Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sixty Years of Learning

at Ben’s Run School

by Marcia (Heater) Conrad

Today, it is quite easy to get in your automobile on Ben’s Run and drive to the intersection of the Indian Fork Road. A right turn at the intersection will take you in just ten or fifteen minutes to the location of the former Goosepen School. Or, if you choose to turn left at the intersection of the Indian Fork Road, a few minutes will take you past the locations of the former Pine Run School and the Butchers Fork School. One might say that these three school locations in the modern age are nothing but a “stone’s throw away” from each other. But today these schools are no more. There are no sounds of a hand bell ringing, games at recess on the playground, or the sight of kids walking home from school.

At the turn of the 20th century and for nearly sixty years, the now-abandoned one room schools in southern Courthouse District of Lewis County were bee hives of activity during the school year. Most nearby families were large, with many children close in age. Education was a prized commodity to these families, their teachers were respected, and most children were eager to learn. During that time, roads were dirt, and because automobiles were non-existent early-on, and rare even later, the primary transportation was shoe leather or bare feet, especially for children. In the winter time or in times of rainy weather, the dirt roads became impassable. What is now a short journey by automobile, was an impossible trek a hundred years ago. Because of the still-primitive nature of transportation in by-gone years, one room schools dotted southern Lewis County, and Ben’s Run was the location of one such school.
Right: Down the right side are photos of Ben's Run students. The oldest photo, at the top, appears to be from about 1910. The next was taken in 1915. The boy at the far left of the photo, wearing a dark jacket, is the author's father Coleman Heater. The next two photos are from the 1940s, the next appears to be from the 1950s and the last photo appears to be from the early 1960s.

Ben’s Run Schoolhouse
The small, picturesque, one room school on Ben’s Run was built around the turn of the 20th century. It is believed that the school began educating the youth of the area around 1906. Approximately 400 square feet, the wood frame building still stands on the former Bob McCray property.

When built, the school had no electricity and had none for many years. Large windows on both sides of the building admitted natural lighting. To supplement the natural light, coal-oil lights were used on darker days. In the 1950’s, Thomas Edison’s invention (electric lights) finally came to the Ben’s Run School, and for the waning years of the school, students studied with incandescent lights.

Central heating, however, would never find its way to the Ben’s Run School. Heat was always provided by a pot-bellied stove which was positioned in the center of the one room of the school. On coldest of days, students moved their desks as close to the stove as possible to take advantage of the heat. Occasionally, the stove would be overloaded with coal which resulted in a white hot stove. Fortunately, no accidents occurred when the stove was burning too hot. Of course, there was no state fire marshal in those days, or all of the schools would have been discontinued during the winter months because of the fire hazard.

Students took turns in making sure the stove provided heat during the winter months. For keeping the stove burning, putting out the flag in the morning, bringing in the initial supply of the day’s water, and sweeping the floors of the school, a student was paid a stipend. In the early 1950s, the student who did the janitor work received $12 a month, but by the late 1950s, the monthly amount was $16.00 per month, a handsome sum for the day. After school, the designated student janitor would bring in the flag. Needless to say, students were eager to try their hands at fire-building, dusting erasers and washing the black board, and pushing a broom.

Hot lunch was another modern day amenity which was not available at Ben’s Run. Although some larger schools in the area, such as Orlando and Walnut Grove, did have a hot lunch program provided with paid cooks, the Ben’s Run students either brought their lunch from home or walked home for the noon-time meal. Water was available from a ceramic cooler with a built-in spigot. The water was generously furnished by the McCray farm next door to the school. Each student brought a drinking cup to school and the cups were stored in the cloak room.

The school’s bathroom facilities were very familiar to the students of the school, since all were familiar with the ubiquitous outhouse. In later years, two two-hole outhouses provided the sanitary facilities for the school. While real toilet paper was available during these latter years, during the early years of the school, last year’s Sears Roebuck catalog was probably the toilet paper of choice in the outhouses.

The Ben’s Run School served students from the 1st through the 8th grade. Pre-school programs were not then available, although many students started school when barely five years of age. Since the nearest high school was in Weston, and parents were responsible for transportation for their students to high school, many students who finished the 8th grade could continue attending the Ben’s Run School until they were 16 years of age, at which time they could legally quit school. Bus transportation to Weston High School was not provided until the 1950’s.

