Cliffside’s Old School
Cliffside School students can learn about history just by looking at building
From The Shelby Star, 1999. Photos by Jeff Melton.
By Cassie Tarpley
Star Staff Writer
CLIFFSIDE – From a rickety corn crib to a governor’s mansion, a building’s character can be defined as much by its users and uses as it can by the boards or bricks and mortar that put it together.
Cliffside School is identified by the mass of steel, concrete and brick riding a high ridge as if on the crest of a wave amid a sea of rolling hills in southeast Rutherford County.
But it is also identified strongly by what it has meant to the community, said Phillip White.
“There’s a lot of sentiment for this building,” said White, principal at the school for 30 years, but more than that – its friend and emotional caretaker. It was White who paved the road to getting the post-World War I masterpiece listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year.
“It’s a real landmark,” said White, who rivals all comers with his knowledge of the school. “I love it,” he said, “so I study it.”
His love shows as he talks about the old building like it is a family member.
Marking 77 years in 1999, Cliffside School’s history as the oldest school building still in use in the county, and its longest continuously operating school, sets it apart.
So does its private origin, with roots deep in the Haynes textile patriarchy, and its architecture—the oldest known example of Classical Revival style from that era in the region, designed by Louis H. Asbury, who later designed the Rutherford County Courthouse.
Nearing the first anniversary, Jan. 26, of Cliffside Public School’s naming to the prestigious National Register, White looks with pride at the school’s legacy and sees a bright future for it.
“The school fit in the overall plan the Haynes family had for the community,” he said. “You want an educated population for your work force, contrary to the “`lint head in the mill’ theory.”
Raleigh Rutherford Haynes really valued an education, he said. But after the mill founder’s death in 1917, it was his son, Charles H. Haynes, who carried his father’s dream for the school to fulfillment.
Cliffside Mills Co., not any government, paid the $250,000 cost of the building, “a gift,” said Charles Haynes at the dedication, “representative of the fine spirit of consideration which Cliffside Mills has for its employees.”
It was bought by Rutherford County Board of Education in 1933 for $125,000.
As a new building in 1922, Cliffside Public School reigned as king of modern, up-to-date buildings in Rutherford County, a title that likely held up in many of its neighboring counties. Stately but inviting Classical Revival, trimmed in proper Indiana limestone, the multi-colored earth tones of nearly one million brick soften its looming presence.
It was a giant step up from the second floor of the mill store, and much better than a section of the mill that was once set aside to teach the children of employees.
“Mr. Haynes spared no expense,” said Myrtle Greene Mashburn, 83, a first-day student at Cliffside who stills teaches music to its chorus members. According to Mrs. Mashburn, the Haynes’ support for the school and community went far beyond constructing a building, and the investments paid off well.
“The state furnished only six months’ teacher pay, and Mr. Haynes at the mill wanted the children to have a better education than that,” she said. “His company paid for the teachers to have two extra months of money, and they had a big hand in selecting the teachers. They always picked the finest teachers that they could get.
“It’s been noted for years that graduates went out and were excellent in all sorts of fields,” she said. “I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they got a good basic education.”
Mrs. Mashburn didn’t live in the mill village, but lived toward Boiling Springs.
“My dad was a dairyman and farmer, so he paid tuition for me to come to school over here,” she said.
The school played a big part in every aspect of the community, she said.
“It was a strong school,” she said, “and of course the principals were high caliber and very – oh, my – stern.”
Clyde A. Erwin, the first principal, went on to become state school superintendent. In 1965, Mrs. Mashburn and her late husband bought the house that was built for Erwin, where she lives now. From her kitchen and dining roam, Mrs. Mashburn, can look across the road to the three-story school that has been a part of her life since she was about six years old.
“The first year the school was opened was my first year in school,” she said. “I remember all the teachers. I was a very studious child, kept my nose in a book a lot.”
Her other love was music, and she thrilled to the pomp and circumstance of the dedication ceremony on April 22, 1922.
“At that time they had a community band,” she recalled. “Mr. Haynes, I tell you he spared no expense. We had one unique little town—I wish you could have seen it. It was the most wonderful little place. You didn’t have to go anywhere to find anything, it was here.”
The band and huge entourage, from high Masons to little children, marched all the way from downtown Cliffside up to the building, she said.
“And I thought that was just the most fabulous thing. Anything that had to do with music, I just latched on to it,” she said. “That band had good directors, fine instruments, and the mill provided that for them. They had a band shell down on the railroad, I remember, and they gave concerts in the spring and summer down there.”
The Haynes family made the town self sufficient, and had control since they owned it all, she said, but no one felt oppressed.
“Oh, no. He (Charles Haynes) was so good to his work people,” she said. “They weren’t machines, you see, they were people. He tried to get the best of everything for his people.”
Cliffside community and Cliffside school were good places to be, she said.
At school, she remembers, “They were stern, but that’s the way it was in schools in those years. There was play when it was time, but you were there for another purpose. I loved it then and I’ve always loved it.”
After graduation from Cliffside, Mrs. Mashburn went to Boiling Springs Junior College, now Gardner-Webb University, and came back to teach at Cliffside about 1935.
“I’ve been a music teacher all these years,” she said. “I like it and enjoy the children, and still help Mr. White, and play for his little chorus that he has twice a week.”
In past years, music featured prominently in school life, and Mrs. Mashburn recalls many programs in the school auditorium. Squirming in the folding, built-in seats—still used today—was frowned on as children sat in chapel every morning from 8:30 to 9:00.
“We had different speakers and programs, but we always sang,” she said, “patriotic songs and other things. Children really knew how to sing in those days.”
In addition to chapel, each class was responsible for a program twice a year, and teachers “went all out” for special holidays, she said. “It was really a big deal.”
One early news account said the auditorium’s stage “would do credit to an opera house.”
Indeed, White said, “They wouldn’t put an auditorium like this in a school now—it’s not cost effective.”
Considering the school’s place in the community, as well as its architectural significance, National Register designation is fitting, Mrs. Mashburn said.
“Mr. White has worked at that so hard. It’s a building that really should be preserved.”
Most of the structure is poured concrete supported by steel, and is in excellent condition, White said. It is so substantial, it served as a Civil Defense shelter for more than 30 years.
No inkling of its demise is anywhere evident.
In 1937, a kitchen was installed on the ground floor, and in 1944, back-to-back cloakrooms were transformed into restrooms.
The school now serves students in grades kindergarten through fifth, 435 this year. All areas of the building are in constant use, and a new cafeteria building is going up on the south side. A state-of the-art elevator installed last year gives students with handicaps easy access to all floors.
Behind its classical face, Cliffside is up to date in technology, with computer connections in every classroom and a complete computer lab on the top floor.
And after starting out as a company school, it still maintains close ties with Cone Mills, the successor owner to the Haynes family.
“We have about 25 volunteers from Cone who come every week as reading buddies,” White said.
Reprinted with permission from The Shelby Daily Star. Copyright owned by The Shelby Star.