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Preserving the historic Bell Buckle School

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 9/13/22

Many in the Town of Bell Buckle are hoping to renovate the historic Bell Buckle School into a community center all while preserving the school’s long history.  

 On Wednesday, …

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Preserving the historic Bell Buckle School


Many in the Town of Bell Buckle are hoping to renovate the historic Bell Buckle School into a community center all while preserving the school’s long history.  

On Wednesday, Friends of the Historic Bell Buckle school invited Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, to examine the building’s potential.  

“This is something with potential,” said West. “What you all are talking about is what the state government likes to hear. It’s not just a museum; it’s something for the community that would have multiple uses, and it contributes to heritage and tourism.”  

The school then and now  

Walking into the oldest section of the school, built in 1926, you’ll find mint green walls with peeling paint, concrete floors, original light fixtures and door frames, and even a few blackboards remaining on the wall.  

As they walk around, a few alumni reminisce about where their typing classroom or home-economic classes used to be back in the 1960s and 70s.  

Long-time Bell Buckle resident Nita Carroll even remembers where her desk was in one of the back classrooms.  

“I don’t know why I sat on the front row,” Carroll said with a laugh. “I remember I was sitting there when we received the news JFK was shot.”  

The school, which is now owned by the town, used to extend all the way out to the north lawn of Bell Buckle Park in a section of building that was built in the early 1950s.  

To see this school preserved and used as a community center would mean a lot...especially since most of the school building was destroyed on April 17, 1972, in a fire.  

Carroll said that although the reason for the fire is unknown, she recalls that there was a meeting at the school that night. Kids played in the gym. “It could’ve been kids down there smoking, could’ve been an electrical fire. I don’t know that they ever determined what it was.”  

She was a sophomore at the time of the fire. She said she was able to get to her locker after the fire where she salvaged a few report cards and books, but that’s all. A 

fter the school burned, the students from Bell Buckle then had to finish the school year in the Wartrace High School building. Soon students from Bell Buckle, Deason, Normandy, and Wartrace were all attending one school. 

 “We started splitting their building,” Carroll recalled. “They met in the morning, and we met in the afternoon. Then, the next year, the first class of Cascade all went there, while the little ones came here.” 

Not much history remains on the school in the Bedford County Archives.  

A snapshot from an Agricultural-Industry Survey from the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1934, briefly offers a little picture of the school in its early days:  

“Bell Buckle High School. Enrolled 281 pupils, 200 elementary and 81 high school; 25% travel 2 miles or more, 33%, 1 mile or less than 2 miles. There are 8 teachers, 4 high school and 4 elementary. Has 14 class rooms and auditorium, brick building. Good repair and up-keep. Seats are good. Electric lights. Hot-air furnace. Water pumped to pressure tank by automatic pump, drink from fountain. Sanitary toilets, septic tanks. Water tested for bacteria, 1930, O.K.”  

One Bedford County Quarterly magazine writes, “The first six grades are still held in the renovated building at Bell Buckle, although a final solution to the whole school problems has not yet been settled.” 

After some “controversy,” a new $25 million building was built between Wartrace and Bell Buckle in 1974, with students moving in in September of 1976. It was named Cascade High School after Cascade Springs. The 1920s two-story part is the only part that remains of the old school.  

“The wood in the ceiling looks good,” Carroll remarks as she peers up with a flashlight in the room that used to be her first-grade classroom. 

Carroll said she would love to see the building become a community center and a place for people to put their school memorabilia. 

“It goes way back. It’s more than just wanting to fix it up,” said Carroll, who had siblings and aunts and uncles who attended the school. “I dream about this place.”  

The building stopped being used as a school in 1976, according to bell Buckle Mayor and Bell Buckle School alumni Ronnie Lokey. For about 20 years it was used as a maintenance garage for the town.  

Funding the project  

Today, the large windows are blocked up while several walls are knocked down.  

Because the building was altered so much, this could prove to be a hindrance in getting on the National Historic Register, according to West. But listing it in the national register isn’t the end-all-be-all for getting grants from the state.  

“Really the pertinent agency for you all would the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and then Tennessee Department of Tourist Development,” said West.  

There are a lot of positives going for the building, according to West. They have a 501c3, a group of support from their Facebooks group, location in a public park, and accessible parking.  

Mark King, who’s helping to lead Friends of the Historic Bell Buckle, added that the building has already been asbestos-abated.  

West said they could pursue a heritage development plan, versus a historic preservation plan, since they are restoring it as a community space instead of a museum. This is called adaptive reuse—which is when an old building in the community that has meaning gets a new purpose, according to West.  

For now, while the group develops a plan moving forward, alumni are recalling bits and pieces of the building’s history.  

Mayor Lokey graduated in 1967 after going to the school all 12 years. He recalled how his first-grade teacher, Miss Vance, played the piano beautifully. “And she did that at the end of the day most of the time. I guess it sent us home in a good mood every day. Beautiful lady.”  

Dwight Woodlee, who graduated in 1969, agreed it was strange to see his old high school crumbling and dilapidated.  

“But we’re going to try and fix that and make sure that it gets some recognition,” he said.  

And even though the high school side is completely gone, the older side still has meaning. “For those like Dwight and Ronnie, they went the whole 12 years. This area means as much to them as the high school side,” said King. 


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