By Jay Moore
Adapted from a portion of “Abilene History In Plain Sight” published by ACU Press.
Looming large at the southern terminus of Grape Street stands a memory, an epic Abilene memory. Occupying a city block is a buff-colored brick school which for many is the alma mater of their adolescence. The property along South First Street has been the site of an Abilene school since 1889 and for over sixty years, the city’s educational epicenter and focus of local pride. It was home to Abilene High School.
The property is still home to a school, though now in name only. The vacant three-story structure (four if you consider the basement) was known to some generations as Lincoln Middle School, just as the silver letters still spell out on the northeast corner wall. (Abilene Reporter-News editor Frank Grimes determined it was the first school in Texas to be named for Lincoln.) That is how my oldest daughter remembers it, as a proud member of the final class to attend school there in 2007. Still others walked the halls when the building was branded Lincoln Junior High, and they remember it by that name. (When the old high school became a junior high in 1955, the honor afforded Abraham Lincoln was a hotly debated topic as many Confederate Abilene children and grandchildren held long memories and were not yet ready to pay homage to one who, as one letter writer to the editor pointed out, “brought on our unhappiness, destruction and poverty.”) Yet, for many of Abilene’s oldest generation there is not a junior or middle school which they see at the end of Grape; instead, rising from the corner of Peach and South First, is their high school. [Galleries 33 not found]
High above the front door past the top windows perches an owl with spread wings over an open book and, high up on the roof, guarding this symbol of wisdom on both sides, sit two concrete, canine-like gargoyles resting on hind legs, holding shields. On a summer day not many years back, I stopped by the school as principal Kay Taylor’s car was the only one out front. She graciously let me poke around, even taking me to the basement to see the sub-surface stream that trickles right through it. Then we climbed the well-worn stairs to the top floor, and she pointed the way to the roof so I could photograph those rooftop sentinels which have looked north for ninety years now— the same two protectors which that first class of students saw as they walked up those untrodden front steps and into their brand new Abilene High in 1924.
When the school was finished in the spring of 1924, still standing in the front yard was the very first 1889 high school while, out back, was that school’s 1909 replacement. So, for just a few weeks in 1924, the South First property contained three schools, all of which had been or were Abilene High School. After the 1889 school was razed, the space was used to create a curbed fish pond with a fountain in the center. The water of the pond was a common detour for underclassmen and, given a long enough cold spell, could serve as a tidy skating rink. When the school opened in September of that year, it was the “new” AHS and would remain so for thirty-one years until becoming the “old” one in 1955 as the Eagles re-nested along North Sixth Street.
Abilene’s father of architecture, David Castle, could sit on the front porch of his North Second Street home in the evening and easily take stock of the day’s progress on his Gothic Revival design. He had drafted an expandable, E-shaped building whose spine was 196-feet in length. The bars of the “E” could be added as necessary but only the top leg, on the east side, ever came to be as intended. The middle stroke of the letter was added in 1928 but was an out-of-scale auditorium, and didn’t follow the intended architectural penmanship. Also, in 1928 the auditorium became home to a larger-than-life painting of a larger-than-life Texan, General Sam Houston. Meredith Morrow, great-granddaughter of Houston was an AHS student at the time. The work by Russian-born artist and Simmons College art professor Peter Plotkin was presented to the student body as a gift from the PTA. The painting flanked one side of the stage and shortly after the other side bore the Plotkin-painted likeness of General Robert E. Lee. Hundreds of students could later vividly recall sitting quietly and cautiously in the wooden chairs of the auditorium beneath the gaze of those revered generals. Today both paintings rest securely in an Abilene warehouse.
The 1924 school building cost close to $190,000 and offered plenty of elbow room as the nine hundred students who had crowded into the old school were provided one that could accommodate 1,500. The thoroughly modern (for the time) building boasted maple floors and restrooms finished with marble wainscoting for “superior sanitation.” Natural light was abundant as the 190 windows, each with eighteen panes, allowed sunshine to liberally flood the classrooms. Students were provided with individual lockers and the convenience of eight drinking fountains on each floor.
As the school was under construction in the fall of 1923, the AHS football squad was efficiently plowing through its schedule en route to the school’s first state championship. Incredibly, the season saw the staunch Eagle defense give up just a single touchdown as the “Big Dam” Lobos of Cisco were able to make a solitary crossing of the goal line. The school added a gymnasium in 1929 with the “Eagles Nest” relief still visible over the east-facing entrance. Basketball games, like all athletic contests, raucously resounded with unified hometown cheers in the one-school town.
Initially taking up chalk, ruler and beaker were 30 faculty members including sisters Miss Tommie and Miss Bobbie Clack who schooled several generations in reading and writing, instilling a love for the subject and a widely-held admiration for them. (Had either turned from “Miss” into a “Mrs.” they would have been asked to tender their resignation, as married female faculty members were not permitted.) Teaching American history and debate that inaugural year was Don Morris who would go on to serve as president of Abilene Christian University for 29 years. P. E. “Pete” Shotwell handled all things athletic and was the dedicatee for the ’24 yearbook in a nod to his state championship. In 1926, Raymond “Prof” Bynum would join the group to teach Spanish along with the extra duty of leading the band. He would arrange the music to the school song, “Dear Old Abilene High” and it was his idea to create a marching band that could roam the field at halftime. Prof. Bynum’s original twelve-man Eagle band holds the distinction of being the first marching band in Texas.
Many Abilenians — my mother among them— can still drive past and point out the rooms of their youth. A third floor window on the west end – Spanish class. A second story corner room – history class (taught from books without chapters on the Great Depression or World War II since both were current events). They can pass along busy South First and their minds warmly sink back into those wooden desks planted in neat rows as the breeze from raised windows ushers in sound from passing trains and traffic, nudging students away from the Spanish and math and history occurring up front, providing daydreams and fond hopes that are yet not forgotten.
The final class to graduate from that Abilene High (now in their late 70s) were the 329 comprising the class of ’55 who heard a graduation speech by one of the original faculty members, Coach Shotwell. In a gracious recognition to those who first walked the halls, members of the class of ’24 were invited back to the campus by their soon-to-be fellow Eagle grads for a morning coffee and a chance to once again walk the now well-worn maple floors of their past.
Today, hundreds of current and former Abilenians passing David Castle’s impressive design, in person or simply in their minds, can see — and feel — so much more than a decaying building without purpose or an abandoned schoolyard. They sense hallways alive with the tingle of youth.
As I drive down Grape Street, I seldom fail to glance up at the roof just over the school’s front door. There is a comfort in seeing, perched high, two sentinels dependably guarding a springtime of tender innocence, faithfully casting their protective gaze up Grape Street and far into the past.