Zephyr School

Zephyr, NC 1921

Time has a way of erasing things we used to think of as important. As the world becomes bigger, the size of human history and existence further obscures our knowledge of what once was. Today, we’ll try to push the shadows away ever so slightly to see what can still be known about a major local school.

The unincorporated community of Zephyr, NC sits just north of Elkin on the western end of Surry county. Today it is just a roughly defined stretch of road near Gum Orchard Baptist Church, having no stores, schools, or much of anything else save for farms.
The Zephyr of the early 1900’s and even late 1930’s was something much different. It was home to a large brick school building, a store with a post office, and of course the aforementioned church. What’s more, the school was a hub for the local community, hosting plays, inoculation clinics, traveling performers, school board meetings, ceremonies, farmer’s meetings, concerts, and even a community fair.
Zephyr school would be an important part of the lives of the local community for nearly half a century before the statewide drive to consolidate rural schools finally ended it’s life.

An old soil map showing the school building with a flag.

While I have been unable to find a starting date for the school, it is first mentioned in print around the turn of the century. After that first time, there is an absolute plethora of articles and clippings about the school all the way until the building is sold at auction in 1948. While I wont try to detail every point of it’s history, I am including many of the sources below this article in chronological order- these can tell the story of Zephyr better than I can by simply condensing down what I think is most important.
I will however provide a basic history.

As I said before, Zephyr school comes into the record around the turn of the century, though I can find no details about when it was constructed. At the time of the first articles, the structure would likely have been a single wooden building akin to all the other local rural schools. Due to growth or the need for a community meeting place, that changes in 1928 when the county school system takes out a massive loan for “improvements” to the tune of $18,000, or about $300,000 in todays money. I believe this is the year the wooden structure is done away with and the 4,000 square foot brick building that the school will later be described as is built. It is likely the same year that a standalone auditorium is also constructed, as it is not mentioned prior to that year, but is mentioned several times afterwards. There is also another bit of evidence that may lend credence to this theory.
The few photos I have been able to find of the school are from the Images of America book for Surry County. They are all class photos, and comparing the earliest (1923-1924) to the newest two (1927-1928), we notice the first group stands in front of a wooden structure, and then in the later photos, the building is brick.

Unknown year. Likely early 1900’s. (Surry Digital)
1923-24 school year.
Second and third grade, 1927-1928.

This new building and auditorium would have greatly changed how the property was used. While it seems the school house had been a focal point for the community already, it would now become the place where everything happened. The auditorium was nice enough that even other schools were holding their graduations there.
Despite the new buildings, the school and community would still only get 20 years of use out of them before consolidation came, and as with other rural schools, such as the previously documented Zion School, the building and property were auctioned off. It’s at this point that the written record ends or becomes too obscured for me to track. It’s also at this point I was able to continue the story via an oral source.

My source does not remember the year of the auction, but remembers what came afterwards. According to her, the property was bought by people from Ohio of the name Haegen or Hagen, with the intention of converting it into commercial space. The business they opened was an insulation manufacturing outfit, and essentially shredded up old newspapers to make their product. My source recalls her parents who lived just down the road being extremely unhappy with it’s presence, as the dust and debris floated on the wind and in addition to being suffocating on some days, ruined any attempt to dry clothes on a line. She told me her father offered numerous times to buy the property to appease his wife, but his offers were never considered.
That would change though. Sometime between the auction in ’48 and 1966, there were not one, but two separate fires at the facility. I’m not sure how large these fires were or how much damage was done, but they may have contributed to the brick building’s demise, and the second was bad enough that the company decided to give it up and sell the property.
The old aerial photos offer an interesting perspective on this, as a large intact building appears in 1958, likely has roof damage in 1966 when it is finally sold to my source’s father, and is gone from the landscape in 1982 when the next aerial is taken.

After this, the property becomes farm use, and barns are constructed over the original area where the main school building was. These structures are still there today, even using the same U-shaped drive that served the school.
One interesting tidbit my source was also able to offer was that her father told her that the original school building had a basement, and this is where the cafeteria was. She remembers as a child that there was still a small void under a concrete slab where the basement had been. This makes me wonder if the old building was bulldozed and used as backfill for the hole where the basement would have been.

And that’s really what I can find about Zephyr School, and the story as best I can tell it.
I also reached out to the Surry County Historical Society months ago for any information they had, specifically hoping someone had an actual photo of the building, but they only directed me to search their website, which didn’t turn up anything.

If you are reading this, and can shed any more light on Zephyr School, or maybe have photos, I would love to talk to you. My contact info and a contact form can be found on the About page.

There is one more interesting thing to note. Something that gets someone like myself who is interested in landscape archeology very excited. The existence of cropmarks on the site of one of the old buildings.
This sort of evidence is not common in the United States due to the way structures were built in the past and how apt we are to simply build on the same spot over and over. In Europe however, and especially in Britain these are useful identifiers of old settlements and structures.

