April 4, 2012

‘From the cliffs of old Cohutta’

Murray’s historic Rock Building restored to its original glory

Misty Watson

— Helen Taylor was a bit frightened, but still very excited to be entering Murray County High School.

She had skipped a few grades and entered the school at age 11. She had never ridden a bus, but then neither had many of the students headed to the high school.

“We were scattered out over the county in elementary school,” recalled Taylor, a 1939 graduate, who is now 87 and a resident of Dawsonville. “It was exciting to be riding the bus and going in to meet people that lived in the county. You had never met them or even seen them.”

In the 1930s most people in Murray stayed in their small communities dotted throughout the county. They entered a nearby school within walking distance, and many only finished elementary school. A few, if they weren’t needed to help on the family farm, were able to finish high school.

In the early 1930s, the Murray County Board of Education voted to build a new high school. That building is now known as the Rock Building. Upon its completion in 1934, the three existing high schools — in Chatsworth, Eton and Spring Place — were consolidated into Murray County High School.

Murray County High School — though it eventually expanded, and then moved into a building across the road — would remain the county’s only high school until 2009 when North Murray High School opened. That was the same year the Rock Building, which was only being used for storage by then, caught fire and almost burned to the ground. Dozens of people stood on the street and drove by watching in awe, some in tears, as their beloved alma mater went up in flames.

The foundation and early years

The city of Chatsworth was centralized around downtown in the 1930s. The surrounding area was still mostly farmland, including the 36-acre site on the Davis farm in the center of Murray County that would become the Murray County High School campus.

The rocks that were to become the school’s walls were donated by V.C. Pickering and hauled from Fort Mountain where they had been dynamited for the construction of the Chatsworth-Ellijay Highway.

This inspired the opening lines of the school’s alma mater, “From the cliffs of old Cohutta once against the skies, came the walls of alma mater rugged and so high.” The alma mater was written by longtime educator Lula Gladden, for whom Gladden Middle School is named. She was one of the original faculty members at Murray County High School. Her funeral was held in the Rock Building in 1944.

When the school first opened, there were eight classrooms, a small library and an office. A partial basement housed classrooms for agriculture and science, according to the historical website murraycounty museum.com.

When the 1934 school term began, approximately 300 students, including 60 seniors, enrolled at the new school, according to the website.

Pauline Ogletree, an original faculty member, chose green and white as the school colors and the Indian as the mascot.

In 1935, the home economics building, also made of rock and just south of the Rock Building, was built. The cannery, located west of the Rock Building, also opened. The agriculture building was completed in 1936, and most of the work was done by the students. Electricity was installed in the Rock Building in 1935.

Murray County High School’s first graduation was May 18, 1935. Thirty-eight of the original 60 seniors graduated.

Basketball was the first sport at Murray County High School. It was followed by baseball and track. (Football didn’t come until more than a decade later).

“When you got to high school, you had basketball,” Taylor said. “It was exciting when I got to go to the games. I was younger than most people in my class because they allowed me to skip ahead. I went into the fourth grade when I was just 7.”

Taylor said she wasn’t athletic so she didn’t join any sports teams, but she stayed plenty busy.

“We had two newspapers then, The Chatsworth Times and The Murray Herald,” she said. The high school “had a page in the newspapers. I was the editor of that. I wrote for that. I was in French Club and Beta Club. I was an organization person and went on to be all my life.”

Teachers in the 1930s expected their students to work hard, Taylor said.

“I didn’t mind working hard because we didn’t have a whole lot of other things to do,” she said. “We didn’t have television to turn on and that sort of stuff. Studying wasn’t as much of a chore.”

It was during the Depression, and even the wealthier families couldn’t afford cars.

“Not very many people had ways to go places,” Taylor said.

William Leonard, also a 1939 graduate, once joked that there wasn’t a parking problem when he was in school. Only two students drove a car to school every day. Others took the school bus, which was really a truck chassis with benches for students to sit on.

“I had a ball in high school,” Leonard said during an interview in 2010 when he was inducted into the Murray County High School Alumni Hall of Fame. “It was a wonderful place to be. ... There were no discipline problems that I knew of in that school.”

Taylor said prom was held at the school.

“That’s a long way from where our proms are today,” she said. “I really don’t think we had a dance. We would walk around and the boys would try to kiss the girls because that’s what they thought they were supposed to do.”

Taylor graduated at 14 and entered college at North Georgia College — now North Georgia College and State University — in Dahlonega.

She would later return to teach at Murray County High School.

The expansion

The Rock Building was the biggest building Florence Brackett had ever seen.

“I started at Cisco, with a two-room school,” said Brackett, who graduated in 1947 and lives in Cisco. “I thought (the high school) was the biggest building I’d ever been in. It was rather exciting. I thought it was pretty.”

