I don’t know about y’all, but I love a good story. My favorite places tend to have interesting tales behind them. That’s probably why I wind up visiting Beech Grove School in Cataloochee every year.
Beech Grove was one of three schools that served Cataloochee Valley. It is different from the others, though – not only because it’s the last one standing but because its origin is an epic tale in Haywood County.
According to Hattie Caldwell Davis, the Cataloochee school was too small to handle the growing population. So the township sent Hiram and George Caldwell, and Steve Woody to Waynesville to ask for a new schoolhouse. The Haywood County officials denied the request, saying Cataloochee did not pay enough taxes to warrant the expenditure.
Defeated, the three men drank a bottle of whiskey on the way home. In a drunken haze, they hatched a plan to burn down the school – and when they got back to Cataloochee, that’s just what they did. The men removed all the desks and furniture from the building, then set it on fire.
The next day, they moved classes into the old Caldwell cabin. Then they went back to Waynesville to make a new request. Since North Carolina law required mandatory attendance, Haywood County officials had no choice but to build Beech Grove School.
The infamous schoolhouse was built around 1901. It sits in a grove of trees, hugged by Rough Fork Creek and two smaller branches. It’s easy to imagine kids spilling out of the doors and gathering in the yard to play during recess.
The inside consists of two simple square rooms with high ceilings and tall windows that bathe the space in natural light.
School terms in Cataloochee ran from November through January – unless extra funding could be collected to extend classes through March. The school was heated during those harsh winter months by woodstoves. Though the stoves are long gone, the chimney pipe holes are still visible on the wall.
In the two-room schoolhouse, students learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. On Fridays, they welcomed their parents into the schoolhouse to see what they learned throughout the week.
The school years ticked on that way for 40-some years until the creation of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park forced Beech Grove to close its doors.
Today, Beach Grove School stands as a monument to the ingenuity of three hillbillies who were determined to help the children of their community get the best education possible.