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A Historical Glance At Hazel Green Academy

During the spring of 1880 three community leaders in Hazel Green, Kentucky, each contributed $500 to start an educational institution. Later in the year the Kentucky Senate passed a bill chartering Hazel Green Academy to provide elementary and secondary education to children throughout the mountain region of the state. A building was constructed during the summer, teachers were recruited and classes began in the fall.

Hazel Green is located in the geographic center of the mountain region. The founders’ original idea was that, with seed capital, a building could be constructed and teachers hired to staff the school. High school students from the more distant communities could board with local families and all students would pay enough tuition to cover operating costs of the school as well as build a nest egg for future expansion.
Prior to the Civil War, education in eastern Kentucky was happenstance at best and often nonexistent. Taught by their parents or a relative around the home fireplace, some children learned to read, write and perform basic math. A few larger communities might have had a building that doubled as a church and an elementary school, but formal school sessions were generally held for just a few months each year and focused only on very basic skills.

Between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, most children, if they and their parents were really determined, could either walk or ride a mule to a one-room school where a single teacher taught the eight elementary grades. Education beyond eighth grade, however, meant leaving home and boarding at high schools often more than a hundred miles away. Rugged terrain limited travel of any great distance to horseback, so few eastern Kentucky children received secondary education before 1900.

From 1880 until 1886 Hazel Green Academy was financed largely by its founders. Tuition fees were not nearly keeping up with operating expenses. While $500 may not sound like a lot of money in the 1998 economy, it represented a considerable investment in 1880. Land, for example, could then be purchased for less than a dollar an acre. Five hundred dollars in 1880 had about the same purchasing power as $25,000 in 1998.

In the fall of 1886, the founders decided that they could

In the fall of 1886, the founders decided that they could no longer afford to keep the school going themselves and that if it was going to succeed, they would have to find financial assistance from other sources. The founders reached an agreement with the Kentucky Board of the Christian Women’s Board of Missions (CWBM) who offered financial and professional assistance. Under CWBM leadership the academy met with such success that, in June of 1888, the founders deeded the school property to them.
The CWBM agreement called for a curriculum that not only demanded high academic standards but a commitment to moral, ethical and spiritual development as well. Students were required to attend regular church services and strictly adhere to the Golden Rule. In the original contract with the founders, it was mutually agreed that the Scriptures and daily recitations would be mandatory for all students in grades one through twelve.

In the fall of 1888, the academy announced the opening of a “Normal School” that would train teachers to go back into the remote communities. So began the first real trickle of formal education into the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky. Hazel Green was soon thereafter called the “Mother School of the Mountains,” a reputation that it carried until the 193Os.
In 1891 the first dormitory, called the Academy Home, was completed. It burned in 1892 and was immediately rebuilt. In 1894 an annex was built onto the original school building to house the primary grades. The school’s first music teacher was hired in 1892 and the first series of business management courses were offered. Domestic science and Latin were also emphasized. The majority of students in the early years did not set a goal of completing all the courses for a diploma, but came, instead to learn a few basic skills that would qualify them for employment.

By 1893 Hazel Green Academy had achieved a national reputation and The National Board of the Christian Women’s Board of Missions assumed full control of the school at its National Convention in Chicago of that year. At that time there was no other high school within a 60-mile radius of Hazel Green and to the east it was more than 100 miles to the nearest school in Virginia.

Fire, which was to be a major plague for the Academy in its first fifty years, struck again in 1899 completely destroying the second Academy building, and the CWBM began serious discussions about the propriety of rebuilding. A new academy was being started in Morehead, some 25 miles away, and the CWBM suggested to the community that Hazel Green merge with that school.

Hazel Green residents, however, were adamant that they not lose their school. They promptly purchased a forty-acre farm known as Harrison Heights and presented it to the CWBM. Cottages to house students were hastily constructed and classes continued. Plans for a new brick structure were begun.

The new property allowed for expansion and for a farming operation that would be student-operated to produce vegetables, dairy products and meat to feed the students and to be sold within the local and surrounding communities.

The farm also enabled the creation of vocational agriculture instruction where students could learn new production practices previously unheard of in the mountains. The dairy operation at its inception was, by far, the most modern in eastern Kentucky; most local folks hadn’t even seen a photograph of a silo until one was built on the farm. Without the farm the school might have failed during the Great Depression.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1902 the new brick classroom building was dedicated and named Pearre Hall. Still standing and in use today, it is the oldest building on the campus and is an example of the best in turn-of-the-century architecture anywhere in Kentucky. On Arbor Day in 1903, most of the boys enrolled at in the high school purchased a variety of hardwood saplings which their sweethearts helped them to plant. These are the towering oak, maple and poplar which grace and shade the campus today.

