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Early Schools Along Route One

Public education was slow in coming to Virginia and to the Potomac Path.

This is another segment in the continuing series about the history of Route One in the Mount Vernon area.

Route One, and its predecessor, the Potomac Path, has been at the center of economic, residential, and religious development in southeast Fairfax County for hundreds of years. Just as settlers built their homes and churches along the road, they created schools near the route for their children. The population was sparse enough until the middle of the 20th century that transportation to and from school drove the selection of school sites.

Today, Fairfax County boasts the twelfth largest public school enrollment in the U.S., and the system enjoys a national reputation for excellence in education. We are proud of our area’s schools, but at least in the Mount Vernon area, there was little to praise until the post-World War II building boom. As late as the 1930s, one-room schools houses were the order of the day, and there was no high school in the Mount Vernon supervisory district until 1926. Moreover, the development of public education in Virginia as a whole was typical of the south, a region that lagged considerably behind the pace set by states in the Northeast. The educational resources and facilities that we now take for granted are a relatively recent phenomenon.

This section of the Route One history series surveys the creation and growth of schools along the corridor. It will appear in two parts.

The Early Social Context

While some colonies in the America were born of religious intolerance within England, the commercial basis of the Jamestown colony ensured continuing ties to London. The plantation class in Virginia also reflected the social and economic standards of the corresponding society in Britain. As the colony prospered, the growing elite espoused the same value set in the new world, one that dominated colonial life, including the direction of primary and secondary education. These men’s attitudes toward education reflected the traditional English approach—parents were responsible for educating their children. Planters usually either hired local tutors or sent the children back to England for an education.

Racial distinctions and demographics were also drivers in the educational process. During the mid-1700s, slaves and indentured servants constituted about half of the colony’s population. Education was generally not available for them. Plus, residents were widely dispersed and there were few towns, depriving most areas of the population density required to support a school.

Some Church of England parishes in Virginia provided schools, either private instruction for the wealthy or schools for paupers. Virginia banned the church after the Revolutionary War and that ended the “parson’s schools,” as two-thirds of the ministers retired or left for England.

A 1796 Virginia law regarding public education made it optional for counties and left responsibility for funding and administration of schools to those jurisdictions. Little progress was made, but a few individuals helped with private funds. George Washington, for example, donated money in 1785 for the creation of the Alexandria Academy, a school serving orphan children. In his 1799 will, Washington also left shares in the Bank of Alexandria to the school as an endowment. Additionally, Virginia established the Literary Fund in 1810 and the commonwealth distributed some resources to schools for the poor. Most of the money was directed at teacher wages, rather than construction of school buildings.

Virginia’s General Assembly passed another law in 1829 that authorized counties to establish free schools. The lingering planter class, however, and the county court house form of government that the wealthy controlled, generally did not initiate any educational program involving increased taxes. By 1846, only six of Virginia’s 110 counties supported public schools.

Private academies provided educational opportunities to the growing middle class between the Revolution and the Civil War. Benjamin Hallowell’s school in Alexandria is an example. He lived and conducted the school in what was later called the Lloyd House, home of the Alexandria Library’s local history collections until the city moved it to the Barrett branch on Queen Street. Episcopal High School, also in Alexandria, opened in 1839.

Long after they disappeared in the Northeast, academies flourished in the South, especially during the forty-year economic depression that followed the Civil War. But woefully inadequate funding hindered any large scale success—the average per capita expenditure on education in the U.S. at the time was $2.80, but only $0.90 in the South.

Literary Fund records from 1828 indicate that there were twenty-six schools operating in Fairfax County, but there is no data about whether they were public or private, or their location. Historians suggest that all were one-room schools supported by local families who built log or crudely framed structures and paid the teachers. Susan Annie Plaskett, described such a school in her 1936 book Memories of a Plain Family. It was on Old Colchester Road (the original Potomac Path) and her grandmother, Mary Jane Cranford, enrolled there in the 1840s.

Residents called these facilities “old field” schools because landowners donated an acre or two of a spent, infertile portion of their farms for school construction

Fairfax County Schools

Fairfax Country created twenty-two school districts in 1845, stipulating that each district construct school facilities within walking distance of all students. The Civil War and Reconstruction slowed the advance of public schools in the county, so little was achieved until the state took the lead.

Despite earlier fits and starts, Virginia public schools date to a new commonwealth constitution adopted in 1869, and the subsequent establishment of a state-wide school system. In 1870, the year Virginia was readmitted to the Union, there were forty-one school houses in Fairfax County, all but one having just one room. Only sixteen had outhouses, twenty-eight were for white children, thirteen for African-American. The average school term was five months, and operating finances came from the Literary Fund, poll and property taxes, and county funds voted by the citizens.

During the remaining thirty years of the 19th century, Fairfax County began acquiring the one-room schools, with the families who owned the land deeding it to the county. The number and location of the buildings reflected the fact that most of the children walked to school. By the 1920s and 30s, the county began to close the one-rooms and consolidate the students in larger, more substantial buildings that housed separate grades. Fairfax County operated its first school bus in 1924 and soon there were enough to transport the students to centrally located schools.

