, 2014

Bluff Point community to
celebrate school’s 100 years

by Renss Greene

KILMARNOCK—A local historical landmark is preparing to celebrate the 100th year since its founding.

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Virginia Kelley holds a picture of her husband, James Kelley, who attended Bluff Point School.

On September 21, Bluff Point School will celebrate its centennial anniversary. The celebration will host museums, authors, refreshments, and more, as the Bluff Point Community League, which owns the building, looks back on 100 years of Bluff Point history.

Bluff Point Graded School #3, as it was originally known, recalls the earliest days of public education in the United States. Built in 1913, it was the third of three schools built in Bluff Point and the first to have two rooms. Public education had only been instituted in Virginia in 1870, as one of the conditions of its readmission to the United States following the Civil War. At that time, education was only guaranteed through grade seven.

Public education in those early days was very different. With few roads and little infrastructure or transportation to speak of, accounts from students of the school tell of walking to school or even paddling across creeks. Grades one through three were taught in one room, and four through seven in the other. The school was built with lumber donated by the community, and school funds were so limited that parents supplied wood for the stove and repaired the building.

There was no indoor plumbing, and water came from a hand-pumped well outside. Modern transportation and schools had not yet allowed for large, centralized schools in the Northern Neck, and when it opened, Bluff Point #3 was one of 44 schools in Northumberland County.

In 1933, Bluff Point was closed and students transferred to centralized schools in Wicomico Church and Kilmarnock. Few people are alive today to recall Bluff Point Graded School #3 as it was when it was a schoolhouse. There may be only one: Virginia Kelley, the 96-year-old widow of James Kelley, who attended Bluff Point before it was closed.

Walking into Mrs. Kelley’s house on the morning of Labor Day, I am immediately overrun by an exuberant crowd of great-grandchildren. Four generations of family are in the house on Bluff Point, looking out at the Chesapeake Bay from land that has been in the family since before the American Revolution. Mrs. Kelley’s son, grandson, granddaughter-in-law, and grandchildren pack into their cars and head back to Richmond, and Mrs. Kelley invites me to sit at the dining room table and talk. She was born on Christmas Day in 1916.

If James Kelley were here today, he would be 102 years old, his widow tells me. All of his family attended school here, and his sister, Ada, taught at Bluff Point Graded School #3. Virginia herself went to school in Wicomico Church.

“I met James on the wharf at White Stone,” Mrs. Kelley recalls. “That was a place that most everybody wound up, at White Stone beach, when you were dating.”

The Northern Neck at that time was even more isolated, and the best way to get off of it was by steamboat. “If you needed to get out of the Northern Neck, you took the steamboat,” Mrs. Kelley said.

Virginia and James met in 1933 and married in 1936. James died at age 67 from lung cancer.

James sometimes reminisced about his time at Bluff Point, said Mrs. Kelley. He told her he walked to school, made the fire, fed the teacher’s horse, and cleaned the building.

“One of the teachers there dearly loved James,” Mrs. Kelly tells me. “Her name was Lula Whitaker; she was a sister of my brother’s wife.” Whitaker came to James’ funeral. “I remember her saying she would cry, but she didn’t have tears.”

“Lula was very fond of James,” Mrs. Kelley said. “She let him do anything he wanted to do.”

James and Virginia both liked a good time in school. “Books were a thing James didn’t like,” Mrs. Kelley said. “He’d rather been home playing in the water than in school anywhere, but I think he enjoyed the time that he went there,” Mrs. Kelley tells me.

When Bluff Point Graded School #3 closed, James went to the new Kilmarnock High School. James worked in the water all his life, catching fish and oysters and eventually starting Kelley Seafood.

Mrs. Kelley shows me a black-and-white photo of a waterman wearing a broad grin. He has good-natured mischief in his eye, clearly visible even on the aged photo. This was James Kelley.

Helene Braatz and Suzy Swift of the Bluff Point Community League have compiled a history of Bluff Point School, making them the de facto Bluff Point School historian laureates. They also pushed the creation of the Northern Neck Historical Marker which now stands outside the building.

According to their research, in 1937 the school was sold to trustees of the Lower Northumberland Community League and became a community center, and has remained a center for community activities and gatherings since. In 2009, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Braatz and Swift, along with Ida Hall and Cherie Fowler of the Bluff Point Community League, started work on the centennial celebration last year. “We’ve been in gear for eight months now,” Braatz said.

The celebration will feature displays and historical artifacts from several area museums, including the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, the Northern Neck Farm Museum, the Kilmarnock Museum, the Mary Ball Washington Museum, and the Steamboat Era Museum, Braatz said.

Several notable local authors are also expected to attend. John Wilson, author of “Virginia’s Northern Neck: A Pictorial History,” children’s author and local organizer Ginger Philbrick, and Northern Neck historian Carolyn Jett will be selling and autographing their books. There will also be hands-on displays for children and refreshments.

“We want to give a flavor of what life was like when Bluff Point was open,” Braatz said.

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