World War II didn’t affect school much, she said. Some teachers left for a few years and later returned. Rationing of fuel never prevented Brackett, who rode the bus, from attending school.

“I didn’t miss many days,” she said. “If it snowed or anything like that we stayed home and didn’t go. We were all out at cotton-picking time. I had to pick cotton.”

Brackett wasn’t involved in many extracurricular activities. She was in Glee Club, and liked home economics best. She occasionally attended a basketball game, which cost 10 cents for admission.

By the mid-1940s the school was becoming more crowded.

“We had a full class it seems like,” Brackett said. “The rooms were full. I don’t remember being in any class that was slim.”

In 1949, a gym was built nearby, and the following year, four classrooms were added.

Taylor had returned from college with a bachelor’s degree in English. With her husband in the military, Taylor wasn’t always able to live with him. She would teach off and on at the high school for the next several years.

Arrival of football

It may be hard for some alumni to imagine Murray County High School without football, but it wasn’t part of the traditions at the school until 1950 when a football field was built.

“Parents and grandparents, they didn’t know anything about football, and they didn’t know when to yell and what to yell about,” Taylor said. “They were playing out in cow pastures (at some of the other schools during away games). They had to dodge cow patties.”

Taylor said she had seen football games at college and she and other people would help teach the game.

“It was a fun thing,” she said. “I remember they had no idea what a first down meant. I remember sitting with some of the moms and grandmas trying to explain what a first down and a second down was. It’s hard for me to remember much because I’m nearly 88 years old. It has been a long time.”

Though she was never a cheerleader, she became the cheerleading sponsor.

“I helped them to do what they do,” Taylor said. “I directed the senior play that year. It was a fun year. I started the next year, but my husband came home in December. That was the end of my Murray County living.”

The deterioration

As more space was needed for an ever-increasing student population, more rooms were built adjacent to the gym. The Rock Building would remain a part of the high school’s campus, but the center of the school shifted away from the Rock Building, resulting in neglect.

“It was kind of dilapidated, but we still went to school in it,” said Trudy Swilling, a 1960 graduate and a Chatsworth resident. “It was a beautiful building with the rock and coming from the cliffs of the mountain.”

Swilling had attended Colvard School, which she described as “little bitty,” in the north end of the county. Transitioning to the high school was an eye-opener.

Swilling became involved in many activities, and served as a class treasurer, basketball manager and senior class president.

“I didn’t know what I was in for,” she said. “I got a great education. We all went on to college and many of us had great careers. I have great memories from Murray County High School ... I bleed green.”

Attending Murray County High School was a legacy for the Swilling family. Her father, Nelson Harris, was in the first graduating class in 1935. Twenty-five years later Swilling graduated. Twenty-five years later, her son Keith, who is now an assistant principal at North Murray High School, graduated. Twenty-five years later her grandchildren Kelsey and Taylor Swilling graduated. Plus her other children and many of her grandchildren went through the school.

“So every 25 years we’ve had my family in there,” she said.

By the time the current Murray County High School building was constructed in 1989, the Rock Building had fallen into a terrible state of deterioration. It became part of Bagley Middle School, housing only a few classes in the north wing of the building.

The floors were extra creaky. The ceiling sometimes leaked. The building was drafty. Many of the windows had been painted black.

Though a push started to renovate the building into a central office for the school system, it fell further from use, eventually used only for storage.

The drive for renovation

Many times, history enthusiasts approached the Murray County Board of Education, beginning in 1986, asking that the building be repaired and used.

It pained those who loved the building to see it so far from its original beauty. The original Murray County High School campus was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, but still nothing was done to renovate the Rock Building.

As the economy began to fail, board members said they simply did not have the funds to put into the building.

A committee was formed in the early part of this century to help raise funds for the building’s renovation. The committee raised the money to replace the roof, which was most critical to repairing the building. Replacing the roof would prevent further deterioration to the interior. The exterior rock walls still stood strong, but the interior needed a lot of work.

Committee members worked for two years to raise the $100,000 needed to place a new roof on the building. In 2007, it was installed using state Department of Corrections inmates for labor.

For many, it finally looked like progress was being made on the Rock Building.

The fire

On Sept. 26, 2009, dozens gathered in nearby parking lots to watch as their beloved alma mater nearly burned to the ground. It was pouring rain and had been storming earlier that morning. The rain may have helped prevent the fire from spreading to the adjacent building, which was then housing North Murray High School, but it did nothing to save the Rock Building.

“It was sad because it took memories away,” Brackett said. “I thought about everybody (that day). It was sad.”

