As a child, Jim Harmon, Loudoun County schools music supervisor, sometimes used to sneak into an old, abandoned house in Winchester with friends and examine yellowed and faded checkbooks and papers the former owner had left behind.
So his interest was immediately sparked last week when he saw a dusty and crumbling ledger book atop a group of boxes at a school storage building. He was amazed at what the book contained: minutes from the Mount Gilead School Board from 1917 to 1922.
The school records offer a glimpse of life and education in that earlier time. In formal, and at times illegible, handwriting, the board's clerk records the trials and tribulations of running a sprawling rural district. There's much that would be familiar to the board of today's growing district.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same -- they just get bigger," Harmon said.
In those years, Loudoun had one superintendent but six boards, one for each magisterial district. The Mount Gilead District included part of Purcellville, as well as Lincoln and Bluemont. According to a document slipped into the back of the book, the segregated Mount Gilead district had 16 schools in 1919 -- 11 white and five black. All had outhouses.
Apparently snow was a problem then, too. On May 19, 1917, the board considered a request from a man who drove the school wagon. The man wanted additional pay because he had to use extra horses when the roads were bad during winter. The board turned him down.
"This claim was not allowed owing to the fact that our board has not contracted to that effect and that we allow no extra pay to other wagon drivers under such circumstances," the board members noted.
Like today, much of the board's monthly meetings, sometimes held in private homes or a bank, were consumed with talk of finances, teacher hires and school construction. Board members seemed concerned that their rural schools were aging and looked to be on a constant hunt for land to buy and build on.
Today's School Board, which is opening three to five schools a year to accommodate Loudoun's population growth, would be thrilled with construction prices obtained by the Mount Gilead board. An itemized invoice in the ledger that listed building costs for a new school came to $2,023.43. That included wood, cement, even labor. Compare that with the $20 million price tag for a new elementary school today.
Salaries were a little lower, too. One teacher was hired at the school in Airmont for $45 a year. A principal signed on to work at Philomont School for $50.
Flare-ups between School Board members and the Board of Supervisors over funding and tax dollars, it turns out, are nothing new. In 1917, board trustee J.V. Nichols agreed to speak in front of the supervisors to ask for more money, arguing that the county was in danger of losing state funds unless the county raised taxes and upped its local share. No word in the book on whether the board heeded his call.
But two years later, the board closed schools after seven months, instead of the usual eight, because the supervisors "failed to make an emergency appropriation of $10,000 for school purposes as the county School Board had hoped and expected."
The board noted that it would pay half of the cost of keeping any school open an additional month if the school community paid the other half. Black schools -- called "colored" in the board minutes -- would be open only six months.
Though the board never mentions World War I, which was raging during much of the time covered by the ledger, another significant event did intrude. In the fall of 1918, Spanish influenza swept the globe, killing about 25 million people. Mount Gilead schools were shuttered during the epidemic and did not open for the year until November. The board voted to pay teachers half-salary for the time schools were closed.
The ledger was found in an old, white house on Union Street in Leesburg. The house was built in the 1880s and originally was a school for black children. For decades, however, it has been used for storage and is now being cleared out in preparation for the School Board's move this summer to its new headquarters in Ashburn.
The book's origin remains somewhat mysterious, Harmon said. He spotted it on top of material used in Loudoun's Summer in the Arts program, and they were packed only a year ago. That means someone must have found the ledger before but left it atop the boxes to be found again. The original discoverer has not come forward.
Harmon, who said the incident has brought out the "historical librarian" in him, said he hoped other school records might be found as the building -- and the 80-year-old North Street offices nearby -- are packed up for the move. He said that such finds would shed important light on county history and that the school system should start an archive to store them.
"Fifty years from now people will really be interested. And if we don't preserve it," Harmon said, "that's our fault."