Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Works Progress Administration and Shady Valley School

By Carol Roberts

In the mountains of Johnson County Tennessee, is a beautiful valley known as Shady Valley. It is tucked between Bristol (Holston Mountain) and Mountain City (Iron Mountain) on the border of the mountains of North Carolina. The community has long been a crossroads of Virginia and Tennessee. In the 1930s, the depression hit unusually hard with the deterioration of business in industries such as timber and manganese mining. The New Deal in Tennessee started numerous benefit projects putting citizens to work.

Shady Valley, Tennessee 1952
RG 82 Dept of Conservation Photograph Collection.
Tennessee Virtual Archive

Same valley today (author photo)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built roads and schools for many Tennessee counties, including Johnson County, giving many local workers jobs. Shady Valley also has a portion of the Appalachian Trail running nearby, built by the WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects. All were New Deal projects that, even today, define this little community. The valley had many small one-room schools with names like Crandull, Winchester, and the Upper Valley, but during the New Deal of the 1930s, it benefited from WPA projects for one, large, new school.

The school of Shady Valley went from a one-room schoolhouse to a new, rock structure with many school rooms, a cafeteria, and all of the other modern amenities of the day. These projects really were cooperative projects of the county, state, and WPA (federal). The state of Tennessee completed its reports on new schools and those records remain at the Library and Archives today. Photos, such as the completed Shady Valley Elementary School in 1937, were kept. Today, these records reflect the history of education and structures from all over the state. The photos of these schools of the 1930s have been digitized and are located in the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).

Shady Valley School 1937
Record Group 91 Tennessee Department of Education Records Photographs
Tennessee Virtual Archive

Today, Shady Valley is a busy, little school in the same WPA building at the heart of the community still educating children of the valley. Whiteboards and LED projectors have replaced old, black, chalkboards, but it still has its same shape and style of 1930s WPA construction. It retains local rock supplies on the exterior. The interior, wooden wall paneling of wormy chestnut, now painted white, still exists and even the water fountains, fixtures and WPA school bus garage out back.

September 2019 (author photo)
September 2019 (author photo)

In recent years, the community has joined together with the parent-teacher group to honor this valley, its history, and its unique, land conservancy to celebrate in a festival called the “Cranberry Festival”. Old fashioned bean suppers, BBQs, pancake breakfasts and parades, take place throughout the valley. The school benefits from celebrity auctioneers, usually politicians at auctions, craft booths, quilt shows, and other fundraisers. It all goes to the school, its students, and helping maintain the community spirit. It even serves as a “homecoming” for former students and residents to come back for a visit.

The other celebration of this festival honors the valley’s unique, natural example of the southernmost place of naturally existing cranberry bogs. Cranberries grow near this school in a shaded location of low land. The community now helps the Nature Conservancy protect these natural growth berries. This year marks the 27th Cranberry Festival for the non-profit, joint project to honor history, nature and, most importantly, the school.

The festival is October 11 – 12th, 2019.

Sadly, the 2019-2020 school year will be the last for Shady Valley Elementary. All the students will then ride school buses over the mountain to larger schools in Mountain City. The fate of the building is hopeful but unknown.

Cranberry Festival Quilt Show in the school gym (author photo)
Craft fair on school grounds (author photo)

Old grain silo painted for the festival located at the community crossroads of Highways 421 and 133 (author photo).

To read more about Shady Valley and WPA see the following resources available from the Library and Archives:

  • Tennessee’s New Deal Landscape, A Guidebook by Carroll Van West. University of Tennessee Press, 2001.

  • Microfilm 1472 -- Works Progress Administration (WPA) Records. Division of Operations: Project Proposals and Applications. National Archives film. 1 reel. 16 mm. Microfilm Only Collection

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett