City#039;s first school experienced two fires

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 28, 2006

In the coming weeks, The Advocate will examine some of the historical markers located throughout Butler County and present the history behind those markers for the benefit of our readership.

By Angie Long

Standing directly across from City Hall in downtown Greenville is a historical marker pointing out the location of the city’s first public school.

There is one slight problem. The marker, situated in Confederate Park, is in the wrong place.

&uot;The school actually stood where City Hall is now located. So the marker should be located on the other side of the street,&uot; local historian Judy Taylor, of the Butler County Genealogical and Historical Society, said.

Many of those who would have studied &uot;readin’, writin’ and rithmetic&uot; in that Victorian structure have long since passed away. However, the story of the city’s first school was documented over the years in the pages of The Greenville Advocate. Taylor provided articles detailing some of the history of the school.

A 1968 article describes a &uot; most pretentious, two-story brick school building&uot; that was probably built in 1896 or ’97. It is estimated the school building cost some $10,000 to $12,000 to construct, &uot;a goodly sum in those days.&uot;

An article from 1922 states the building cost $20,000, and was considered &uot;one of the finest buildings of its kind in a city of similar size.&uot;

The school was strictly for Greenville students, since the money for its construction was raised in the city. Teachers were paid through the fee system.

&uot;Woe to the student who failed to show up at the first of the month without the fee for his tuition,&uot; the 1968 article stated.

The red brick building, which stood close to the Cedar St. side of the lot, had eight classrooms, four to each story, with restrooms located in the cellar. Two halls, one north and one south, and the other east and west, divided the building, with stairs in the east-west hall.

Interestingly, there was initially no principal’s office, but the north end of the upstairs hall was eventually made into a combination library and principal’s office. In later years, under the principalship of Dr. C.B. Gamble, part of the attic was made into an assembly room, with Dr. Gamble and the older boys doing the carpentry work.

The first four grades were taught on the lower floor, presided over by teachers such as Miss Corrie Benson, Mrs. Fountain and Miss Nellie Long. The four upper rooms held all the other grades, five through eleven, with the number of students dwindling as the grades went higher.

A 1922 article said the building was completely remodeled in 1920 &uot;at about half the original cost.&uot; A chapel was added to the third floor and the exterior was stuccoed, &uot;making a very pretty building.&uot;

On a Sunday evening in May 1922, a fire of unknown origin broke out on the roof of the building, destroying the two upper floors before it could be brought under control.

Repairs were completed in time for the 1923 term and it was used as a grammar school for the next few years, with older students attending school at Butler County High School (present-day location of Greenville Elementary and W. O. Parmer Elementary).

Then another fire took its toll on the grammar school.

In the early hours of Sunday morning in April 1927, a fire, once again &uot;of an unknown origin,&uot; began in the basement, spread quickly to the first floor and then, the second floor. The interior was filled with gas-laden smoke. Once ignited, the flames enveloped almost the entire structure.

In the 1927 Greenville Advocate article, it states &uot;the fire Sunday completely destroyed the roof, and most of the flooring was either completely burned away, or too badly damaged to be of further use…the greater part of the furnishings and equipment were destroyed…including a piano, stereopticon apparatus, library books, maps, Victrolas, scales, etc.&uot;

This time, there was no possibility of repair. Fortunately, the construction of W.O. Parmer Grammar School was already in progress, shortening the interruption in the youngsters’ educations.

The burned-out shell of the school was eventually razed, and in 1937, Roosevelt’s WPA program brought the construction of Greenville’s new city hall on the site.

So, what caused the city’s first public school building’s two destructive fires? A student ready for an early break from school, a prank gone out of control or simply an unfortunate accident? We will likely never know the answer.