An Alamance County family has donated to Elon a quarter acre next to the northern edge of campus near Rhodes Stadium, where a two-room wooden building first opened before the Civil War still stands as one of North Carolina’s original public school facilities.
One hundred and sixty years later, the university is taking steps to preserve and restore that slice of county history.
Originally known as the Travis Creek School, and renamed the Cable School in the late 19th century, records indicate the schoolhouse was built in the early 1850s, about a decade after the state legislature first authorized local communities to levy a tax for supporting public education and receive matching state funds. Such facilities were known as “common schools.”
“Hopefully, the university will use this and it will be open to students at Elon, and if the historical society wanted to have groups go through there, I think that would be great,” said Kaye Cable Murray, whose family, which has been in Alamance County for nearly two centuries, made the gift to the university.
Quite a bit is known about the building often camouflaged in warmer seasons by the surrounding foliage.
In 1999, under the guidance of Elon University history professor Carole Troxler, Martha McDuff, who then was a student, studied “common schools” for an independent research report, and she unearthed information on both the public system and the Cable School, which is the last documented common school in Alamance County to remain in its original location.
Another Alamance County common school still exists, though no longer in its original location. Other institutions housed common schools in preexisting buildings.
The Cable School taught area children until the Civil War. It’s unclear whether anyone kept the facility open immediately after fighting ended and the state was in bankruptcy, Troxler said, but records indicate that lawmakers reinstituted public education in the 1870s, and the building was in good enough shape for reuse. It was then known as “Cable School,” for Israel Cable, who remained active in the school’s oversight decades after he and Daniel Huffines sold land to the local school committee in the 1850s.
“This is significant. We haven’t always had public schools,” Troxler said. “To have one of the first, if not the only one that survived in its entirety, that’s a big deal. People tend to disregard the familiar, to disregard whatever is at hand.
“The Cables were wise to not tear it down all these years. Most had been allowed to rot or had been cannibalized for their wood or brick.”
The school was built with two rooms, the smaller of which allowed a teacher to live on the property. The larger room had a divider so that, in theory, it could be used as a three-room school. A wall had been painted black to serve as a blackboard.
Troxler said it is unknown when the Cable School fell out of use, though it appears to have served a purpose at least through World War I, when local residents used it as a polling site.
In the ensuing decades, the Cable family stored grain in the building. Flecks of newspaper can still be found on the wall, remnants of makeshift insulation.
The university is in the initial steps of restoring the property and will soon hire a historic preservationist. No timeline has been set on when work may begin.
“What a wonderful gift and a wonderful piece of history,” Gerry Francis, the university’s executive vice president, said of the Murrays’ generous donation. “Elon is pleased to be the caretaker for a facility that has had such an important impact on this community. We will care for it and display it wisely.”
Murray offered praise for the university and, in particular, Troxler and President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley, whose great-great grandfather was a teacher at the Cable School in its early years.
“These are things that future generations will know nothing about if one does not preserve these buildings,” Murray said.