Cropmark at Yarburgh, Lincolnshire, Great Britain showing the outline of what is likely a medieval era structure. (CC BY-SA 2.0 from “Chris” via WikiCommons)

At the Zephyr site, comparing to aerial photos, you can just make out part of the outline of what I believe was the auditorium building. While there are no longer any original buildings from the school, it would seem it’s footprint still remains on the landscape, and it’s even possible that there may be remnants of the foundation from the auditorium still in situ.

The field between the red roofed farm building and the apparent hay bales has noticeable cropmarks that correlate to the building that was present on the spot in older aerial photos. (via Google Earth)

While much of what I know about Zephyr School after it’s closing is from an oral account, there are a number of written records from the time of the school’s operation. I present the here in chronological order.

Earliest mention I could find of the school. Mount Airy News, September 23rd, 1909. The amount, about $60,000 today, seems to have been specifically for a high school. It has to be assumed that at this time there is already a school in Zephyr due to the next clipping.
October 14th, 1909. Mount Airy News.
December 16th, 1909, Mount Airy News. Even in it’s earliest years he school was a meeting place for the community.
May 15th, 1913. Mount Airy News. It seems it was also used for teachers meetings for the local schools in the area.
June 5th, 1913. Mount Airy News. Another teachers meeting is held at Zephyr.
May 3rd, 1917. Mount Airy News. We see farmers meetings also going on in the building.
August 1st, 1918. Elkin Tribune. A community fair is held at the school with cash prizes for best in show.
April 14th, 1924. Mount Airy News. One of a number of vaccination clinics is held at the school. I have not included every instance of these I have found, but they were taking place almost yearly.
April 21st, 1928. Mount Airy News. News from the Zephyr community showing the first mention of the school’s baseball team, among other things.
May 15th, 1930. Mount Airy News. Miss Thelma (Baker) Smith is teaching at the school. Note that Zephyr is also called a “consolidated” school. By this time one or several smaller schools may have been merged into Zephyr. One I know of for sure is another school with little printed history available called White Dirt School, which would have been somewhere on White Dirt road, which connects to Zephyr road.
October 2nd, 1930. Mount Airy News. Miss Smith from the previous article has now moved away and we have Rachel Wall, Virgie Isaacs, and Maggie Steele as teachers with T. C. Douglas serving as principal.
March 10th, 1932. Mount Airy News. A bit confusing, as the only Douglas mentioned previously was the principal. This may be a misprint or else Thurmond (T.C.) Douglas’ wife began teaching at the school between 1930 and 1932.
April 27th, 1933. Mount Airy News Play announcment.
May 4th, 1933. Mount Airy News. Apparently the play was a success. It seems shortly afterwards, there was also a magic show. Lippincott seems to have gotten around, as I can find mentions of him in several states, including New York.
October 5th, 1933. Mount Airy news. New faculty names.
March 22nd, 1934. Mount Airy news. R.B. Blackwelder is a name you will see again. At this point in time he was principal of North Elkin, but would eventually take over at Zephyr.
April 4th, 1935. Presumed to be Mt Airy News. A new faculty members.
April 18th, 1935. Mount Airy News. Ms Isaacs, former teacher, weds Mr Wilmoth, current teacher.
May 9th, 1935. Mt Airy News. Another mention of the baseball team and proof that Zephyr had it’s own baseball field.
October 8th, 1936. Mount Airy News. A new faculty member is mentioned.
April 7th, 1938. By this time Mr. Blackwelder is principal of the school. We also find out that in addition to the baseball team, Zephyr had a basketball team.
May 19th, 1938. End of term “exercises” are held and the names of several students listed.
August 11th, 1938. A “social hour” is held on the school lawn.
November 17th, 1938. The school has an auditorium.
December 1st, 1938. Professional radio entertainers are hosted in the school’s auditorium.
December 29th, 1938. Mr Blackwelder continues on as principal.
February 29, 1939. Mr. Blackwelder and previously mentioned faculty are still at the school.
January 1st, 1943. Mount Airy News. Expenses of the various schools in the county is published. in 1928 a loan was taken out for the school, which we would have to assume is for some sort of improvements, as the school was already in use that year. Possibly secondary buildings, possibly improving the actual school building. By the time Zephyr School ends, it is a large brick building. Due to it’s rural location, it’s most likely the original building was small and made of wood. At any rate, by ’43, the school system still owes $6,300 on the loan. The original loan would be almost $300,000 in today’s money. I have to believe this was when the brick building and possible a standalone auditorium was constructed.
July 26th, 1945. Zephyr still has two teachers.
April 2nd, 1948. The school property is to be sold at auction. Here we get our first and only description of the school building, being 4,000 square feet and made of brick.

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Published by Abandoned NC

I went back to my old home and the furrow of each year plowed like surf across the place had not washed memory away. -A. R. Ammons

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