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Mills River salutes origins of education

Drew Brannon, a 1960 graduate of Mills River High School and former teacher and coach, points out an illustration. Drew Brannon, a 1960 graduate of Mills River High School and former teacher and coach, points out an illustration.

MILLS RIVER — Long before the state created schools, community leaders built log structures and started educating children on their own.

One of the earliest ones documented in present-day Henderson County had its roots 216 years ago, in 1797, when county pioneer James Brittain II set aside 10 acres of land for a building to further two of his great passions — education and the Presbyterian Church.
Sixth generation descendants of Brittain, teachers, principals and administrators with ties to Mills River schools, graduates of the old schools here and community leaders gathered on April 7 to dedicate a stone monument to the origins of education here.
In Henderson County, said schools superintendent David Jones, "we believe we have one of the best school districts in the state of North Carolina. That reputation for being a top school district is because of the past. We've been able to build on the great things that have happened throughout this county, and Mills River is no exception."
Jere Brittain, a retired Clemson professor and sixth generation descendant of the 18th century Mills River settler, read from an early reader used at Mills River Academy in the early 1900s.
People in the community built the log building on the site James Brittain offered for the school. The first teacher in recorded history was David Haddon, who was also a minister. In 1829, Brittain's son, Phillip, deeded the land to the Mills River school trustees and the following year the trustees replaced the smaller building with a two-story structure that was used for school, community and church purposes. They named it Mills River Academy.
The first governing board of Henderson County, the court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, met there. "So that is why we say Henderson County was actually born at Mills River Academy," said Michele Burnette, a former Mills River teacher who compiled a history of education in Mills River.
The county School Board acquired Mills River Academy in 1915; six years later it was largest of 65 schools in the county. When fire destroyed the school in 1921, a 16-year-old student named Bob Cathey drove a truck that carried the high school children to school in Hendersonville. The next year, a new two-story building, called Mills River School, replaced the destroyed one.
The last high school class at Mills River graduated in 1960 and area teenagers after that went to West Henderson. Mills River School housed grades 1-8 until 1973, when grades 7 and 8 moved to Rugby Middle School. A new building in 1974 replaced the 1921 school building. The newest school on School House Road, Mills River Elementary, opened in 2009. The older building is still in use for training, meetings and technology. The School Board revived the name Mills River Academy for it on the recommendation of board member Rick Wood. A retired West Henderson teacher and coach, Wood was the emcee of Sunday's dedication.
The event was part of the ongoing efforts of the Henderson County History Initiative, which was formed to research, preserve and honor the county's education history. Upcoming history dedications are planned at the old Edneyville High School, which is now the Larry T. Justus state police academy, and at the old Flat Rock High School, which became elder apartments.
Speakers included Board of Commissioners chairman Charlie Messer and Commissioner Grady Hawkins, Drew Brannon, a 1960 graduate of Mills River High School and former teacher and coach there; Don Jones, executive director of the Henderson County Education Foundation; George A. Jones, a minister and historian; and Delores Meadows, a retired teaching assistant.
School Board chairman Ervin Bazzle, who is serving his fifth term, said a 216-year-old one-room schoolhouse might have been the reason that people gathered on a Sunday afternoon but it wasn't the end of the story.
"After a while you don't remember when you first started doing something," he said. "Hopefully, you remember why you started doing it. It has to do more with why we're here today. I've never been in a place that honored education, both directly and through word and deed, than the county we live in.
"By honoring what's gone on before," he said, "you pretty well ensure you're going to honor what's going on ahead of you."