29 One-Room Schoolhouses and a Baptist Mission Institute: Education in Rabun County 100 Years Ago

Only seven teachers had a tenth grade education. Schools lacked desks, books charts and maps. Many children were unable to comprehend what they read. School buildings were in varying states of disrepair.

This snapshot of Rabun County’s 29 community schools emerged in 1914 when Georgia undertook a survey to assess the quality of education in every rural school in the state. The first county survey was conducted in Rabun.

Rabun County had 1,644 students enrolled in 27 white public schools and two high schools in 1914, one in Clayton, the other in Rabun Gap. Although they were called high schools, both taught students in lower grades as well as grades nine through 11. (Public high schools were not required to add grade 12 until 1947). Eighty African-American children attended two segregated schools. One-room schoolhouses were the norm.

There also were three private schools in 1914: Rabun Gap Industrial School, which later became Rabun Gap Nacoochee School; Clayton Academy, both a day and boarding school; and Bleckley Memorial Institute, a Baptist mission school.

Few Teachers With 10th Grade Education

Students at the 27 white schools were taught by 35 teachers. Only seven of these teachers had a tenth grade education. One Rabun County teacher attended college. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, she taught in one of the black schools. Teacher salaries were extremely low. The county school board spent on average about $5 a year on each pupil.

Most of the schools limited education to grades one through seven or eight. Some schools had four or six grade levels. Only part of the classroom curriculum involved reading, writing and arithmetic. More time was devoted to practical skills. School activities included the Boys Corn Club and the Girls Canning Club. Education much beyond this was not considered useful.

Low Educational Attainment

As part of the state survey, tests were administered to determine the quality of instruction. The test results revealed that many students were unable to read with any degree of comprehension. Few knew basic math and writing skills were poor to non-existent. Writing was not given much emphasis in the curriculum. This reflected the absence of desks on which to work and the poor education of the teachers.

Also contributing to limited education attainment was the short school year. School terms were structured so as not to conflict with farming schedules. Beginning in July, the school term ran for five months. There was a two to three week break for “Foddering Time” when crops were harvested. No school was scheduled in the spring during planting season. School was not held during the winter months due to harsh weather. It was not until 1940 that schools went to a nine-month year.

Old Tiger School

Located four miles south of Tiger, the Old Tiger School, a school for white children, was representative of the county’s community schools.

In 1914, the school’s enrollment totaled 81 children in four grades with two teachers. The one-room schoolhouse was furnished only with long benches. There were no desks, “very little” blackboard, and no maps, charts, pictures or books.

Like many of Rabun’s schools, Old Tiger also doubled as a Baptist Church.  Even so, it received $400 a year from the county school board and charged an annual tuition of $5 per pupil.

Well’s Chapel School (“Colored”)

The 1914 survey contained a special note about the Well’s Chapel School for black children, located one mile from Rabun Gap. The survey said: “Pupils here read remarkably well and with thorough understanding…Children could write well and answer intelligently all questions that were asked. The methods of teaching were far above the average.” The Well’s Chapel teacher may have been the Spelman College graduate.

To improve education quality, the 1914 survey recommended that “only trained teachers be employed” at a minimum salary of $40 per month. It also recommended a school year of at least seven months, classrooms furnished with desks, and 20 feet of blackboards per room. A nine-month school year was mandated by the state legislature in 1947.

Clayton High School

The Clayton Woman’s Club was formed in 1910 with the goal of establishing a new high school. The ladies of the Woman’s Club were divided over where to locate a new school. One group wanted the school built on the west side of the Tallulah Falls Railroad tracks in Clayton; another group demanded a school on the east side of the tracks.

A compromise was reached: two schools were built.

Clayton High School was completed in 1913 on Pickett Hill at the base of Black Rock Mountain on the west side of Clayton. A two-story building with a bell tower, the school had four teachers and 275 students, according to the 1914 state survey. Like the school it replaced, the new Clayton High enrolled students in all grades.

Bleckley Memorial Institute

Plans also were developed in 1911 for a private high school on the east side of Clayton. The widow of Logan E. Bleckley, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and a Rabun County native, donated property for a school on Pinnacle Knob facing Screamer Mountain. She also contributed $7,000 of the $12,000 needed for building Bleckley Memorial Institute. The balance of the funding was raised through a public subscription.

Owned, operated and maintained by the Georgia Baptist Home Mission, Bleckley Memorial Institute opened in 1913 with 25 students. Enrollment peaked in the early 1920s at about 100 pupils.

Making Real Men and Women

The Institute’s annual catalog for 1920 proclaimed, “The great aim of the Bleckley Memorial Institute is to make real men and real women…We believe in manly men and lady-like women. The school stands for Christian training, Christian citizenship and Christian leadership.” As such, attendance was mandatory at daily chapel services.

 In a burst of soaring prose, the catalog described the administration building, which housed classrooms, an auditorium and stage, as “an edifice towering out as a monument of culture and refinement with its lofty white columns.” The girls’ dormitory was a “large, beautiful, well-finished and well-furnished building with telephone, water works, electric lights and stained floors. Few homes even among the wealthy are as convenient and as attractive.” Boys were housed in “a nice little cottage.”

The Institute’s four-year, high school curriculum was comprehensive. Courses of study included English, history, mathematics, science (geography, biology, hygiene, chemistry and physics), foreign languages (Latin and French), vocational courses for those who wanted to teach, and bible studies. The Institute also offered four years of piano instruction.

No Smoking, Drinking or Card Playing

“Along with the mental and religious training,” intoned the catalog, “there must be training in social life. And it is imperative that this particular sphere of the student’s training be of the purest and best type.” Accordingly, smoking, drinking, card playing “or other bad habits” were prohibited.

Monthly tuition was $3, with room and board coming to $12 a month. Music education cost $3 a month, and piano practice was set at 50 cents per month. Incidental expenses were listed at $2.50 per term.

Milking Cows

To hold down operating costs, students were required to sweep rooms and halls, cut wood, bring in coal, build fires, milk cows and wash dishes. The catalog assured students and parents that “this will not interfere with school work but will help.”

Bleckley Memorial Institute was destroyed by fire in the mid-1920s and never rebuilt.

Clayton High School outgrew its facility and was replaced in 1920 by a new school on the same Pickett Hill site. In 1925, the Rabun County Board of Education was established and the Clayton City System was abolished. The property on Pickett Hill was sold to the county, and a new Rabun County high school was built on West Savannah Street. A gym for the high school was built in 1934 by the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal.

The school was destroyed by fire in 1975, and the current high school on Route 23/441 was built in 1977. The gym of the old high school still stands on Savannah Street as the Rabun County Civic Center.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in October 2020.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.