MT. VERNON — In 1921, the all wood, two-story Mt. Vernon High School was the largest structure in the community and one of the biggest in Somerset County.
It was so imposing in the neighborhood that former student Ricky Bloodsworth said it instantly became a "dividing line" landmark and remains so to this day.
"It marks the middle of Mt. Vernon," he said.
It’s importance as a landmark was brought up in court one day by the late Judge Lloyd "Hot Dog" Simpkins.
Judge Simpkins wanted to know if the defendant, a Mt. Vernon man, was a "down-the-roader" (from west of the school) or an "up-the-roader" (east of the building). The "come-here" had no idea what the judge, who lived a mile or so from the school, meant.
Now headquarters of the Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Company, members want to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of its construction.
While sprucing up the grounds, volunteer firefighter John Barnett was power washing the foundation and chips of pinkish-red paint disappeared from the face of the "cornerstone."
On the cement block, in freehand, is scrawled "Roland Dashiell Contractor-Builder - Completed 11/15/21."
As for the homemade cornerstone, the curious wonder if it holds coins, newspapers, photos or documents from 1921, or is simply a raised area noting the completion of the school and its builder.
"This was the first building J. Roland Dashiell Company ever built," said Charles Fisher. The quality of the material used and the quality of craftsmanship in construction remains impressive to this day. Fisher, a former student, said the building’s architecture is as attractive and appealing now as it was when completed a century ago.
It is the oldest former school of the period in the county and retains much of its original character. There are green "blackboards" and pine wainscoting, cloak rooms with hand-whittled wooden door knobs and trim painted in a celery color.
Eye-catching are the numerous almost eight-feet by almost four-feet windows, featuring 19-panes of glass per window.
Even the front doors, with their push-down to exit hand-bars used by the first students 100-years-ago, are still working.
Just how this time capsule escaped drastic renovations and make-overs is nothing short of a miracle.
The spacious single-room classroom on the second floor (about 24 feet by 50 feet) with its 24-foot-long green chalkboard is used as storage space for the fire company. It’s a collection of "stuff" that’s too good to throw away, yet will not likely be used again.
Firefighter, and company treasurer, Cindi Pietroski stood in the center of the room strewn with odds and ends. Gentle sunlight filtered through the dusty glass panes and filled the room with warmth and tranquility. In this room, the children are out on recess. It is a remarkable time capsule experience. It feels like yesterday day once more.
It is still 1921.
"Some of the spaces had to be repurposed," said Pietroski who has been a member since 2004.
New electronic gear is tucked here and there and in one closet, where hats, sweaters and coats once hung — and mittens dotted the floor — "retired" firefighter helmets, of those living and deceased, are now stacked on shelves.
Even the wire bingo drum finds a home, a carryover from the 1980s when the big room atmosphere was charged with excitement as locals chased numbers on game cards to support the fledgling fire company.
"Aside from creating that one room for the electronics, we haven’t changed or modernized anything up here," she said.
Somehow the remaining classrooms of old retain an aura of the past, an inexplicable mixture of country-side peace and calmness, and a comfortable, cozy element of life that once was in rural America of the 1920s.
It opened as Mt. Vernon High School with grades one through 11.
By the time six-year-old Fisher started in the first grade in 1947, it was no longer a high school. Students in grades seven through 11 were bused to Washington High School in Princess Anne.
The second floor classroom was only used for special programs or as a playroom during rainy days.
Downstairs, one room held grades one through three, and the other grades four through six. Class sizes averaged about 11 students — three grades in one room without partitions, Fisher recalled.
This once traditional arrangement in rural schools presented a unique and valuable asset for the students. They were automatically being taught three grade levels at the same time for three years.
With no fans, the big windows were opened on warm late spring days. The students could hear the noise of passing vehicles, shouting neighbors, a tractor or team of horses or mules working the fields.
There was always the power and beauty of sunlight to provide light for studying and for games at recess. "Come recess, you had to go outside and play. They were good days," Fisher said, his voice reflecting emotion. "Even when we were kids, we knew this place was different, special."
Mt. Vernon Elementary School could have been in heaven’s garden.
In those days there was a two-hole privy near the back of the school. "By the time I was in the fifth grade they put a bathroom in where we used to play marbles on rainy days," Fisher said.
