Five Stearns grads from 1944 share memories at 65th reunion

Published 3:05 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Because of the war, Stearns did not have sports teams during the class of 1944&39;s last four years of school, but Geer says she remembers kids playing baseball where Stearns Park is now located. She says boys would hit the ball from near the school and it was a big hit when someone hit it to the street. Most students walked to school, but Geer says occasionally in the springtime the buses would stay late after school so kids could play baseball.

Geer also says she remembers when Stearns Gym was being constructed in the 1930s. She says she was in the sixth or seventh grade at the time and kids would race up to the construction site to get boards and make seesaws.

The school also had programs put on by different classes every week, Geer remembers. She said one program was on how to have proper table manners.

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The school also brought in theatrical performances.

&dquo;That&squo;s something we always looked forward to,&dquo; said Geer.

Geer especially remembers that a hypnotist came to the school once. She said she paid attention to what he did to hypnotize people and she went home and hypnotized her dog.Editor&squo;s note: The following is a summary of the early history of Stearns School was written by Daisy Feagan and submitted to the Polk County Public Library.

According to the information we have been able to gather, the history of the Stearns School, Columbus, North Carolina in Polk County is as follows.

Following the War Between the States, the peace was followed by Reconstruction Days, a period of hardship even greater than the war days. Everyone worked hard, and there was little time and practically no money for schools. They were taught in the home, sometimes by an older member of the family, sometimes by a private teacher.

Finally, sometime after 1868, public schools began to function. The terms of operation were short, from six weeks to two months, usually in the summer time. The teachers, mostly men, were for the most part well qualified, too, as they were educated before the war. The buildings were one-room cabins, equipped with the barest of necessities, in both furnishings and teaching materials. Books were such as had been handed down from a long string of users. Salaries of teachers were very low. They usually &uot;boarded around&dquo; among the pupils, usually a week at a home.

Conditions improved slowly. A better building was constructed at Columbus, but furniture was still meager at best.

Back in 1884 the first school building was located back of the present Baptist Church where the Jim Moore home now is. It was a frame building about 20&squo; by 40&squo; with a fireplace at each end of the building and seats along the walls. This was a free school, had no assigned grades and the term of schooling was two to three months.

On July 6, 1885, the board of education of Polk County met and laid off the school districts. They declared that the schools were to open the second Monday in August. Mr. W. M. Justice was the first county superintendent. Mr. Jack Whitesides, Mrs. Carson, and Mr. Hottle were among the first teachers. The salary of the first grade teacher was not to exceed $35 and the highest salary was $40. These teachers taught the &uot;Blue Back Speller,&uot; &uot;Sanford&39;s Arithmetic,&uot; and the children used a slate.

Mr. Cloud, one of the oldest residents of Columbus, recalls he went through the &uot;Blue Back Speller&uot; 14 times.

This building burned about this time and school was held in the courthouse for some time. They used the register of deeds room, the county superintendent&squo;s office, and the tax collector&39;s room for classrooms.

In 1886 the county superintendent was ordered by the board of education to visit the school and be thoroughly satisfied as to the competency of the teachers in disciplining the children.

In 1887, school opened on the 18th of July.

In 1889, school funds were approved on the basis of $.91 per scholar. This was then raised to $1.12 per scholar in 1891.

In 1897, the school term was only 12 weeks.

A very decisive event in the development of Polk County occurred in 1891, through measures taken to provide wider educational advantages for many of its school children. The appropriation made for public schools in the state at that time was sufficient to provide only about two and a half months each year. Schools in operation after this period of time had expired were such as could be supported by private subscription and tuition, and therefore were not available to all children of school age.

About 1891, Mr. Frank M. Stearns of Cleveland, Ohio, spent a short time in Columbus. He became impressed with the great need for providing better opportunity for education than was possible under conditions then existing. He was charmed by the climate and scenery and was impressed by the native intelligence and lack of educational opportunity. He purchased what has been described as a &dquo;square&dquo; near the center of the town. He erected a two story building for elementary students with living quarters for teachers upstairs. This building later became the Central Industrial Institute of Columbus. Accounts of this early project say that the school rooms were provided with modern desks and seats and that classes taught by Mrs. G. S. Pope were opened free of charge for all who came.