Major contributors from Michigan and the east coast began pouring considerable sums of money into the “little school on the hill” as it became known locally. In 1905 the Sarah K. Yancey Home, a girls’ dormitory and housing for women teachers, was completed. In 1908 the Helen E. Moses Memorial Boys’ Dormitory was opened along with The Ford Industrial Building which contained a central heating system for the entire campus and classroom and workshop facilities for industrial vocational education.
The Ford Industrial Building and the Boys’ Dormitory stand today and both are currently undergoing major renovations so that they can again be used by the community, but that’s another story .

As with previous construction projects on the campus, the administration building was one of the most modern facilities, educational or otherwise, in the mountains. Students provided a great deal of labor in its construction. Because transportation was so difficult, staff and students constructed a kiln and fired the bricks that went into the building which contains more than 14,000 square feet of floor space on two stories as well as a 240-seat auditorium and a large theatrical production stage.

A steam generator was built and produced electricity for the academy and for several homes in the Hazel Green community. What was very likely the first electrically-powered commercial clothes washer was also installed in a complete laundry used both by students and faculty. A printing press was installed in the early ’30s and high school students were required to work at least nine hours a week, so both the press and the laundry provided jobs and saved expenses for the school. Other jobs included custodial work, grounds maintenance, farm and dairy chores, food service and a variety of craft production including everything from weaving and quilting to building small items of furniture.

Due to the resourcefulness of the Academy, Hazel Green residents were the first people in the area to enjoy many modem conveniences such as electricity, running water, telephones, automobiles and modem farm machinery.

In 1933 the second floor of the boys’ dormitory was converted into a hospital.The hospital performed routine surgery and provided medical service to Hazel Green and surrounding communities until it closed in l955.

For decades, it was routine for boys to arise an hour before breakfast during the winter months to practice basketball while the outdoor dirt court was still frozen enough for them to dribble the ball. Both basketball and baseball were introduced as varsity sports in the 1890s. In 1934 the entire student body agreed to do without dessert at mealtimes and the savings were used to begin a fund to build a gymnasium. Brick left over from the administration building, old railroad ties, bridge pilings, well-casings, donated lumber and volunteer labor were utilized to construct the Lewis Ferrell Gymnasium, another facility currently under renovation, but still used for community recreation today.

By the 1930s, Hazel Green Academy had built a reputation as one of the best schools of its size anywhere in the country. Young people, for the most part affiliated with the Christian Church, from all over the south, midwest and east coast were accepted as students every year. Roads had been built throughout the mountains and students began traveling into other communities to assist elementary school teachers, perform musical and theatrical productions and assist in other outreach programs.

In 1940, letters were mailed to all former students who could be tracked down announcing a general reunion. More than 300 former students from 39 states attended the gathering on June 22, to form the Former Students Association (FS A). Until the school closed in 1983, the FSA provided funds to purchase needed furniture replacement, bedding, renovation projects and scholarship funds. Alumni have made substantial cash contributions to the renovation project currently in progress.
From 1940 to 1960 Hazel Green Academy continued to modernize, grow and prosper. Anew Industrial Arts building was completed and The Tutt House was constructed as a residence for the school principal’s family. A brass band was organized in 1957. A modern sewage treatment plant was installed and greenhouse technology was introduced to the Vocational Agriculture curriculum so that the farm could grow better and newer varieties of transplants. The first tennis court in Wolfe County was built on campus. A new science lab was constructed and finally, in 1978, the academy was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

By the late 1970s, however, most communities in the mountains had access to nearby, publicly funded high schools. State and private colleges had long since taken over teacher training, and coal mining jobs were being rapidly eliminated by mechanization. Students who might have wanted schooling at a private institution could no longer afford rising tuition and boarding costs, and the academy could no longer raise enough supplemental funds to keep the academy afloat. The CWBM reluctantly decided to close the school in 1983 after more than a century of operation.

The Hazel Green Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) purchased the campus the next year when the CWBM had offered it to them at a very favorable price. By selling the farm land and one residence on the property, the church was able to raise enough money to buy the main campus, all its buildings and educational equipment. The campus has been used sporadically since the school closed to allow a community college to conduct some classes and as a home for the Wolfe County Arts Association.

To restore it to its former glory, however, will require additional funding and the participation and commitment of numerous civic and other community groups as well as individuals. But don’t ask Father Ralph Beiting if he thinks it can be done. It’s not a matter of “if’ to Father Beiting, but “how soon?”

“This school, this place, are far too historically significant to be allowed to deteriorate and fall into any further decay,” Father Beiting insists. “This place can be as vitally important to the community and the mountains as it ever was and maybe even more so. And it will be.”