Chapter 36: Alexander Schools, Inc.

The first graduating class of Alexander Schools, Inc., was in 1929. Albert Randall’s son Calvin Cread Nanney was the class president and went on to graduate from Mars Hill College. Guess what! He came back to Union Mills and to ASI. And Miss Alice Grant. Frequent story. So many return. So many stay forever. Where’s the magic? I am writing the Nanney Saga to find it.

The stock market crashed in October of 1929, and the local economy plunged with it. The school was $12,000 in debt, still weak from the 1925 struggles. (See last post.) The community could have downsized, but instead, they nurtured ASI and it grew. Where’s the secret? More teachers were hired, including Miss Mell George who would also be the dorm mother for junior girls. Ten years later she would be the wife of the big man on campus, Principal Willis Ernest Sweatt. There were a lot of changes in those ten years.IMG_3165

Miss Nannie Newsome came from South Mountain Institute in 1925 to be a teacher, office typist, and dorm mother for boys. Her presence was memorable, and a building was later named in her honor. She was also involved in gathering the history of the area. Through her notes, I learned that in 1925 a two-room public school building in Camp Creek Township was replaced by a modern brick building, and the one-teacher schools at Double Springs, Thermal City, Centennial, and Camp Creek were consolidated with Union Mills. In 1932 this large public school and the ASI educational department were united, and Mr. Sweatt was “superimposed” over all. When the ASI campus school became a state school, teachers were paid by the state, not ASI, which helped the budget.

In the beginning there were four buildings. The Liberty Memorial Dorm was built in 1920 for girls. The old administration building became Morris Home for Boys when a new administration building was built in 1931. And then there was the broom factory, which somehow didn’t become profitable. There were cows to milk, horses to plow fields, chickens to eat after they laid their share of eggs, and a barn to put them all in. Agriculture was a natural in this rural area. ASI added fifteen more acres and cultivated seven. Besides the benefit to the dining hall, the supervised labor gave practical knowledge and provided good exercise. Even more food was needed for competitive athletes when the gymnasium was finished in 1932. There was already a successful debate team and a school band.  All of the boarding school children and the local day students who paid tuition attended classes on campus. One big family tucked within a tight knit community.

When fully accredited, ASI offered courses in Home Ec, commercial business, agriculture, and Bible in addition to standard ed classes. Twelfth grade was not added until 1945-1946, but no state school at this time had more than eleven grades. Students/teachers could ride either the Southern Railway to the station a quarter mile from the school, or the CC&O to Tate Station a mile from ASI. There were four buses servicing the school daily that made connections with buses from Rutherfordton and Marion. Or a parent could request an occasional car pickup or delivery for $1.00. Life was good.

I read this great story on the website: Prior to 1934, Mr. D.S. Mashburn owned the telephone system in Union Mills. “Each home or business that had a phone had a box about two feet long handing on the wall.” (Remember Aunt Bea in The Andy Griffith show?) One side of the box was a receiver handing on a wire. If you wanted to make a call, you took down the receiver and rotated a crank on the opposite side of the box. The ring went to “central” in Mr. Mashburn’s home, and there an operator would ring the person you were calling and connect the parties. (Imagine Lily Tomlin “Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?” Snort, snort) Every person had a certain number of rings but everyone on the line could pick up his receiver and listen. Sometime the whole line would have a conference call. (As efficient as email Reply to All.)

The RHA graduate I introduced you to in the last post, Annie Simpson, was teaching at the Gilkey School when she bought her first car, a brand new Model T, for $500.00. This was a huge accomplishment for the daughter of a saw mill worker, but Monroe and Parilee Flack Simpson had taught her the basics of hard work. When she was small they had to move around, following the diminishing tree resources, and living in different little sawmill houses. When her parents bought a permanent home, Dad travelled by himself, working the saw mill circuit and coming home on the weekend. Mom and five children worked their land, plowing, planting, and putting up the garden. Later Annie’s father took a job with the post office and carried the mail by horse and buggy. He was a good role model.

On June 20, 1925, when the school year was over, Annie married Edward Nanney of Union Mills and quit teaching to raise a family. Her first baby died, but she had a daughter in 1929, and another one four years later. Ed went to mechanic’s school and they moved to Pleasant Gardens outside Marion. But a vehicle fell on Ed’s legs and they had to move back to Union Mills. Ed went to work painting houses and gas pumps. They bought their first house in 1941, next door to Superintendent W.E. Sweatt. Ed became one of the three popular school bus drivers.

Annie Nanney lived a full life in Union Mills, and her two daughters, Laura Wallace and Peggy St. Clair, hosted a celebration of her 100th birthday at White Oak Manor nursing home, with attendance of 150! According to the reporter Matt Lindler of Rutherford County Daily Courier, she adjusted well because she could play Bingo and compete in wheelchair races. Skills she must have picked up later in life, not at RHA.

