For most of Mississippi’s history the state has been very rural in the sense that nearly all Mississippians lived in the countryside or in small towns not in cities. For every Vicksburg, Natchez, and Columbus were twenty or more small crossroads, riverboat stops, and train platforms. Although the larger towns and cities get most of the preservation attention, much of Mississippi’s architectural heritage is located in those small towns and out in the countryside. The recent comments on the Vaughn, Mississippi post show that there is interest in these small communities as well a big problem, no one left to live there and preserve these places. This post is about the preservation of one of Mississippi’s rural historic buildings and is indicative of the architectural heritage scattered throughout the rural parts of the state and the fact that these rural buildings can be preserved. Clay County Agricultural High School in Pheba, one of the most historically important school buildings in the state, could have easily shared the fate of countless other demolished or ruined rural educational structures but instead is being preserved.
Clay County Agricultural High School (also known as West Clay County Agricultural School) is a remnant of an important chapter in Mississippi’s educational history. Mississippi’s agricultural schools were a bridge between the classic, ubiquitous (but generally poor quality) one-room schoolhouses and modern public schools, junior colleges, and community colleges. In the first couple of decades of the Twentieth Century, public school facilities and quality in Mississippi’s towns were substandard and much worse in rural areas. A Mississippian living in larger towns would be lucky to attend high school; attending high school was out of the question for most people in the countryside as the few educational opportunities were very hard to access in an era with few quality roads, little automobile ownership, and a relatively underdeveloped railroad network. This changed in 1908 when the Mississippi Legislature passed laws allowing counties to establish agricultural high schools. Agricultural high schools were co-educational boarding schools (solving the transportation problem) and, as their name implies, focused on agricultural education (for boys, girls focused on home economics) which was fitting for schools largely full of farming children. However in what today would probably be considered a complete waste of time and money, children were not just taught job training skills (learning to farm or learning to be a farmer’s wife), they were taught a full curriculum of English, history, mathematics, and science. Since these were public high schools, tuition was free, but there was a boarding charge for those who lived in school dormitories.
The agricultural high school system was made largely obsolete very quickly since in 1916 the legislature passed the school consolidation act, allowing two or more of those poor quality one-room schoolhouses to consolidate into larger, modern facilities. Consolidated schools were required to provide bus transportation for students living two or more miles away from the school. Road improvements were being undertaken by the state and various counties, making busing a viable transportation method. In the 1920s this created a boom in school construction, making the careers of several Mississippi architects (such as N. W. Overstreet who designed numerous consolidated schools), and giving Mississippi many important architectural landmarks. But consolidated schools meant that agricultural high schools, which numbered fifty-one by 1921, lost students, money, and their raison d’être. Legislators passed laws in the 1920s which morphed the declining agricultural high school system into the junior and community college system, the first statewide system in the United States. Yet, not all agricultural high schools could become community colleges. Most, like Clay County Agricultural High School in Pheba, as well as the previously profiled Yazoo County Agricultural High School in Benton, merely remained high schools run by various county school boards. Nearly all have been either replaced by newer buildings, abandoned, or remain in use with the loss of all dormitory and other ancillary buildings.
The main building of the Clay County Agricultural High School was constructed in 1909 as Pheba High School, which is why the marble “cornerstone” (set near the front door in the middle of the front façade) states the names of Pheba’s mayor, aldermen, treasurer, and the builders but make no mention of the State of Mississippi. This doubles the building’s importance as both an agricultural high school and a pre-consolidation rural school. The building became Clay County Agricultural High School in 1912.
Pheba was the perfect place for an agricultural high school. Today, it is a very sparsely populated unincorporated community at the crossroads of two, two-lane state highways with a few newer houses and an occasional historic house dotted amongst fields and woods divided by an irregular street grid, a street grid indicative of the community Pheba used to be. In 1912, Pheba was in the middle of its heyday. It was an incorporated town and important stop on the Columbus & Greenville Railroad with a Craftsman style depot and water tower. Pheba Street #2, running parallel to the railroad tracks, was lined on both sides with businesses from McCarter’s Store at the west end to the intersection with Pheba-Beasley Road (Mississippi Highway 389) which itself was lined with businesses. The good transportation connections and bustling commercial district (as well as the fact that the town already had a new school building that could be used) while still remaining a rural community made Pheba Clay County’s best location for its agricultural high school.
The brick main building of the Clay County Agricultural High School is today the only surviving building from the campus but, typical for agricultural high schools, there were originally several more buildings. The main building served as classroom space. Laboratory buildings for agriculture and home economics complemented the main building. In 1915 and 1917, boys’ and girls’ dormitories completed the campus. All those buildings have long since been demolished, except for the original 1915 boys’ dormitory, which burned, unsurprisingly considering the various pranks and hijinks I have heard about from MSU’s Old Main Dormitory. The two-story, Craftsman replacement boys’ dormitory survived nine decades of both the trials of having teenage boys living in it and complete abandonment only to be demolished in 2009, right before renovation began on the main building. As one of a very few agricultural high school dormitories remaining, it was an important but largely ignored loss.
That the main building survived is amazing. By 1991, when Clay County Agricultural High School was added to the National Register, both the main building and the boys’ dormitory were boarded up, dilapidated, and abandoned. Their decline mirrored Pheba’s decline. Pheba Historic District was also listed on the National Register in 1991, but the commercial district had so declined that a contiguous district of only two buildings – McCarter’s Store and the Pheba Post Office (originally a bank) – could be designated. All the other commercial buildings, both hotels, and the railroad depot had burned or been demolished. In the two decades since, McCarter’s Store has been demolished and the Post Office has closed with the original front façade being destroyed with the building’s conversion to The Bank Bar.
In 2009, a few months after I photographed Clay County Agricultural High School, the main building became a recipient of MDAH’s Community Heritage Preservation (CHPG) program. The Clay County Board of Supervisors were willing to match 20 percent of the roughly $151,000 cost to renovate the first floor into a community center. Although they later balked at the increasing costs of renovating the entire building (in 2011, the lowest bid was approximately $300,000 for both floors with $165,000 for just the first floor according to the February 25, 2011 edition of The Columbus Dispatch), recent photographs on Hickory Ridge Studio show that the building is in much better shape. I am unsure how much historic fabric on the interior and exterior was able to be retained and how much was too deteriorated, but MDAH does not generally fund gut renovations. Though, they could have picked a more complementary roof.
The renovation of Clay County Agricultural High School shows that Mississippi’s rural historic buildings can be preserved. This school building sat vacant and abandoned for decades but now, through the CHPG program, is being restored to active use. There are hundreds of schools and other structures worthy of preservation. This is just one success story. Hopefully, more of Mississippi’s rural historic landmarks will be transformed like Clay County Agricultural High School.
Note: For more information on Mississippi’s educational history, junior and community colleges, and school consolidation, please refer to “The Community and Junior College System in Mississippi: A Brief History of its Origin and Development” by Ben H. Fatherree at Mississippi HistoryNow (http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/333/the-community-and-junior-college-system-in-mississippi) which was an information source for this post. The National Register of Historic Places Registration Forms for the Pheba Historic District and Clay County Agricultural High School (listed on the National Register as the West Clay County Agricultural School) were also sources for a great deal of interesting information on Pheba’s history.