Recent stories in this column about Franklin County’s old Pippin Hill and Algoma Mountain Mission Schools sparked memories in an alumna as well as for a regular guest on school grounds.
Reacting to one source who was quoted that Pippin Hill was not a formal school, Betsy Dennis took to her keyboard to introduce us via email to her mother.
“Referencing your recent article about mission schools in Franklin County, you mentioned that Pippin Hill was never an educational school, just church/Sunday school. My mother attended school at Pippin Hill for years, and then Algoma, with Miss Childrey as instructor.”
In the email was contact information for her mother Virginia Holt Boitnott. More about that the ensuing conversation to come.
Meanwhile, a call came from Billy Kingery of Roanoke, whose grandfather was farm superintendent and orchardist for owner Sam Guerrant, the medical doctor who changed careers to raise apples and found Presbyterian mission schools at Algoma and Pippin Hill on his property.
Kingery had marvelous memories of Guerrant the benevolent farmer and rural education champion. Those too will be shared.
Virginia Holt Boitnott, 89, spent much of her life connected in one way or another to Franklin County apple crops. After going to school at both Pippin Hill and Algoma then at old Callaway High, she continued orchard work there. Eventually, she married an orchardist.
“That’s where I started school, at Pippin Hill Mission School, which was held in the church. You might say it was the back part of the church, because we didn’t use the whole church.”
She photographically described the one-room grades 1-7 school, which served children of the rugged northwest section of Franklin County and greater Callaway. She spent first through sixth grade there.
“There was a wood stove in the middle of the room and the students sat behind it,” she said.
It’s unsurprising that the heat source was one of the first points of her narrative.
“Unlike today, we didn’t have snow days back then,” she said. “We went to school, snow or not.”
She saw no need to explain that school buses were unheard of in those days.
“I lived about a mile up the road and I walked to school. We all did.”
The roads weren’t much where she lived up Green Creek valley toward Adney Gap and Bent Mountain. The horse or horse-drawn wagon was still the preferred mode of transportation for many. Her father drove a truck.
“We didn’t have electricity. Everybody had an outhouse and most drew water from a well. We had running water at our house. We had a good spring up the hill behind the house and my father dug a line that brought the water into the kitchen. We heated water on the wood stove and used oil lamps.”
Their teacher lived at the church. Two of the female students lived with her. Some of the students were orphans or lived too far away to walk back home daily, so they stayed at the school.
“Harriet Virginia Childrey was the only teacher I ever remember being there. She came from Richmond and taught all seven grades. It wasn’t a real big school. Some of us would be doing our work while she’d be teaching another class.”
Guerrant was a pious man and his schools reflected that.
“We had Bible study, devotions, every morning. Now, you can’t do that.”
Miss Childrey never married, her pupil said. Virginia Boitnott’s memory of the educator who taught seven grades simultaneously was typically vivid.
“She was strict, but she taught you what you needed to know. She was a good teacher.”
By contrast, Billy Kingery, now also in his 80s, was a city boy from Roanoke. He’d spend summers with his grandparents on the farm at Algoma.
“It was a wonderful time to go to the country,” he said. “I’d ride the tractor, fish — I’d be there for a month.”
Grandfather Walter Cabell Kingery had a big job supervising both of the Guerrant orchards, the one up Green Creek and the one down around Callaway. There was also pasture and other crops to tend, a packing house, a sawmill, a cooperage and 40 employees, give or take a few.
It was a major tree-to-market business operation. High-value Pippin apples, the kind that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew, but are hard to find today, were packed in boxes for regional distribution and in barrels for the lucrative European market.
One episode that stuck with Kingery all these years involved the business owner.
“He was a wonderful, caring human being. I heard stories all throughout my life about how generous he was with the Harris schools. In those days, there was no way those kids in that part of Franklin County could get an education, the roads were so bad.”
Harris Mission Schools was the name given to the network of mountain schools administered by the Montgomery Presbytery in Blacksburg.
King has a lifelong fondness of and admiration for successive generations of Guerrants. One indelible recollection came from when he was 4 or 5 and attending a Christmas party in Dr. Sam Guerrant’s big house at Algoma. The time was the 1930s, the Depression.
There were two Christmas trees, each decorated and finished with lit candles in the old-fashioned manner that would give one of today’s home insurance men a stroke.
“He had presents for each one of the children at the school. It was a wonderful, touching gesture. For most, it was the only Christmas present they would get.
“Such a loving, caring man for those children.”
The good-hearted generosity did not stop with children.
“Sam Guerrant gave my father Luther Cabell Kingery two years of scholarship to VPI [today’s Virginia Tech] free.”
It is not difficult for Kingery to extrapolate from his family’s experience the impact the doctor had on others.
“There’s no telling how many lives he touched and changed. It is very powerful.”
Back to those Christmas tree candles, Virginia Boitnott remembers the same lit decorations on the tree Sam Guerrant had for the Pippin Hill School and the festive holiday party he hosted for those pupils.
Wise man that he was, he didn’t need an insurance adjuster to tell him to keep an eye on the fire hazard.
“He’d have the elders of the church circled around that tree,” she said, “and they watched it close the whole time.”
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