Whitlock donates to Louisa school restoration project

By Pat Wilson
Courtesy of The Central Virginian Online, March 31, 2005

Porter Whitlock of Louisa recently made a substantial donation to the restoration of the Louisa Town Hall and Community Arts Center.

The Louisa Downtown Development Corporation is conducting a campaign to raise funds to restore the stone building, not only to house town offices, but also to provide a state-of-the art cultural and entertainment facility for citizens.

Given in memory of his grandfather, Robert Leigh, who built the stone school on Fredericksburg Avenue in 1907, the donation has a double meaning for Whitlock. He attended the school throughout his elementary and high school years.

Robert Leigh after immigrating from England with his parents and seven siblings, Leigh and his family first lived in Chicago, but moved to the more suitable climate of Fluvanna County in 1884. His father was a carpenter and cabinet maker.

Leigh and his older brother, George, later formed a construction company, and when their work concentrated in Louisa County, the brothers built houses on adjacent lots on West Street in the town of Louisa. During this time, the Leighs constructed the schoolhouse plus other structures including the Church of the Incarnation (1902), the Louisa Courthouse (1904-5) and Mineral Methodist Church (1907).

“He must have had a fairly large crew, because most of the work was manual labor,” Whitlock said. “The rock for the school was hand drilled [from land north of the town] and broken up into pieces of the size that could be handled.”

The stones were next chiseled by hand, and scaffolding constructed from lumber reached to the roof line to allow workers to build the exterior walls. Mortar was mixed from limestone.

“Slate was used on almost all roofs during that time, even chicken houses, because it was so inexpensive and came from Buckingham County,” he said.

A few years later, George moved to North Carolina. Leigh expanded the local company, with the Ogg Building (then, First National Bank – 1918), numerous town residences and several post offices in nearby cities among his accomplishments. The builder restored the Louisa School following a fire and added a second story in 1916.

“It was a fortunate time, because there was a lot of expansion in Louisa,” said Whitlock. “He built most of the brick or part-brick houses in town at that time.”

Leigh died in 1924 at the age of 59. His daughter, Lucy Amelia (Millie), was Whitlock’s mother. William J. Whitlock, her husband, farmed family land on what is now Harris Creek Road, as well as delivering mail and occasionally doing carpentry work on Leigh’s construction projects.

Fond memories of Whitlock’s childhood are focused on the school. He attended first and second grades in a small wooden building behind the school in the mid-1920s, then finished elementary school in classrooms located on the main floor of the stone structure.

“Each year when we went back to school in early September, the pine floors were treated with oil to allay the dust,” he said. “They were clean, but smelled.”

High school grades, 8 through 11, were held in four rooms on the second floor.

“We each had a homeroom, and rotated rooms [for different subjects],” he said. “Recess was on the unpaved yard.”

With only four teachers and class sizes of 30 plus students, Whitlock recalled that education centered around the basics.

“I think they taught Latin, mathematics, through algebra and geometry, and specialized in English. Spelling and literature were important,” he said. “We had very good history classes, both Virginia and U. S., and geography which covered some of the foreign countries.”

Home economics and agricultural-related courses were part of the curriculum. Only a few of his fellow graduates in 1936 went on the college.

“There was a big gap between graduating from high school and starting college,” he said. “We really had to learn to study and make good use of your time.”

Whitlock emphasized that discipline was rarely a problem, and teachers were respected by their students, parents and the community.

“Discipline was instilled in the home and carried over wherever you went,” he said.

A girls’ cinder basketball court was situated on the south side of the building, with a similar facility for boys on the side nearer the Pettit House. Whitlock recalled a ball diamond behind the school where kickball was a popular recreation.

“Near the boys’ basketball court was a well with a rope and pulley at first, but later a pump,” he said.

Prior to Whitlock’s graduation, the school was connected to the town’s water system and indoor plumbing was added.

Students ate lunches brought from home in their classrooms, but treats were sold from a small room in the hallway across from the principal’s office.

“We could buy a piece of candy and sometimes ice cream,” he said. “In good weather, we could go outside to eat.”

A coal furnace located in the basement provided steam heat to warm the building in cold weather.

Whitlock walked to school, taking a shortcut over stiles, sets of steps placed at fence lines, and across fields as well as fording Tanyard Branch, to reach the paved sidewalks of town.