Gretna Schoolhouse | Gadsden County, FL | c. early 1900s
The story of this Florida schoolhouse and the quiet community where it stands really begins in North Carolina in 1845 when William Penn (W.P.) Humphrey was born in Robeson County.
As a young man, he married a woman named Ellen, but when she died shortly after in 1869, he marries again in 1870, this time to Isabella Jane McCormick. The couple would have three children in North Carolina, but when she died in 1878, William packed up his three children to head south. Over the next decade, they moved south through Georgia before finally settling in the pinelands of the Florida panhandle.
The Train Brings Settlement to West Florida
As trains pushed west into this part of Florida in the late 1800s, new settlements began to spring up around family farms, as was the case here in Gadsden County. Records show that William arrived here sometime in the 1890s, and by 1897, had established the Humphrey Company and settlement. Over the following years, the business grew and a community based on the turpentine industry sprung up around it.
Another family to arrive here from the Carolinas was the Mehaffey’s. Small communities like this were built on marriages that united families, farms, and in this case, businesses so when the Mehaffey’s arrived here, it wasn’t long before the two families would unite. John W. Mehaffey married W.P.’s daughter, Addie, and together the father and son in law pair established a turpentine still, operated a sawmill, and opened a general store.
In the early days, there were several scattered farms around this area so a small but modest church, called Sunny Dell Baptist, was built near the Humphreys property that also served as a school for white children.
Gretna is Platted and a New School is Built
Due to the success of the Humphrey Co., more settlers were attracted to the area, eventually opening several grocery stores, a drug store, three churches, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, and a cotton gin. In 1905, the Humphrey and Mahaffey families sold one square mile to be surveyed into town lots, new churches were built, and in 1909, the city of Gretna was officially incorporated.
As the town was being laid out, residents wanted to have a school that sat within the city limits, so on June 22, 1908, the same families sold two lots in town to the Board of Public Instruction for $100 that would replace the Sunny Dell Schoolhouse.
Construction started shortly after and due to the timber-rich area and the access to Humphreys Sawmill, the size of the frame vernacular schoolhouse was impressive for its day. It ultimately cost $2,000 to construct, $600 of which was given by the Board of Public Instruction, and the rest was raised from local families.
Although the school building wasn’t yet complete, classes began the following August. Students through the 8th grade (later expanded to 11th grade) received instruction here with two teachers and one principal serving in the 1908 school year.
Notably in 1910 through 1911, the principal of the Gretna school was R.A. Gray, who would go on to become Florida’s longest-serving Secretary of State.
War, Boll Weevil, and The Great Depression
But the following decades would be challenging for this small rural community. A World War drew its young men to the battlefield in the 1910s. The 1920s would see boll weevil decimating local crops alongside the decline of the turpentine industry. The following decade would bring The Great Depression. Things were shifting across the U.S. and the following years would bring a lot of change to Gretna.
Old School, New Purpose
In 1935, schools were consolidated across Gadsden County and students from Gretna were bussed in to the town of Quincy, about 5 miles away. The Gretna School would never serve as a school again.
But the community hadn’t abandoned the building yet as it transitioned to a variety of services over the next 70 years.
From 1935 until 1940, the old school building would be used for city commission meetings. In the early 1940s, it was converted into a county health clinic where many locals recalled receiving their Polio vaccine.
During World War II, the building served as a Red Cross headquarters where first-aid packages would be assembled to ship to troops overseas.
Over the years since then, the building was used for various community activities and in 1960, a general restoration was done on the building. In 1969, alumni of the Gretna school held a reunion here and began a drive to collect donations for repairs. After that it was used as a voting center, for church activities, and for dances and town meetings. In 1995, it was deeded to a Shriner’s Club to hold their meetings but in 2002, the building was deeded back to the W.P. Humphrey club and it’s been vacant ever since.
The school has three rooms on the first floor and one great room upstairs with a stage on the south side. In its days as a school, the great room upstairs is where chapel services were held in the mornings before school. It originally had a belfry and school bell but it was removed in the early years because the roof leaked around the area.
Back in those days, the school was surrounded by a wire fence to keep out livestock although alumni have shared stories throughout the years of goats that would wander freely through the school causing great damage to school books that they were fond of chewing on.
Despite the numerous functions this building has served its community over the years, only minor changes have been made to its original design and as a result, the building was nominated and listed on the National Historic register in 2008.
A New Life for the Gretna School House?
While researching this schoolhouse, I came across a post from 2019 that mentioned that there were plans to restore it. According to the post, the city hoped to be able to one day use the school again as a meeting space, as well as a local history museum that would tell the story of the community of Gretna. However, recent photos as of 2021 show that it still looks empty so I can’t confirm this rumor.