Red Bird Mission School Was
Devoted To Mountain Children
Hard Work, Broad-Based Curriculum, And Religious Ideals Created Many fond Memories For Clay County Youngster
Editor's Note: Red Bird Mission School is located in Bell County, Kentucky. Established in 1921 in a remote section of the county, this school provided a quality education for mountain children. Col. T. C. Sizemore, a contributing writer to The Explorer, was one of those children who attended Red Bird Mission School. Here he shares some of the hardships he endured and some fond memories he has of the school.
By Col. T. C. Sizemore - 1993
In-bound from Crocket, on the back of a mule, Shirley Bledsoe Miller paused on the hillside to survey the grounds of the Red Bird Mission School sprawling below.
"My most thrilling moment!" Shirley exclaimed, recounting her arrival at Red Bird decades ago. "Looking down on those lovely, well-kept white buildings, it seemed as if I had arrived in heaven. I can truthfully say that my days at Red Bird were the happiest of my life. My exposure to those caring, loving people and to the guidance of exceedingly well-qualified teachers gave me so much for which to be grateful down through the years. The teachings that came from the church in the wildwood have carried me through many troubled times."
Shirley Bledsoe Miller's remarks are reflective of the gratitude and reverence felt towards the Red Bird Mission School and its faculty by those of us who were nurtured there.
Although I was only 10 years old, I vividly recall the tragic events that precipitated my enrollment at Red Bird. My father, Carlo L. Sizemore, was a Clay County deputy sheriff when he was shot and killed from ambush along the old road to Manchester. My mother, Allie, was left widowed with nine hungry kids to feed.
T. C. Sizemore when he was a student at Red Bird in the 1930s.
A birdseye view of the Red Bird Mission School, which was established in 1921, located at Beverly in Bell County, Kentucky. The primary function of settlement schools in Eastern Kentucky was to provide a quality education to mountain children. The settlement workers viewed their role as one of service to the community.
These were desperate, hard-scrabble days for us with no welfare or other government handouts to see us through the hard times. There was nothing to do but to pull together to survive as mountain families have always survived. Some of the older boys took on odd jobs. My two eldest brothers, Ford and Shelby, went to work for Brimgardner Lumber Company, 10 miles away, along the borders of Clay, Bell, and Leslie counties. The rest of the children remained at home, but even the younger children grasped the seriousness of our plight.
About a year after the death of my father I found myself grappling with the decision to leave home in pursuit of an education. I had heard about the Red Bird Mission School, which was a Christian, work-ethic oriented institution, where students were expected to work in exchange for their education. The prospects of work gave me no pause, but for a youngster who had never lived away from home, the decision to leave my mother and siblings was fraught with dread and difficulty.
A Cold, Snowy Sunday
It was a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon when I confronted Dr. A. B. Lehman, Red Bird School Superintendent, as he was returning from a preaching engagement at Mill Creek. He was a heavy man, riding a tall horse, and I watched him as he approached our home. Not wanting to stop him in front of our house I waited until he had passed well beyond it. Then I took out the door, running as hard as I could run, wearing not a single scrap of shoe leather.
I caught up to Dr. Lehman after a brief chase. Breathless and barefoot I stood there before that great man, sitting on his tall horse. I asked Dr. Lehman for some copies of the New Testament to start a Sunday School, and he agreed to provide them.
"Is there anything further that I can do for you, Young Man?" he asked.
"Yes Sir," I replied, "I want to work my way through your great school and get an education."
Dr. Lehman looked me over for just a moment, and seeming to like something that he was seeing, he nodded his agreement. "Talk it over with your teacher," he said, before continuing on his way.
Oscar Wagers, 83, of Bright Shade was my teacher at our school at Upper Bear Creek. He gave me a fine recommendation, and before I knew it, I was on my way to Red Bird and the beginning of a new life adventure.
No Proper Roads To Red Bird
There were no proper roads to Red Bird, only well-worn wagon trails and footpaths. Most of us arrived by shanks' mare, and anyone arriving by horse, mule, or wagon could boast of having traveled first class. Regardless of how one arrived, it was, as Shirley Bledsoe Miller described, a wondrous moment to catch sight of the Red Bird Mission School, nestled at the foot of hillocks thick with trees.
A birdseye view of Red Bird Mission School's first hospital, which was built in the early 1940s at Beverly, Kentucky. Since its early days Red Bird Mission has worked to meet the health care needs of the people in the Red Bird River valley. Red Bird Mission's medical work began in 1922. Miss Lydia Rice, RN was the first medical worker. Dr. Harlan Heim joined the staff in 1926. The Red Bird Hospital operated until 1986, when in-patient services were discontinued for economic reasons. In 2000 Red Bird Mountain Medical Center was renamed to Red Bird Clinic, Inc., and still operates today as an out-patient ministry.
