History of Johnson School
Compiled/Written by Tony Pope
The first Johnson School made its debut in pre-Civil War days on the plantation home of John A. Johnson off of Reynolds Bend Road. At this time it was known as an “academy” and was a one-room log cabin.
The current location of Johnson School is off of Kingston Highway on Morrison Campground Road. According to tradition, the Johnson family donated this thirteen acre site to build a school upon. A wooden structure was built as the original school on this property where many of the children from the community were educated. Many of these children came from families whose income was based on agricultural or textile work.
While no exact date has been found on when the first building was erected at this site, a property deed signed over to the Board of Education in 1923 by W. E. Kerce indicates that there was a Johnson School property there when he donated the land. School Attendance Registers on file at the Floyd County Board of Education available from Johnson beginning in 1924 indicates there was a school there at that time too.
According to Charlotte Towe Stafford, who was a student at Johnson until 1951, this wooden structure had no indoor bathrooms. Instead, students and faculty would have to walk to the outdoor “potties” in all kinds of weather. The concrete “thrones” of the school outhouses were still visible up until the 1980’s…if you knew where to look in the brush in what is now a Backyard Wildlife Habitat on the campus. Water was obtained from a well pump. Students would construct homemade drinking cups from notebook paper.
In the late 1940’s Johnson was in need of more room. Principal J. T. Leath had an army barracks brought onto the campus. This building provided three rooms. At one time it housed 7th grade, shop, and a home economics room.
In 1950 the wooden school building and the army barracks were replaced by a large, flat-topped brick building. Some of the wood from the old school was used by Lindsey Cope to build rental houses behind his grocery store nearby on Kingston Highway. A two-room section originally housing first grades was built in 1957. In 1960, a library addition was added and in 1964 a four-room structure was built.
One of the largest structures on the Johnson campus was the old gymnasium. According to one former student, the large white-framed gym was built in 1939. The gym also served as an auditorium and had a large stage with stage lighting and a curtain. Emily Leath Sheets remembers the original stage curtain being made out of canvas. Side ropes anchored the canvas curtain in place and with the use of a pulley system, the curtain could be raised or lowered. It usually took two people, one on each side of the curtain to raise and lower it. Advertisements for different businesses were painted on the canvas in various sizes and was one source of extra money for the school. Some were encased in oblong circles or squares. An artist-painter would come by at the first of each year to add/delete businesses. He also painted outdoor scenery and landscapes to fill in space and make it more attractive. During my tenure at Johnson (1970’s), we had beautiful blue-velvet curtains with a golden “J” at the top.
Throughout the years, the stage was the central focus of parents and grandparents. These admirers watched students perform plays and musicals, receive awards, and graduate. In the center of the wooden floor of the gym was a large, painted wildcat’s face…Johnson’s mascot. Many times this “wildcat” was used in taking pictures of Johnson’s basketball teams and cheerleaders. During the days that Johnson was a high school, the old gym also served as a location for proms and was used for most of the game booths during the fall festival. The gymnasium building provided many other functions too. Prior to a lunchroom being built, the gym was also used to prepare meals and provide a dining area. Katie Roberson Hicks remembers Mrs. Irene Leath helping set up the first meals at Johnson and a Mr. Max Harris furnishing turnip greens for the school meal. Mr. Harris would bring a cart full of greens to the school pulled by horses. Tables were set up on each side of the gym between support posts directly in front of the bleachers. Charlotte Towe Stafford says that 8th-grade girls were assigned each day to help in the lunchroom to help carry plates already filled with food to the tables for the lower grades. Next, they would march in and sit at the places and say the blessing. Older students would go to the window and get their plates before being seated.
The gymnasium had several rooms, which were used as classrooms too. Many of these were utilized as high school rooms, while lower grades were housed in the main building. One of these rooms was also the music room. There was also boys’ changing room and girls’ changing room to the right and left of the stage where students would change into clothes appropriate for physical education. Katie Hicks remembers having to gather around one of the old coal heaters to change in the wintertime.
There were two main entrances to the gym at the front and a door to the right and left of the stage. In 1957 the gym was remodeled. The three coal heaters which had provided heat to the gym were now gone. Classroom space downstairs was made into boys and girls dressing rooms with an exit door from each leading to the outside.
As you entered the gymnasium from the front right, the concession stand was on the far left near the front left entrance. The concession stand took up the space once used to prepare the school lunches. Two long rows of bleachers were on each side of the basketball court leading towards the stage. To the left side of the stage was a short rise of steps that led through a doorway either into a small room and the left side of the stage or one could continue down a long row of steps into the boys dressing room. To the right side of the stage was another short rise of steps that led through a doorway either to the right side of the stage, the physical education teacher’s office or you could continue down another long row of steps that led to the girls dressing room.
In the early morning hours on August 9, 1984, two former students broke into the school. One young man broke into the gym, set some old textbooks on fire and the wooden gym that had seen so many children in the 50 plus years of its existence…was burned to the ground. Clarence Pope, a custodian at Johnson for over 20 years, heard of the structure fire on his police scanner and rushed over to the school. The dawn of that morning found faculty members, former students from ages past and current students too, there to see the end of an old friend. Many with tears in their eyes, bid goodbye to the old gymnasium. A new gym with a stage was built in 1985. The newer structure was built out of brick, had a modern carpeted floor, large storage space upstairs, physical education office, boys and girls locker rooms, and a room at first used for music classes and then for preschool classes.
Mrs. Ethel Fletcher, educator for 41 years and former Johnson teacher, remembers several principals at Johnson in the 1930’s. These include: Mr. Foster (1931 – 1932), William Henry Shaw (1933 – 1935), Clyde Medlock (1936 – 1937), Mr. Lawrance (1937 – 1938), and Mr. Story (1938 –1939). Mrs. Fletcher took the 1932 – 1933 year off to have a baby and was unable to say who was principal at Johnson that school term.
