maintenance Operations director. No timeline has yet been set for that construction.
Lord attended first through seventh grades at the school in 1950 through 1957.
“When I went to school here in the 1950s, it was heated by pot-bellied coal stoves and the students were responsible for getting the coal,” Lord said. An old Army barracks from Toccoa, Ga., once used by the so-called “Band of Brothers” World War II paratroopers, served as the lunchroom.
The school isn’t the city’s first. But Otis Johns, a teacher at an older school that operated next to Grovetown Baptist Church, became its first principal.
For many pupils, Johns was the heart of the school and made it a special place to be. He escorted Lord and another boy to a exhibition baseball game at Fort Gordon and also taught seventh grade.
“In the lunchroom, nobody went hungry,” Lord said, adding that Johns’ wife, Johnnie, also was a first grade teacher at the school. “If they couldn’t afford it, they would wash dishes or do something to supplement it. ... Johns gave everybody the opportunity to try to get by even if they couldn’t.”
Johns retired in the early 1960s. Thornhill, who was principal 1968-69, said he often visited with Johns, who lived in a small home next door.
“That was one of the pleasures that I had,” Thornhill said. “I would take a little bit of my time and go to his house. I’d walk over there and visit with him every day, chat with him.
“He was a fine, fine old gentleman. ... We’d talk school business. I’d keep him up to date on what was going on in the school.”
There was a lot to tell.
Thornhill said he took over as principal during the height of the Vietnam War so the school was overflowing with military children.
“We had just begun to integrate our schools,” Thornhill said. “I hired the first black teacher at Grovetown, Mrs. Eleanor Downs. She became an icon. She became such a beloved teacher.”
The original school building included an auditorium and a few classrooms. Additional wings to include a principal’s office and classrooms were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The building also was retrofitted with a boiler system to provide heat before Thornhill took over, but still had no air conditioning.
Lord said entertainment acts used to frequent the school’s auditorium. Before she was famous, Brenda Lee performed there with other local acts.
“The first country show I remember was DeWitt “Snuffy” Jenkins and his WIS Hired Hands from Columbia, S.C.,” Lord said.
Lots of local dignitaries including judges, county and school system officials, and then Tennessee Governor Frank Clement, attended a 1954 ceremony dedicating a new flagpole in front of the school.
“It has had its moments,” Lord said. “At the ceremony in 1954, there was a time capsule put down in the ground. I just wonder if it is still there.”
Beatty said he’s working with the demolition crew to keep an eye out for the time capsule.
Thornhill said he was principal when the Johns Building, currently Grovetown Elementary School, was built next door. Just before the last day of school in the spring of 1969, Thornhill said he and the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders moved their desks, books and other supplies to the newly constructed school that had air conditioning. The seventh-grade graduation ceremony was held in the Johns Building a few days later. Too bad a timer clicked the air conditioning off during the ceremony, Thornhill joked.
The school using both the original building with additions and the new Johns Building, opened in the fall 1969. Only a few weeks later, Thornhill was asked to take over as principal of Harlem High School. Thornhill returned to speak at a dedication ceremony for the new building in spring 1970.
The original school was used in conjunction with the Johns Building until 1992, when classes were moved to the newer building that also had many additions since its construction. The original school was used as school system offices until about six years ago, when the Columbia County Alternative School moved there temporarily until a permanent decision about its future was made. Those students now attend the former Evans Elementary School on Gibbs Road.
It is sad for Thornhill and Lord to see the school torn down.
“Life goes on,” Lord said. “It doesn’t stop for Charles Lord or anybody else.”