Known for its low student-to-teacher ratio and close-knit community relationship, Tanner Williams Elementary has touched the lives of many students, teachers and parents over the years. Located in the rural outskirts of Wilmer at 13700 Tanner Williams Road, the elementary school is the backbone of the community.
Earlier this month, its 100th anniversary was commemorated with an open house-style celebration, allowing visitors to take one last stroll down memory lane before the original school building is demolished this summer.
Joyce Byrd, a member of the Tanner Williams Historical Society, is sad to see the building go, yet understands how important it is for students to receive adequate resources.
“I love the fact that the school has always cared about the students,” Byrd said.
Byrd attended the school from 1946 to 1955 and has always admired the community’s loyalty to the school.
“Whether it was a teacher, janitor, cafeteria lady — it didn’t matter. Everyone cared about the students, including the surrounding churches and businesses,” Byrd said.
In February, construction began on a new, modernized school, which will give students access to up-to-date classrooms and technology labs. The new school is being constructed in the former parking lot, alongside the current elementary school. The new building will house grades kindergarten through second, as well as a new library, technology lab and cafeteria.
“We are excited about our new school,” said Nici Lowell, in her first year as principal of Tanner Williams Elementary.
After the current school building is torn down during the summer, renovations on the back building will begin, moving third- to fifth-grade students to portables until renovation is complete in the spring of 2017. This new building will have 12 classrooms and a technology lab.
“It has been really neat to watch its progression. We have been documenting and taking pictures along the way so we will have a scrapbook for our new library and historical society,” Lowell said.
The original historic school, founded in 1915, helped create the legacy of leadership and success Tanner Williams Elementary is well known for today. The history of Tanner Williams School began July 7, 1914, when the Mobile County School Committee recommended a school be built in order to combine the Tanner and Williams schools.
On behalf of the Tanner Williams community, J.J. Tanner donated two acres of land and personally oversaw the construction work deemed necessary to create an educational institution that would unite neighboring communities.
The three-room schoolhouse began greeting students in 1915 in first through 11th grades. As the school grew, one room was dismantled, with workers numbering each board, and rebuilt in the same order on the south side of the school. Later on, an agricultural shop was added, where students learned farming.
Children from the Palestine School, located in the nearby community of Pierce Level, also joined Tanner Williams School. Students who lived more than two miles from the newly integrated school rode wagons to attend classes each morning.
In 1921-22, construction began on an 11,000-square-foot red brick building across the street from the unprecedented school on Tanner Williams Road. It became occupied in 1924, and both buildings were used for Tanner Williams educational purposes.
In 1943, a cafeteria was developed within a small room near the middle rear door of the new brick school building. Students would pick up their food and milk and return to their classrooms to enjoy their lunch. High school students, on the other hand, ate their lunch at desks lining the hallway of the school.
The cannery building was constructed next to the original Tanner Williams School in 1946 for canning produce.
The Mobile County School Board added a kindergarten program for 5-year-olds in 1980, held in the newly renovated cannery building. In 1984, a new 10-room wing was built for the newly adopted kindergarten program and added to the the current Tanner Williams Elementary.
“We brought our lunches to school every day in a sack or bucket as there was no cafeteria when I attended school there,” former student Clyde Gorum said.
Gorum started sixth grade at Tanner Williams School in January 1936, graduating in 1941. His sixth- and seventh-grade classes were held in the red brick building and eighth-grade classes were held in both buildings, continuing from ninth grade until graduation.
Now 93 years old, Gorum said he always looked forward to field day, when all of the county schools — including Semmes, Wilmer, Grand Bay, Theodore and Bayou La Batre — would compete together in outdoor activities such as relay races.
“One field day, I saw a beautiful girl playing softball on the field by the wooden building. She was dressed in red shorts and a white blouse. I learned her name was Mary Graham from Semmes. Later on when I returned from the service, we were married and have been for 68 years,” Gorum recalled.
Tanner Williams School provided extracurricular activities such as sports for attending students. Basketball was a favorite.
Former student Murray Driskell attended the original school and graduated from the 11th grade in 1939. The 93-year-old recalls playing basketball during his senior year.
“Citronelle was one of our rival schools that was much bigger than our school. We finally beat them,” Driskell said.
Many of the school’s historical items such as trophies, pictures, school furniture and other memorabilia can be viewed at the original Tanner Williams School, currently known as the Tanner Williams Historical Society building.
The Society, organized in 1995, restored the historic school building and transformed it into a museum and meeting place for community activities. It stands across the street from the current elementary school and is a constant reminder of the past contrasted with the present.
During the Dec. 11 celebration, visitors were allowed to visit the current school as well as the original Tanner Williams School/Historical Society.
“There is so much history at Tanner Williams Elementary,” former student Linda Byrd said of her childhood school. “Although a new school will take the place of the current elementary school, I’m glad the Tanner Williams name was not changed. It has been such an integral part of the community for generations.”
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