Rocky Face A Long Hike

Rocky Face
A Long Hike

Free Play Imagination at Work

Free Play
Imagination at Work

So what did students do in their free time? In the compilation of notes written by graduates of the school for one of their reunions, I learned that as soon as school was out for the day, many of the boys went to the woods to play, build forts, tell stories, climb trees, and at least one broke an arm. With permission they could hike to Rocky Face or swim in the river. Before a modern pool was built in 1960, a creek was dammed to take a dip. Several of the kids raised chickens and several raised rabbits, but usually not enough to feed the whole school for one meal!

Some of students were approved to get jobs in town and had to take the train to work.

And there was baseball and other field events. In 1938 a grandstand was built at the baseball field by the cemetery.

Home Economics Building Oldest on Campus

Home Economics Building
Oldest on Campus

In 1939, with the help of Works Progress Administration, a government program, a rock building for home economics was built free to the school. It is still there, the oldest building remaining on campus in 2015. The second oldest is the two-story house across the street from the Alexander School, the one built by the superintendent in 1941.

Superintendent's House Built by W.E. Sweatt

Superintendent’s House
Built by W.E. Sweatt

The community was curious as to why a bachelor would need such a large house. Their curiosity was satisfied by the wedding invitations. Teacher Mel George married Professor Sweatt in August before the fall school term.

In 1941, the school received free equipment from a government program that helped schools operate canneries. But ASI didn’t have enough space to operate it, since the cannery was used by the community as well as the school. They made do with left over room in the new Home Ec building. Sometimes 1000 cans a day were produced. A war was on, and folks were forced to be thrifty. It took awhile to get the money for the materials to build a cannery. With the help of the National Youth Administration, another government program that provided free labor, a cannery was built. That building is now used as a shop for the maintenance man.

Site of former ASI Administration Building A Mile Down the Road

Site of former ASI Administration Building
A Mile Down the Road

In 1944 the administration building burned. It was replaced for $150,000, Rutherford County paying half, and named the W.E. Sweatt Administration Bldg. It still stands today, the subject of these long posts.  This was just the first of a rash of fires mainly blamed on faulty wiring. See for more details.

In 1945 a hamburger joint was put in next to Mr. Morgan’s candy store. No rabbits served here, I’m sure. Burgers and fries and milkshakes probably. The stuff of US legends.

I have read that RHA boys who persisted in hanging around the girl’s dormitories would get demerits. If a student accumulated twenty-five, he had to dig up a stump, free time for a week. When I went to college, there were consequences for unacceptable social behavior. (I don’t have the time to share personal experiences.) I don’t know what the rules were on campus for ASI. However, we are all agreed that school violence has no justification.

In 1948 student Roy Daniel entered the ASI girls’ dormitory with a rifle and shot Henrietta Grier in a jealous rage, then attempted to commit suicide. She died. He went to prison. First campus shooting?

In 1951, there evidently was another altercation over an unauthorized visit to the girls’ dorm. Late one night as Superintendent Sweatt was locking his office, he was shot and killed by nineteen-year-old student Hugh Justice, accompanied by student Billy Ray Powell. When the boys fled across the campus, they got into an argument with student Wade Johnson. Sixteen-year-old Billy Ray took the rifle from Hugh and shot and killed Johnson. The young killers were apprehended and imprisoned. I read in a newspaper article that when Billy Ray was three his father killed his mother and then committed suicide. He may have been one of the boarding students, dependent upon state government his entire life. How sad.

Harvey Albert Nanney had just returned home to his beloved Union Mills after serving 24 years as principal at Mt. Gilead schools. He accepted the call to serve out the 1951 school year as superintendent of ASI on the campus where he had graduated in 1909 from Round Hill Academy. Full circle for him.

Under Mr. Sweatt’s twenty-five year leadership, the school enrollment had grown to 310 boarding students and 200 day students. One of these former students, Rev. Guy Johnson, recalled a conversation where he asked the “Prof” about the progress of the school. The answer was “The hand of the Lord has been on us all the way.” A fitting tribute mentioned Superintendent Sweatt was often heard at his office, locking up at 8:30 or 9:00 in the evening, and whistling “How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord.”

This was a bitter portion of the shared memories. They were outweighed by the sweet.



Copyright, 2015, Georgia Wilson



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2 Responses to Chapter 36: Alexander Schools, Inc.

  1. David Brown says:

    In the auditorium of the W.E Sweatt Administration Building above the west door to the side of the stage there was a portrait of Superintendent Sweatt who was murdered just outside the door in 1951. It was told to new arrivals at the childrens’ home located on campus that after midnight blood would run down his head. I was there from 1962-1969. Never in there after Midnight. These were the days of the Little Green Men. Then there was the murder of Miss Nanny Newsome in 1982 at her cottage just adjacent to the school.

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