History of Gaylesville School

This history was compiled and written by Evelyn Hurley

Dr. Samuel Lafayette Russell

The Gaylesville Academy was organized in 1870 and began operation January 17, 1871. The Academy was organized by Dr. Samuel Lafayette Russell, a scholar and minister of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Dr. Russell was instrumental in building the educational system in Gaylesville and Cherokee County, Alabama. The first faculty of Gaylesville School included George Russell, M. M. Russell, W.P. Russell, and W. Callan.

The school has been known at various times as an academy, a high school, a college, and a normal school. Seventy-nine pupils enrolled for the first terms–a large number for a village of approximately 200 population. In its early years, Gaylesville School was financed entirely by tuition, and many students paid part of their $3.50 a month fees with farm products. By 1875 the school was regarded of sufficient permanence to warrant a charter. In that year the legislature incorporated the school and empowered it to grant its students diplomas and certificates of proficiency such as those granted by the colleges and other institutions of learning. At that time there were no permanent schools in Cherokee County.

During the first term the students were taught in the basement of a vacant dwelling owned by Jonathan Chesnut. These inadequate quarters were used for only a short period of time. The following summer a cooperative building project was begun. The Presbyterians, Masons, and those interested in the school combined their efforts to construct a new school.

When the school was known as The Gaylesville Academy, five full days were given to graduation exercises. The curriculum included required courses in Greek, Latin, and the classics. Boarding boys paid $2.25 to $2.50 a week for their accommodations in private homes. Girl boarders were expected to “furnish their bed dressing, such as sheets, quilts, pillow cases, also oil for their lamps”.

In 1880 Gaylesville Academy enrolled 42 students in primary, 64 in intermediate, 29 in the classical department, and 21 in music and art.

On February 6, 1886, Gaylesville Academy was completely destroyed by fire. There was no way to finance the building other than by private subscriptions. The building was completed and dedicated on December 25, 1887. (Mrs. Lutz wrote that the building burned in 1887 and the term was finished in the old Methodist church on the hill back of McWhorter’s.) In January, 1888, school opened in the new rock building in the site of the present campus. The first teachers in this building were Sally Brandon, Ella Cunningham, Marcus Russell, and S.L. Russell. Among the teachers in the early years were Misses Beulah Witherspoon and Haynie Smyer.

The curriculum included Latin, Greek, rhetoric, algebra and geometry. Lessons were also offered in French and music. The student body was not divided into classes or departments. The enrollment consisted of pupils ranging in classification from beginners to those in classes equivalent to sophomores in college.

In 1879 the work of the school was organized into primary, intermediate, and classical divisions which was continued until 1894. A library was also established on May 4, 1894.

Gaylesville Academy continued under the leadership of Dr. Russell until he resigned in 1895. (He died on October 7, 1895 at his home near Gaylesville, a few months after severing his connection with the school.) Dr. John L. Ray succeeded Dr. Russell and served for the next two years continuing along much the same lines of administration as before.

Prof. J.A. Lowry became head of the school in 1897. Extensive changes in the course of study were made. Those graduating at this time were admitted to the junior year in the four year colleges of the state. Students completing the teacher’s course were granted first grade certificates without examination. In 1899, Mr. Lowry resigned to become President of North Alabama College, Fort Payne, Alabama.

Prof. Elwin J. Chesnut followed Prof. Lowry with Prof. Browder as his assistant for the next two terms. During the period 1902-1906 the school was led by Mr. Finch, Mr. Broughton and Misses Beulah and Nannie W. Witherspoon.

No public funds were to be had. The academy had a difficult time and suffered from a lack of sustained leadership. As a consequence the school entered into a period of decadence.

In 1906 the Southern Baptist Association acquired the property and added the name Baptist, making it Gaylesville Baptist Academy. Mr. Samuel J. McCall served as the first principal under the Baptist administration during the 1906- 1907 session.

August 7, 1907 saw a law requiring a public school in every county, with a minimum five acre campus, and a building costing no less that $5,000.00. By popular vote it was decided to place the public school in Centre. Gaylesville’s private academy continued to flourish.

