Big Creek High School: a missed opportunity for historic preservation

I like old buildings. They’re often visually interesting. They evoke feelings and memories from another era. They have stories to tell.

They’re irreplaceable.

After hearing rumors for a while, I recently found out that Big Creek High School in War, West Virginia will be demolished soon.

Big Creek High School in October of 2005

If you remember the movie, “October Sky” or Homer Hickam’s book, “Rocket Boys”, on which it was based, then you know about Big Creek.

Homer "Sonny" Hickam's senior photo from the Big Creek High School yearbook

It was the school where young Homer — “Sonny” in those days — and his friends attended Miss Riley’s class and were inspired to “aim high” and learn how to build rockets that eventually won a national science fair and put them all on college-bound paths that led out of the coalfields and dying towns of southern West Virginia.

I made a documentary film about Coalwood, West Virginia, home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, a few winding miles down the road from from War. I’ve been inside Big Creek High School a few times and found it to be a fascinating place, a time capsule where you could immediately feel as if you were back in the 1950s.

My first visit to Miss Riley's former classroom in 2005

A tropy case contains The Rocket Boys' National Science Fair medal. Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miss Riley (Laura Dern) look skyward in a poster from the 1999 movie, October Sky.

The school had been scheduled to be closed several years ago, but construction delays in building the new consolidated school in the town of Iaeger prolonged Big Creek’s shutting down until this past summer. In 2006, the iconic football field immediately in front of the school was demolished and construction began on a new elementary school. The new building was built just a few yards from the front of Big Creek H.S., completely blocking the former view of the school.

They had ripped up the football stadium when I visited in October of 2006.

New elementary school blocks view of Big Creek (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

That was bad enough, but at that time there was at least a plan for preserving the high school building after it closed. It was to be given to the City of War. They were going to use various parts of it for office space, storage, businesses and — best of all — some of the rooms were to be preserved as a history museum. Miss Riley’s room would have remained in its nostalgic, mid-20th century state for visitors to see for years to come. The building would have been a place of memories, not only of the rocket boys, but for all Big Creek graduates. It could have been a tourist stop in an area that desperately needs that kind of thing.

It was a great idea and it would have worked.

But other forces came into play. I’m not sure how it all fell apart, but it did and I’m sad about that.

Tom Hatcher, Mayor of War, WV, and proponent of preserving history whenever possible, was quoted recently in the Bluefield, WV Telegraph as saying that he’s given up the fight because “Unfortunately, the rate of deterioration since 2005 has made this option cost prohibitive and an impossible venture.”

My friend Shawn Cheeks is a senior this year at the new high school in Bradshaw. He’s a bright young man with a strong sense of history. He recently made a documentary film about the history of Big Creek. I asked him how he felt about all of this. While he has great memories of Big Creek and feels badly about its upcoming demise, he says that the damage was really done when the elementary school was built right in front of the high school, blocking its view. “It would be like building something right in front of the Lincoln Memorial, so you couldn’t see Lincoln”, he says. “It loses a lot of its ‘Landmark status’ when you can’t see it.”

Shawn wants people to know that things are going well at the new school and everyone is looking forward to Homecoming this week. The students are looking forward to “preserving some of the old traditions while starting some new ones”.

Shawn’s 30-minute film about the history of Big Creek H.S. can be order for $12 at
Shawn Cheeks
P.O. Box 946
War, WV 24892

Can you see the owl peeking out from behind the new school? (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

I made my documentary about nearby Coalwood in hopes that somehow the right people would see it and do something to save what’s left of that historic little company-owned coal town. Before I could finish the film, the company store building, one of the most significant structures, was demolished by the current owner without warning to the residents of Coalwood. People had tried to buy it and restore it for years, but the company wouldn’t sell it. But neither did they maintain it, and after a couple of decades of sitting empty and uncared for, it got to the point where it was too far gone.

Now this important and wonderful school building will soon meet the wrecking ball. Big Creek High School, home of the Owls, is now said to be “too far gone” to save.

This didn’t have to happen.

If you ever get to war, West Virginia and drive by the new elementary school, take a moment to stop and think — and try to visualize the Big Creek Owl sign on top of the old high school.

