Upland Chronicles: Academy was county's first public secondary school

Mar. 24, 2013 @ 10:01 PM

By CARROLL McMAHAN

Until Sevier County High School opened in 1920, there were no public secondary schools in Sevier County. Since 1890 Murphy College had been operating as a “subscription school” in Sevierville and Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy was established in Seymour about 1880.

Around 1912 the people living in the mountainous area east of Gatlinburg began to talk about the need for a secondary school close enough for the children who lived in the coves and hollows in that section of the county to receive a high school education.

Several communities in the area were interested in furnishing a site for such an institution. Rev. J.F. Hale, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sevierville, traveled many miles of almost impassable roads to see what each community had to offer.

When Sevier County Baptist Association met in the fall of 1914, Rev. Hale lay before the body the need for a high school and submitted the offers of property made by various individuals and communities.

After much discussion, some of which was quite heated, a site was selected. The little community known as “The Sheep Pen” was chosen as the site for the new school.

A one-room schoolhouse, Grassy Gap, and Zion Grove Baptist Church occupied a position on the crest of the hill. The new school was named Sevier County Baptist High School.

This offer included 15 acres of land donated by Rev. Smith F. Paine, a pioneer Baptist minister, and James Campbell. B.W. Clark gave timber and William I. King offered the use of his sawmill. Several men of the community agreed to work free of charge.

Throughout the cold winter of 1914-1915, the men felled trees, sawed the lumber and hauled it to the construction site. There another crew did the actual construction work.

By the fall of 1915, the Administration Building — a substantial, two-story frame structure — stood complete. However, no dormitories had been built. Practically every neighboring family opened their home to students from other communities who lived too far away from the school to commute daily.

The mission statement for the institution was stated in the school brochure: “The institution lives and stands for the training of Christian influence, and the meeting of college entrance requirements in our standard colleges. Smoky Mountain Academy lives, not for itself, but for the boys and girls of mountain vigor and talent, to whom the world must look for standards of leadership and valor, both in religion and national life.”

When the first session opened in September, more than 100 students came from every cove and hollow of the surrounding mountains. But in the enthusiasm of erecting a building, little thought had been given to financing the school.

The Sevier County Board of Education agreed to pay the salary of one teacher. Rev. S.S. Story, a graduate of Carson-Newman College, and his wife volunteered to work without any assurance of salary. As principal, Rev. Story solicited funds but money came in much too slowly.

Rev. Story persuaded the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to accept the school as a member of the system of schools then operated by the board. But before the Home Board would accept the school as a member the name had to be changed to contain the word mountain.

Therefore, since 1916 the official name of the school was Smoky Mountain Academy. The Home Board was never able to adequately support the school but it did pay the salary of two teachers and partially funded the building of a dormitory that served both boys and girls from 1924 to 1931 when it burned.

At the time the dormitory burned, there remained a debt on the building of $2,800 and no insurance. It seemed that the end had come for the school. But friends in Baptist churches in both Sevier and Knox County rallied to provide another building.

One of the earliest teachers at Smoky Mountain Academy was Mayme Grimes (later to become Mrs. H.S. Hill.) Fondly referred to by students as Miss Hill, she was a teacher at the Academy from 1916-1922 and served as principal from then until 1956.

The school remained under the supervision of the Home Mission Board until financial difficulties forced then board to go out of the Mountain School business. Once again, it seemed that Smoky Mountain Academy was doomed due to lack of financial support. But this time a group of leaders in the Knox County Women’s Missionary Union led by Mrs. R.L. Harris undertook to help the Sevier County Baptist Association keep the school open.

From that time the Women’s Missionary Union paid the salary of two teachers and gave financial aid to individual students as well. Also, the Emma Byrne Harris Home for girls was made possible by gifts from the group.

In 1956 attendance began dropping because the county school system extended bus routes, providing students an opportunity to receive an education without having to live away from home.

By 1958 Mayme Hill voiced concern for the Academy. The gymnasium had burned and attendance was at an all-time low. The school only lasted one more year. The last class to graduate began in the fall of 1959 with only two boys, Bill Lowe and Carroll Newman, graduating in 1960.

At the 1960 annual Sevier County Baptist Association meeting, messengers accepted a recommendation that the Association retain the property and use it as a summer camp for the co-operative activities of the Sevier County Baptist Association.

Next week: Part 2, the story of Camp Smoky.

— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.