South Side Bee Branch School Historic District
The South Side Bee Branch School Historic is located approximately two miles south of Bee Branch, in Van Buren County. The Historic District includes four buildings on the South Side campus, old main circa 1941, old gym circa 1936, old third-grade building circa 1948, and the cafeteria circa 1966.
European settlement likely began around 1820, one of the early settlers who played a crucial role in establishing Van Buren County was John L. Lafferty. Lafferty had a plantation in the “Big Bottoms” (under Greers Ferry Lake). The increased settlement of the area and the distance from other county seats illustrated the need for a more localized government (AHPP). The original county seat was called Mudtown, which was later called Bloomington. In 1860, the community of Bee Branch was established, and the community was first to be called “Crossroads”, The name was changed due to other communities in the area with the same name.
South Side High School was established in 1929 and formed by the consolidation of the schools in Bee Branch, Pine Mountain, and Sulphur areas. The land for the school was purchased from Harry T. Johnson for the sum of $8,350.46. A contest was held to name the new School District with a $25-dollar prize given to the winner. The Contest was won by William Allen “Dink” Ingram who named the district South Side “because it represented the South Side of the county”. The first building was completed after school started for the 1929-1930 school year. It was a brick masonry building built by Walter Tyler and consisted of six classrooms and an auditorium. The building burned to the ground on January 23, 1940, from an over-heating wood stove in the northeast corner. The first superintendent was J.K. Ross, and the first teachers were Margret Craig (History) and Lela Vaughn (English). The vocational agriculture building was built in 1931, and was completed in 1932 using funds from the Smith-Hughes Act and WPA labor. The building consisted of a classroom, office, and shop area. After World War II, adult veteran classes were held in the Agri building. The area, however, was too small to hold these classes and under the supervision of the Agriculture teacher, Mr. Libert Parish, surplus materials were used to add onto the building The building was demolished after the tornado in 1988.
In 1936, the WPA constructed the Old Gym with many materials being salvaged from a schoolhouse in Bee Branch. The gymnasium had classrooms on both the south and north ends. A stage was built at the south end between two classrooms but was covered up in the mid-70s to make dressing rooms. Between 1940-1941, the cafeteria was located in the basement of the gym until the completion of Old Main and classes resumed there. From 1941 to 1966, the cafeteria was located at the north end of the old gym, after the completion of the cafeteria and junior high building the north end of the gym was converted into a lobby and concession. The gym was primarily used until the completion of a new gymnasium. On November 15, 1988, a F3 tornado struck the school destroying the newly built gymnasium and severely damaging other buildings. The old gym was quickly repaired and housed basketball games once more regularly until the completion of the current gymnasium in 1991. The old gym is still in use today housing classes and activities such as weightlifting, physical education classes, pee wee practices, and rainy-day baseball and softball practices. The OLd Gym is the historic link to our school’s success in athletics and has housed practices for many generations of athletes at South Side.
In 1937, the National Youth Administration (NYA) constructed a school sign 157 yards from the old gym in all caps that spell out SOUTH SIDE HIGH SCHOOL. It is believed that the rock either came from “Kill Dead Creek” or was left over from the gymnasium. According to Mr. Sammy Collums who graduated from South Side in 1949, the sign was constructed by Morgan Montgomery and a group of boys. The South Side FFA constructed massive wood frames for the letters to set in so they would be straight-edged. The South Side FFA also planted a row of Sycamore trees behind the sign; Berdie Shannon was the agriculture teacher at the time. The sign also has a concrete plaque that reads “NYA 1937”; chiseled into the rock are the names of students who either graduated in 1937 or built the sign. The South Side sign is a unique piece of art and is widely known throughout the community. It is also a unique property in regards to the NYA, and is the only known sign of its kind in the State of Arkansas. The South Side High School sign was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on January 18, 2023.
Old Main was constructed in 1941 to replace the high school building that burned from an overheated wood stove. The building was constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and used the same floor plan as the original building. The building housed a high school for many years; classes included English, math, history, business, science, and a library. The most significant dates for the Old Main and the historic district are January 27, 1978, when the Titan II missile 4-7 leaked oxidizer. This led to an evacuation of the school campus. The other date would be November 15, 1988, when the EF3 tornado struck the school. The yearbook for 1989 featured pictures of the disaster and one, in particular, featured the severely damaged Old Main with the headline “Old Main still stands.” The picture shows a damaged roof and blown-out doors and windows. The nearby agriculture and science building, which was located a few yards from Old Main, had its roof blown completely off of the structure. The Old Main stands as a centerpiece for the South Side Bee Branch School District, and many throughout the school and community consider it as the most cherished building.
In 1948, the old third-grade building was moved onto the South Side campus from Fort Roots in Little Rock. The material from the building was once an army barrack building. The Adult Veteran classes constructed the building and Winfred Johnson was superintendent at the time. During the 1950s, elementary students coming from the nearby Damascus school would start out in the third-grade building. The building was bricked by Joe Leonard of Damascus and the flooring was done by Omes Fowler. The building housed the first through fourth grades from 1948 until the 1980s when the lower elementary building was built. The significant date for the old third-grade building is January 27, 1978, when the Titan II missile leaked. The author of the book Command and Control mentioned in an interview about the missile that the local elementary school was evacuated. The old third-grade building is significant to South Side Bee Branch for being the oldest elementary building on the campus, and also for the countless lives touched by the wonderful teachers who taught in the building. Today the building houses the WOLF program, a teacher’s lounge, elementary counseling, gifted and talented and special education classes.
To accommodate the growing number of students, the junior high and cafeteria building was proposed in 1965 and was presented to the voters of the South Side District in the spring of 1966. A five-mill tax was requested raising the tax mileage from 40 to 45. The approved amount was 80,000. The building was built in 1966, and is brick masonry to match the old third-grade building. The first bid was around $108,000; the contract was renegotiated, and the bid was awarded to Harold Nunley of Clinton, Arkansas for the sum of $83,400. The school furniture was purchased out of the school operating fund. Kitchen equipment was moved from the old gym, and new equipment was purchased from federal funds. Automatic dishwashing equipment was purchased in 1971. Every student since 1966 has eaten breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria; the building has fed generations of students. Many students will recall stopping by the lunchroom and picking up sack lunches for field trips to the now closed Watergate Museum and Choctaw Park. Until the pandemic, the cafeteria provided pinic style sack lunches to elementary kids participating in track and field day. From 1966 until 2015, the lunchroom housed Bingo for the community every year for Fall Festival, which is the biggest school event. Recently, the South Side Bee Branch school has provided free lunches in the cafeteria to students. The cafeteria is important to South Side Schools for the countless generations of children who have bonded with friends over lunch as well as the lives impacted by the fifth and sixth grade teachers that were housed in the building for many years.