Tucked away in the old “timber country” of Pansey past thousands of acres of farmlands, pastures, hayfields, and woodlands are the remnants of a beloved historical red-brick schoolhouse.
Harmon School was built in 1936 in an unincorporated territory in the middle of the Wiregrass’ countryside down the road from the heart of the community, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, built in 1876. In its prime, it was a thriving educational institution that served the youth of the religious Pleasant Hill community, named after the church that remains to this day.
When it was constructed, it was state-of-the art for its time, featuring hardwood floors, a cloakroom, a dug well, a gym with a stage, and an outhouse. The new white columned, fixed brick building ended the traditional tiny wooden school era that survived more than a century in early America.
Dupree Schoolhouse on the corner of Antioch Church and Coot Adams roads remains a token of that period in an even more isolated location in Houston County.
The property is still maintained outside the building, but small cut logs stacked beside it – once used to fuel the wood furnace inside – thin glass windows and crumbling wood show its age. The school was abandoned shortly after Harmon was built in the 1940s or ‘50s, according to photographic records from Troy University.
Harmon was built on less than six acres. A lunchroom was not built until 1944, according to “Hub of the Wiregrass,” a local history book written by Fred Watson in 1972. Indoor restrooms were provided in 1948.
After Houston County incorporated the territory, Harmon School was integrated into the school district, becoming property of the county’s board of education.
While most small red-brick schoolhouses around the country were retired from use in the mid-1900s, Harmon School remained in service as a staple of the tightknit community. Buses went far and wide to bring students to the isolated school.
Harmon School operated in much the same way as other Houston County schools.
Meghan Brock, a former elementary student in the years leading up to its closing, fondly remembers playground activities, science fairs, and being crowned Miss Harmon at the annual pageants a time or two.
Brock said she enjoyed her small classes and familiar teachers.
“I remember the teachers. It was never a surprise; we knew what teacher we were going to get the next year, and they knew all of us and our families,” she said. “There were only 14 kids in my class and I had the same kids in my class every year.”
The small classroom sizes and declining enrollment led to the school closing in 1998. That school year, there were 99 K-5 students reported, according to state Department of Education data.
Brock was able to enjoy the addition of a new building with a lunchroom and a few classes built in the back of the school a few years before it closed. At the time the school closed, the addition was the newest building in the district.
“The kids in my class, I’m still friends with today,” Brock said. “A lot of relationships were forged there.”
Becky Birdsong, superintendent of Geneva County Schools, received her first teaching job at Harmon at a time when the school only had a couple handfuls of employees, including a principal, a secretary, a media specialist who doubled as a physical education instructor, a custodian, a few cafeteria workers, and other teachers. Some taught two classes at once.
“I loved teaching there,” Birdsong said. “It was like a big family. All the teachers pretty much knew all the students and the families. We had a fall festival and the whole community came out. It was a great little school. I was very sad when it closed down”
Birdsong was transferred to Wicksburg High School.
The county board of education owned the building for two more decades, occasionally lending the space for meetings and family gatherings. But over the years, termites ate away structural support and the property was in a state of disrepair. Superintendent David Sewell said the school board could not afford to repair the site.
The school board had many offers from pastors of churches and community leaders that sought to turn the historical building into a halfway house, but could never fiscally support the plans.
When Sewell took over as superintendent, he sought to get rid of the school as the board no longer had any use for it besides for storage purposes. It had become too dangerous to occupy, and the board also ran into problems insuring an unoccupied space.
They tried advertising for sealed bids for $150,000 and later dropped it to $100,000, but could not get an offer on the property.
Additionally, the isolated location made it a hotbed for criminal activity. Over the years, thieves stripped it of its copper wiring. Others vandalized the building and many used it as a place to sleep.
In 2016, four people were arrested on criminal mischief and burglary charges after creating a fire that led to extensive damage to the main building. Charges were later dropped after a plea deal.
Great Lakes Insurance, the company that insured Harmon, brought civil action against Tommy Lee Fussell, Laura Lee Carroll, Brian Trent Flowers, and Naomi Miranda Webb for $575,855.26 in damages for general negligence that led to personal injury in 2017. The suit is ongoing.
“I was so sad to hear that it had burned,” Birdsong said. “I actually rode down there and saw what was left of it. I have very fond memories.”
Sewell echoed those sentiments, reminiscing on times when he and his friends would play basketball in the gym of the school after hours.
“The community really rallied around it,” Sewell said. “I was very sad when I found out it had burned.”
The school board recently approved a resolution to sell the building to the sole bidder for a mere $15,001 from the central office’s receptionist, Sue Norris, and her husband.
She said they have no plans for the facility yet, but are in the process of cleaning it up.