The school is gone, the memories remain
From the time she was a little girl, Green Bank native Louise Brown Butcher knew what she wanted to be – a teacher.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “My older brother taught awhile and he used to bring home [file folders], and I used to put stuff in those and carry it around, pretending to go to school.”
After receiving her teaching degree from Glenville State College, the fresh-faced 22-year-old saw her dream come to fruition when she returned to the county and got her first teaching job at the one room school in the town of Spruce.
“Back in that time they always put the first year teachers in a one-room school,” she said. “I know teachers that taught years in a one room school around here. I just taught the one year and then they asked me if I wanted to come to Cass. I taught at Cass and then I went from there to Green Bank.”
Although she only had one year at Spruce, that year left a lasting impression on the teacher who spent 42 years educating the children of Pocahontas County.
Butcher’s year at Spruce was unlike any other. Because the town was not easily accessible, the young teacher took the Cass train to the town and stayed with a family for the week.
“You couldn’t drive to Spruce,” she said. “There’s no way to go but train. I stayed up there during the week. The old Shay that still goes up the mountain, that’s what I rode. I rode right in the engine where they fire it and the first morning, the guy said, ‘lady, you want to sit down?’ and there was no place to sit but just a little box type thing. That was the wrong thing to do because all those cinders came right back on me. I never sat there again.”
On some occasions, Butcher rode to the town in a motorcar that also ran on the train tracks.
Butcher’s first day at Spruce was daunting, but she persevered and proved naysayers wrong.
“The first morning that I went up there it was raining, and, of course, I didn’t know where I was going to stay,” she recalled. “There was a family that always kept the teachers, so the train master knew where it was and he took me to a house. It was a dismal looking morning and I thought, ‘what have I got in to?’ I don’t think anybody thought I would stay. They said I would freeze to death in the winter and when it got warm, the gnats would eat you up.”
The town of Spruce was a company town for woodhicks cutting timber. The town was small with bare and identical homes and a boarding house.
“The houses looked just like the schoolhouse,” Butcher said. “They were all unpainted. The people of Spruce, they didn’t have a store. They didn’t have any place to buy groceries or anything. Some of them owned motorcars and they went out to Mace or Mt. Airy, one of those two, to get groceries. A lot of them that didn’t have motorcars just had to depend on someone else. Sometimes, the kids could bring grocery lists to me to get things. I would fill my suitcase full of things the parents sent for because they had no way of getting out of there.”
In the year at Spruce, Butcher taught around 20 students, most of whom she still remembers by name. It is harder to keep track of them though because most of the families moved away after the lumber company left the town and there were no longer jobs for the men and women.
“They were all good people,” Butcher remembered. “They weren’t there forever. They appreciated what you did for them. I never kept in touch with them. I’d like to know [where they are], but I don’t know where they are now.”
Butcher looks back on that year as a special time in her life.
“It was quite an experience,” she said. “When I went up on the first Monday, we had to come back on Wednesday to go to the board office to get supplies and, after that Monday and Tuesday, I thought ‘I don’t believe I can do this.’ Then I thought about it and said ‘that’s not right.’ It’s what they assigned me to do, and I was glad I did it because after I got started, I got along alright. It just took a little while to get used to it.”
While Butcher enjoyed her first year of teaching, it came with its difficulties.
“It wasn’t all peaches and cream,” she said. “When I got up there on Mondays, it was still a long time until day light and no one was at the schoolhouse during the weekend. Some days it was so cold, the windows were frosted on the inside. We had a wood stove with a vent going into the upstairs, so I had to build a fire every morning.”
Foundations and remnants of some of the buildings are all that remain of the town of Spruce now. Decades after her year of teaching there, Butcher returned on a train ride and couldn’t recall where the buildings used to be.
“There’s nothing up there now,” she said. “The houses are all gone. I went once on the Salamander and I had trouble seeing where the schoolhouse was because there was nothing there. Most of the houses were in a row kind of like the ones at Cass.”
After she finished her first year of teaching, Butcher moved on to the Cass School and taught third and fourth grade for several years, then moved on to Green Bank School where she taught third grade until she retired in 1985.
“I like third grade,” she said. “They’re a good group. They know what to do. It was easier with one grade than to have all of them. Back then, writing was very important. They learned cursive. Sometimes you can’t read kids’ writing. I think we stressed that a lot more than they do now. I always thought that was important, to write so you could read it.”
Three schools, 42 years and countless students later, Butcher retired in 1985. She substituted for a couple years afterward and realized the students had changed over the years.
“I was in a second grade substituting and this little boy didn’t want to listen to anything I said, and I guess I gave him a hard time because when I taught, I expected kids to listen,” she said. “The next day the regular teacher came back and she was having trouble with him and with others. She told me later, she gathered up her books and said ‘I’m leaving. I’m going out and getting some real mean person to come in here and teach you all.’ She said that little guy jumped up and said, ‘please don’t get Mrs. Butcher.’”
Whether it was positive or negative, Butcher left a lasting impression on thousands of students, many of whom still tell her so to this day.
“I see a lot of kids I had,” she said. “I don’t always remember them. I have to have them tell me who they are when they approach me.”
Through it all, Butcher says the most rewarding part of her 42 years of teaching was seeing her students learn and succeed in life.
“It’s rewarding seeing my former students graduating from college with honors and meeting my former students who expressed their gratitude for being in my classroom.”
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org