Teachers of the Ben’s Run School
The very earliest teachers of the Ben’s Run School are unknown since Lewis County did not keep records of the numerous teachers of the smaller schools in the county. The earliest students of the school are long since deceased and there is little in the way of information available to us to identify the teachers. Some of the latter year teachers of the Ben’s Run School are remembered below.

Mrs. Mick
Perhaps, the earliest teacher of the school in present recollection is a Mrs. Mick. No first name of this teacher is known, nor would one hazard a guess as to the first name of a teacher named Mick. The numerous branches and generations of the Solomon and Mary (Lawman) Mick family of nearby Rocky Fork and the C. C. and Martha (Lawman) Mick family of nearby Dumpling Run provided many male and female teachers to the early one room schools of the southern Lewis County, northern Braxton County, and Gilmer County, anyone of whom could have been the Ben’s Run teacher.

Left, above: believed to be Mrs. Mick.
Left: Edna Wiant

Edna Wiant
Edna Wiant
was the daughter of Perry Wiant and Mary (Henline) Wiant, residents of the Indian Fork area. Orphaned as a young girl, she became the foster daughter of John Thomas Blake and Mary Ellen (Thompson) Blake, a childless couple, farmers on Ben’s Run. Edna taught at the Ben’s Run School from 1920 to 1925. The author’s father, Coleman Heater, reminisced that he was a student of Miss Wiant and that there was not much difference in his age and her age. Coleman was somewhat smitten with his teacher and had a “crush” on her, but a teacher was the teacher and a student was the student. Helen Jeffries, a friend of Edna’s however, recalls that Edna was also smitten with “Coley” and but for the devotion of Edna to her foster parents, Edna and “Coley” might have married.

This writer also recalls her father remembering taking a spelling test from Miss Wiant during his school days and was asked to spell the word “snow.” Laughing, Coleman said he spelled it with a “c” instead of an “s.” Remaining friends and neighbors most of their lives, Coleman and Edna frequently recalled the failed spelling word with humor well into their “golden years.” Edna, late in life, married Frank McPherson of Burnsville. She died in 1966 and was buried in the Pumphrey Cemetery.

Abalene “Tib” Feeney
Giving instruction to students at the Ben’s Run School in 1931 was Abalene “Tib” Feeney. Named for her maternal grandmother, Abalene Rush, she was the daughter of Patrick Feeney and Bridget (Rush) Feeney of Orlando. Miss Feeney taught at the Ben’s Run School for three or four years. In 1944 she married Charles Harris. They resided in Richmond, Virginia at the time of her death around 1985. Velma Heath, who is aged 84 and lives in the former Rosie and Billy Riffle farm on Ben’s Run, recalls “Tib” Feeney as the most beloved of all the teachers at the Ben’s Run School. Miss Feeney was also the “teacher on horseback” since she saddled up her horse each morning and rode it to her Ben’s Run School.

Mildred Riley
Mildred Riley was another early teacher at the Ben’s Run School. Miss Riley taught at the Ben’s Run School during 1937-1938. Velma Heath recalls that the first paddling she ever got in school was administered by Miss Riley. The daughter of James Riley and Dora (Hutchinson) Riley, she was born in Weston in 1917. During World War II, she served in the Women’s Army Corps. She married John Garton of Alum Bridge in 1948. She died in 1969 and was buried at St. Boniface.

Mary Tulley
The daughter of Orlando residents Martin Tulley and Elizabeth (Green) Tulley, Miss Tulley was an early teacher of the Ben’s Run School which was located just across the hill from her home on Tulley’s Ridge. Mary was teaching at the Ben’s Run School in the early 1940’s when she became ill with tuberculosis. She died at the age of 44 in 1943 and was buried at St. Bridget’s on Goosepen.
Left: Mary Tulley

Lloyd Smith
Lloyd Smith is reported to have been a teacher at the Ben’s Run School during the mid-1930’s but little else is known about him. Velma Heath, a present-day resident of Ben’s Run, was a student of Mr. Smith. Velma recalls that Mr. Smith was a quiet man and that he did not participate in playground activities with his students. Velma believes that Mr. Smith was from Jane Lew or Lost Creek.