I will.

The Owl no longer casts this shadow on the new school. It's been taken down and put in storage. (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

18 thoughts on “Big Creek High School: a missed opportunity for historic preservation

  1. I am a graduate of Iaeger, which consolidated with Big Creek. Some talked about saving our school building also. The truth is that talk is cheap. Alot of people have a hard time letting go. Both buildings were in sad shape. The vast
    amount of money needed to renovate and maintain would be better spent elsewhere in the areas. These buildings were the symbols of our youth, and the part of our memories. All good things come to an end. We need to move on.

    • That’s where i disagree. As a person dont you like to look at pictures of big historic buildings like the Colosium or the Arch, or little bulidings like Walt Disneys house and tell storys to people and say you have been there… I think the school should have been kept to its longest and Coal Wood could have helped maintained it as a community

      • The school actually is in the town of War, not Coalwood. Coalwood is an unincorporated town that doesn’t receive any sort of funding from the government. There’s no police department or any other public services in Coalwood. If the school were maintained by Coalwood, it would have come out of the residents’ own pockets. Coalwood has a population of around 1,000. The school itself is in the town of War, which IS incorporated. I do agree with you on one point, though. McDowell County as a whole SHOULD have maintained the school building and found a use for it. Something like a museum about the area, or at the very least, a historical landmark. McDowell County is quite impoverished, though, and as a result, things like that often fall through the cracks.

  2. I just wrote on Homer Hickam’s wall on FB that reading this article made me feel nostalgic and sad too. Too bad such an iconic building will be torn down with no due respect given to its history.

    How can I get to see the documentary you made sdate? thanks for sharing the pics and for the article.

  3. Great post about the demise of Big Creek High. The photograph of the Owl’s shadow onthe new school was particularly poignant. Don’t show this to EmSue Buckberry yet- it will really put her in the tank as she recovers from shoulder surgery. Good luck Dates with the Marathon! Hilary and I will be routing you on from afar. Casey

  4. Steve…

    Excellent article and thoughts on the demise of Big Creek High School. In addition, it certainly made sense to me to name the NEW High School ‘HOMER HICKAM HIGH-Home of the Rockets’; the income from merchandise they could’ve sold worldwide would’ve been substantial.

    Hope to see you at this year’s October Sky Festival!


  5. I graduated in 1991, and im going to miss coming to war and not seeing my school not being there. i have got a lot of memories of the school.

  6. Pingback: Coalwood is in my heart today | Trying to pay attention

  7. Shawn, Thank you for sharing pics and writing this story on Big Creek High. My father, Rev.Jack Pruitt attended the Big Creek School several yrs. 1947- 1950. He enlisted into service and did not graduate . However, he had great fond memories of his years there at BCH. My father passed away in June 1973. I recall each year we would return in the Summer months and have a picnic on the football field. Daddy would share some of his many stories of BCH with me and my 5 sisters. My oldest sister,Debra Pruitt attended her freshman year here. Then we moved away,but always traveled back each year. After Daddy passed away,Momma would carry on the tradition for years to come.Our last Summer visit together with our Momma was in 2002. We arrived at the school and there was a gentleman there that allowed us to come inside and tour the school. I was so amazed at the yearly class pics,as well as the school Pride I felt when entering. It was as though I was there and it was in the 50’s. I could feel such a magnitute of love throughout. A couple of nights ago, I dreamed I was there walking the halls & it was now a museum. My heart is sadden to hear of the great historical loss it will be. Do you know what has happened to all the school books, pics, annuals,etc that were there at BCH? I became a Teacher through the wonderful inspiration & love the school offered my father & other students.I taught school for 28yrs til my health has no longer allowed me to teach. I would love to have an old school book from the school, to put up as a keepsake. When the school is demolished, I would love to a brick from the school. Do you know whom or where I need to start to get these items? Thank You again ! May God richly bless you and may all your dreams come true. Sincerely, Kathy Pruitt Bridgers