Mr. J.J. Yarborough became the next principal and remained two years. In 1913-1914, Mr. Gardener became head of the school. Mr. John L. Ray returned as principal in 1914 for a period of four years. Under Ray, enrollment increased to 154 for one of these years. The Baptist Mission Board erected a boys’ and a girls’ dormitory on the campus. During this period the school was accredited by the State Department of Education.

Mr. Bryan succeeded Mr. Ray and served two terms, 1918- 1920. Following him, Rev. Cross remained as long as the institution continued as a Mission School. The Home Mission Board withdrew support from the school in 1923 because of limited funds and the fact there was pressure for a state high school. The public school had already begun teaching through the ninth grade. The academy was, however, supported by fees and gifts until 1925 when the Mission Board moved all records, furniture, and other equipment to another Mission School at Bridgeport, Alabama.

For the first time since 1871, Gaylesville was without a high school. Mr. Robert J. Henderson purchased the school property from the Mission Board and employed a staff of teachers for 1925. Mr. L.C. Alverson, as principal, had six assistants. (Mrs. Lutz says that the school was reorganized as a state school in 1925 with Alverson as principal. An effort was made to make it a junior college, but this was abandoned after two years.) Mr. Henderson found the financial burden too great and persuaded the Cherokee County Board of Education to assume a part of the expenses. Mr. F.V. Kuykendall became principal in 1926 and the school was restored to its accredited standing, which it had lost after Mr. Ray’s second administration. In 1927 the first football team at Gaylesville was organized with Mr. Cox as coach. Goddes Self followed Kuykendall as principal and vocational education was added to the school. Mr. Joe Tucker and Miss Alma Bentley were the first vocational teachers. They were followed by Jacob D. Thorne and Naomi Wilson.

The County Board of Education assumed the entire responsibility for the school in 1928. In 1931, Mr. Henderson deeded the property to the State of Alabama as a gift – thus ending the sixty year life of the Gaylesville Academy.

Mr. E.A. (Zeke) Van Pelt was principal for many years of the elementary school which was taught in a two story frame building back of what was Bedwell’s Store. After the first brick building was completed, the elementary students were moved to its west wing, and Mr. Zeke continued as principal of the lower grades. Mr. Zeke set up the first free lunch program at Gaylesville. The first year showed a profit of $3.04, with food donated by patrons of the school. A story is told which relates that a small child told Mr. Zeke she had no money to eat lunch. Mr. Zeke was so deeply touched that he announced free lunches for all children that day.

J.C. Mattox was high school principal in the early thirties. Mr. Bryce Henderson, a teacher in the school for a number of years, became principal in 1935 and ably filled that position until 1956. During the 1935-36 school year, Mr. Henderson as principal supervised the construction of a modern school plant boasting 12 classrooms, a library, study halls and a gymnasium. Mr. Henderson’s career as an educator spanned 29 years – eight as a teacher and twenty- one as principal. Many times when he was principal the road would flood and Mr. Henderson had to get to school by crossing the river in a bateau.

Two other school buildings were burned in the meantime, the old two-storied rock academy and then in 1955, a brick building similar to the present main building.

Old School BuildingNew School BuildingBurned School Building

In 1957 Roy Knapp, a Gaylesville graduate of 1936, returned to serve his Alma Mater as principal.

Following the tenure of Roy Knapp, Thomas Adams became principal. Mr. Adams was a teacher and principal for a total of eighteen years.

After the death of Mr. Adams in 1978??? Sam Towns became principal for two years followed by Billy Wilson for one year. Gerald Benefield was principal in 1982 and in 1983 Billy Wilson returned as principal and remained until 1991.

Upon the retirement of Billy Wilson, Nancy Pledger Smith became principal of Gaylesville School. She is the first woman to serve as principal and her husband is related to the original founder of the Gaylesville Academy, Samuel Russell.

Nancy Smith Terry retired at the end of the 1997 – 1998 school year. Paul Kerr McWhorter, III was serving as assistant principal at that time and was hired as principal at the beginning of the 1998 – 1999 school year. Mr. McWhorter served as principal of Gaylesville School until his retirement. Many improvements were made under his leadership.

Mr. Scott Hays is currently the principal of Gaylesville School.

Pictures were compiled from Gaylesville High School, a Pictorial History