Historical school holds many memories for Trussville community
By June Mathews
For Trussville history buffs, spending an afternoon with Earl and Carol Massey and sifting through their massive stash of photos, clippings and other Trussville-related memorabilia is comparable to spending time in a bit of historical heaven.
You might see a yellowed handwritten receipt for coal dated 1950 from Glenn’s Sinclair Service Station or a tattered program from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1939 visit to Birmingham, an event Trussville’s Girl Scouts attended.
You can peruse pages of facts and figures the Masseys compiled during a trip to Washington D.C. to research the origin of the Cahaba Project, and you can literally get lost in typewritten family stories they’ve painstakingly recorded and transcribed during their 50-plus years of marriage.
And among the treasure trove of days gone by, you’ll find tons of photos and memorabilia of the original Hewitt-Trussville High School, known simply as Hewitt High School when it opened in 1938. The name, the Masseys will tell you, was lengthened and hyphenated some 15 or 20 years later to give the school a location identity.
Both Masseys attended Hewitt in the 1950s and remember trundling up and down its hallowed halls like it was yesterday. Though their five-year age difference meant they weren’t in high school at the same time, their experiences were similar, as were the experiences of thousands of other students who went to the old school, first as a high school then as a middle school, over the course of 70 years.
“It was a good place to be,” said Carol Massey, “and everybody going there at any given time pretty much knew everybody else. We loved being there, and we felt secure there. We never thought of school being a bad or unsafe place, like some of the schools you hear about today.”
So when the Masseys heard Trussville City Schools was considering tearing the old building down to make way for a new elementary school, the thought of losing a tangible reminder of those memories was upsetting. But it wasn’t for themselves they were upset as much as for the sake of what the old school has meant to Trussville
“That building is a huge part of our history and in many ways, symbolizes who we are as a city,” Massey said. “It was where the community came together during the early days of the Cahaba Project and formed the basis for the Trussville of today. It served not only as a school but as a meeting place, social center, theater… all kinds of things. It holds memories for lots of people and not just for those who went to school there.”
When the Cahaba Project was first conceived, Massey said, there were no plans to build a school. The Resettlement Administration, a Depression-era government entity formed to implement a host of job-creating housing projects across the U.S., intended to build a community center with extra rooms to be used for classrooms if needed.
But it soon became apparent that the influx of Cahaba Project families would overload the existing Trussville schools, so the plan flip-flopped. The government would build a school with extra rooms for community activities.
The original plans called for primary and upper elementary pupils to be taught at the new building with junior/senior grades attending the old R.G. Hewitt High School on Chalkville Road. Again, though, plans changed, and the upper grades wound up at the new school. Grades 1-9 stayed on Chalkville Road in the building that became Hewitt Elementary. That building burned to the ground in 1973.
The Hewitt High School stadium was added in 1949 and as student population grew, classrooms were built underneath the stadium. To accommodate the overflow activity of the combination auditorium/gym off the entry foyer, a separate gym was added at the south end of the school in the mid-1960s.
Over the years, Hewitt drew students from East Lake, Center Point, Huffman, Clay, Pinson, Roebuck, Roebuck Plaza, Argo and Chalkville, all along maintaining its dual school/community persona and serving as a stately centerpiece for the Cahaba Project Mall area.
The original Hewitt-Trussville High School facility was closed as a high school in December 1983 and re-opened as a middle school in the fall of 1984. It closed as a middle school in 2008, and despite onetime plans to turn the campus into an intermediate school, it has remained empty ever since.
“I’d like to see it being used, not just sitting there,” Massey said. “And if I thought tearing it down and building a new school was a practical idea, the thought of replacing it might make more sense to me.
“But considering the number of students they want to put there and the way Trussville continues to grow, I don’t think it’s a good long-term solution. There’s not enough room for expansion there, and the traffic problem would likely start out bad and get worse.
“And before we start tearing down anything of historical significance – just as Birmingham leaders did with the old terminal building – we need to think long and hard about it,” Massey said. “As we learned from that situation, once it’s gone, it’s gone, and nothing will bring it back.”