The older one gets, the more the mind has a tendency to pause and reflect on the innocence of childhood school days. These days of long ago are cherished around Grovetown and other parts of Columbia County.
Crude one-room schoolhouses were usually hidden away in an obscure corner and were the only real intellectual gesture people made in a raw country environment during the late 1800s. Sparse settlement and a lack of an effective government apparatus inhibited the early growth of schools in the South.
During these times, the emphasis was on the "Three Rs," which prepared youths to function in a plain and unsophisticated society. These predominantly rural students were inspired and motivated by the dedication of a select few pioneer teachers and principals who struggled with what they had for their pupils' betterment. Gradually, things began to improve.
The beginning place of learning at Grovetown was a small structure known as the Hatton Schoolhouse. From this edifice of the 1870s evolved a county school system on the land of a founding settler - an Englishman, Dr. Joseph Hatton. This location is now occupied by the Matthews family.
Later, Hall's School and Jordan's Academy were on the Grovetown scene, providing education to the children of that era. Ben Jordan, a Grovetown resident, was an instrumental principal, teacher and country school superintendent shortly after the turn of the century in 1900.
During the interim, long before desegregation, black students of the Grovetown area attended schools that included Jerusalem, Steiner Grove, Water Branch and Central. More often than not, these early black schools had a church affiliation. In 1970, all students came under one integrated county school system.
About 1912 in Grovetown, a wooden two-story house was built next to Grove Baptist Church. This school had no inside plumbing or modern conveniences. Water was brought inside in buckets carried by students from a nearby well. A dwindling number of senior citizens still remember attending this educational institution of yesteryear.
In 1928, a young couple, Otis and Johnnie Johns, came to Grovetown from Jones County, Ga. After serving for a number of years at the old wooden school, they saw a need for an improved school with a spacious playground.
The Johnses, realizing that many students were innocent victims of the Great Depression, sought all available help to better their plight. Grovetown was on the edge of Tobacco Road. Erskine Caldwell's book brought unfavorable publicity to the area with its descriptions of abject rural poverty, but that made the Johnses try that much harder.
With help from the Columbia County school board, the superintendent, county officials and various federal and state representatives, they explored all available channels of funding.
Otis Johns saw his dream come true with the opening of a new school in 1938. The modest brick elementary school, complete with an auditorium, was built using prison labor and would serve pupils for quite a while. Four acres for the school were donated by heirs of the late Dr. Hatton.
For years, Grovetown has been at the forefront of the school lunch program in Columbia County. Johns realized early in his career that a nutritious meal was an important part of the educational process, and set out to provide it to all students regardless of economic status.
In 1942, dramatic changes began to take place in Grovetown with the establishment of nearby Camp Gordon, which would become Fort Gordon in 1956. A wooden barracks was added to the rear of the school to provide more lunchroom space. The former building was surplus from Camp Currahee, a military site near Toccoa, Ga., abandoned during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Camp Currahee gained recognition through the television series, "Band of Brothers."
The delicious meals the ladies of the lunchroom prepared still bring back pleasant memories.
The small stage of the Grovetown school auditorium welcomed many well-known celebrities in traveling shows during its lifetime, including Brenda Lee before she reached nationwide stardom in 1956 when she sang locally on Augusta television.
With a growing student body fueled by Fort Gordon and new companies coming to the Augusta area, a modern addition was built adjacent to the school on Ford Avenue in 1968. It was appropriately named the Johns Building in favor of the husband and wife educators with 70 years of combined experience. Subsequently, a hand-painted portrait of them would adorn the entrance to the structure.
Students at that school, which now serves as the Columbia County Alternative School, later were moved to Grovetown Elementary School. The community also has welcomed Cedar Ridge Elementary and Grovetown Middle schools, and coming soon is the new Grovetown High School.
These schools build on foundations established by Otis and Johnnie Johns, esteemed educators who live on in the memories of countless men and women. Today, the Johns Award, given to deserving students from each elementary school, helps acknowledge their contribution to education in Columbia County.
Coming to an unknown area, the two local educators left a legacy in County County and the Grovetown community.
(Charles Lord is a Grovetown historian.)
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