History of the old Pepperell School
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Pepperell School c. 1940's
PICTURES2011/pepschool.jpeg

A Village Not Forgotten

 History of the Old Pepperell School

By:  Jane Worthington

In the Spring of 1926 Pepperell Manufacturing Company headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, opened a new plant  in Lee County, Alabama, which later became known as the Pepperell Village.   During the building of the new mill, over 100 modest homes were also built  in the  community to accommodate the families of those who would be coming there to live and work.  A church was built  and in the early days a building to house a movie theatre was also constructed.  After a short period of time this building  became a grocery store, drug store, post office and a beauty/barber shop.  In 1933 seventeen new homes and a large boarding house were completed making a total of 173 homes.  At the time it was estimated that more than one thousand people actually resided on the company's property.

A modern office building was constructed across the street from the mill.  This building housed the administrative offices and later a medical clinic that included a doctor and a registered nurse.  The doctor had a private practice, made house calls to the residents in the village and was available for emergencies at the mill.  A 'visiting nurse program, which still exists today in most communities,  was staffed by the RN.  She  would visit  the residents' homes to provide medical care for residents with minor health problems.  The doctor took care of those with chronic  or more serious health problems.  She was available most days and would provide valuable information and education to new mothers and those who were recovering from  surgery.  She would see patients of all ages and her services were provided at no cost to the resident.  The nurse also regularly visited the school and the kindergarten to monitor the  children's health. 


A wooden school building
was  constructed in the heart of the village. Because of the boundaries  surrounding  the mill in 1926, the village was located in the county rather than the city limits.  Therefore the school was  part of the Lee County School System, who hired and paid the salaries of the teachers.  The mill company was totally responsible for the maintenance of the building  and furnished the coal to provide heat during the winter months.   The county was in charge of the school, but Mr. Homer Carter was kept informed and many times offered suggestions for solutions to problems regarding the school. 


In September of 1926, the school opened with an enrollment of around two hundred students.  The school was not yet completed and there was only room for six grades.  Three more grades were added in later years.  As the years rolled by a tradition was established for the opening day of school.   A devotional and prayer were offered to the students and a speech was made by a prominent member of the community to encourage the students to do their best in their application to studies and perseverance.  Some village parents would attend showing the interest of the entire mill village in the success of the school. 


Kindergarten facilities.......

For the younger children whose mothers were employed in the mill, Pepperell provided a well maintained day care nursery for fifty to sixty children between two and five years of age.  The school was open from the early morning mill shift until the children were picked up in the afternoon, six days a week.  Some of the fathers of the children attending would go by the building before reporting for work and start up the furnace during the winter months so that the building would be nice and warm when the teachers and children would arrive for the day.  Well prepared meals, supervised play and rest periods were scheduled for each day.  The older children participated in pre-school education activities.  Miss Leland Cooper was the kindergarten supervisor and she operated with two assistants and two cooks.   The unique thing about these facilities were that many of the children started kindergarten and went all the way through the ninth grade together.


The first principal..........

Mrs. Booth Ingram was the first principal of the old school and served in that capacity until 1934.  Under Mrs. Ingram's leadership a seventh grade was added and a P.T.A. was organized.  During the third year the building was damaged by fire.  An auditorium and two new classrooms were added while the necessary repairs were being made.  The auditorium was a large room sporting a nice stage for plays, piano and music recitals.  Two large portraits of George Washington were hung on the walls.  Many social events including dances , ceremonies  for the children as they graduated from the kindergarten, the six grade and the ninth grade were also held in the auditorium.   It was also used as a basketball gym for the students as well as the men's and women's basketball teams.


Church services................

In the early days of the village Sunday morning worship services were held by both Baptist and Methodist congregations in the church building  the mill company built, which eventually became the Methodist Church.  The Baptist congregation later used the school auditorium for their services while a new church was being built on mill property donated to the Baptist congregation.  After the new Baptist church was built the school and kindergarten graduation ceremonies were held in the church sanctuary.  


Special occasions.......................

