A Common Rural Experience
In the early twentieth century, many educational facilities in Henry County, as in other rural parts of the Commonwealth, and in the country at large, were “old field schools,” so called because they were often built, quite literally, in old, spent fields. These were log or simple frame buildings of the sort that had served such communities since colonial days; in some areas, people still carried buckets to branches to acquire their water, and the mailman delivered on horseback. The children of farmers attended these schools, though sporadically, because the demands of farm life often required them to be in the fields. And when they did come to school, some arrived shoeless.
The Spencer-Penn School was built on land that had originally been part of the Spencer family’s tobacco plantation. The Spencers had been among the earliest English settlers to the area, and in the 1850’s David Harrison Spencer established a tobacco manufacturing plant. His company, D.H. Spencer and Sons, was a pioneer in the production of plug tobacco and became one of the largest tobacco concerns in the country; the Spencer brands of tobacco were later consolidated within the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Corporation. The Spencer plantation, originally called The Homestead, is now known as Grassdale Farm and, like the Spencer-Penn School, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of D.H. Spencer’s daughters, Mary “Meck” Spencer Buchanan, inherited the farm, and, in 1910, donated land for a school, a wooden, three-room building that housed grades 1-7. Then, in 1926, Thomas Jefferson Penn (the son of D.H. Spencer’s other daughter, Annie) and his wife, Betsy, donated over $25,000 to erect the building that still stands today. Construction began later that year on a brick building with five classrooms and a large auditorium. Grades 1-7 were moved to the new building, which opened in the fall of 1927, and the older wooden structure became home for the first public high school in the community. By 1948, after several additions, the school consisted of the main brick building, with a southern wing of five additional classrooms, the wooden high school structure, a home economics cottage, a separate two-room classroom, an agricultural building, and a shop. The first high school class graduated from Spencer-Penn in 1927. Spencer-Penn remained a high school until 1952, when it was consolidated with the high schools of Axton and Ridgeway to become Drewry Mason High School. Spencer-Penn then continued as an elementary school until 2004, when it was closed as the result of another consolidation.
Spencer-Penn was the site of one of the first community canneries in Virginia. Opening in 1940, it was very important for local agriculture and for preserving the produce of Victory gardens during World War II. Spencer-Penn also provided classes for farmers and returning veterans after the war.
September 2009 marked the 73rd annual Spencer Community Fair. The fair is held at the Spencer Ruritan Club, which is adjacent to the school, and a former auxiliary building from the school still stands behind the Ruritan Club building.
When Spencer-Penn opened in 1927, the elementary wing comprised an auditorium surrounded by five classrooms. Windows were the only source of “air conditioning,” and a coal furnace in the basement boiler room heated water for the iron radiators in each room–some boys at the school considered it a “privilege” when they could escape class for a while to be pressed into service shoveling coal. The classroom ceilings were pressed tin but the auditorium ceiling was rather unique: a lightweight board that appeared to be layers of pressed paper covered the ceiling. A grid of two-by-fours had to be affixed to it to prevent it from sagging. The floor throughout this wing was two-and-a-quarter-inch maple tongue-and-groove, but in 1961, when the school system enclosed the auditorium stage to create a principal’s office and the auditorium itself was converted into a library, the hardwood was covered by asbestos tile.
Restoration of the 1927 wing has been a major feat. First the wing was restored to its original floor plan by the removal of two dropped ceilings, the library, and the stage enclosure, all by volunteered labor; the asbestos tile was removed from the auditorium and the original maple flooring was refinished. The stage had suffered substantial damage when it was enclosed to create a principal’s office; the ceiling and one wall have now been replaced. A door has been cut into one side to give performers access to the stage, and a stage extension with steps on each side has been built. The wiring has been upgraded to accommodate professional lights and sound. At the same time, work began to modernize the building while maintaining the historical integrity of the old school. HVAC units were added, which in turn necessitated an upgrade in the electrical system. The building’s plumbing was also upgraded.
Now, with the renovation complete, the auditorium can seat 170 banquet guests for receptions, parties, and dinner theater, or 250 guests for concert seating. One adjacent classroom has been equipped as a caterer’s kitchen, with a warming oven, refrigerator, sink and counter space, while another classroom is available as auxiliary space, for checking coats, for example, or serving appetizers. The former classroom adjoining the stage, which includes restroom facilities, can be used as a dressing room or “green room” for performers.
The Spencer-Penn School Preservation Organization raised over a quarter of a million dollars for the renovation of the 1948 wing and the 1962 wing. Those two wings are now bringing in money for the continued maintenance through rentals and fundraising. To complete the renovation of the third and oldest wing, $185,000 was needed. Volunteer labor and unsolicited donations have allowed the renovation to continue and have kept the cost of the total project much lower than anyone expected. Some jobs though, such as the installation of HVAC and the electrical upgrade, were too massive for volunteers and contractors had to be called in. Several rooms are now available for rent; however, the bills for the stage lighting and sound system, the caterer’s kitchen, and restoration of the original main entrance remain to be paid.
The community, former students, and friends of Spencer-Penn have worked extremely hard and have given their unsolicited donations to make the project work. We have come to a time where we need financial support. We hope you will join us in helping to continue Spencer-Penn’s legacy as the heart of the Spencer community.
The Spencer-Penn School Preservation Organization (SPSPO) formed after the Henry County School Board closed Spencer-Penn Elementary in June 2004, as part of an ongoing consolidation of schools in the county. Since Spencer-Penn first opened, as a high school, in 1927, it had served the small rural community of Spencer in many ways; its closing left the area not only without any nearby school for children of any age, it also eliminated the central facility in the community’s social and civic life.
With an eye toward filling this void, a group of concerned citizens, many of them former students and teachers, established the SPSPO in August 2004 to obtain the property and develop plans to extend the school’s useful life as part of the community. They began meeting regularly at the Spencer Ruritan Club, and within a few weeks had become a purposeful group that moved quickly to meet its goals.
The SPSPO incorporated, developed a mission statement and bylaws, and elected officers and directors. By November 2004, the group had closed on the purchase of the property—which included the main school building, an adjacent cottage, and approximately 8 acres of land—and formed committees to begin renovation, develop marketing plans, and raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of the property. The SPSPO also won the buildings a position on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places, gained status as a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation, and effected changes in local zoning designation. The expertise and experience of various members of the organization proved invaluable in meeting the many requirements to get the project started.
The SPSPO now oversees what the old school has been transformed into, the Spencer-Penn Centre, which has emerged as a thriving community resource while at the same time standing as a tribute to the remarkable volunteer spirit of the people of Spencer. The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.” Overstatement? Perhaps. But the Spencer-Penn Centre is a fine example that they can certainly change a little piece of it.
a new Purpose
Over the years, before its demise as an educational institution, the Spencer-Penn School had become not only an educational resource, but also a hub of the community’s civic and social life. It was a place for friends to gather for the Spencer Fair, family reunions, meetings, athletic events, and performances. When the school closed in June 2004, it left a considerable void in community activity, and concerned residents formed the Spencer-Penn School Preservation Organization to study the feasibility of purchasing the school and to assess how the community could utilize it going forward. The group reflected on the school’s history and found the path already set: the property would be a site for education and special events.