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Monday, May 23, 2016

Little Falls School

Little Falls School, 1959 (Stafford County Museum)

     During the spring and early summer of 1917, a new two-room school house was built in Stafford County on River Road (modern Route 3), a few miles east of Chatham Bridge. The school was sited on Little Falls Run on property that once belonged to the Pollock family, who operated a mill there. During the Second Battle of Fredericksburg in 1863, Union soldiers assembled into boats at this place and paddled across the Rappahannock. They were then able to drive off the Confederates on the opposite bank. Park historian John Hennessy has written an excellent article on this operation, which can be read here.

Pollock's mill on the Rappahannock River at Little Run Falls, 1863

     The school was built on land deeded by dairy farmer Edward C. Nathan, a Wisconsin native who took an interest in the progress and well-being of his adopted state. He was then the owner of Little Falls Farm. A year after helping to establish the school, Mr. Nathan died during the influenza epidemic.
     On July 7, 1917, The Free Lance published an article titled: "Little Falls School: The Building Opened for Inspection on July 4. Many Present, Varied Program."  The activities of that day were then described in some detail. The community obviously took great pride in the new building: "The Little Falls School, said to be the best, most efficient and attractive two-room school in the state was opened to the public."
     Two hundred eighty two people attended the ceremonies, which commenced at 3 p. m. with a baseball game played between the River Road Farmers' Union and the White Oak Farmers' Union. The River Road team won, 20-19. The game was umpired by two Fredericksburg businessmen, Horace F. Crismond, Jr. and John W. Berry.
     This was followed by a number of speeches and the singing of songs. There was a patriotic feel to the festivities, as the United States had recently declared war on Germany. Late in the day, a vote was taken to see if the attendees thought holding a dance in the new school would be acceptable. The ayes had it, and throngs of people danced in the school until after midnight.
     The main portion of the school was 60'x24' and included folding doors so that the space could be divided into two class rooms. On the north end of the school (the right side of the building in the photo at the top of today's post) was a hexagonal stage, 21'x15'. Bookcases built beneath the windows had room for over 2,000 volumes, and would serve as a library both for the school and for the community at large. The citizens of south Stafford were justifiably proud of their new facility.

     Four months later, on November 26, 1917, Little Falls School was destroyed by a fire. The building was insured for $2,000, but it was soon learned that it would cost $3,000 to replicate the original structure. The necessary money was raised, and the school was rebuilt to its former glory.
     Little Falls School taught children in grades 1-6. Over the years, a number of capable women served as teachers and principals there. One of these was Elizabeth Dickinson Thorburn.

Elizabeth Thorburn (Ancestry)

     Elizabeth Thorburn was a graduate of Chancellor High School and Mary Washington College. She was a sister-in-law of Thomas Thorburn, whose family was responsible for establishing telephone service in a section of Spotsylvania County. My brief history of the Fredericksburg & Wilderness Telephone Company can be read here. Elizabeth was named as principal and teacher in 1938. She was also active in an initiative in the early 1940s to provide a hot lunch to the students. Local women volunteered to provide canned vegetables to the school to be used as soup stock. In 1945, she was elected president of class room teachers at a meeting of District "A" of the Virginia Education Association.
     In 1949, Lilla Eley was named principal and teacher of grades 4-6. That same year, Virginia Hart Jones was hired to teach grades 1-3. Mrs. Jones later remarried, and as Virginia Ballard was the last principal of Little Falls School.

The Sullivan house, 1953

     Directly across River Road (Route 3) stood--and still stands--the house of my grandparents, Daniel Webster and Ethel Sullivan. The house can be seen in the photo above, taken in 1953. I am seated comfortably with my grandmother.

Daniel Webster Sullivan

     Webster Sullivan, familiarly known as "Web," owned a large poultry farm called the Northern Neck Hatchery. He bred and raised chicks for chicken farmers throughout the region. During the 1920s and 1930s, he used to advertise his business in The Free Lance-Star. Three examples appear below:

 February 6, 1928

March 7, 1931

March 29, 1934

     All six children of Webster and Ethel Sullivan attended Little Falls School. The image below is that of my father, taken in the late 1930's:

Paul Sullivan

     On January 22, 1983, The Free Lance-Star published this 1929 photograph of Little Falls School. All the children are identified in the caption. Included in this group are three of my father's sisters: Gaynelle, Catherine and Hope.

Little Falls School, 1929

     Although I cannot do anything about the quality of this reproduced photograph, I am able to provide this portrait of my four aunts. Standing are Hilda and Gaynelle. Sitting are Catherine and Hope.

