Eighty years ago, the school opened its doors to the first class of almost 300 students, marking a significant turn in the history of the Shady Valley community.
The project ended up tying the community together in ways that still connect its members together to this day.
Then and now
Shady Valley School dots the middle of the valley, not a mile from the crossroad of the two main roads into the valley – U.S. Route 421 and TN state route 91. Looking at a map, one will notice the community brushing the Cherokee National Forest and cradled in between the Iron Mountains to the South and Holston Mountain to the north.
Currently, 31 students attend Shady Valley School, and four teachers and two instructional assistants split eight grades between them: Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten is a classroom of 10 students, five students occupy first and second grade, seven students are in the third- and fourth-grade classroom and the fifth- and sixth-grade classroom holds nine students this year.
The school wasn’t always small, though. Community member Olan Bentley remembers a robust classroom of 25 students during his time in school, and according to county history, the building housed about 285 students when it first opened in 1938.
Even though much of the community didn’t have plumbing or electricity at the time, the building was fitted with bathrooms and kitchen equipment that wasn’t used for the school’s first years. Students used outhouses, brought their own lunches and got water from a spring outside. Sometimes, members of the community would bring a pot of soup to heat up for children to have for lunch.
“It was a community event all the way through,” Bentley said.
The cornerstone of a community
The stonework on the outside and the painted wormy chestnut on the inside give hints to the building’s age. Construction on the school began in the mid-1930s as part of the New Deal, funded by the Works Progress Administration in 1935.
The building itself embodies the history of the area. The stone work framing each window echo careful work done by the community members almost a century ago, and every community member can pick out the tomahawk and little cannonball sealed into the plaque at the front of the building.
The interior of the building is made of some of the last American Chestnut in the area. Each wooden plank is made from wormy chestnut, which is what American Chestnut trees were called when they fell due to the blight in the early 1900s. With the trees’ extinction, the school stands as a monument to the timber that once covered the area and contributed the name Shady Valley.
While the construction was funded by the federal government, the community was heavily involved with the building’s construction, and many in the Shady Valley community can boast of a great-grandfather, great-great uncle or distant cousin who had a hand in erecting the building.
“The community has always been a big supporter of the school – from the beginning even to this last (Cranberry) Festival that we had,” instructional assistant Dianna Howard said.
Before Shady Valley, four small schoolhouses divided the valley into four, distinct sections. Crandull served the lower end of the valley toward Damascus, Harmon occupied the middle of the valley, Winchester stood in the northwestern corner of the valley and Shady Flats served students in the southwest corner.
A lack of transportation necessitated those four small schoolhouses, but with the New Deal came consolidation – and Shady Valley was the first consolidated school in Johnson County.
Keeping the school open
Because the school is so small in enrollment, the community has created ways to supplement funds to keep its doors open. State funding for schools and school systems is determined by a Basic Education Program formula. That formula hinges on several factors, but the state’s website outlines that enrollment is the primary driver for funding.
Twenty-six years ago, the school was faced with closure. Year to year, uncertainty of the school’s future grew, and the community decided to do something about it.
The Cranberry Festival has been an annual staple for the community for the past 26 years, and remains one of main sources of supplemental income that keeps the school funded.
Founders of the festival settled on cranberries because it’s yet another way the community is unique and rich in history. Cranberries grow naturally in the northern part of the continent, but for them to be found in the wild somewhere as far south as Tennessee is rare.
The reason for the cranberries is speculated upon, but those who live in the valley believe it may have something to do with the elevation, an ecosystem that fostered a habitable space for the plants and a chance bird dropping sometime near the last ice age.
Each year, the festival draws thousands to the little school, and marks an annual reunion for those who call Shady Valley their first home. The festival is what keeps the doors open to a unique school to a unique community.
“To me, my feeling on it, is that this is our heart,” Howard said. “This school building, and the education of the kids out here. People are very concerned and love that their kids are being taught here — it’s the heart of this community.
“If you take the heart out, a community dies.”