  8. We all have in our hearts the warm memories of BCHS and the teachers that taught us the value of an education. Mine were Lockhart, Muncy, Mams, Gainer, martin, Queen, Jennings, Ruby Carter, Eubank, and of course Mr. Swann to mention a few. This contribution made doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers, managers, ministers and officers of us. We in turn gave back in a small portion the value we recieved. Will we sit ideally by and watch a memorial to their lives destroyed? I would hope not. Will the voice of our teachers die with the destruction of so wonderful a building and the memories of hard study? Again, I should hope not.
    I recently spoke to two of my junior high teacher to express my appreciation for their contribution to my life. To the outside world BCHS was just a building, but those of us that attended school here, BCHS was an institution of learning. The knowledge that was imparted enables us to help our fellow man and was reflected in our person daily.

    As students, we did not give much thought as to what went into teaching. It was not just the transition of knowledge, but the recognition in our eyes when we received and understood the knowledge being imparted – the little gleam that sent the message we understood.

    I returned to BCHS many years after graduating to express my appreciation for the knowledge I received and to show one of our teachers just how far reaching an impact their efforts had made. I gave Ms. Betty Muncy a large signed photo of an Apollo Launch. Little did she know the lessons in physics and chemistry she taught day after day would contribute to placing a man on the moon. Nor did the other teachers that gave their lives to benefit each and every one of us. Thank you one and all for your patients and knowledge we received at BCHS.

  9. My father, Andy Hrametz, had very fond memories of Toms Creek school. He was a captain of the football team probably in the 40’s? It is so sad to see the football stadium torn down as I had hoped to visit it one day. Thank you for the pictures and for trying to preserve history. I sure hope that they did not demolish that beautiful piece of history. Did anyone remember my father in those days? Would anyone have any pictures of him? Thank you for the beautiful heart felt story and the pictures.

  10. Hi,
    I was very happy to find this web site. You see, my dad used to talk about Toms Creek a lot with very fond memories. He used to go to the high school at Big Creek and was the captain of his foot ball team back in the 40’s. His name is Andy Hrametz. Last name is pronounced Ramets. Does anyone remember him? Do you have any pictures of him that you could share? His family worked very hard and his dad worked in the coal minds until he died of black lung. My dad and his brother Joe ran the City Candy store in Bluefield ,West Virginia. My mom used to make homemade cream puffs to sell in the City Candy Store in Bluefield . Does anyone remember have any memories or pictures to share of them? I think his mom and dad ran a small grocery store in War West Virginia many years ago when my dad was growing up.(probably in the 30’s or early 40’s. I hope that someone remembers my dad. He was the best in the world! If anyone has any memories or pictures to share, I would be so grateful. Thank you.

    His daughter~Cathy

  11. Hi,
    My dad often talked about Big Creek school and had very fond memories of that school. He was the captain of his football team. Dad probably would of graduated in about 1935 from Big Creek High School . He was raised in Toms Creek , War West Virginia. Did anyone remember him? Please share any memories/pictures of him. Thank you.

  12. The BCHS building was not “too far gone”, the building was structurally sound, it just needed a new roof. Plans were already in the works for a joint effort, between the City of War and Big Creek People In Action, to co-exist within the building and utilize it. The plans came to an abrupt halt, mainly by the new BOE Superintendent. It’s a shame that such a historic piece of architecture, and centerpiece of the community, wasn’t given a chance to survive. There were other ways the new K-8 school could’ve been built without destroying a piece of McDowell County.

  13. As a member of the Big Creek District Development Corp, we did try to save the school. We had a business plan and all. We were too few in number and no support. It was going to be called the Big Creek Opportunities for Wellness and Learning Center (OWLS). The board left everything there for the initiative but then Superintendents changed. Then we learned we could not put a hotel that close to the school so it began to shoot all our plans down. It then came down to preserving our past or giving our children their future. Then we tried to keep the gym. But the same problem, we cannot raise enough to put in air and heat so now it is also at risk. The freezing has destroyed the floor, plumbing, and the cost is too great. So I say put your money where your mouth is and support the newly established Community Schools Initiative at Southside. Contact Sarah Muncy and donate money time etc.

  14. Cant wait until they get it tore down,our kids at southside need a play ground worse than you people need to visit a old run down building.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s