Other principals include: Mr. James Taylor Leath (1939 – 1966), John D. Cauthen (1966 – 1971), Gary Holmes (1971 – 1974), Robert Puckett (1974 – 1986), John Vaughn (1986 – 1988), Michelle Holmes Collins (1988 – 1992), Shirley Butler (1992 – 2002), Jerry D. Maddox (2002-2006), George Brombacher (2006-2009), and La Donna Turrentine (2009-2017).
One of Johnson’s most memorable principals was John Taylor Leath. Mr. Leath served as principal at Johnson for 26 years. He began his career at Johnson starting in September 1940 and retired on July 1, 1966. Mr. Leath is credited for helping bring running water, natural gas, electric power and telephone service to the area. He also served as a deacon at a local church, was on the Etowah Ruritan Club, and taught various subjects in the school too. Mr. Leath’s wife, Irene, served as a lunchroom manager, school secretary, taught classes and directed the Glee Club.
Emily Leath Sheets, daughter of J. T. and Irene Leath, recalls her parents starting the first lunchroom in the school system. Students could purchase meals for 5 cents! During World War II, Mr. Leath and M. T. “Mitt” Kelley started a Victory Garden behind the gym. Mr. Leath would use his mules to plow the garden. Products grown there were used in preparing school lunches. Mrs. M. T. Kelley would can certain foods to be used throughout the year. Mr. Leath and Mr. Kelley also had a pigpen behind the gym. Pigs raised here were also used to supplement the school meals. Emily stated that when winter first came around, Homer “Chicken” Pope (my grandfather) and Will Hyde would help Mr. Leath in slaughtering the pigs.
T. Kelley, or more commonly known as “Mitt” Kelley, was another noteworthy Johnson character. Mr. Kelley served many functions at the school, but his most memorable is that of a storekeeper. In the original wooden building he had had a small store in which he sold supplies and soft drinks to the students. When the wooden structure was replaced by the brick building, Mitt’s store was moved to a space underneath the gymnasium.
Throughout the years, Johnson has seen many changes in grade levels served and in student enrollment. Johnson consolidated with Turner Chapel School in November of 1930 and with Wayside School in early 1940’s. At one point, Johnson only went as high as the 9th grade. The first Johnson High School class to graduate was the Class of 1947. At this time the graduating class was 11th grade. In 1951 there was no graduating class as Johnson prepared the Class of 1952 to be the first 12th grade graduating class.
At the beginning of the 1965-66 school year, Johnson’s 9th through 12th grades were merged with Model High School and Johnson became a first – eighth grade school. In 1978 Johnson began kindergarten classes and in 1987 the Jr. High School moved to Model Middle School and Johnson became a kindergarten – fifth grade school. With funding from the Georgia State Lottery, a preschool class was added to Johnson in 1995 and a second pre-school a few years later.
Bus transportation at Johnson has also had a colorful history. Ernest Rolan remembers his father driving one of Johnson’s busses in the 1930’s and 1940’s. His father, Will F. Rolan, purchased a flatbed Model T Ford. Using saplings and canvas, he fashioned a canopy on the back for students to get under in times of rain. Ernest, a former Johnson student, also served as a bus driver. At that time, high school was considered to be 9th – 11th grades. Johnson did not have a “high school” program. Instead, students continuing to high school grades would attend McHenry School in southern Floyd County. Johnson busses would pick up students in their area. In 1941 – 1942 Ernest was approximately 18 years old. His bus route would take him down Turner Chapel Road, onto Kingston Road at Maplewood and back to the school. According to Ernest, the bus would not go down all roads, some students would have to walk to the end of their roads and catch the bus. One of his riders was Mrs. Ethel Fletcher, a teacher at Johnson School. Mrs. Fletcher would get on the bus on Turner Chapel Road and ride it to school.
Ernest Rolan had 14 students on his bus his first year as driver, 1941 – 1942 and 18 students during 1942 – 1943. After dropping off the elementary students at Johnson, he would take the high school students to McHenry School, where he would attend classes too. At the end of the day he would transport students from McHenry back to Johnson. Ernest graduated from McHenry in 1943.
Before he was a bus driver, Ernest served the school in another fashion. In 1939, Ernest remembers having to haul water to the school to be used throughout the day. Apparently there was no well on site at that time. It was Ernest’s responsibility to go to Dykes Creek each morning and fill up three 55-gallon drums with water. He used a 1931 Chevrolet car with the body torn off and a flatbed built on to carry the water back to the school.
Plans are currently on the board to build a “new” Johnson Elementary School across from where the school is today. The property has already been purchased between Deland Road and Brewer Road in anticipation of this project, which will begin sometime in the early 2000’s. While it is true that one day many former students will feel love and nostalgia for the “new” school, those of us at this point in time feel that no other campus could be as wonderful as our alma mater…Johnson School. Johnson’s alma mater, written by Johnson teacher Mrs. O. C. (Queen) White and music for it composed by Mrs. Irene Leath, seems to put it best: “Not so far from dear old Rome; Where her rivers roll; Is a temple dear to each home; To each heart and soul; Of her students year by year; Who in her halls remain; Underneath her guidance dear; Watch her seasons wane. Johnson School of our delight; The one that we love best; Hereby happy day and night; We’re put to the test; Johnson we will ever praise; Our Alma Mater true; And uphold throughout her days; Her colors gold and blue. “
*The current Johnson Elementary School facility opened in 2001. Many students at Johnson are third and fourth generation of families that have attended Johnson School. With these families, and new families moving in, the school grows by approximately one class size each year. Johnson Elementary School has always promoted high expectations and in 2010, it was named a High Performing National Blue Ribbon School