It was a time of metal lunch pails and paper bags and years of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"Once a week, on Wednesdays, the PTA would make a pot of soup. We thought we had died and gone to heaven when we got that," Fisher said.
Yet an end of an era was at hand.
When schools were integrated in 1968, John Barnett left Mt. Vernon to attend classes in the once all-Black Bobtown Elementary School.
"Grades one through three came here and four through six went up there," Barnett recalled. Many of the students in the two schools knew each other and the change came without incident.
The Bobtown school site was renovated, with portable classrooms added and a cafeteria. It became known as Mt. Vernon School No. 2.
By the 1970s some wanted to close the old school in the heart of Mt. Vernon.
"There were several attempts to close this school," Fisher said. "We had a big meeting one night and somebody from the school system said they had to close us because it was a wooden structure.
"Farmer Joe Redden stood up and said ‘I want everybody here who goes home to a wooden house to raise your hands. I think it’s safer to go to a wooden school in the day, awake, then sleep in a wooden house at night.’ That squashed the idea of closing the school," Fisher said.
Nevertheless, closing of the beloved school came in 1978.
"After they closed the school, this building sat idle for a bit, maybe six years. A young couple from across the river bought it from the county and were going to make a home out of it.
They come here and did a little bit of work, but it was too big a project for them. They put it in the hands of a real estate agent," Fisher said.
His extraordinary memory has made him the school and community historian. The former fire company chief, president and vice president, and still on the board of directors, is the go-to person for all sorts of history-related questions.
"We had been talking about forming a fire company in Mt. Vernon for years. Even my dad and his friends talked about building a fire house right over here in this little pasture."
When the old school came on the market, opportunity was knocking.
"We called up the real estate company and made a deal with them. Of course we didn’t have any money at all, not a bit. Vic Dryden, from the Bank of Somerset said, ‘Boys, if you will sign a note, we can get it.’"
For about $26,000 Mt. Vernon had a firehouse. "By then the grass and stuff had grown up around it and it looked rough. Most of the paint was gone down to bare wood," Fisher said, "and was kind of an eyesore in the neighborhood."
The formation of Station 6, in 1982, and the purchase of the school offered an opportunity, too, for all neighbors to come together, especially those in nearby Bobtown.
Even though it has been the fire company’s headquarters since 1982, much remains of the original school, including one special item.
It is featured on the wall of the large classroom on the first floor, just above the blackboard, and below a photograph.
"That’," Pietroski said, pointing to a framed portrait, "is Miss Wilson’s picture. And that is her paddle."
Miss Wilson was indeed Mrs. Levin (Frances) Wilson, wife of long-time undertaker Levin Wilson of Princess Anne.
She was principal of the school for decades and the late educator beams with an endearing smile in the photo just a few inches above an 18-inch long, 6-inch-wide crudely made pine paddle with seven pencil-shaft size holes.
It was the symbol of discipline. Perhaps, in theory, the holes eliminated any cushion of air between ones’ bottom and the board’s flat surface.
It may once have been longer at both ends, but its power to intimidate and throw the fear of God into unruly elementary students was not lessened by a reduction in size.
Certainly "old school" by today’s educational standards, use of the paddle guaranteed two disciplinary actions — one administered by Wilson and another by a parent of the offending student on arriving home.
The paddle was usually accompanied by a wooden ruler. Always at the ready in a classroom, the ruler was lightning fast when pressed into duty by a teacher and demanded instant attention of a student who was slapped on bare hands, knuckles, or both, with the speed of a wasp sting.
The paddle was reserved for major offenses.
It’s remarkable the artifact remains. It’s the only "antique" item not permanently attached to the school walls. It is a peculiar item, yet one that instantly links now senior citizens with their school’s past.
Of course today’s students, seeing the curio, have no idea the impact, so to speak, it had on students of old. But impact it had, Fisher said.
Virginia Horner, 80, still remembers its use on her son.
"Miss Wilson was a very sweet, kind person. Yes, she had to use the paddle on my son, Jeff, one time, when he was in the fifth grade" Horner said, laughing. "He did something that day that she felt needed ‘correcting.’ He told me when he got home he had been spanked. He got another spanking. From me. She loved my son dearly and I feel sure it was a light whack, just enough to make a point."
