November 2014
Youth Matters

Hands-On in New Hopewell

Scout work day involved cleaning out upstairs, painting the porch and cleaning the grounds of paint flecks. From front row, left, are Will Hudgins, Abigail Howle, Alex Holt, Hunter Couch, Eli McCormick, (back) Travis McCrary, Clayton Vaughn, John Howle, Jim Edwards, Harold Davis, Jake Howle and Andrew Brooks.  

The historic schoolhouse in the community of New Hopewell has been restored from its state of disrepair thanks to Jake Howle, who decided to make the renovation the focus of his Eagle Scout Project.

Located just south of the Abernathy exit of I-20 stands the New Hopewell Schoolhouse built in 1927. The building is the last remnant of history surrounding this community in Cleburne County that once boasted cotton gins, general stores, a two-story hotel, a train station, a post office, and a lively economy boosted by timber and cotton harvests during the early 1900s.

Over the years, some of the planks and shutters rotted, the paint peeled and the historical structure was in desperate need of improvement. As a part of Jake Howle’s Eagle Scout Project, the schoolhouse was scraped, painted and renovated with help from folks in the local community.

Many historic sites in Alabama are undergoing the same fate. Lack of funds, lack of volunteer help and a lack of time are resulting in many of these structures across the state falling into disrepair. If you have old structures in your community that represent times gone by, there are ways to rally your community to preserve these landmarks.

  Terry Benefield, with light shirt, directs inmates on the building of the hand rails.

Take Action to Preserve

In the case of New Hopewell’s schoolhouse, the first step was deciding what improvements could be made to the structure on a small budget and lead to long-term preservation of the structure. After determining the schoolhouse was actually owned by the local county (Cleburne), it was determined to seek advice on making improvements to the structure from County Commissioner Emmett Owen.

"I though it was a great idea," Owen said. "Right now, the only time the building is used is on voting day."

He suggested that improvements could be made to the structure, and others in the community could use the facility for events such as parties, family reunions and music gatherings.

Commissioner Owen led the charge to get approval from the remaining commissioners and probate judge, then, construction began. Using trustee inmates from the county jail, Sheriff’s Deputy Terry Benefield oversaw the replacement of rotting planks, window shutters, hand rails, and the pressure washing and scraping of the structure.

"We work all over the county," Benefield said. "Many of these inmates have construction experience, and we like to see them building and repairing things around the county."

Benefield brings the inmates to work details around the county with a van pulling a trailer carrying all the tools and equipment for workdays.

Once the rotted wood was replaced and the walls of the structure painted, the Boy Scouts of Troop 206 in Heflin, along with a handful of adult volunteers, scheduled a workday. The Boy Scouts painted the front porch, scraped paint from the windows, raked and removed paint flecks and debris from the grounds, and cleaned out three wheelbarrows full of dirt and dust that had accumulated upstairs.

When the schoolhouse was completed in 1928, the students met downstairs, and a brotherhood group called "the Odd Fellows" met upstairs for their regular meetings.

"The upstairs had been collecting dust since 1927," scout Andrew Brooks observed. "I guess that’s why it took us so long to clean it out."

History of New Hopewell

In 1903, a New Jersey company called the Vanderbilt Southwestern Railway and Mining and Timber Company built a railroad from Tallapoosa, Ga., to New Hopewell. The rail line was used for shipping timber to the North. The railroad line carried both passengers and freight. You could ride from Hopewell to Tallapoosa for less than a quarter, and for a little more change, you could travel to Atlanta.

Most of the town developed around the rail line. A two-story hotel was built to accommodate travelers, and coke ovens were built to create coke (a form of coal) that would be shipped North on the railroad line. In 1906, the land of New Hopewell was surveyed and lots were laid out for the town with a mayor, town council and policeman.

A late 1920s photo showing the Odd Fellows, a brotherhood who met upstairs in the schoolhouse.  

When the timber dwindled, jobs began to run out and many people moved away. In the following 1930s and 40s, the roads remained unpaved, the old hotel was still standing, cotton gins and grist mills were in operation, the "Odd Fellows" were meeting upstairs in the New Hopewell Schoolhouse, and school children were taking classes downstairs.

Today, the old schoolhouse is the only remaining structure left from a once thriving community, but, fortunately for the intervention of a few dedicated volunteers, the structure will continue to stand and symbolize simpler days from our past. Inside the structure on the wall is a framed photo history of the New Hopewell Community along with a written description of the town as it existed in the early 1900s.

If you have historic structures in your community that you want to see preserved, talk with your local town council or commissioners about a preservation plan. Check with your local Boy Scout Troop for scouts who are earning an Eagle Scout, and check with your local authorities about work release programs to pull the project off. This is how communities work together to preserve their past.

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.