Old Smithfield Elementary

Published 8:17 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Between James Street and the Veterans of Foreign Wars building (the former Smithfield Jaycees building) stood Smithfield Elementary School. To be more precise, it stood behind the large fir trees that still shade the site.

The old building, constructed in the 1920s, not long after Smithfield High School was built across the street, was a classic “institutional” design of brick with molded concrete half-columns on either side of its entrance.

Classrooms stretched across the front of the building, and narrow hardwood tongue and grove flooring was used throughout the building. Repeatedly oiled and polished, it gave the school a distinctive smell that any former student would remember to this day were they to be exposed to it.

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But our focus in the 1960s was the old gymnasium located on the back side of the building.

A new Smithfield High School wing had been constructed in 1960 and it included a brand, spanking new gym, which, because it was new and shiny, was off limits to every activity other than athletics.

That meant that Friday night dances following football games were not allowed in the new gym. They were relegated to the old gym attached to the elementary school, which was fine with everyone who attended.

Local bands would play, refreshments were available and boys struggled to keep up with girls who invariably knew how to dance the latest craze better than we. The old gym was hot, noisy and wonderful.

Smithfield Elementary was still in use then and would continue to be used for years to come. When the Class of 1964 entered the first grade, the old school stood alone, with a school cafeteria in a separate building a few yards away. It wasn’t far to the lunchroom unless it was cold or raining, and then it seemed like a very long walk.

All the food for the elementary and high schools was prepared in the tiny cafeteria of Smithfield Elementary, originally on a coal-fired stove (converted to propane by the time I recall it). It was a monstrous cast iron thing that emitted heat that would probably have warmed the school if it had been possible to circulate it.

There, vegetable soup, beans and hotdogs and, on every Friday, fish sticks were served to those students who had not brought their lunch in a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry lunch box.

By the time we entered the second grade, a new elementary wing had been constructed, connecting the old school and the cafeteria. Eventually a second classroom wing would also be added to accommodate a growing elementary population.

Off the main hall of the “new” wing was the principal’s office, definitely a place no one wanted to visit, and it sat next door to the library, a more enjoyable alternative to classroom work.

It was in the library and the hallway outside that we received mandatory hearing and sight tests from the county health nurse.

The old elementary school was pretty basic, but it was where a lot of northern Isle of Wight youngsters were introduced to school life and to each other.