"When I was in the third grade, Mrs. Frances Wilson came here as principal," Fisher recalled. "Never will forget it. She pulled up here one morning in a great big black Cadillac, and she was, no disrespect to her, a large lady. We kids went around singing ‘We don’t want her she’s too fat for me.’ She laughed it off. We knew then we would have a good relationship with her."
The song the children sang, "I Don’t Want Her — You Can Have Her — She’s Too Fat for Me," was a hit for radio star Arthur Godfrey in 1947.
To this day, Fisher holds Wilson is high regards.
"I was fortunate enough in my education to have two outstanding principals, Mr. Clarence "C.N." Baughan and Frances Wilson. She was an excellent lady," Fisher noted
Little Ricky Bloodsworth, now 68, never did get "officially" paddled.
"She used me as an example of what to expect. At the beginning of the school year she had a chair brought to the front of the room and said, ‘Now I’m going to show you what’s going to happen if you’re bad. Ricky, come here.’ She put me over her knee and just barely touched me with that paddle."
"That paddle hangin’ up on that wall is the same paddle. Miss Wilson’s daughter gave it to us when we formed the fire company," Fisher revealed.
"She was firm," Fisher said, "but I think we all loved her."
"Respect, that’s what we had for her," Bloodsworth volunteered.
Former students also remember the iconic "coal house," just a few yards from the main building. Lester Bloodsworth, janitor, came up at lunchtime to shake the coals down and refill it with coal to last the rest of the afternoon.
A large iron bell was mounted on the apex of the roof. A rope ran from it to the schoolhouse. Determined tugs would announce the end of recess and lunchtime and the close of the school day.
It was country clockwork.
In the coal house is a bell, but not the genuine article, said Barnett. "It’s ‘a bell,’ but not ‘thee bell,’ that was on the roof of the coal house. The original, which was a bronze bell, left here when the county sold the school."
Barnett, 61, a long-time oysterman, said the old school is always a reminder of "life that once was."
"We grew up in an era that I like to call ‘the last generation.’ Every morning, in every class, the day started with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. For those who grew up here, that tradition made a difference. By the time this school closed and the Supreme Court took God out of the schools, things went to hell in a hand basket."
Like the changing fall colors of maple and gum tree leaves, residents could see their traditional way of life was suddenly fading with the closing of the school, dissolving into sweet memories. Yesterday was gone forever, taking with it the school, the days when Lester Bloodsworth would come to your house and plow your garden with a horse and other country-ways of life and country rules.
"My grandmother, Mary Bloodsworth, used to drive a school bus, with no license, before I was born," said Bloodsworth, 68. "Someone asked her how she could do it. ‘Well, if I can drive a team of mules, I can damn sure drive a school bus.’"
For the past 55 years Fisher has been busing Mt. Vernon children to school.
"When I went here, Charles was my bus driver," Bloodsworth. 68, recalled with laughter.
"I carried him, his daughter and son and now his granddaughter," Fisher confirmed.
It all happened so fast, so long ago.
By the early 1930s, Fisher believes, students in grades seven through 11 were going to Washington High School. It was a culture shock for "up roaders and down roaders," sort of Little House on the Prairie meets West Side Story.
Then, by the 1960s, the transition to Mt. Vernon School No. 2 and shifting populations were changing the character and future of the landmark school.
With the closing in 1978, the two-story school suddenly became history. By 1990 the Bobtown Road school had closed as well — but its portable classrooms were attached to expand Princess Anne Elementary School.
When the fire company purchased the property in 1982, it had the support of families and alumni from both schools, Fisher said. It has always been community unity that makes life here special. Fisher lamented the passing away of so many in the neighborhood over the years, many who were reliable, dependable volunteers with the fire company.
Mt. Vernon Fire Volunteer Fire Company now has 30 members, with Andy Price as chief.
"Now, it’s not just a problem in Mt. Vernon, but a nationwide problem," he said. "Young people just don’t want to get involved. They could care less."
Those that do care want to make sure the landmark is recognized.
The fire company is celebrating the centennial of the school building with a reunion for students and families 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17. There will be light refreshments and Pietroski said "We hope people will share stories and history to celebrate and reminisce."