Seventh Ward School turns 100 _lowres

Photo provided by CHARMAINE VERNON -- A photo of the original building that once housed the first students at Seventh Ward Elementary School in Denham Springs is one of the items on display at the school during their upcoming 100th anniversary celebration on Feb. 27

Former students, some from the 1940s and 1950s, will have a chance to travel back in time Feb. 27 when they celebrate the 100th anniversary of Seventh Ward School, now an elementary school.

The school, which still contains a part of the original structure completed for the 1915 school year and located in Ward 7 after the former Wardline School closed, was a single wooden structure with no cafeteria or indoor plumbing, said former teacher Charmaine Vernon.

Now retired after 20 years at Seventh Ward, Vernon spent more than a year interviewing former principals, staff members and students to gather material for the school’s history.

The former students she interviewed recalled learning much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

“Teachers would arrive early, light the wood stove and make hot chocolate on cold winter mornings for students,” Vernon said.

“In the beginning, the men of the community cut the trees to build the first lunch room in the parish,” she said. “It sat on wood blocks cut from trees. Students were responsible for cleaning the lunch tables, sweeping the floor every day and mopping on Fridays.

“The men of the community kept the firewood cut for the teachers and students,” she said.

Despite the workload, the students were able to make regular visits to Clarence Joe O’Neal Jr.’s store, formerly on La. 16, which in the 1950s was a gravel road.

“They couldn’t buy jawbreakers,” O’Neal said to Vernon. “They couldn’t finish (the candy) at recess before classes resumed.”

When Seventh Ward first opened, it had three classrooms, each housing two grades, Vernon said. Three teachers were available to the 94 students during the school’s first year, and 85 library books accommodated students in grades one through 10, she said.

Vernon also learned from Frances Boyd, a former volunteer librarian who worked at the school in the 1990s, that during the Depression, Seventh Ward was one of the first places in the parish to offer a “soup kitchen.”

“Boyd kept interesting items about the school in a simple box,” Vernon said. “Since she was designated as historian, she felt it was important, so she typed it up.”

The school was a shelter for families during hurricanes Betsy and Camille, Vernon said.

In 1981, school officials talked about closing the now iconic school; however, residents strongly urged school board members to keep it open, Vernon said.

Many of the former students recalled May Day, which was held annually for more than 20 years. It featured a king, queen, a court, elaborate decorations and entertainment.

Today, the school “really is a community school,” Vernon said.

“We have a sense of community,” Vernon said. “We have third and fourth generations attending the school.”

The school is housed in a brick building, which was expanded each decade and contains 20 classrooms for 20 teachers and three teachers aides and their 350 students. The school boasts five school bus drivers, five cafeteria personnel, a secretary, two custodians, a principal and many parent volunteers, Vernon said.

“Our library, which was reorganized in 1986, now houses more than 5,000 books” and other equipment such as laptop computers, Vernon said.

Following lunch on Feb. 27, school officials will honor former teachers and principals with a presentation at 1 p.m. during which the school’s first principal, S.R. Lowe, will be memorialized. Later that day, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., there will be an open house for former students and parents, teacher and celebration organizer Laura Dunlap said.

A tour of the school will include viewing of a 200-year-old oak tree that still shades the back of the school by the playground equipment.