Historic Pine Grove School finds purpose as community building

Pine Grove School was restored in 2006 and is now used as a community building.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Some of the items in the restored Pine Grove School include an antique lunch pail, books (pictured below is Kathy Kahler), and a flag, dunce hat, and chalkboard.
While many of Macon County’s abandoned historic homes, schools, and country stores succumb to nature’s intrusion, Pine Grove School was restored close to 15 years ago by concerned citizens. Since that time, the building is not only a voting station – and will house upcoming polls in March, August, and November – but is also used for student field trips, plays, reunions, music events, birthday parties, anniversaries, meetings, and more.
The original Pine Grove School operated across the street from the current location from mid 1800s to 1900, when the first school burned. The current building was built in the early 1900s and closed in 1950 when Cullasaja School was completed. When schooling ended in the existing building, it was still used as a voting site. However, in 2000, the building was deteriorating and a fire hazard. It was abandoned, and for a few years the polling location was moved to the Cullasaja Fire Department. When the surrounding community learned that the old school would most likely be torn down or allowed to deteriorate, they rallied to save it.
“People in Buck Creek, Peeks Creeks, the Sugar Fork District, and all over this area started talking about what to do,” said Kathy Kahler, a former president of the Pine Grove Community Association. “We spread the word out all over Macon County through fliers and word of mouth. A lot of new people to the area didn’t even know the school was there. At least 25 showed up initially and decided they wanted to help restore the school. Many other people expressed that they wanted it to be saved and helped in some way.”
Pine Grove School Restoration Society was formed, and at least $15,000 was raised through spaghetti dinners, selling commemorative plaques to affix to the old school desks, auctions, and many more fundraiser events. Macon County agreed to match that amount.
The “Fantastic Four,” as they were referred to by Pine Grove School Restoration Society, were Isaac Dills, Wayne Haire, Lyman Lance Jr., and Steve Kahler, Kathy’s husband. “They and many others made the cabinets, did the plumbing, did construction …” she said. “Most of the labor was donated. Some of it was offered at discounted rates.”
Rotten floorboards in one section were replaced. Foundation beams also had to be replaced for a new foundation to be established. The metal roof and the interior and exterior were painted. Plus, volunteers added a kitchen and two bathrooms so that the building could be used as a modern community center. An industrial blower heating system and handicap parking and a ramp were added. While the school was originally separated into two rooms, the partition was taken down during the renovation process so that the space could accommodate larger groups.
“The workers saved all they could,” said Kahler. “Windows could not be saved, nor the outhouse. But the original pine floors were taken up during the renovation, sanded, refinished, and then replaced.”
The restored Pine Grove School Community Building opened July 8, 2006. Besides the 70-plus student desks and teacher’s desk, the interior of the building includes such historic classroom touches as vintage school books, a chalkboard, a (non-functioning) wood stove, a dunce hat, metal lunch pails, and photographs of former students and teachers, one of whom was Lyman Lance Jr.’s father, Lyman Lance, Sr., who rode a horse to the schoolhouse to substitute teach when he was not traveling and preaching.
Isaac Dills, 85, went to Pine Grove School from the first to the sixth grade, 1942-1949. It was there that he met his wife, Virginia Berry Dills, 81, who went to the school from 1946 to 1949, through the third and fourth grades. The couple married in 1955, with Isaac having completed the eighth grade at Cullasaja School before leaving to work on his family’s Peeks Creek farm. Only attending school through eighth grade was commonplace in mid 20th century rural Western North Carolina, as families needed children to help on family farms and with other businesses.
Virginia Berry Dills and her husband, Isaac, have been married for 65 years and met as students at the Pine Grove School in the 1940s.
Isaac said he remembers that the boys in the two classrooms at Pine Grove took turns carrying wood in for the two woodstoves. His wife walked three miles from Walnut Creek to attend school. The couple remembers playing basketball together on a court that is now paved over by Peeks Creek Road.
Memories from individuals who attended the school reveal that many students walked to school from up to three miles away, and many were not allowed to wear shoes until the weather turned cold because their parents could only afford one pair of shoes a year. Children sometimes did not attend if there was a garden to plant or other seasonal chores at home.
“One of my memories is of chasing kids in the school yard during recess and I made a turn around this building and ran into a boy,” said Virginia. “I didn’t know it did me any harm at the time, but years later I learned that my nose had been broken.” The couple also remembers playing baseball, jacks, marbles, and jumping rope with other students. And Isaac admitted he was bestowed the dunce hat a time or two.
After school, students would sometimes shop at the only available store, Gneiss Country Store, which still exists across the street on Highlands Road, but closed in the 1950s and has been left to deteriorate. “It had the basics,” said Virginia, “and sometimes we would get a piece of candy or gum.” Trips into “town” (Franklin) for students were rare.
“We’ve seen everything from horse-drawn wagons to vehicles in this area,” said Isaac; he and Virginia have lived less than a mile from the school on his family’s land as well as attended Pine Grove Baptist church during their 65 years of marriage. The couple said they regularly attend events hosted in the Pine Grove School building, where they once learned, and they are glad the school building was saved.
At the school is a memorial plaque for individuals who lost their lives because of a mudslide caused by Tropical Storm Ivan on Sept. 16, 2004. The slide that flattened 16 homes and killed five went within 100 feet of the Dills’ house. “Homes were washed off their foundation,” he remembered.
The Pine Grove School Community Building at 38 Peeks Creek Road in Franklin is a rentable space, and association meetings are held the first Monday of each month during the months of April through October. A calendar of events will be available after the first meeting of the Pine Grove School Association in April; or, contact Kathy Kahler at (828)371-1554 or the N.C. Extension Service – Community Rural Development to learn of upcoming spring, summer, and fall activities at the school.