By Jonathan Pleasant
This year will mark the 25th anniversary of Old Butler Days, and while there are several special events planned to celebrate the unique story of the former city beneath Watauga Lake, there are also some very special plans to commemorate the more recent history of New Butler as well. For the first time ever, alumni of Watauga Elementary school are planning to hold a reunion. Located on McQueen Street just below Selma Curtis Park and the Butler Museum, the old school is now the home of Rainbow Paper Products. Yet, for more than 30 years the building was an integral part of the community and of the lives of thousands of students in both Johnson and Carter Counties.
Watauga Elementary was built at a time of change. With the coming of the lake in 1948, the older Butler City Elementary, as well as numerous smaller schools like those in Piercetown and Cobbs Creek, were forced to be closed. There was already a movement in public education at the time to begin consolidating some of the one and two room schools around the county, and Watauga Elementary consequently became one of the first large community elementary schools built. Others like Dry Run and Rock Springs were established at the same time, and construction continued well into the 1950s with schools in Forge Creek, Trade, and Neva being built as well.
Officially opening its doors in 1949, Watauga served students up to the eighth grade, where they would then eventually transfer to the countys sole high school in Mountain City. Just as today the school had its own athletics programs, with several notable basketball teams, as well as its own mascot and colors. In this case it was the Watauga Elementary Wildcats in black and orange. The all brick building contained eight classrooms in all, along with a large cafeteria and gymnasium.
At the time, the facility was state of the art and stood as a phenomenal improvement over many of the small, wooden schools like the one still located in the Pine Orchard Community. In the three decades of its operation, Watauga served its students well, with untold stories and fond memories coming from those who attended. The consolidation process that began all the way back in the 1940s continued well into the 1980s and just a few years after the construction of the new Johnson County Middle School, the decision was made to close Watauga Elementary. No longer having a seventh or eighth grade class, there simply wasnt enough students attending to justify the cost of operation.
The last full school year was in 1982 and it wasnt too many years following that Rainbow Paper moved in to the now vacant building. For reunion organizer, Jewel Dean McCloud, the decision to close the school was a poor one. It was a really nice school and I thought it was a shame they closed it, I really did, McCloud said. Now more than 30 years out, some of those who grew up and spent their early years as a Wildcat are hoping to keep the schools memory alive.
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By Jonathan Pleasant