History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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SPEEDWELL ACADEMY

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     The historic Speedwell Academy is an old building that was constructed in 1827. It is located on Academy Road in the Speedwell community of Claiborne, Tennessee, just off Old Highway 63.

     The Academy building site was donated by George Shutter and consisted of 114 acres. Mr. Shutter, a German immigrant who migrated to Powell Valley about 1800, lived in Pennsylvania. Mr. Shutter had no children but believed very strongly in education. He supplied the slave labor and money for the building of the Academy.

     Mr. Sam Monday was hired to supervise the venture, and under his management the slaves fired the brick near the construction site along Davis Creek. The reddest clay was gathered from along the creek, with the material being packed full in handmade molds and fired in the kilns nearby. It can now be observed that within the bricks are paw prints, evidently where the dogs ran through the molds prior to the brick being fired.

     Cutting and fitting of the limestone employed in the foundations and steps was the work of slave craftsmen. This structure, which is fort-like, has an exposed 10"x14" hand-hewn beam running the full length of the building. The other exposed beams are set from side-to-side, and are pegged as well as bolted together. The brick walls are 18" thick and are three bricks wide. Metal nails, hinges, and hasps were prepared in the workshop, which was located on the premises. The second story finds irons tension rods running through the building.

     The rafters, which are also hand-hewn, are arranged in Roman numerals. The architect inspecting the building states that the rafters were cut and assembled on the ground. They were numbered and moved, singularly to the top of the building, and assembled in sequence. The original double-hung sash windows were replaced, possibly at the turn of the century. One window is still in existence and has the number "VII" engraved in the wood. This number states the order in which they were installed. The windows were fastened with pegs, and the shutters were held using hinges that were made in the shop. The building was completed in 1827.

     Some of the earliest plaster remains. A section was removed to show the hogs' hair that was used in the mixing formula in preparing the plaster for the walls. This hair was very coarse and strong and served the same intent as the wire used in plaster and concrete today.

     The Powell Valley Male Academy was originally a log structure. After the constructing of the present building, the young males boarded within the community, with the neighbors, or lived in the housing on the second floor; the professors also lived on this floor.

     The male students labored on the Shutter farm to pay board and tuition. Classes were offered to the Academy students that included English classics, Latin, Greek, numbers and the sciences of the day. The uppermost level of learning was offered to students from primer to a college program. Powell Valley Male Academy, like many other schools and academies, managed their programs on the first floor, with church services being held on the second floor. From the very creation of the Academy, this was the center of the community for church, school, and all other civic purposes.

     Mr. Shutter died in 1840, leaving a trust fund with the Speedwell Academy and other Claiborne County schools as the beneficiary. This fund administered the business of keeping the Academy open until the County took over, which was from early 1900 until 1970. At this time all the small community schools were closed, with the children being transported by bus to larger combined schools.

     After closure of the Academy, the structure began the ultimate road to deterioration. After the death of one trustee, which left four trustees to resume operations of the Academy, a vote was taken whether to preserve the building or not; two were for preserving and two were against. The Speedwell Academy was thus abandoned to the weather and the frequent vagrants. Much of the structure was destroyed.

     Around the turn of the 20th century the Male Academy turned into a school for both boys and girls. During this time the Academy was renamed "Speedwell Academy."

     The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 for its contribution to the social and educational history of Claiborne County. The trustees have since formed a nonprofit corporation for the purpose of restoration and preservation of the building.

     The Academy was, during the Civil War years, constantly being interrupted with the facility being operated as headquarters for the Confederate army, General Felix K. Zollicoffer residing. The French Haggard Rogers family became close friends with the General, he spending the night occasionally with the family. The General and his army were moving to Cumberland Gap to do battle with the Union soldiers when he decided to stop on this occasion to visit the Rogers family. The next morning found the General and his army getting ready to leave for battle. French Haggard walked with the General to where his horse was tied and expressed his thoughts as to the safety to the General.
Zollicoffer's job was to rescue an entire regiment that was tied down in the Cumberland Gap area. Mr. Haggard expressed that the Federal troops were positioned along the top of Cumberland Mountain, and that General Zollicoffer would suffer great danger if he proceeded. The General chose to travel to the Gap and did not return. His death occurred at the Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky.

     Throughout the Civil War the Academy grounds were called Campground Bluff. Confederate soldiers used the weathervane atop the building for target practice. The "Long Tom" brass cannon, the largest used during the Civil War, was located at the Academy. This cannon was approximately 18 feet long and had an accurate range of five miles. The cannon was placed into position on Pinnacle Mountain following the taking of Cumberland Gap by the Confederates in 1861.

     The Confederates vacated the Gap in 1862 and shoved the cannon over the mountain. The Union soldiers lugged it back up and found they had no ammunition for it. Thoroughly confused, the Unionist again pushed it over the mountain. The fate of the famous cannon is still being contested. By the way, during the late years of the War, the Academy was intermittently used as a hospital.

Material for this article was taken from a handout at the Speedwell Academy.

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