The first Fairfax County high school opened in 1907, eighty-six years after the first public high school in Boston. Although the Potter’s Hill School on Telegraph Road near Accotink Road offered one or two high school grades in 1917, the first fully accredited high school in the Mount Vernon area opened in 1926. The availability of high schools in the District and Alexandria slowed the growth of secondary education in the area. To partially offset this trend, the county gave money to Lee and Mount Vernon district families to pay for enrollment of their children in Alexandria schools.

By 1935, all of the one-room schools were closed, but the inequities between the segregated white and black schools were deplorable. At that time, all white schools had running water and indoor toilets; black schools had only outdoor privies. The whites had heated buses; blacks did not. White schools got ninety-seven per cent of the money. Virginia politicians resisted desegregation of the school system in the 1950s, but the process commenced after a 1959 Virginia Supreme Court decision. Fairfax County was among the first school systems certified to be in compliance with the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act.

If Fairfax County schools were disrupted by social upheaval of integration, then the system was staggered by explosive growth after World War II. In 1940, there were thirty-nine elementary and four high schools hosting 6,899 students, but by 1970, there 130,157 children attending 158 schools.

Schools of the

Potomac Path

Information about the first generation of schools along Route One is sparse. The current schools proudly maintain records of their history, but there are few details regarding antecedent schools, even of the same name.

Most of the following was drawn from files at the Virginia Room of the Fairfax County Library, a few key books, microfilm copies of the now-defunct Fairfax Herald, community and church records, and interviews. If readers have amplifying information, please send it to the Gazette.

Elementary and One-Room Schools:

School started in a one-room school house at 9 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m The lunch break was one hour and the students ate from the bags or pails they brought from home. They drank from a communal bucket that the older boys filled with water from the well. There were often two outhouses—boy’s and girl’s. A cast iron stove heated the structure in the winter. The boys sat on one side of the room, the girls on the other, and the teacher presided from a desk in front. Teaching twenty to thirty children ranging in age from five to twenty was a challenge exceeded only by keeping order.

Accotink. Backlick Road, Fort Belvoir. One of the few with a surviving photograph, the school opened prior to 1879 and was hosted briefly on the since-removed second floor of Accotink Methodist Church. A separate, two-room building for the school was erected a few years later and there is record of the deed transfer to the county in 1884. It was ordered sold in 1925 at the beginning of the county-wide consolidation of small school houses. Students likely transferred to Potter’s Hill after Accotink’s closing. A private home now sits on the old school grounds.

Cameron. (Also Valley or Pulman’s School). Telegraph Road, near Franconia Road). This school served the families of “Happy Valley” from at least the 1870s. One of the most prominent was the Pulman family, members of which owned Mount Erin on the bluff above Cameron run and farmed extensively in the area. The land for the school was donated by the Frobel family, whose nearby manor was named Wilton. Fairfax County acquired the facility in 1892 and sold it in 1935. No trace of the building remains.

Colchester. Furnace Road, north of Colchester. No longer standing, the school was one of two remaining one-roomers left in the county in 1932; the other was Pohick School (also called Sydenstricker), located on Rolling Road. There is very little information on the school, which was built by the families living in Colchester sometime after 1880. There was only one mention of the school in the Fairfax Herald, a brief reference in 1925.

Groveton. Route One and Groveton Street. Local families built a one-room school on the east side of Route One at the current Popkins Lane intersection in 1876. It was of frame construction, and had a stove and an outdoor privy. Deeded to the county in 1878, the school closed during the period 1907-11 due to low enrollment. The students transferred to Woodlawn School during those years. In 1924, the county bought two acres from the Reid family on the west side of Route One between Memorial and Groveton Street, building a two-room school house that opened in 1925. By 1931, the enrollment had surged to one hundred students, who were jammed into the two rooms with only two teachers. A new and larger brick building opened in 1933, one that was closed in the 1970s and demolished in the 1980s. The site is slated for a mixed-use redevelopment named The Heights at Groveton.

Gum Springs. Bethlehem Baptist Church, which began in 1863, started a school for African-American children two years later. At first, classes were held in the church, but in 1867, local men built a permanent structure using materials donated by the Freedman’s Bureau. It was located on land donated by Jane Ford Rogers just south of the intersection of Sherwood Hall Lane and Route One. In the 1930s, the county sold the school house and opened a new one on Fordson Road, south of Sherwood Hall Lane. The old building became the Open House Café, a tavern owned and operated by Tony Williams from 1947 to 1953. The site later hosted Ernie’s Crab House for years. The Fordson Road school closed in 1953 upon the opening of Drew-Smith School, a segregated facility. Drew-Smith closed in 1964 when the school system integrated and the building has since been incorporated into the Gum Springs Community Center. The Gum Springs Historical Society is co located with the Community Center.

The second part of this segment of the Route One history series will follow in a succeeding issue of the newspaper.