The Sullivan Sisters

     Hope does not appear in the article's picture because by 1929 she was 14 years old and would have been attending high school. According to the Stafford County Museum, Falmouth High School was not built until 1931. Until then, white children from Stafford County who wished to attend high school went to Fredericksburg.
     In 1957, my family moved to Los Angeles in order that my father could earn more money than he had been making at the Sylvania Plant. While in California, he worked as a machinist at the Marquardt Corporation, an aeronautical firm that manufactured ramjets, among other things.
     I began my schooling in California, and was enrolled in the kindergarten at Fernangeles Elementary School in the autumn of 1958. I began first grade in early 1959 (a student was allowed to begin in any semester during which he became of age for that grade, in this case I turned six then). Fernangeles was a big-city school with facilities and programs that were unknown in rural Spotsylvania at that time. We raised a garden at the school (I grew radishes) and took numerous field trips, including a memorable one to a commercial bakery in Los Angeles. We held "Duck and Cover" drills, during which we crouched under our desks, as we would be expected to do during a nuclear attack. We danced the hokey-pokey and finger painted. Sometimes we would do some reading and writing.
     By 1959 my father had become restless and wished to come back to Virginia. He believed that a rural environment would be healthier for my sister and me. Plans to return to Virginia accelerated when my Grandmother Sullivan fell ill. My parents quickly sold our house on Pendleton Street, packed up our belongings and sold the family dog. My sister and I were promised that we would get another dog when we came to Virginia.
     My grandmother's health took a sudden turn for the worse in early 1960, and in February my father came back to Virginia alone to see her in the hospital and to be of some help to his father. He never saw his mother again. She died while my father was being given a speeding ticket in Georgia.
     My mother, my sister and I made the move to Virginia in April 1960. Our belongings were placed in storage and we lived at the Sullivan house. Very soon thereafter my father came home from work one day with a puppy for us. We named her Queenie, and she was ours for the next 10 years. Someday I shall write about Queenie.


     My sister and I were happy during our short time at our grandfather's house, (although it must be said that I was afraid of old Web). We used to swim in Little Falls Run, and would sit on the stone outcropping that spanned the creek. My grandfather, long-retired form the hatchery business, kept a large garden in the bottom by the creek. He grew tomatoes and other produce for sale down there. He used to keep a small box of Morton's salt on his person. Sometimes he would pick a ripe tomato for us and cut it in half, sprinkle a little salt on each open face, and give one to me.

Your blog host, 1961

     I was enrolled in the second grade at Little Falls. Although I had only just begun the second grade in California, I was, perforce, thrust into the second semester of the second grade at this rural two-room school in Stafford County.
     To this day I remember without difficulty the shock and panic I felt with this new reality. There was no hokey-pokey. No finger painting. I was a semester behind my classmates and for the first time in my life I was given homework to do. I struggled to keep up.

Report Card, 1960

     Fortunately for me, my teacher was Virginia Ballard, who was also the principal. She was wonderful to me and stayed in close contact with my mother, which was not difficult, given that we lived just 100 yards from the school.

Modern entrance to Sullivan home (Google)

     When I used to walk home from school in the afternoons (Route 3 was just a two-lane road in 1960), Queenie would be waiting for me at the stone retaining wall at my grandfather's house (the house is hidden by the trees in the Google street view above). I would set my books down on that wall and Queenie and I would tussle in the yard and then roll down the small embankment next to the wall (the utility pole was not there in those days). I held on to her and down we went. Then we would scamper up into the yard and do it again. In her excitement, Queenie bit at my hands, and more than 55 years later they still bear the scars of her playful nips. My mother did not mind my bleeding hands so much, but the fact that several of my shirts were torn to shreds while engaged in this activity did not please her.
     I remember shopping with my mother one day at the A&P in Fredericksburg during this time. We encountered Mrs. Ballard in the produce section. It was the first time I had ever seen one of my teachers outside a school setting. The adults chatted while I stood there, dumbfounded. "Mama," I said later, "I did not know Mrs. Ballard ate groceries!"
     One quiet Sunday morning my father and I went rabbit hunting in the field behind the school, near the river. My father was carrying a semi-automatic .22 rifle, which held about 18 or 20 .22 shorts, as I recall. A rabbit started out from our right and raced in front of us toward the tree line. My father threw the butt up to his shoulder and began to shoot. I remember standing behind him, awestruck, as puffs of dirt appeared just behind, and then just ahead of our prey. The rabbit did not make the tree line. That day my father showed me how to dress out a rabbit for supper, and it was a skill I utilized for a number of years afterward.
     But life at the Sullivan house was not entirely idyllic. Web Sullivan was a peculiar and difficult man, and the recent death of my grandmother made him only more so. One day, my father sat me on that stone wall near the house (behind the trees in the photo above). He tied a sheet around my neck and began to cut my hair. My grandfather appeared, and I soon became aware that angry voices were being raised and that a violent confrontation was occurring inches from me. I was terrified.

     We moved from Stafford almost right away. We rented a house at the end of modern Bernstein Road in Spotsylvania County. It was a dirt road in 1960, and it looped around our house on its way back out to Route 3. Among our neighbors were Dr. Henry Bernstein and his family.

Dr. Henry Bernstein

     I never saw my grandfather again. In June 1963, Little Falls School closed its doors for good. Virginia Ballard continued to teach in Stafford County schools for some time after this. She died in 2009 at the age of 100.
     Webster Sullivan died at home one month after Little Falls School closed. His death certificate was signed by Dr. Henry Bernstein.