Friday, January 27, 2023

Old Oak Hill School–a history and a hope for preservation

February 23, 2015  

 The Marx children on their way to the Old Oak Hill School. It is fitting that the Marx children would attend that school. Their grandfather, Heinrich Marx, built the nearby Old Rock Store (now Austin Pizza Garden) for owner J.A. Patton in 1898.


by Ann Fowler

OAK HILL – Schools have long been important to Oak Hill, operating and educating in the area since 1856. When the Public or Free School Law was enacted in 1879, James Andrew Patton, the unofficial mayor of Oak Hill, was elected one of the first Oak Hill trustees. He would hold that position for 40 years.

The “Live Oak Springs” school was replaced in 1865 by a log cabin: the Shiloh School. A wooden frame building on Williamson Creek replaced Shiloh in 1879. This one-room schoolhouse was enlarged to two rooms simply by hanging a curtain across the center.

Citizens passed a bond election in the early 1920s to construct a new school. J.A. Patton donated an acre of land to build Oak Hill Elementary School, which opened in 1923. Rooms were added to the school in 1933, 1953 and 1958.

After 50 years, it was shuttered when a newer Oak Hill Elementary School opened in 1974 on nearby Patton Ranch Road. Even now, memories of the old school remain.

Edith Hector Tyler told the Gazette, “My mom, Willie Mae Marx Hector and her oldest brother, Bennie Marx, were among some of the first children that attended the school. Mom’s youngest sister, Emma Lee Marx Johnson, and her future husband, Jimmy “Cotton” Johnson, attended the school at the same time.”

It is fitting that the Marx children would attend that school. Their grandfather, Heinrich Marx, built the nearby Old Rock Store (now Austin Pizza Garden) for owner J.A. Patton in 1898.

Cotton Johnson lived in the area that now encompasses the Oak Hill Post Office. Born in 1938, he remembers attending the old Oak Hill Elementary School from first through the seventh grade. Each class was made up of “about six or seven kids,” he recalled. Upon graduation, Cotton attended Fulmore Middle School.

Emma Marx Johnson was a year behind Cotton, but didn’t attend Oak Hill Elementary until the 5th grade. Prior to that, she and her siblings attended the Cedar Valley School on Thomas Springs Road.

She described the Cedar Valley School as tiny—just one room. She recalled, “Right before they closed the school they had built another room. I guess they didn’t have enough money to run it or something. Anyway, they had to close it. We were all bused to Oak Hill. At that time Oak Hill had three rooms, it was much, much larger. It was exciting to go to a bigger school.”

The old Cedar Valley School building is boarded up, and the windows broken, but it still exists on a brush-covered lot, said Emma.

The Marx family lived several miles from the school, so an older brother, who worked for the County, drove his siblings to “Mrs. Marx’ store”—the building that currently houses Austin Pizza Garden.

Her older sister took the bus to Fulmore Middle School, while Emma and her younger brother walked over to the school. She remembers it—and the teachers—fondly.

“We had three wonderful teachers. Mrs. Boyd taught the upper grades, 6th and 7th, Mrs. Brawner taught the middle grades, fourth and fifth, and Mrs. Connelly taught first through third. They were all wonderful teachers.”

She recalls class sizes being somewhere between four and seven students.

The school had a lunchroom with a stage, and a student band often performed, “It was a lot of fun,” said Emma. “The band was really cute, playing sticks and the flute. Mrs. Brawner played the piano. Very simple, but it was fun.”

Emma recalls a barbecue—either a Western or Hillbilly day—when Mrs. Boyd sent out invitations to the parents and had a bonfire behind the school. “The teachers were real energetic, wanting to not only educate the kids but entertain them, too,” she said.

The school cook at the time was Mrs. Wier. If she needed bread for the lunches, she sent a couple of students across the highway to the store. “Back then there was very little traffic,” said Emma. “It was a daily thing, to go to the store and buy bread. Also, some of the older students would help serve the younger ones, and that was fun.”

Emma said that an eighth grade class was introduced in the school in time for her to attend. That class was also taught by Mrs. Boyd. Upon graduation, she moved on to Travis High School. Cotton and Emma married and lived in Austin for several years before moving back to Oak Hill.

Cotton’s father gave each of his kids a plot of land. Emma and Cotton lived along U.S. 290 West for 28 years. Their son, Wendell, attended first and second grade at the old Oak Hill Elementary School. He played baseball on the local ballfields, and was an Eagle Scout. It was still a small town.

“Back when we lived there, you could go to the store—you knew more than half of the people. You went to church there, we knew a lot of people. It was a folks’ neighborhood. But that changed when the highway came through.”

Not only did the highway bisect her neighborhood, it took away her home. “Across from the post office, right where the overpass is? That’s where our home was,” she says. They moved to Driftwood.

According to the City of Austin, on April 2, 2014, the old Oak Hill Elementary School, located at 6240 U.S. Highway 290 West, became a City of Austin Historical Landmark by ordinance 20010719-029.

According to a document dated January 9, 2001, the property had recently been sold by AISD to Austin 1825 Fortview, Inc. The building met the following historical landmark criteria:

• The 1924 school is one of few reminders of rural Oak Hill (Oatmanville) and is the only surviving public building in the community. The school was the center of activity in Oak Hill for five decades.

• The 1923 school with 1933 western addition added during the Great Depression through work relief efforts typify stone masonry school construction of the early 20th century.

• Building is located adjacent to the historic core of Oak Hill, including a 19th century house and the 1898 Old Rock Store (already designated as a city historic landmark).

• Construction of school is associated with two prominent Oak Hill pioneers: James Andrew Patton and Norwall Mowinkle. The land for the present school was donated by James Andrew Patton, with the stone donated by Norwall Mowinkle.

• School is a prominent historic structure located in the historic core of Oatmanville or Oak Hill

• School remains as only surviving public building associated with development of Oak Hill. School was the center of activity in the community for 50 years.

The Preservation Potential of Building states, “Historic stone school building appears to be in good condition, and can readily be adapted to a new commercial or office use. As a historic landmark building, the property would be eligible for an annual city property tax abatement equal to approximately 30 percent of the assessed taxes. A rehabilitation of the building could also be eligible for federal historic tax credits with a sales tax exemptions for labor costs of rehabilitation.”

It is unclear what plans, if any, the current owner has, but the school, which holds an important place in the history of Oak Hill, deserves a better fate than that of the Cedar Valley School.




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