During the summer of 1923, the decision was made that Athens should have a high school. Prior to this time, students of the district attended high school at the Concord State Normal School.
Faculty members were hired, and a course of study was planned, which would permit each student to take a standard sixteen-unit high school course that would conform to college entrance requirements.
Classes began on Monday, September 24, 1923. Until a new building for the high school could be constructed, classes were held temporarily in rooms of the Normal School’s main building. Later, classes were held in the newly-constructed basement rooms of the Christian Church. A photograph taken of the first student body assembled behind the old Concord Training School building bears the photographer’s inscription “Plymouth District High School, 1923 – 24”.
In 1926, with the Normal School having no further need for the building originally erected on North State Street in 1891 as a women’s dormitory and later used as a men’s dormitory, this building became the home of Athens High School. Although the building no longer exists, it is fondly remembered today as the “Old Red Barn”.
Although Athens High School was a public school under the jurisdiction of the Plymouth District Board of Education, it was an important resource for the teacher-training program at Concord College. On May 8, 1928, the citizens of Athens gave their approval for a new contract between the State and local boards to give the State more control and responsibility in the training school, particularly in regard to giving the State the right to recommend superior critic teachers for employment by the local board. The College and the local board would begin years of requests to the Legislature for appropriations to replace the old and inadequate high school building with a new modernly-equipped building and to replace old and insufficient equipment and old text books. It was reported in the May 17, 1928 issue of the Concordian that Dr. McGuire, Head of Concord’s Department of Education said, “The greatest need of Concord College today is a new training school, properly equipped, and a staff of critic teachers highly-qualified for their work because the heart of a teacher’s institute is its training school.” Apparently, as also reported, the low status of the training school had been one of the main reasons preventing Concord from becoming a member of the American Association of Teachers Colleges of the North Central association.
In January of 1941, after a wait of almost thirteen years, Athens High School finally moved into its new building ---- the stone-structured part of the present Athens School facilities. This new building was funded and built as a W. P. A. project, and its cornerstone bears the inscription “LAID BY THE MASONIC FRATERNITY, OCTOBER 23 A. D. 1938, A. L. 5938, HENRY AHRENS, G. M.” In 1940, Concord President J. F. Marsh had recommended to the West Virginia Board of Control that it make a deed to the Mercer County Board of Education for the lot on which the new building was being erected under W. P. A. in consideration that Concord State Teachers College was to have the privilege of using the public schools conducted on said premises for teacher training purposes. Located behind the elementary school known as Concord Training School, the two adjacent schools became collectively known as Concord Training School, Athens Unified Public School, comprised of an elementary division and a secondary division.
The newly-built high school lacked many things present in other county schools, including space and facilities for a number of activities and programs for the unified public schools in Athens. There were plans for the addition of two wings to the high school building to house an auditorium, a gymnasium, and classrooms for the elementary school; however, these plans were not realized until sixteen years later.
On February 10, 1949, a large delegation of 75 Athens and Plymouth District residents, including well-known state and area educators, many leaders and members of local civic, church and fraternal organizations, and a Patrons Advisory Committee led by Chairman W. S. Wooddell, met with the Mercer County Board of Education to protest the lack of adequate buildings and facilities at the Athens unified public schools and to ask the Board for improvements and the completion of the high school structure with the addition of the planned two wings.
Concerns Expressed About the Athens Unified Public Schools in 1949
In the meeting which began a 7:30 p. m. and lasted well beyond midnight, a number of concerns were expressed about the inadequate facilities. The combined enrollment, projected to further increase, had by then grown to more than 600 students, and it was felt that the Athens schools, under the existing conditions, had become more crowded than any other school in the county, There was no space and equipment to initiate a hot-lunch program, to produce music programs such as band, glee club, orchestra or choir, to provide safe loading for school buses which had to park on the busy Route 20 state highway, to provide a good playground, and to initiate other activities to promote a well-rounded school program . Although the local churches were utilized for small programs and small gatherings of students, they were not large enough to seat the students of the elementary or secondary divisions for school assemblies and other school programs. Since there was no auditorium or gymnasium to stage programs such as drama productions or to hold commencement exercises, such activities were held in the auditorium at Concord College, more than one mile away. Athletic teams had to likewise schedule practices and home games at the Concord College facilities.
Several additional points were made. First, it was noted that Concord Training Schools should be model schools since each year 100 to 200 student teachers receive their training there before graduating and going out into the entire state. Second, it was pointed out by the advisory committee that the Board had never erected a public school building in Athens out of Board funds and had done very little to fund needed improvements. The elementary structure was built by a subscription campaign conducted by local residents, and the secondary building was erected as a W. P. A. project but was not completed according to plans. The temporary structure in which manual arts and crafts were being taught was built by school youths and instructors, not by the County Board. It was also noted that even an offer to paint the elementary school whereby Concord College would have furnished a painter if the Board would have furnished the paint was turned down by the Board. It was reported that Dr. Ralph E. Klingensmith, former principal of the high school, summed up the remarks of the patron speakers and asked that the present uncompleted high school building be completed as planned, noting that doing so would resolve the entire problem and provide space for elementary classrooms which were at the time in a frail building described as a fire hazard (Raleigh Register, January 24 and February 13, 1949).
During the period 1954 – 1957, construction began first on the wing housing the elementary school, and the new Athens Elementary School opened for classes on September 4, 1956. During the summer of 1956, the former elementary school building was demolished to make way for the second wing housing the gymnasium and stage which was completed in early 1957. In later years, the gymnasium would be dedicated in honor of Joseph Thomas Vachon (1904 - 1978), the high school’s noted basketball coach, science teacher and principal.
The Athens High School Senior Class of 1957 was the first to hold its commencement exercises in the new gymnasium, and the Class of 1994 was the last.
Exhibit 1: Principals of Athens High School
Principals of Athens High School 1923-1994
J. W. Cole (1923 – 1924)
Stuart Higginbotham (1924 – 1925)
George W, Bryson (1925 – 1927)
Lewis W. Swope (1927 – 1930)
Ralph E. Klingensmith (1930 – 1947)
Adriel C. Hinkle (1947 – 1954)
Joseph T. Vachon (1954 – 1969)
Perry W. Hill (1969 – 1982)
Robert Belcher (1982 – 1988)
Dan Zirkle (1988 – 1994)
Exhibit 2: Recent tour of the former Athens High School
Exhibit 3: Class of 1926 50th Reunion Publication