The fire was determined to have been started by a lightning strike just before 11 a.m. The fire had begun but hadn’t progressed enough to be noticeable until several hours later. By 2 p.m. black smoke was rising high into the sky, visible from much of Chatsworth.

The fire began near the back of the building and moved forward. People stood shocked, calling others on cellphones, snapping photos and taking video. Firefighters, many of whom attended classes in the building, tried to salvage it.

Initial reports were that the building would have to be demolished. It had been completely gutted. Only the rock walls still stood, and some of them had been damaged.

The decision to rebuild

Taylor said she hated to hear that the building had burned, but the saddest part to her was knowing that so many people had recently donated money for its renovation.

Some said they wanted the building bulldozed and a memorial using the building’s rock walls placed there.

Swilling, whose class of 1960 had raised thousands of dollars for the roof, said she immediately hoped board members would decide to rebuild it.

“As soon as it burned, I wanted to see it rebuilt,” she said. “I said if it can be restored, I wanted to see it restored.”

She wanted to see it rebuilt because of “nostalgia as much as anything. The rest of it was just practical as a taxpayer” to use insurance money for the renovation.

Engineering studies were done. Conflicting reports came out, some saying the walls were structurally sound, others saying they weren’t.

The school system carried full insurance on the building. Restoring it meant they would be given approximately $1.7 million. Bulldozing it meant they would be given less than $1 million.

After several public hearings and much discussion, the decision was made to go forward with plans to rebuild the Rock Building and use it as a central office. The building housing the central office was becoming cramped and expansion had been discussed.

“We were just thrilled it wasn’t going to sit there and rot,” Swilling said, speaking for her graduating class. “We just wanted it to look nice.”

The reconstruction

The bid for reconstruction was awarded to Leonard Brothers Construction of Chatsworth.

The exterior walls were reinforced, and cleanup on the debris began in March 2010. It took about two weeks for the charred rubble to be removed with help from Chatsworth and Murray County governments. Even some of the dirt was removed from the site to prevent the building from smelling of smoke later, said Danny Dunn, the school system’s director of personnel and facilities and a 1980 graduate of Murray County High School.

By Sept. 1, 2010, the floor had been poured and work to repair the walls begun. The roof was completed in September.

The exterior rock walls were reused.

“The outside was sandblasted to remove all the soot,” Dunn said. “Whoever did it, a subcontractor for Leonard Brothers, did a fantastic job. The inside walls were also sandblasted, but then they were painted with sealant to keep the building from smelling like smoke. Since the walls were porous, we had to make sure we didn’t have to deal with a smoke smell it if ever tried to escape.”

Parts of the rock walls had fallen in during the fire, but they were rebuilt using rocks from other parts of the building. Several rock pylons that had been supporting the floor were used to rebuild a portion of the wall. Also, the original chimney was shortened by 15 feet and rocks from that were used, Dunn said.

The interior walls and windows were installed in November and December 2010.

Some of the partial basement had to be closed in because otherwise water would have ponded under the building, Dunn said. The rest of the basement was left open and is used for storage.

Painting started in February 2011. By April 2011, only finishing touches were left. Central office personnel moved from their location on Chestnut Street to the Rock Building.

“We tried to stay as historically accurate as possible,” Dunn said. “We did it to keep it as original as possible because that’s the way we wanted it. The roof lines, angles and pitches are all the same.”

Rock Building reopens

It took more than 20 years, but the Rock Building was finally restored to its original glory.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Brackett, who has seen the building from the outside. “It looks like I remember it looking. It really does. I appreciate the people who got on the ball and got it rebuilt. I think the construction people did a wonderful job. I appreciate them building it back.”

Swilling is also glad to have the building back.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s beautiful. I love it.”

Sherman Leonard with Leonard Brothers Construction graduated from the school in the 1950s. He said during the rededication in April of last year that someone had put a caption under his photo in the school yearbook predicting he would remodel the Empire State Building.

“This is my Empire State Building,” he said of the Rock Building. “This is probably the most proud I’ve been of a building.”

The preservation effort earned the community an Excellence in Rehabilitation award from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dunn said he believes it’s one of the nicest central offices he’s seen.

“I’m proud that we were able to rebuild it,” he said. “I’m glad that we had adequate insurance to complete the project.”

As a student, Dunn spent a lot of time in the Rock Building. He had several classes there and was an aide to one of the teachers who taught in the building. He also helped build sets for the plays in the old auditorium.

“The first few weeks, it was almost like coming to school again,” Dunn said. “I was parking in the same place I was when I was a senior. But it’s been a year, and it’s like coming to work again.”

Several people have strolled through the building to see the renovation.

“People are welcome to stop by anytime,” Dunn said. “If they want to walk through and look, they can walk down memory lane.”