Stearns School and 100 years of memories

Published 3:38 pm Friday, October 13, 2017

COLUMBUS – Memories, pictures and stories filled the old Stearns school building in Columbus last Saturday, Oct. 7. The 100th anniversary celebration was part of the Columbus Heritage Festival.

“We had 150 to 200 people walk through the building Saturday,” said Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene in the October school board meeting.

The event officially kicked off with a ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday. Kathleen McMillian from the Stearns School class of 1943 spoke briefly of her memories attending school in the building. Polk County Historical Association board member Pat McCool gave a brief history of the Stearns building and they held a symbolic ringing of the large bell.

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A committee of students who attended school in the historic building and members of the Polk County Historical Association dressed up the old building with memorabilia and photographs of former students and teachers. Some of the memorabilia included a Stearns School belt buckle, a huge dictionary from 1960, an ashtray that was in a former principal’s office and a commencement program from the first graduating class.

“The people in the community were wonderful,” said Bethene Garrett who attended Sterns School from first through the eighth grades. “They brought us boxes of pictures.”

Garrett, who served on the anniversary committee, along with Lou Odell who was in the same class growing up, said the teachers of the time were “strict but wonderful.” Both women said they felt cared about not only as students, but also as children.

The two women took a few minutes Saturday to walk through the building, look at pictures and remember what it was like 50 years ago. 

“This is new,” said Odell as they stepped on the elevator. “We didn’t have an elevator. We had to go up and down those steep stairs.”

The ladies talked about how the boys and girls restrooms were on opposite ends of the building as they still are today. Garrett pointed out the erasers and chalk still sitting at the bottom of an old-fashioned chalkboard. They visited the library and talked about the shelves of books and the old wooden card catalog.

“We didn’t have air conditioning,” Garrett said as she gazed out a former classroom window to the park below. “There used to be swing sets and monkey bars here. I used to sit in class and hear the children playing at recess.”

Garrett described the big slide that was on the playground and how the children would bring pieces of wax paper to sit on when they slid down the slide.

Greene said though the building is full of administrative staff now, the spirits of those former students and teachers still fill the high ceilinged, echoing hallways. He said the anniversary day was a wonderful opportunity to hear the stories and understand how important the school was to the community.

“The students felt loved and cared about by the teachers,” Greene said. “And that is our focus still today.”

The building was kept open for the public to tour throughout the week of Oct. 9-14. The Polk County Historical Association is leaving much of the memorabilia and photos, along with the display cases they loaned, for the week.

Along with the celebration of the Stearns building anniversary, Columbus celebrated with heritage displays, craft vendors, farming exhibits, live Bluegrass and traditional music, barbeque and a pumpkin recipe contest.