Most of the information about Aurora’s early schools comes from a document Lydia (Ly’-da) McNatt wrote in 1933 in which she very strongly indicates, but doesn’t actually say, that Central School was built in 1890. Another possible construction date comes from a 1923 Aurora Advertiser report of a meeting about building a new high school, in which Mrs. Sinclair (possibly Mrs. Percy Sinclair, formerly an Emmons) said that she attended Central School when it was new 40 years earlier, which would date it to 1883. This date seems less likely since increased enrollment would have provided the impetus to build the additional school and that came about with the discovery of lead in 1885. The mined lead undoubtedly provided the funds to build it.
The most conclusive date may come from a 1948 Aurora Advertiser which states that Central School was built in 1894 by contractors Peter Grammer and C. C. Porter with bricks by Ed Hooks and stone cut by William Killey.
Reading Lydia’s account shows school officials scrambling to keep up with the exploding population caused by the 1885 lead discovery. She wrote that shortly after (the lead discovery), “Sam Loy taught one term with three hundred enrolled” in the first little 24′ x 36′ frame school on southwest corner of Elliott Ave. and Church St. If the 1890 date is correct for the building of Central, that was just five years after lead was found.
Central School was built to house the two grades comprising Aurora’s first high school and grades three to eight, one grade to a room. It had four rooms up and four down, two sets of staircases and an assembly room created by opening folding doors in two of the upstairs rooms. The school had been built with a fireplace in each room but after those proved unsatisfactory, coal stoves were installed.
The first high school class to graduate from Central was in 1890. The first class to graduate from it as a four year high school was in 1897. From 1908 through 1910, a first grade class was added to Central in addition to those at Franklin and Lowell with the first grade enrollment totaling over 100. The 1923 Aurora Advertiser notes 230 high school. Within a few years after 1911, all elementary classes were moved to Franklin and Lowell schools, leaving only high school classes at Central.
The 1923 Aurora Advertiser notes 230 high school students which averages 67 students per grade. Normal in towns of increasing populations, the senior class had fewer students at 44 than each of the three lower high school grades. If all four high school grades were in Central, there were 33 people squashed in each of the eight rooms in the building. However, the newspaper account said that the new high school building “will take care of one upper grade from now crowded Franklin” so maybe the ninth grade was there. Numbering 74, there were almost twice as many 8th grade students entering high school in 1923 as there were seniors leaving it.
With no gym at Central, both the six player girls team and five player boys team played home basketball games at the Armory which was also the Princess Theater. Built in 1906 on the south side of Olive just west of the first alley west of Madison on the site of the National Hotel. Each team had one to two substitutes. On May 23, the 1923 graduation was held there also with the seniors having voted to not wear caps and gowns.
The seniors of 1923 were the last to graduate from Central School and some of their names are still known in Aurora: Charles Martz (co-founder of TASOPE), Herschel Chumbley, Myrene Wheat, Johnny Burney (co-founder of Mid-West Map Printing), Hazel (long time Lowell Elementary school teacher) and Hugh Gardner (twins), Dorothy Sinclair, M. T. Davis (son of the President of the 1904 World’s Fair), Wayne Hughes (student council president and owner of Hughes Drug Store) Marjorie Townsend (founder of Aurora’s first kindergarten at the library) and Ancil Welch.
Those graduates knew or knew of Allen McNatt who was born just one month after Lawrence County was organized in 1845. They may have known Major R. S. Wilks who died in 1923 at age 92 but was proud to have voted for Lincoln in his first presidential bid. They knew the people who attended the opening of the Aurora Fishing Club on Flat Creek, 1/4 mile up from James River. They saw the headlines, fresh off the press, of President Harding dying. The 1923 graduates connect us to the past.