Zoe Swecker
Perhaps the most prominent of all the teachers of the Ben’s Run School was Zoe Swecker, a native of Canoe Run. Miss Swecker also taught at the nearby Pine Run School. A teacher at Ben’s Run probably in the late 1930s, she returned to college and received both a Master’s and Doctor of Philosophy Degrees, the latter from the University of Chicago. Dr. Swecker was a career history teacher at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. She was quite well-known amongst the nation’s historians and was a member of several historical organizations.

Thomas Byrne
Residing for a while in Orlando in the former Mrs. Ollie Blake home on Flint Knob near the Orlando School, a teacher named Thomas Byrne taught at the Ben’s Run School prior to 1943. Described as being chronically in a hurry, he was also described as being chronically late. Apparently suffering from a sleep disorder, Mr. Byrne would often fall into a deep sleep during school time. Seizing a golden opportunity, some of his students would quietly gather their books and return to their homes during Mr. Byrne’s naps. Upon awakening from his untimely period of sleep he would find few, if any, students in the classroom. Mr. Byrne, the son of Joseph Byrne and Mary (Doonen) Bryne of Lewis County, was married to the former Mary Gissy. He lived for the most part in the Copley area.

Frank Stoneking
Frank Stoneking taught for many years in country schools throughout Lewis County, including the Ben’s Run School from1943-1945. He is perhaps as well known for his restaurant, “Stoneking’s,” which was located across the old U. S. Route 19 at Roanoke from DeGarmo’s Skating Rink, later known as Rose’s Skating Rink. His son Billy was later a teacher and coach at Walkersville High School.

Mary Walsh
Mary Walsh was a single lady and made her home with her sister in Weston. She commuted to the Ben’s Run School with her colleague, Ronald Farnsworth, who was the teacher at the nearby Pine Run School. Velma Heath recalls Miss Walsh as a “very nice lady.” Miss Walsh taught at the Ben’s Run School from 1945 to 1957. For many community children, Mary Walsh was the only teacher they ever had. During her tenure at Ben’s Run, the windows of the school on one side of the building were removed and boarded over. She also presided over the planting of pine trees around the school building which are now huge and over-grown in relation to their location to the former school building. Among the students who helped plant the pine trees were Erma Heater, Earl Heater, Brenda Heater, Orie Lee Heater, Jim Heater, Clarence Heath and Alton Heath Jr. Former students recall that Miss Walsh was not a great believer in testing and that she assessed the progress of her students by interaction with them in the classroom. Miss Walsh often walked with her students to neighboring Goosepen School for ball games. Occasionally during cold weather, Miss Walsh would arrange for a neighbor to make hot chocolate for her students. She retired from teaching after her years at Ben’s Run.

Left above: Mary Walsh
Left: Ronald Farnsworth
Ronald Farnsworth
Mr. Farnsworth replaced Miss Walsh after her retirement. This writer recalls Mr. Farnsworth as a very quiet man who spoke so softly that his students often had difficulty hearing him. He was a very caring teacher who kept tabs on his former students long after he retired from teaching. He taught at Ben’s Run from 1957 to 1959. Velma Heath recalls random acts of kindness by Mr. Farnsworth who was known to buy clothing for needy students. He would also take the time to visit the homes of his students and talk to the parents about their children’s progress in school. Velma also recalls that Mr. Farnsworth had the peculiar habit of crossing his arms and slapping his shoulders during conversations with others.

Dorothy Wilfong
Dorothy (Persinger) Wilfong
was a Burnsville native and graduated from Burnsville High School in 1930. Mrs. Wilfong was one of the many teachers in central West Virginia who taught school on a certificate for many years before getting an actual college degree. She graduated from Glenville State College in 1962. Mrs. Wilfong was married to Basil Wilfong of Linn in Gilmer County. Mrs. Wilfong replaced Mr. Farnsworth as the teacher of the Ben’s Run School. Rather than drive the long distance on country roads, in times of bad weather, she often spent the night with the Heater family. She taught the school for two years from 1959 to 1961.

