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Family shows Franklin County is about more than moonshine

Two men sitting at dining room table looking at papers. The younger man in a blue shirt points to a map of Franklin County. The older man wearing glasses and a plaid shirt studies a yellow notepad.
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Abe (left) and Benny (right) Gibson study a map trying to pinpoint the locations of one-room schoolhouses that dotted Franklin County during the first half of the 20th century.

A father and son uncover a forgotten history about Franklin County, and it has nothing to do with moonshine. 

Benny and Abe Gibson began researching the history of one-room schoolhouses in Franklin County after discovering more than 100 schools dotted the rural area over the first half of the 20th century.

In their research the two uncovered nearly 200 schools operated in Franklin County over a 50-year period. As part of a fellowship sponsored through Virginia Humanities, the Gibsons began their effort to identify and map out each of the schools and then build a website which chronicles that history.

The Virginia Humanities fellows are preparing to unveil their findings at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College in October.


BENNY GIBSON: We're in the Sontag community of Franklin County and this is one of the schools in that area. This is first grade through seventh grade High Point school. This one ended in the late 1930s, so that was 80 years ago, 80 plus years.

ABE GIBSON: If anyone has heard of Franklin County, Virginia, they have probably heard that we are the moonshine capital of the world. We're not challenging that narrative, but what we're doing, I think, and why we think it's important is that it's not the only story about Franklin County.

BENNY GIBSON: I wrote a book about Franklin County High School and during the research of that, I ran across a list, dated 1927, and that list showed 149 active schools in Franklin County at that time. I thought it was a misprint, 149. And my son who did the editing, of course, saw that also. So after the book was printed and released, he brought up the idea, "Let's investigate this 149 and see what we can do with it."

ABE GIBSON: I immediately recognized that he had stumbled on or I guess uncovered this trove of data that I didn't even know existed. All these hundreds of schools that existed prior to 1950. Most of them are one-room schools, most of them without electricity, most of them without indoor plumbing, and that sort of thing. I didn't know about it, and a lot of people in Franklin County have forgotten about it, and so it's been fascinating to recover that history.

BENNY GIBSON: And word has gotten out that we're doing that and people have called me or emailed me or seen me on the street or at the gas station and said, "Listen, I know where our school is," and that's how we've been finding many of these schools, just word of mouth.

ABE GIBSON: Franklin County had far more schools than most counties in Virginia. They may not have had the most, which you wouldn't expect them to anyway, 'cause of the small population, but it's one of the counties with the highest number of schools in the early 20th century for sure. What you've got in the time period we're looking at is hundreds of schools with thousands of students and teachers and parents, all of whom are promoting education and trying to make a better life for themselves, for their communities. And so it's sort of an inspiring story to Franklin County, in my perspective, and I hope it provides a fuller picture of our history.

BENNY GIBSON: These schools came about at the initiation of the parents. The parents, you know, "We've got kids, we deserve a school," and they were, they just, all over the county. Now, most of the parents probably didn't receive any formal education and times were tough in Franklin County during the early 20th century. Economically, roads were bad, and so on, so most of the kids were needed at home to help raise crops or take care of livestock, whatever. So it was a sacrifice for the families to send their child to school. That kind of showed me the value of the local population, that they put on education at that time. We're not in competition to claim that we're the education capital of Virginia, but we're much, much more than the moonshine capital of the world. It really is complementary of our ancestors in Franklin County that they wanted education and the strong number of schools reflected that. And I think it says a lot for the character and the heritage of Franklin County citizens.


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