(Photo courtesy of T. C. Sizemore.)
The Red Bird Mission School was co-educational with separate dormitories for boys and girls. The school featured grades one through 12, with a broadly-based curriculum that included debate, government, and history. There was a host of extra-curricular activities, including baseball, basketball, ping pong, tennis, and choir. Shooting marbles was a favorite pastime of both boys and girls. Additionally, there were almost weekly trips to the mountains to explore and enjoy the natural wonders of flora and fauna.
There was approximately 600 students enrolled at Red Bird when I began my education there in the sixth grade. We were housed two to a room, and my roommate and classmate, Farmer Helton, would go on to become Bell County Circuit Judge.
Poverty, A Common Denominator
Poverty was a common denominator for most of us, and while many of us received all our clothing from the school's community store, the commonality of our want offered little insulation against the pangs of our impoverishment. Going to school each day without a dime in our pockets worked a sinister injury against a mountain boy's self-esteem. Occasionally, a schoolmate who was better off would treat a less fortunate youth to a nickel Coke. But who is to say whether such rare acts of charity did not work an even greater injury?
Christian morality lay at the heart of all instructions we received. A typical day began with a brief devotional required to attend Sunday School and the regular Sunday service. Attendance at the Christian Endeavor service on Sunday evenings was expected, though not required. Anyone caught smoking or drinking was permanently expelled. Boys were not permitted to hold hands with their girlfriends. However, it was permissible for a boy to meet his girl in the morning, and carry her books to school, and against fond looks in lovers' eyes, there was no rule.
A Variety Of Jobs
Not withstanding a prohibitive eight-to-ten mile walk to my home, I tried to visit my family every couple of weeks or as often as the school would permit. But always the joy of my homecoming was tempered by dread of the trek back to school.
There was work to be done at Red Bird. There were cows to be milked, fires to be kept, and ashes to be hauled out. There were gardens and farms to be tended. There were also roads to be built with arduous labor, attended by healthy sweat and the satisfaction that comes from honest toil. I tackled a variety of jobs. Later, after having picked up a little typing, I worked in Dean Gordon S. Burgett's office.
Hyden Coal Trucking executive, Zack Caldwell, summed up a lot of what students felt: "I shall never forget the ideas and Christian principles with which this great school instilled. This was my guide in everyday's endeavors. I credit all of it to my learning at Red Bird."
John Asher from Saylor in Leslie County, head of Apollo Fields, Inc., perhaps the area's most successful businessman, attributes much of his success in life to his training at Red Bird Mission School.
Dr. Harlan S. Heim and his medical staff of the Red Bird Mission School's original hospital, shortly after the hospital opened. (Photo courtesy of T. C. Sizemore.)
"I often reflect upon the days when I was a student at Red Bird," said Asher. "I consider the training that I received there as the basis of my work ethics. The work at Red Bird was hard, the discipline demanding. This instilled in me the values and determination that have enabled me to reach my goals in life."
Although the many wholesome responses were too numerous to list, Robert J. Phillips, principal of Red Bird Mission School, and Ester Lawson of Red Bird School Associations, Inc., made significant contributions to this column.
Historic And On-Going Importance
Fred Helton, president of Red Bird School Association, Inc., summarized the historic and on-going importance of Red Bird, saying: "Red Bird Mission was established in the early 1920s by one parent branch of what is now the United Methodist Church. Throughout the years it has been diligently devoted to educating the mountain children in a Christian environment. The church, through individual donations and tithes, continues to provide the financial support necessary to keep the Red Bird School an outstanding, vibrant educational institution, serving the needs of the children of our area. We are indebted to those millions of church members, faculty members, mission personnel, and others, who have given unselfishly of their time and resources, to the benefit of our youngsters."
We Will Always Be True To Dear Red Bird
"We will always be true to dear Red Bird," begins the opening stanza of the Red Bird loyalty song. A wave of nostalgia washes over me at remembrance of that song, and I find myself lost in musing over that one brief shining moment when I was growing up healthy in a healthy land, when summer skies were bluest, when fire flies set the summer nights ablaze, when all the best of life's promises lay well within my grasp, and I was strong enough and bold enough to seize them.
Col. T. C. Sizemore, 412 Mt. View Heights, Manchester, KY 40962, shares this article with our readers.