Some 60 years after leaving Gladstone, a Bedford County resident is reconnecting with his past.
Jackie Dee Cunningham, born Forrest Peyton Tyree in Gladstone in 1948, left the area in 1959 when he was placed in an orphanage in Salem, where he changed his name. He returned to Gladstone in 1968 for a brief period, but didn’t hang around long. After traveling through North and South Carolina and making his way down to Miami, Florida, Cunningham found his way back to Virginia in 1988 and became a Bedford resident in 2014. This year, Cunningham began researching a one-room schoolhouse where his grandmother once taught and through the research, has become more familiar with his family.
“I was young when I left and didn’t know a whole lot about the people or the history,” Cunningham said.
Set back far from Union School Road in Gladstone, in the middle of a field with grass waist-high, sits the small house full of history. No more than 20 feet by 20 feet, covered in chipping white paint and surrounded by tall grass, it stands mostly unnoticed by passersby. The house, now unoccupied, was an active schoolhouse from the late 1890s through the mid-1900s.
As a retired private investigator, Cunningham has spent the past few months learning more about the history of the schoolhouse. Through pages of documentation his grandmother kept and stories he was told by relatives and friends in the area, Cunningham found out a lot about the building, Gladstone, and his grandmother.
“This past month, I have learned a great deal about my family and learned to appreciate them in a new light,” Cunningham said. “I’ve become reacquainted with people from my early life who taught me right from wrong.”
According to Cunningham’s research, Union School was built in 1895. His grandmother, Laura Barita Megginson Wills, (1890 — 1988) taught in the one-room structure from 1933 to 1953.
Cunningham said his grandmother, the youngest of four, was a smart woman who began to read at the age of 2. Although he didn’t know her well growing up, Cunningham recently received about 50 pages of Wills personal diary she kept during her years in the area and learned a lot about her, her life, and the school.
When she was approved to teach by the school administration, Wills requested to teach at Union School in order to prevent it from being shut down. Wills started teaching at the age of 19 and spent 20 years teaching in Gladstone.
The school housed up to thirty children at once, ranging in grades from first through seventh. Wills taught all seven grade levels at one time.
“They were basically her children; the good students in her class,” Cunningham said.
Margaret Layne, who still lives in Gladstone, remembers stories her mother told about her time attending the school with her four siblings.
“It was a good education. Ms.Wills taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also taught them to dress and stand properly and carry themselves with great respect. She was an awesome teacher,” Layne said.
Layne said her grandfather ran a sawmill near the schoolhouse and supplied the wood for the structure as well as the wood for the stove needed in the winter to keep the building warm. Her grandmother also helped the children who attended Wills’ class.
“My grandmother brought food there for any kid who needed a meal,” Layne said.
Layne and Cunningham both said the area wasn’t a wealthy one and most kids going to the school weren’t from well-to-do families. Cunningham said most of the kids who attended the school walked up to three miles to receive an education from Wills. Layne said the school only had an outhouse and a spring on the property to supply water during the day.
Cunningham and Layne both agreed the structure standing isn’t the original building first established in the late 1800s. Cunningham said he believes it was torn down after the school closed in 1953.
“It became empty for a while and eventually the schoolhouse became in such ruins they did tear it down,” Cunningham said.
It was rebuilt years later — pretty much like it was originally Cunningham said — for lower-income families to rent for a cheap place to live.
“I think throughout the years a lot of families have lived there for cheap,” Cunningham said.
Layne said after the school closed, a two-room schoolhouse in Gladstone opened for the community. According to Layne, anyone who lived on one side of Greenfield Drive in Nelson County went to Lovingston Elementary School and anyone who lived on the other side of the road went to the Gladstone school.
Layne said when the railway depot closed in Gladstone, it hurt the community and many people moved away. For the people that stayed, Layne said not much has changed.
“As far as the people go — the people are pretty much the same with their beliefs and family traditions and that sort of thing. If one gets hurt, everyone goes to help,” Layne said. “It’s a very loving group of people.”
Now, the former school sits renovated and remains in the same family it has been for generations. The current property owner did not want to be included in this article.
After early years of hardship, Cunningham said he has been happily retired in Bedford with his wife Judy whom he’s been married to for the past 27 years and now has more closure on childhood and the family members from his early years.
Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.