Left: Dorothy (Persinger) Wilfong
Left, below: Juanita (McClain) Warner

Juanita (McClain) Warner
Mrs. Warner taught the Ben’s Run School during the 1961-1962 school year. A native of Crawford, Mrs. Warner was married to French Warner, a native of Knawl’s Creek. Mrs. Warner was later a teacher at Walkersville, and she also served as a substitute teacher after her retirement. The family moved to Morgantown while their son was a student at West Virginia University. Her son, Gene, achieved a high executive position with the Exxon Corporation. Some years later, Mrs. Warner’s husband, French, operated a taxi service in Weston.

Helena McCudden and the Last Years of the Ben’s Run School
In 1962, Helena McCudden became the final teacher of the Ben’s Run School. This veteran of the teaching profession had taught at many rural schools in Lewis County, including the nearby Pine Run School. A slight woman with firey hair, she was a strict disciplinarian, a magnificent teacher, and a wonderful friend to her students. She told them what she thought they could achieve in the future, and her expectations were high. Even after she sent them on to high school at Weston, she kept up with them.

This writer (Marcia Heater Conrad) was a student of Miss McCudden. After completing the sixth grade, Miss McCudden insisted to my parents (Mr. and Mrs. Coleman Heater) that I be sent to Weston Junior High School for my 7th and 8th grades, rather than remain at Ben’s Run. Although apprehensive (perhaps more like ‘scared to death’) and over my protests, my parents complied with her wishes and I was off to Weston Junior High School for my 7th grade. I recall being embarrassed when my English teacher announced to the entire class that they would have to “make allowances for our friend from the country.” No allowances were necessary, however, because my teachers at Ben’s Run had given me an excellent education and it was soon apparent that I was more advanced academically than the other students in my class. Miss McCudden inspired me to become a teacher, and I use some of her techniques in my classroom today. Although some would call those methods outdated, they are just as effective as they were all those years ago.
Left: Helena McCudden

Miss McCudden was still at the helm at Ben’s Run when the school doors were closed for good and the bell rang for the last time at the last one-room school in Lewis County. Elementary students from Ben’s Run were bused to Roanoke and those above the sixth grade, were taken to Weston to junior high. Miss McCudden ended her teaching career at Weston Central Elementary.

Having spent years in a classroom on both sides of the desk, I can truthfully say that the education I received at Ben’s Run has served me well. In so many ways we were family; older students looked out for and helped the younger ones. There was no bullying and no discrimination. Ben’s Run students are spread far and wide and found in many occupations, but we all have special memories of our little one-room school.

. . . . .
Comment by David Parmer
Bob Pumphrey recalls that when he attended the Three Lick School in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Christmas time was always a great occasion at his school. The Three Lick School was located just over the hill from the head of Ben’s Run, and by the way the crow flies it is but a short distance. The older boys in the Three Lick School were familiar with most everybody who lived on Three Lick, Ben’s Run, Goosepen, and Pine Run, as well as the entire Orlando area. On the final day of instruction at the Three Lick School prior to the Christmas vacation, the school children were all excited about the pending holiday and also in expectation that Santa Claus would pay the school a visit and perhaps leave a few treats for the kids. Bob recalls that Santa Claus did not come by sleigh pulled by reindeer, or even a pick-up truck, but came walking up the road to the school. Bob recalls that Santa had a bag-full of treats for the school children. Bob remembers that Mr. Claus did a great job convincing the younger children that he, in fact, was Santa Claus. Bob, however, was one of the older boys in the school, and together with the other older students, determined that Santa Claus was none other than Coley Heater of Ben’s Run, the father of the author of the story about the Ben’s Run School.

Comment fr0m Marcia (Heater) Conrad:
Although Three Lick School closed before I started school at Ben's Run, it does not surprise me that my father would assume the role of Santa Claus for the school. He was a great friend of Ernestine Tully, who taught for sometime at Three Lick; he would also have had friends and relatives at the school, and, most importantly, he loved bringing joy to children. He was Santa Claus at Ben's Run for as long as I can remember and at Finster Chapel on Goosepen where we attended church. While he might have fooled the students at Three Lick, he could not fool his own children--we always knew how special he was.

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