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)


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