Historical Society of Southwest Virginia
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THE BUCHANAN MISSION SCHOOL AND HELEN
THE BUCHANAN MISSION SCHOOL AND HELEN
The southwestern part of Buchanan County lies in the Sandy Basin, its waters emptying into the Big Sandy River of Kentucky.
Although nearly all citizens owned land, including coal and timber, in the early years around the turn of the century, they were often poor, and lacked the conveniences and opportunities of modern life. Unaware of the potential value of their mineral and timber rights, they frequently sold them for a pittance. The fine virgin forests were almost intact. Some small sawmills had ripped a few thousand feet of lumber from the great forest. The millions of tons of coal that had underlain the hills for ages had been untouched. Not a foot of railroad penetrated the county, nor was there a single mile of improved public road.
The one factor responsible for the tardy development in the county was the great lack of educational facilities. The raw material was there and the great progress made in education during the last half century is ample proof that this material was rich and ripe for harvest. A few schools in dilapidated vacant houses, or rude schoolhouses, were taught for about five months of each year by poorly paid teachers.
On the headwaters of Russell Fork of the Sandy River is a community known as Council. It lies at the base of Big "A" Mountain. Here have lived for many years a people of pioneer stock and high native intelligence, who had no roads, no schools, and little contact with the outside world. Most of these people held firmly to the old ideas of honesty, sobriety, and neighborliness. The invigorating and thrill-satisfying activities of hunting were gone, with nothing to take their place.
Some thought that the supreme need of these marooned people was their special brand of religion, and there began a scramble between different denominations to be the first in the field.
Some time prior to 1900 a Missionary Baptist Church was organized near Council, at Hale's Schoolhouse.
In May, 1906 the Baptist State Mission Board of Virginia
sent the Rev. Walter A. Hash, of Grayson County, Virginia, into the
community, but the work did not prosper. Rev. Hash was convinced that
the solution lay in schools and education. The Virginia Women's Union
gave the initial sum of $2000 to begin the erection of the first building.
The mission board began seeking for a qualified person
to assume charge of the new school. They heard of Professor Henderson's
fine work at Franklin, Virginia, and his wife's ability and interest
in mission work. So they offered the job to the Hendersons.
Martha Welby Rhoten (Timmons) was a daughter of Dr. John F. Rhoten, who left Scott County, Virginia, in young manhood, married Juliet Peck, and lived at Dandridge, on the French Board River in Tennessee, during 1834.
Among the valleys of the French Board and Holston
rivers, Helen Timmons grew up. She attended Carson Newman College,
where one of the professors was Robert Anderson Henderson, who later
became her husband.
In 1903 Professor Henderson became dean of Carson
Newman College. As wife of the dean, and sister-in- law of the president,
Dr. John Thompson Henderson, she had unusual opportunities to display
her abilities as a leader of social activities.
In August, 1911 the whole family journeyed by train to St. Paul, Virginia, where they spent the night at the Blue Sulphur Hotel. The next morning they continued to Honaker, the nearest station to Council. They found a man who agreed to take them across Big "A" Mountain in a wagon for six dollars. For the first five miles they passed hills and blue grass farms, and began to disbelieve the tales of hardship and road punishment they had heard on all sides. Yet they saw a mountain ahead of them that grew larger and more forbidding as they neared its base.
Suddenly the bluegrass ended, and the road reared menacingly in front of them, flanked by immense boulders and precipices, above and below. The pace was slower and slower. The hot sun climbed higher and higher. Team driver and passengers felt the dual effect of the scorching sun and the mountain climbing.
The Hendersons soon became hungry. A tree of red apples by the roadside tempted them, and they stopped. They had purchased some home made cheese and crackers in Honaker. Finding this insufficient, they stopped at a little roadside store for more, but failed to find any. They were told at the store that the Rev. Hash was preparing to leave Council on their arrival.
They ate the cheese and crackers under an oak tree
and drank cold water from a spring nearby. After lunch they approached
a steep place over which the team could not pull the wagon. The driver
borrowed a team of mules to help get the load to the top. Often the
passengers got out and walked to lighten the load.
Doctors could be obtained only from distant towns, and at a cost that was prohibitive for the average person, who called one only in the most severe illnesses. Mrs. Henderson had learned much about nursing and the use of medicines from her grandfather, Dr. John F. Rhoten, and was regarded as a person endowed with superior ability to ease the pain and restore people to health.
But bringing the opportunity for education to those
thirsty for learning was the crowning effort in the life work of the
Hendersons. The Buchanan Mission began its first session under the
guidance of the Hendersons in August, 1911, with an enrollment of
105 pupils. At that time the plant consisted of a two-story school
house, and a three-story dormitory. Since that time there has been
erected from native sandstone, a schoolhouse and dormitory. Practically
every cent of the many thousands cost came from people far away from
Helen Henderson was a fighter. She liked to strike out new paths - to see behind the sun. To this woman who gloried in pioneering, came a new challenge in 1923, only three years after women had been given the right to vote and hold offices. Even though woman suffrage was not popular with the hill people, some far-sighted men saw in Mrs. Henderson a God-send to their desire to have their party capture the seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1923 the Democratic Party offered her the nomination for this office. She was so busy with school work that she refused, but the committee persisted, assuring her that she could win, and could help them in Richmond. Her fighting blood was touched.
She threw her heart into the campaign. To her daughter,
Ruth, she left her school work. In a Ford roadster she flamed through
the district day by day, often speaking twice daily at points far
apart. The hills were witnessing "something under the sun."
But politics was strong. The Senate killed her bill to create an additional circuit court in Southwest Virginia, which had shown a strange tardiness in building roads for its people. Localities had no money; and the State had no money for the purpose.
Mrs. Henderson, in her twelve years of experience, had learned that, next to adequate educational facilities, Buchanan County had a great need of roads. She sought out road authorities. They smiled and promised to investigate - then forgot. She agitated the question everywhere she went.
They saw she was in earnest and finally granted her a hearing. They could not refuse her outright. So they agreed to giver her 6.2 miles of improved road from Fuller's Store in Russell County, across Big "A" Mountain, to Council, in Buchanan County. She felt that this was not enough, but had to be content with half a loaf. Six months later the people of Council held a meeting at the school gate, where the state road ended, to express their gratitude.
She fully realized that this was the beginning of
a new epoch in the life of the school and community. The road was
still crooked, and often steep, but it was also a blessing.
The old Council School has lost most of its youth and attraction, but it stands as a monument to this great Christian pioneer.
And today, as you travel along Route 80, and read
on a road sign "Helen Henderson Highway", pause and whisper
a prayer of gratitude for a life that meant much to the past, present,
and future of a Buchanan County community.
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