Going to School: a Montgomery County history

The newly opened exhibit at the Montgomery Museum of Art & History explores the long history of schools in Montgomery County. A collection of objects and photographs illustrates the many challenges in providing education to children prior to 1940. Of special interest, is the School Census map on display. This map enumerates the number of children served by the county’s schools in 1940, where the children lived, and shows the locations of the schools and school districts. Photographs of many of the 59 schools in service in 1940 have been added to the map.

Playgrounds, or even grassed schoolyards, were uncommon before 1950. Community groups often raised money to buy playground equipment. Here children at Ellett School are playing games in about 1950. (D. D. Lester Collection, Montgomery Museum)

Early in the county’s history, children were educated at home with the first schools being established by local churches during the 1820s. By the 1850s, academies for both young women and young men were established at Christiansburg and Blacksburg. It was not until 1870, that Montgomery County organized its first public school. The legislation that created the state’s first public school system in 1870 also codified the requirement for separate schools for white and black students.

The number of schools in Montgomery County grew gradually after the inception of the public school system in Virginia in 1870 to peak during the late ninteenth century when one-room schools were dotted throughout the county. School consolidation begin in the 1910s and by the early 1960s, buses carried students to only a few schools.

Few schools serving either race in Montgomery County could have been considered well funded during the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Local residents often provided supplemental funding for special programs, playgrounds, and new buildings or additions. In the case of the rural African American schools at Wake Forest, Pine Woods (or Piney Woods), Shawsville, and Elliston, the funding for new buildings came not only from local residents, but from the Julius Rosenwald fund. This fund was established by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald (president of Sears, Roebuck, & Co.) in 1917 to help provide appropriate school buildings for African American children. The fund, encouraged by Booker T. Washington and supported by specialists at Tuskegee Institute, helped local communities across the South build the best possible schools. It is estimated that one-third of the African American children in the region were served by Rosenwald Schools by 1928.  For more information about Montgomery County’s Rosenwald Schools, visit Fisk University’s Rosenwald Database.

The minutes of the October 5, 1929 Montgomery County School Board meeting illustrate how basic schools in Montgomery County were during the early twentieth century. A request to add water coolers to the county’s schools was denied; instead members stated that “a bucket and dipper will be furnished.” Indoor plumbing was rare in the county’s schools. Students often traveled several miles on foot or on horseback to the nearest schoolhouse. They carried pails packed with food because few schools had lunchrooms or cafeterias prior to the 1950s.

Gradually, one-room schools were replaced during the early 1900s with two, three, or four room schools. As roads and automobiles improved during the 1920-1950 period, the pace and scale of this school consolidation increased. During the 1950s and 1960s, many of these small rural schools closed.

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The Wild West Came to Montgomery County

During the Colonial era, Montgomery County was considered to be the western edge of settlement. Yet, it is not the location we generally mean when we think of “The West.”

This mythos was created in large part by the Wild West Shows that toured the country during the late-nineteenth century. The shows presented the culture of the Plains Indian as the only American Indian and the cowboy as a hero. 

William F. Cody founded “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in 1883. The show featured “frontier characters” performing riding and shooting exhibitions, rodeo activities, theatrical reenactments, and more. Cody’s show joined with a similar show founded by Gordon Lillie (aka “Pawnee Bill”) in 1908 to become “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East” show. Arriving in Roanoke in October 1911, the Roanoke Times wrote that the pair had: ” . . . united their forces for the purpose of giving the people of America an anthropological exhibit of the globe.” The show performed again in 1913 and was described as the “original ‘movies’.”

Pawnee Bill’s History Wild West Show appeared in Radford around 1906; the troupe paraded along East Main Street in this photograph.
(D. D. Lester Collection, Montgomery Museum of Art and History)

The Wild West shows, along with circuses, minstrel shows, musical performances and more toured the country and stopped in Montgomery County regularly. To learn more about how Montgomery County residents got their kicks, view the newly opened exhibit “Entertain Me!: Montgomery County Traveling Shows” at the Montgomery Museum of Art and History.

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