An annual family reunion a year ago led to a celebration Friday of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Elkin Graded School. The day-long celebration began with a program at Elkin High School in the morning, and concluded with the unveiling of a plaque during an afternoon program on the grounds of Elkin Elementary School.
Kathi Burcham Heron, who lives outside Annapolis, Maryland, said she and her husband, Mark, were walking through Elkin on the reunion weekend a year ago and passed the cupola and bell that once sat atop the Elkin Graded School, which her grandfather, John Bartlett Burcham, designed.
“We noticed there was nothing that said what it was,” Heron said. “My grandfather designed the graded school, and when my father, James, passed away he had containers of drawings he’d done.”
Among those original drawings were the graded school, The Liberty building and several houses in Elkin, she said. Another building designed by Burcham was the Royall’s Soda Shoppe building.
The family contacted local historian Dr. Jason Couch and anything they could recognize, Couch has kept in his personal collection of historical artifacts of the area, said Heron.
Upon advice from Couch, the Herons reached out to Elkin City Schools Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe about the possibility of adding a plaque to the cupola so those passing by would know its history.
This weekend is the annual family reunion which brings the Burchams together in Elkin, so the school system and family worked together to hold the 100th anniversary celebration while the family would be in town to attend.
During the Friday morning program at the high school, Kathi Burcham Heron explained to the students and community members gathered that her grandfather had 10 children – five with his first wife who died at age 33 of tuberculosis, and five with his second wife.
When the children of his second wife where still middle and elementary school age, including Heron’s father, James Burcham, John B. Burcham, who was born just outside Elkin in Wilkes County and grew up in Jonesville, but considered Elkin “near and dear to his heart,” moved his family to the Washington, D.C., area to find more work.
Two of Burcham’s children – John B. Burcham Jr. and Kathleen Burcham Land – and Heron’s mother, Christina Burcham, who found her father-in-law’s drawings, were able to attend Friday’s programs. Heron explained that her grandfather never had formal in-school courses in architecture, instead he was certified through a correspondence class.
As Bledsoe opened Friday morning’s program, he said, “We have traveled the path at the elementary school many times and see the bell and cupola. I’m thankful Mr. Mark Heron called me and told me of Mr. Burcham being the architect. He began talking about that tradition and how he was proud to be part of that.
“It was the commitment and vision of the community 100 years ago when they built one of the best educational facilities in our area,” he said. “This 100 year celebration is a reminder of what is expected of us. It was a showcase facility. Today Elkin City Schools is a showcase for public education across the state.”
“In 1954, I entered Elkin Elementary School,” said Elkin Mayor Lestine Hutchens, who explained at the time kindergarten was something only available at private schools. “I walked up those big stone steps from Church Street and it looked like the biggest building in the world.”
She went on to recall which teachers were in each of the classrooms along the hallway in the basement. And she shared the story of one boy who lived on N.C. 268 and when he was ready to go home, he would go to the basement level bathroom, climb up the pipe, out the small window, go down the pipe on the outside of the building and run home.
The history of the school system, dating back to the oldest church and school building in Surry County, built by Richard Gwyn in 1850, was highlighted by Couch as he presented a photo slideshow of 70 pictures, many were class pictures from those who attended the Elkin Graded School while others were pictures of the area as he pointed out how it’s changed now in relation to where things were 100 years or more ago.
He explained that while the cornerstone for the Elkin Graded School, which now is part of the Elkin Elementary School building, says 1914, the school didn’t actually open until 1915. He also noted that prior to 1947, Elkin was part of the Surry County School System.
A 1950 photograph of students he shared is the only picture of the interior of the Elkin Graded School he’s been able to find. He also had pictures from the demolition of the Elkin Graded School in 1975, one of the building being torn down and another of a crane safely lowering the cupola to the ground to be preserved. The second picture has in the background the oak tree that still stands on the elementary school playground.
The Elkin High School Student Council had asked to be part of Friday’s celebration with its own special take on the day. The students presented 100 years of life through the decades, with a fashion show to go with it.
“Who said history can’t be fun,” said Dr. Richard Brinegar, chairman of the Elkin City Schools Board of Education. “Haven’t you had a great day learning about history – not just any history, your history.
“Today is something special. Thinking about 100 years and what makes it so special … it’s this community, this community is so special.”
Brinegar said, “The community loves this school system and they want to be part of it. Something else that makes us very special is so many families have reinvested in the community. The most unique thing about Elkin is they come back here to raise their kids.”
Several times speakers said, “It’s a great day to be a Buckin’ Elk.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-358-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.