|Saving Battleground: Fighting Deterioration in an Historic School|
On a cold, wet January night in the old Battleground School in Cullman County, I sat across the table listening to three women describe their efforts to save the historic old building. In their beautiful, soft Southern accents, Linda Humphries, Patty Allcorn and Wendy Mann told me how they and several others were fighting the deterioration of this landmark. Perhaps most importantly they told me why they were doing it.
The Battleground community got its name from a major skirmish fought between Generals Forrest and Streight in 1863 during the War Between the States. Before the Union forces were forced to retreat followed by the pursuing Confederates, a great deal of ammunition was fired and several young men on both sides never left the field. Today, several Indiana farm boys lie under oaks and hickories at the forgotten site of a makeshift Union hospital about a mile or so from the school building.
Sixty-nine years after that battle, the main part of Battleground School was constructed in 1932 with a major addition coming a few years later. Electricity came to the area in 1939 and the power bill was a whopping $3 a month. Of course, that only covered the lights since heat was provided by pot-bellied coal heaters placed in the middle of the classrooms. On frigid mornings, students huddled around the heaters until class began, but by afternoon the enormous windows had to be raised to let out the heat from the fire.
The wooden floors creak with each step just as they did so many times before as students walked across the room to turn in an assignment, to ask a question or occasionally to perform some childish act of mischief. There was no air-conditioning in those days so the amazingly high ceilings and the huge windows had to serve as the only method of cooling on hot, sticky September afternoons as school started back up. Of course, none of the students had that luxury at home either so it was not missed. In fact, after enduring the brutal August sun in the fields where most of the children had been working before the school year started, the large airy rooms may have seemed like an oasis of comfort.
During the years of World War II, the school was used to show movies since travel to town was difficult due to rationing of gas and tires.
Former students of that time told me about some rather unpleasant combinations of food items served in the cafeteria when many staple items were unavailable. Green beans with oatmeal is one that sticks in my mind since I had been threatened as a child with that one by a mother who attended school there during those difficult days.
The building sits high off the ground and until recent years was open underneath. Mrs. Humphries said under the school was a favorite play area for the children where roads were constructed and housekeeping set-up in what surely must have been a "teacher free" zone. She observed there are still probably numerous children’s treasures buried in the sandy dirt under the school.
Mrs. Humphries, as well as her father and her children, attended school in the building and it means a great deal to her that the building be saved. Mrs. Allcorn and Mrs. Mann were not schooled there, but they want to preserve the building for what it means to their community. They can see this is much more than just an old building out of place in the modern world of cell phones and iPods. It is a reminder of what small, locally-based schools mean to a community and to the children who were schooled there.
At schools like Battleground, teachers were a part of a child’s life outside of school, and teachers were intimately familiar with the child’s family and situation. They were the neighbors and friends of the students’ families. Teacher and child were tied together in a web of connections in which the school, like the church and the general store, was a hub of the community life.
This stands in sharp contrast to the modern school miles away from the student’s home and often very much like a manufacturing plant with the students as interchangeable parts. Virtually every study done shows the community-based small schools like Battleground are the most effective.
But right now, the concern of these women involves the practical matter of how to keep this reminder of the past from being lost forever. They regularly have suppers, gospel singings, turkey shoots and other fund raisers to take care of the maintenance of the building. Putting a new roof on pretty well wiped out their fund and the cost of a true restoration is staggering. Talking to them one gets a sense of the enormity of their task and the frustration they have not been able to do more, but they seemed determined to carry on and protect this heirloom, no matter how difficult the task may prove.
Meanwhile, the playground is silent at Battleground and memories of what a truly local school is like are fading as those educated there grow older. The women of Battleground remind us it is up to us to protect our heritage and pass it on to future generations, for there is a great deal to be gained by it. If Battleground is saved, it will by the determined efforts of the people with the most at stake in its preservation.
If you are interested in helping restore this precious relic, please contact Patty Allcorn at (256) 747-6585, Wendy Mann at (256) 747-6613 or Linda Humphries at (256) 747-6676.
Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.