When Fort Mill High School opened its doors on Banks Street in 1952, it was more than just a school. It was a small town’s bustling center of activities for teenagers and community members.
Football games drew the entire town to the school for Friday night fun. A roller skating rink on the school’s campus was a hot spot for gathering.
“In a small town, the school was your life,” said Superintendent Chuck Epps, a 1970 graduate of the school.
The former high school will be torn down this fall. The building is too old and costly to maintain, district officials have said. They hope to sell the property.
Epps and Chip Heemsoth, who compiles “This Week in History” for the Fort Mill Times and a is lifelong Fort Mill resident and a graduate of the class of 1964, recently explored the former high school.
Heemsoth can name a memory for nearly every crook and crevice of the building.
The school’s commons area now is filled with boxes of supplies from previous tenants. A “tornado in a bottle” science experiment sits against one wall, one of few odds and ends left from school days. Heemsoth points out where students would line up waiting for school to start in the mornings.
It’s also a special place for Heemsoth and his wife, Trudy, who graduated in 1966.
“I saw her and I was in love,” Heemsoth said. “Trudy and I met here every chance we got.”
Heemsoth makes a turn from the commons area towards the principal’s office. Standing outside the bright blue door he remembers a day in November 1963, when he came on an errand from a teacher. He still remembers the hall monitor’s name and how she would diligently check each student’s hall pass.
“This is where I was when I found out Kennedy was shot,” Heemsoth said.
A radio in the principal’s office made the announcement.
“At that point, they didn’t know he was dead,” Heemsoth said. “We were in shock.”
The school had an unusual open floor plan, complete with covered outdoor breezeways and classrooms that open to the outside. Rumor had it that the school was designed by an architect who also was designing a school in Florida. The plans got switched, so the rumor goes, and district officials liked the open floor plan so much that they decided to keep it. There’s no evidence that the rumor is true, but it has persisted for more than 50 years.
In truth, Epps said that the open Florida-style plan was likely chosen to maximize air flow because the building didn’t have air conditioning. Windows in classrooms were always open in the school’s early years, though they were later bricked in when the school was equipped with air conditioning.
The windows didn’t help beat the heat much, he added.
“Boy, I used to sweat in this classroom,” he said, looking around a classroom where he once had taken typing. “In the South, the windows don’t matter.”
Tom Silver, a 1966 graduate of Fort Mill High School, recalls the click-clack of bottle caps stuck onto the bottoms of boys’ shoes, a fad among some students for a brief time during his high school days. He remembers gathering around the Coke machine in the commons area, where “you’d get a slurp of Coke with a cup full of ice,” and seeing the girls walk by, dressed in mini-skirts.
“In the cold weather you’d see blue kneecaps. I’d feel so sorry for them but they sure looked pretty,” Silver said.
It was also an era when the draft and Vietnam weighed on students’ minds.
“It was a heavy thing in the ‘60s. Everybody was under that gun,” he said.
Silver went into the service after high school and remembers visiting Fort Mill High School on leave.
“[Principal] Jim Walser came out and thanked me for serving Fort Mill High School and the community. That spoke to me. People weren’t thanking you for service then,” Silver said.
Epps, who also taught at the high school in the early 1980s and coached basketball for one year, can remember the name of every student on his team and each of their wins and losses. Basketball games and football games were standard community activities, whether you had a student that participated or not, Epps said.
“It was important to everybody, but these days that’s not true. It’s 23 miles from the base of Main Street to Charlotte and there was no interstate then. People have more to do now and we’re more connected,” Epps said.
Though it began as a high school, the school on Banks Street later became Fort Mill Middle School, then Banks Street Elementary, a school for all of the district’s fifth-graders to attend.
It was Fort Mill Academy, the district’s alternative school, and has also housed district offices as well as community service offices at various times, including the Fort Mill Care Center and, for several years, the Boys and Girls Club and a free health clinic.
Nostalgia for the school is perhaps deepest for those who went to high school there in its early days, when Fort Mill was still small and class sizes were barely approaching 100 students.
“The school itself, it’s almost bigger than church. Boy, I’ll get killed for saying that one, but I’ve gone to church before and not missed it. I miss going to school there,” Silver said.
He understands that time marches on, though, and the memories that the students’ share will remain even after the school is gone.
“You can’t go back. There ain’t no 13th grade, but it was a great nest,” Silver said.
Angela (Rogers) Chamberlain
Chamberlain attended the school in the late 1980s, when it was a middle school.
Chamberlain’s strongest memory was of the gun safety classes students took during P.E.
“I remember in the gym they actually brought the guns out. We were all lined up in rows and we handled the guns, and I didn’t think much of it. But the most shocking thing is that we went out to shoot skeet and we all went out in rows. We were just all lined up, shooting, while some students waited behind us for their turn, eating their lunch.”
Lowder’s husband, Tommy (class of 1957), and children, Ken (class of 1984), Lynn (class of 1979), and Mitch (class of 1978) graduated from Fort Mill High School on Banks Street. The Lowder family has lived across the street from the school for 53 years.
“The whole Fort Mill community revolved around the many activities being held at the school. These were great family times with so many volunteers and participation. There were so many sports played in the school stadium. One of the highlights during this time was when Mickey Mantle came to the stadium and signed autographs in 1972. Football Friday nights were especially exciting. A lot of friends parked in our yard and we just walked across the street. It will not be the same in our neighborhood when the original Fort Mill High School is torn down.”
Silver is a 1966 graduate of Fort Mill High School.
“The school put you into something that would forever shape your life. It was classes, A, B, C, D, and F, and you were put into classes based on your grades. I wanted to be in F class because they didn’t hardly have to do anything and never had homework and the girls would almost marry you.”