Musing of the museum: Jerome and the tale of two schools
In timely recognition of the fast approaching new school year, I’d like to turn to another subject for a couple of weeks before returning to more recent “history” and introduce you to “a tale of two schools”.
We all know about Monticello and Drew Central school districts and we’ve heard about consolidation. It’s a common belief that when schools are consolidated the small communities lose their identity. This isn’t always completely true. In fact, in one particular case, the school has lived on to serve the community and preserve its sense of community in a place that many residents in Drew County find unfamiliar.
This community in the far reaches of Drew County may be relatively unknown to many of us. The town\community is called Jerome. Jerome will forever be remembered in history as the site of a Japanese relocation center during WWII.(Technically the site was located at Denson, Arkansas, for mail purposes, but Jerome was—and is—the nearest town to the center.)
It has been said that Jerome is as far south and east as you can go in Drew County. It is also true that you have to cross the county lines of Chicot and Desha counties to get there—unless you know the backroads.
Let me give you a bit of background information. Jerome had its beginnings as a sawmill town named Blissville in 1908 when that part of Arkansas was still much wooded land. In 1919 the entire town was sold to a Herman Moehler who renamed the town Jerome, after his son.
C. C. Gibson, III, wrote an excellent summary of the history of Jerome in the 2003 Drew County Historical Journal that you might want to read for more details. Therefore, I will forego a further discussion of the history of the town and proceed into the story of the Jerome Elementary School.
I am sure the town had an earlier school and other buildings, but by the late 1920’s the Jerome school district had become overcrowded. The town only had one wooden school building. Realizing this, the community leaders got their resources together and built a new one story school building completed in 1930 and known as Jerome Elementary School.
The building’s exterior was built with red brick—the same color common to so many two story high schools built in south Arkansas in the 1910-20s. Monticello, McGehee, Arkansas City, Dermott, Dumas, etc., had high schools built on a similar design. The little Jerome Elementary School looked like a miniature of these bigger schools.
Inside the building were two large classroom areas with separate entrances and connecting doors. In the north end of the west side classroom was the kitchen area. The east classroom also had a small auditorium area and beautiful little arched stage in the north end. This area could be closed off by “pocket doors”.
The building faced the south and was heated by twin chimneys and cooled by easterly\westerly breezes.
The interior of the classrooms were modern for the times and the ceilings were done in a beautifully pressed tin pattern. Bathroom facilities were added to the rear soon after the original construction No doubt it was the showplace of the community in its prime.
Jerome’s new elementary school well served many children for the next 20 years. During the war years no doubt it was filled to the “brim” with extra children of military families and workers. A friend tells me that housing was so scarce during construction of the relocation center that some workers and their families lived in tents. She fondly remembers her days at the Jerome Elementary School.
After the war, logging slowed in that area and agriculture became more mechanized. Jerome’s population began to dwindle. Soon smaller “community” schools began to consolidate into larger districts. Most of the smaller schools in Drew County joined forces to create the Drew Central district.
Since Jerome was at the “far reaches” of the county, however, it wasn’t practical to unite with other Drew County schools. The Jerome school district was consolidated with nearby Dermott in 1950.
The two story wooden high school building was moved to the old Dermott campus where it later burned. The smaller, white cafeteria building was sold to a local Baptist congregation who still meet there.
The little red elementary school was left alone to languish in solitude for a time. There is a picture at the museum of the little school sitting forlornly among tall, tall weeds.
In 1970 a group of interested Jerome citizens formed the Jerome Improvement Association and negotiated with the Dermott School District to purchase the old elementary school for the use of the town.
Since that transaction in 1970, the Jerome Elementary School has brought its community together and helps hold it together. It is used for town council meetings and community meetings and as a community center. During elections it also serves as a voting precinct.
Although years of age have begun to show on the appearance of the school, it has a lot of life left within its walls. Members of the original Jerome Improvement Association have moved on and the present town council fulfills the obligation to use and maintain the school today. They are to be commended for their dedication and work to that end.
Not long after the Millennium the mayor and council began to fully realize the historical significance of the building to the community and the need for its continued service to that same community. Soon they appropriated some funding to restore the west side of the building. They wanted not only to repair but to restore the building. They did a great job in the west wing. The ceilings and walls were beautifully restored.
The group then sought inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places because of the building’s importance to the community, past and present. Not only has this designation acknowledged the school for its service to the community through the decades, but it made the school building eligible for preservation grants to restore the noble building to its original state.
With hard work and much help and encouragement, today the Jerome Elementary School sits restored as a jewel in the rough and a symbol of one community and one school that has refused to wither away. Jerome Elementary School truly is the heart of the community. It touches my heart!
On a Sunday afternoon drive one day soon take a road trip to Jerome and take a look at Jerome and its NRHP accredited Jerome Elementary School.
See you at the museum!