So well did this experiment prosper that the next year Mr. Stearns erected another building containing two rooms, one equipped for kindergarten work and the other fitted up as a reading room, housing a choice library, the first public library in Columbus, and perhaps the first one in the county. The school fund supplemented by Mr. Stearns&squo; efforts provided for a six months term. Mrs. Pope resigned in 1894 and was succeeded by Prof. A. S. Beaman. during whose two years&squo; administration there was a steady growth of the school. Later Mr. Stearns donated a beautiful tract of land to be used as a campus. About this time, 1898, the school outgrew its quarters and Mr. Stearns had a new frame building constructed on the northwest corner of the present school lot. This school became known as the Central Industrial Institute. a graduate school with well qualified teachers. All these school buildings and school property were gifts from Mr. Stearns.

In 1895. a charter was procured from the legislature and the school was incorporated under the name of Central Industrial Institute and a provision was made for a board of trustees to direct its affairs.

In 1896-1897, the opening session promised the largest enrollment known in the history of the institution.

The state adopted text books in primary and elementary grades in 1901.

Rev. T. S. Posey was the first high school teacher and he taught two years.

In 1914, Mr. E. W. S. Cobb came as principal. It was through his efforts that the high school became graded.

In 19l6, Mr. Cobb became the Supt. of Polk County Schools. He visited all the little schools, held teachers&squo; meetings in the townships and later on a countywide basis at the county seat. He conceived the idea of consolidation at first and you will see how it takes place as we go along. In 1916 the teachers were required to attend all meetings of the Polk County Teachers Association. If they failed to attend, unless through providential hindrance, they must forfeit one day&39;s salary. There was a teachers&squo; institute taught two weeks in the summer.

In 1916, the district (No.1) voted bonds for a new school building. On February 21, 1916 the county board met to sell the Columbus District bonds for the building of the high school. They were sold to Coffin and Company in Chicago. A modern brick building was constructed, the same we have today, and was named in honor of Mr. Frank M. Stearns (we have told you of his interest). The school was called Stearns High School.

In 1918, there was six months of school in Columbus with only four months in the county.

In 1920, a music department and a Home Economics department were added.

In 1922, the old school building built in 1898, on the site of the present garage, was made into a boys domitory.

In 1923, school trucks were purchased, and children living more than a mile from school were provided transportation. It should be stated here that the condition of the county roads was &dquo;not conducive to happy motoring.&dquo; Polk was one of the most progressive counties at that time, educationally speaking, and was one of the first to operate school buses as a county unit. Mr. J. H. Gibbs was the first school bus driver in Polk County and one of the first in the state.

In 1924 Fox Mountain School (a two teacher school) was merged with Stearns High School. Soon after, Morgan&squo;s Chapel, Princes&squo;, and Peniel were consolidated with Stearns High School. Buses were used to transport the pupils to school. Toilets were installed in Stearns High School in 1924. The school was authorized to pay physical directors more than regular salary.

In 1924, additions were made to original brick building. This included the auditorium, four or six classrooms, and the floors were fixed and the building was painted.

While Mr. J. M. Andrews as principal the gymnasium was built. This was in 1936-1942. This was a real undertaking and patrons and the W.P.A. did most of this work.

Stearns had had students frnm various parts of the county until high schools were organized at Mill Spring, Sunny View, and Greens Creek.

After 1928, our school district lost territory, given away (by County Supt. White, Dr. Sawyer, and Mr. Melton from 1928 to 1946) continually to Mill Spring. Greens Creek. and Tryon, until we could not have a four teacher high school.

In 1947 our high school department was transferred to Tryon and Mill Spring. We now have eight grades taught by 11 teachers.

There are a very great many people in Polk County who owe the educational advantages they have had to the generosity and vision of Mr. Stearns and the foresight and tireless efforts of Mr. Cobb. And now in this day we find wonderful improvements in our schools. State adopted textbooks are free to the elementary children, and are provided for a nominal rental fee to the high school students.