All through the years the annual 'Halloween Carnival', a really big event for the village residents, was held in the school.  Each grade room was decorated and featured a different game, usually with prizes galore for everyone.   The 'cake walk' was in the auditorium  featuring homemade cakes and goodies for prizes.  Christmas was also a special time for the students.  Each  grade room hosted  their own Christmas party with gifts for everyone and a special Christmas tree decorated by the students. 


Mr. N.O. Smyth becomes principal............

Mr. N.O. Smyth was named principal in 1934.   During the four years he was there many more improvements were made.  He was instrumental in getting both Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations  started, and in improving the playground, adding swings, slides and other equipment. 


M
r. V.C. Helms followed Mr. Smyth as principal.  The enrollment had increased so much that  the eighth and ninth grades were added  so the children could complete  Junior High School before having to go to another school outside the village.  At that time the faculty was increased to ten.  When the students entered the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades at Clift High School the mill provided a bus and driver to take the students to school in Opelika  and back to the village in the afternoon each school day. 


Building the Scout hut............

In 1938 a log cabin scout hut was built in woods located behind the school building.  The boy scouts and fathers with the help of Mr. John Linch's crew built it themselves from logs that were hand cut from an area close to the Pepperell lake.   Tall slender pine saplings were located and would serve the purpose of the walls for the future scout hut.  The trees were pulled to the site of the hut and with the proper tools the boys reported for work the following Saturday.  They got to work skinning the logs to make them more rot resistant. 

One of the boys remarked that he did not know how much rosin was in each log, but he carried home with him that day a good bit of it on his hands, clothes and hair.  Mr. Linch and Mr. Beck stepped in when the boys could not handle it all themselves  and shortly afterwards concrete pillars and a soft rock foundation were  laid.  Mr. M.O. Gilmer was the head carpenter and with the help of some others and the young boys they began erecting the hut.    The hut wound up being about 22 feet wide and 24 feet long.  And so......for many years after that many young boys and girls enjoyed activities in and around the hut.  Many of the adults of the community were at one time members or leaders of the Boy Scout Troop 351 which made its home in the hut. 


Sports..........

A sports stadium was located on the grounds at the back of the school building also.   All the sports games including  football and baseball were held there including some of the adult leagues.  Each year Cheerleaders were also chosen to cheer the teams on to victory.  Basketball was played in the auditorium that also served as a gym.  Later the stadium was demolished (probably in the early 1950's) and rebuilt bordering the highway that ran past the village from Opelika to Auburn. 


As the years go by...........

During the World War II years Mr. Helms was called into military service.  In 1941, Mrs. Katie Burkes succeeded him as Principal.  Even though the effects of the war were felt everywhere Pepperell School advanced by adding a cafeteria and a summer recreational program.  


Principal Bailey..................

After the war in 1947, Mr. Autry L. Bailey was named principal.  Under his guidance the school continued  to grow.  Radios were installed in each room, a sixteen millimeter sound projector was contributed by the Pepperell American Legion Chapter; classroom music and a full time music teacher were added to the educational program.  The Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion contributed to  the school library.  The P.T.A. was re-organized and helped in adding new sewing machines for the home economics classes, a deep freezer for the kitchen and over four hundred dollars worth of much needed textbooks for the students.   Harold Turner, at twenty-two years of age, became the next principal.  During his tenure as principal he also coached  and ran the athletic program at the school.  Mack Williams became principal in 1954 and remained until his retirement.  It is unknown by me if Mr. Williams remained until the new Pepperell Elementary School was build during the 1960's. 


Administration...................

During the 1950's Mr. Homer Carter served as Chairman of the Lee County Board of Education. Mr. Wilton Van Patton and Victor B. Potts employees of the mill  also served on the board during that time.  In 1951  Mrs. Lucille Umbach was the first grade teacher, Mrs. Mable Ingram, second grade, Mrs. Jewell Bailey, also second grade, Mrs. Sara Peacock, third grade, Mrs. Lera Atkins, fourth grade, Mrs. Eleanor Allgood, fifth grade, Mrs. Minnie York, sixth grade, Mrs. Mary Lou Helms, Home Ec. & Science, Mrs. Katie Burkes, English and social studies.   Over the years other teachers were employed, but most of these teachers  were there for many, many years.  Some were still teaching when the transition was made to a new school. 

