Unaka Elementary School celebrates 100th year
Published 2:09 pm Friday, May 19, 2023
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By Angela Cutrer
Located in the northeastern portion of Carter County, Unaka Elementary School sits on a hill at 120 Unaka Drive, right next to Highway 91, sandwiched between Iron Mountain and Holston Mountain.
This school location has a long history – 100 years long.
On the school’s website is a story of how Unaka schools came to be. According to author James Mooney, the name “Unaka” is rooted in the Cherokee term “unega,” meaning “white.” Mooney said that estimates ranged “from 25 to 50 percent of the trees in the Unaka Range were American Chestnut trees prior to The Great Chestnut Blight. Because the chestnut had white blossoms resembling long tassels, the Unaka Mountains turned white in color during the spring blossoming of the chestnut trees. They were called the White Mountains by the Cherokee.”
Because there was no “proper” highway in the area before 1915, it was difficult to get from Elizabethton to Stoney Creek. Therefore, Mooney wrote, most children in the region attended a community school that usually consisted of a one- or two-room building that served the students within walking distance.
“There were many of these community schools scattered across the county,” Mooney said. “On the upper end of Stoney Creek there was Lane Hill School, Buladeen School, Carter School, Brooks School, Willow Springs School and Winner School. All of these community schools eventually closed and students went to Midway or Unaka. By 1988, Midway School closed and its student population was absorbed by Unaka.”
Because of the difficulty of the landscape, the residents of Unaka decided they needed their own school, so, in 1920, they started building one. A forest ranger by the name of George Cole arranged for the government to donate lumber for the building’s construction.
The wood came straight off of the Unaka Mountains. Cole and fellow forest rangers agreed to provide the labor to cut timber used to build the school and the rangers also assisted with the construction. The school was named Unaka to represent the source of the wood used and the mascot was named after the men who provided the wood through their own sweat – the Rangers.
According to authors Jackie and Dawn Trivette Peters, the original school was completed in 1922 and served as both elementary and high schools. In 1936 the gymnasium was added.
In the fall of 1957, the original Unaka School burned. The gym was all that remained from the original school and it still remains today. High school students had class in that gym until a new school was built.
The Unaka Elementary School building was built during three different periods, said the Trivette Peters authors. “The first phase of the building was in 1950 to alleviate overcrowding. The original Unaka School then became a high school. It consisted of five classrooms, a library, a cafeteria, and an office. The second building addition took place in 1953. At that time, three new classrooms were added to the northern part, along with a new office. The third building phase took place in 1958. At that time, a new cafeteria was built, three new rooms were added to the front of the building, and a new office was built. The old cafeteria was turned into a classroom.
“The school still uses the original gym, which is the oldest school facility still in use in the state. Several portables have been added to alleviate overcrowding since the last major building project.”
And now we come to 2023, when Unaka Elementary School honored its 100th anniversary with many different activities for current students. One event in honor of the 100th year had students and staff dressed in 1920s fashion. That same day, lunch was only a nickel, just like it was back in the 1920s. Principal Richard Thomas matched the total and then challenged teachers to do the same. All proceeds were donated to the Elizabethton Animal Shelter.
“This is definitely a community based school,” said Thomas. “We have a lot of community involvement and it’s just a great school. We have a long history here and we’ve been doing a lot of activities with the students and staff that’s been fun.
“We just wanted everyone to have a great time as we celebrate our 100th anniversary.”