The History of Oak Grove School
Oak Grove Elementary is rich and long one. It was once a story thought to be lost and while it is true there has been much found, there are still quite a few missing pieces. To know the history of Oak Grove Elementary, one must go back a little further to the beginning of the Bradley County School system. Bradley County School System was formed in 1868 during the infancy of the Tennessee public school system. It was comprised of 39 community schools in the Ocoee District. Typically these community schools were furnished by the community in which the school was located. In many cases, old abandoned dwellings were used, and when buildings were erected expressly for school purposes, they were not much better. They were made of logs with sections cut out for windows and doors. They usually had large fireplaces with chimneys made of mud and sticks. The ground served as a floor, and the seats were made from split logs smoothed off on one side and supported by pegs driven through each end. Previous to and for several years after the Civil War, textbooks were in rare use because of being so costly. Many students had to attend school without books, hoping to share the books of the more fortunate children who could afford them. All kinds of material, from government reports to the Bible were used for reading purposes. The letters of the alphabet were pasted on cardboard with flour paste for the beginners. The school library was unheard of in the rural schools. For many years there was not a uniform system of state-adopted text-books, and each unit selected its own material. It would not take long for the communities in the area to start planning for the consolidation of these community schools for better efficiency in their children’s education. Consolidation meant better equipment, better teachers, and better buildings. This led to the opening of Oak Grove.
Oak Grove School opened its doors on September 12, 1896. It was a 2 room (a third room was later added) wood frame schoolhouse with a stove in the middle. There are several verbal accounts of students having been “hired” to start the stove in the mornings and were “paid” with lunch in the afternoon. Upper and lower grades were split between the two rooms. Outhouses were located behind the building. O.G. Hughes is credited with being the first teacher. The land for the schoolhouse was donated by M.C. Dooley and was located on the corner of Bate Pike and Durkee Road where the current Stamper’s warehouse is located. The school was named after a large grove of Pin Oaks located on the property.
By 1915, Oak Grove had grown to host 40 students and 1 teacher. Music had begun to be introduced in the school at this time, led by Miss Edna Tonkin, the county supervisor of music. In 1936, the school had 75 students, 2 teachers, and had added a small kitchen in a cloakroom. The school was also a “Moonlight School” where the school doors were opened to adults to be taught how to read and write along with community development, road building, and its effect on the community. Moonlight schools were a part of a campaign to help reduce the amount of illiterate adults in the county. This was a community-wide effort to improve education in the area.
While the schoolhouse had been considered an improvement to the smaller community schools, due to rapid growth and increasing needs, a bigger building was needed.
In the early 1950s, J.A. “Gus” & Marie Wolfe Ware sold acreage that was across the street from the original Oak Grove schoolhouse to the school board for a new building to be built. An 8-room structure was completed in 1955. James D. Finley was the last principal at the original schoolhouse and also the first principal of the new building. The school hosted children in 1st-8th grades. There was a period of rapid growth not long after the construction of the first building. In 1959, 4 more rooms were added and in 1963 a 5 room hexagonal “pod” was added. This was considered to be “state of the art” for the time with portable blackboards, fountains, and sinks with hot and cold water in each classroom, a teacher’s lounge and a modern heating and cooling system. There was a recorded number of 575 students with two special education classes. Team teaching was used in the upper grades and the primary department was ungraded. Conversational Spanish was taught in the seventh and eighth grades. A library with approximately 1600 books was available to all students. A cafeteria served a “well-balanced lunch for an average of 489 students daily”. The school also boasted a well-rounded physical education program as well. Cecil A. Lillard was principal by this time and had a staff of 18 teachers.
During the 1960s, sports came into play with boy and girls basketball teams and a football team who were the Bradley County Champions in 1969, 1970, and 1971.
The 8th-grade class in 1963 took a trip to Nashville to welcome President John F. Kennedy on his way to Dallas. A student snapped a photo of the President. This trip was about a week before his assassination.
In 1973, Oak Grove had it’s very first Kindergarten class which was taught by Ms. Donna Borders (Harmon) and Aide Ms. Cook. Ms. Harmon taught at the school for 40 years. The school also had, by this time, a school newspaper, school band, Majorettes, a Photography club, 4-H, a Choir, Brownie and Cub Scouts, and held a class play.
On April 3, 1974, a tornado struck the school and caused extensive damage to multiple buildings. It was towards the end of the school day and students were reported to have huddled in the hallway. There was a report also of a desk found on the playground with a student’s books still inside. This led to the school being shut down for a short period of time and even classes were relocated to other areas of the school while it was rebuilt by students, the local community, faculty, and administration.
According to yearbooks, in 1976, the first Fall Festival Royalty Court was named. This would become a long-standing tradition for the school over the years.
In the 1980s, the 6th-grade class would take trips to Brandon Springs in Dover, TN to enjoy a camp-like atmosphere. Several verbal accounts of great memories and activities took place here.
1989 brought a huge honor to Oak Grove when First Lady Barbara Bush graced the halls of the school when she paid a visit.
Roger Rowe came to Oak Grove in 1962 as the teacher of a split sixth and seventh-grade class in the corner of the cafeteria. He returned to take the position of Principal in 1967. During his time he served as a Basketball coach, and his teams were consistently in the top in Bradley County. Throughout his 32 years at the school, he was witness to major growth in the school including the addition of 6 buildings, a track, a fenced playground, and landscaping of the school. The faculty increased from 16 to a staff of 44 with student enrollment at 582. Each school morning he would start off with a television program initiated by Mr. Rowe. During his tenure, the school witnessed the Vietnam War, the Man in Space program, the Computer Age, the assassination of a president, the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm, and the Blizzard of 93’. Oak Grove was also transformed from a school with grades 1-8 to grades K-6. He is held in high regard as one of the best principals of the school.
In 1995, Ted Bryson was selected to be the new principal for the school. He would go on to serve 18 years as Oak Grove’s principal before leaving to join the school board for the county. The school only continued during this time. In 1996, a new playground was built. The school was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in 1997.
In 2000, a new Kindergarten and 1st grade wing was added.
The school was also witness to the events of September 11, 2001. This moved both staff and students alike. Reports of several patriotic programs were held and the school collected money for both the Red Cross and United Way. 2013 saw Buck Watson as principal where he would serve until 2019 when Stephanie Jones was named Principal.
In 2020, Oak Grove was closed early in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was opened again for the next school year in August of 2020. It was an unprecedented year with strict protocols in place. Many changes occurred in daily activities. Temperature checks, extra cleaning and sanitizing, and social distancing became the “new normal” for students and teachers alike.
The history of this school is a long and rich one. Thousands of students have graced Oak Grove’s halls. Many students today have parents who attended and many of the staff were students once themselves at Oak Grove. It is a testament that Falcon stands the test of time and continues to play a vital role in the community.