There were two school annuals published, one in 1951 and the other in 1952.  These are the only two known publications during the history of the school.  They were both called the "Dragon", trademark emblem of the Pepperell mill.  


Dedication..........................

The graduating class of 1952 selected the Dragon as their emblem hoping that their actions and conduct in future life would reflect the same qualities that are symbolized by the Pepperell Dragon.   Also the annual of 1952 was dedicated to Mrs. Katie  Burkes which read: "We the Senior Class of 1952 dedicate our Annual, the Dragon, to Mrs. Katie G. Burkes, whose untiring efforts and enthusiastic interest in everything worthwhile have won for her an affectionate place in the hearts and lives of all the students of Pepperell School."  Mrs. Katie Burkes was among the most dedicated teachers with a passion for her work. 


Activities...........

During the years no activity was overlooked for the students.  There was a Senior 4-H Boys & Girls Club and a Junior 4-H Boys & Girls club, a Junior High Glee Club, Melody Band, dancing classes, and classes for piano lessons.

The old school remained open until the early 1960's when the village was incorporated into the Opelika City limits and the Opelika City School system.  A new school was built by the city schools on the Pepperell Parkway and was in operation until the 1970's.  Opelika was expanding and the school was torn down to make way for a new road.


The old school remains in the heart and minds of all who lived there.......

Barbara Williams Bernhart, a former student, has written some of her memories of the old school in the village.  Mrs. Peacock and Mrs. Burkes were her favorite teachers and she remembers Mrs. Ingram bringing biscuits and syrup to school for some of the children each day. Principal Turner hired Barbara in 1953, her senior year in high school, to work in the school office from 1:00pm to 4:00pm each day during the school week.  She was also hired as the first director of the summer playground recreational program at the school for the summer of 1953.  The recreational equipment to be used for that summer was not in very good shape, so she advised  Mr. Homer Carter of the problem.  The next day she received all new equipment compliments of Pepperell Manufacturing Company.   The programs held at the school that year included a movie night, swimming at the Pepperell Lake (which was owned and maintained by the mill company), and square dancing.   Barbara says she learned a lot and really loved the job. 


Another former student, writes his memories of Pepperell School. 

Mrs. Ingram made us hold hands boy, girl, boy, girl and stand around in a circle and sing songs.  I had to hold Bobby Jean's hand and at that age I did not like having to do that.  A few years later I would come to realize how much I should have loved to hold her hand.  In the sixth grade I was in love with Patsy.  I gave her a ring I got at the dime store...she moved away and broke my heart.  I remember all my teachers and that little paddle with a hole in it that Mrs. Ingram used on me; seemed like every day.  And....what was that stuff the custodian put on the pine floors in the hallway? 


I cannot remember what grade I was in but it got dangerous for us little guys to 'go out for recess' because big guys in the 9th grade would catch us and pour dirt down our pants.  Try listening to Mrs. Burks read Shakespeare after that!  One day we caught one of the big boys alone, hit him a few times, took him down, tied him to a tree and left him.  We enjoyed recess after that.  I remember the auditorium where we practiced choir, listened to beautiful music and put on some great plays.....but most of all I remember my extended family - the famous "Pepperell  Kids".  -
Bobby L. Taunton


Pepperell Manufacturing Company went every step of the way and more to look after the well being of the employees of the mill and their families.  Most every comfort that you could think of was provided at a nominal cost to the families.  Growing up in the village was an experience that will live forever in the hearts and minds of those who happened to be there during that era.   Everything in our lives existed right there within the confines of the village.  It was a wonderful era that today exists no more.....except in our memories. 



Resources:  Data compiled from the mill archives, former students, teachers and the local newspaper.