Published November 7, 2022

By Trey Mitchell

William Gibson and his son Abe Gibson are working together on a new Public Humanities Fellowship that promises to shine a light on a neglected part of the history of Franklin County.

Franklin County is known by many as the “moonshine capital of the world.” It was even the subject of the movie “Lawless,” which was (loosely) based on historical events. But Abe and his dad are uncovering a different story. They noticed something intriguing while William was doing research for a book about the history of Franklin County High School. Despite or because of its large size and remote location, Franklin County was home to nearly 200 one-room schools in the early twentieth century, the third most of any county in Virginia, and more than double the number in neighboring Roanoke County. 

Those schools became the focus of a new cross-state Public Humanities Fellowship. William is working on the ground in Franklin County while Abe is working from his office at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

I recently spoke to Abe and William over Zoom to learn more about their work.

First, how did Franklin County earn its reputation as the “Moonshine Capital of the World?”

WG: When moonshine was at its peak in the early 20th century, road conditions in Franklin County were poor, the population was very sparse, there wasn’t much tax base, or income opportunities as far as industries, factories and so on. And it really wasn’t an excellent area for agriculture either. So, moonshine, by default, became a common way to make a living.

AG: When I was growing up in Franklin County, I was always told that Franklin County was the moonshine capital of the world. And then I became a professional historian and now I know that Franklin County was the moonshine capital of the world. We’re not challenging that. We’re saying it’s not the only story.

What we are suggesting and what I found appealing about this project with my dad is that it presents a new narrative for Franklin County.

You’re looking into the history of public education in Franklin County during this same time period. What sort of story about Franklin County is emerging?

William Gibson has traveled all over Franklin County photographing the ruins of old schools.

WG: While doing research for my book about Franklin County High School, I kept coming across the number of one-room schools in Franklin County. At first, it just seemed absurd that there were that many. Now we know that there were probably close to 200 one-room or two-room schools in Franklin County from 1900 on until the last ones closed in the early 1960s.

AG: There’s the story that everyone knows from prohibition era Franklin County of moonshine and lawlessness and that sort of thing. And here’s a completely different narrative about people dedicated to education and community building at the exact same time. I didn’t know any of this history. I didn’t know that there were literally hundreds of little communities scattered throughout the county all of which had their own school.

WG: The community and the people of Franklin County cared a great deal about getting some type of education for their children. Of course, the population was definitely blue collar, no doubt about it, but they were also aware that if the county and their children were going to have a good future, they needed education. And it started with those one-room schools and a sense of community pride.

So, why were there so many schools?

WG: Some of these schools lasted six months, then there were schools that lasted for decades. A school might last a year, then close down for a year, population moved in and it opened back up. The schools popped up where there was a need and they disappeared where there was no need.

AG: We’re looking at hundreds of little different distinct communities. They might be separated by a mountain or a valley. The fascinating thing to me is that the jurisdiction for these schools was driven by how far a student could be expected to walk. So, it’s a hyper-local micro history in some ways.

How did you end up working on this project together?

AG: I’m a history professor and when my dad told me he was going to write a book about the history of Franklin County High School, I was terrified. A lot of what I do is markup history essays, and I didn’t want to have do that to my dad. But I was thrilled when I actually read what he’d been working on. It was a great book, but I was especially excited because he’d uncovered a trove of data that very few people knew about.

I realized there’s a lot here and I knew that if we kept digging there’d be a really fascinating story to share that preceded the history covered in my dad’s book. So that’s how I nudged my way into what was already his project. He and I both have always been fans of Virginia Humanities. So, when the Public Humanities Fellowship program was announced, I knew it would be a great opportunity for us. And it has been an awesome experience because we’re uncovering things we never knew about our own hometown.

What will the outcome of the project be?

Teachers and students at Mount Lebanon school in Franklin County, Virginia, early 1930s. Source: Archie G. Richardson papers in Special Collections at Virginia State University.

WG: We’re producing a physical exhibit with Ferrum College called The Vanishing Schools of Franklin County. We’re going to have a giant map of Franklin County with all the schools on one map. I think that visual evidence of how many schools there were will be somewhat overwhelming. Then we’ll break that down into voting districts so people can see where they (or their grandfather) went to school. We’ll also break it down by race to show where the Black schools were. They were mostly concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of the county where the tobacco areas are. Then we’ll have some panels that will show some of the teachers and pictures of the one-room schools. And we’ll have a simulated classroom in the center of the exhibit.

AG: I’m in San Antonio TX and doing everything remotely. So, my contribution is going to be putting together an accompanying website. We’ll be using digital history methods to take all the research we’re doing and put it into a website for those who can’t make it out to Ferrum College to see the exhibit. I’m using GIS methods to map the locations of all these schools and using digital history platforms like Omeka and ArcGIS StoryMaps to help tell the story.

Abe Gibson describes the project in a recent presentation at UT San Antonio

What’s your source material? How are you learning about these schools?

WG: Locally we have our Franklin County Historical Society and then we have the Blue Ridge Institute Museum up at Ferrum College. And they all have great files and cabinets that are a gold mine of information.

Some of it is hand-written letters that are reminiscences of that time. That was the most interesting because it was very personal. They got into details that I don’t think most historians would have included, even talking about the different games they played at recess or how the seventh graders helped the first graders learn to read.

AG: We have combed through every possible digital archive and quite a few brick-and-mortar archives including the Library of Virginia, Virginia State University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Virginia looking for materials related to schools in Franklin County during this time. The Archie G. Richardson papers in Special Collections at Virginia State University has amazing pictures of Black schools in Franklin County. And the WPA (Works Progress Administration) resources at the Library of Virginia have been a huge help.

Also, Dad is on the ground in Franklin County and one thing he’s able to do is drive around to all these communities and connect with the people who are still living there. He’s able to knock on doors and say “I’m a Public Humanities Fellow with Virginia Humanities.” They’ve shared their memories and connected him with other family and friends. It’s been awesome to witness, from afar, how much everyone is willing to share.

How do you think people’s perceptions about Franklin County will change as a result of your work?

William Gibson and Abe Gibson on Abe’s first day of kindergarten, 1988

WG: I hope people will take away from this that there’s a lot more to Franklin County than just moonshine. There was a strong interest in education. And even though people may not have had many resources or education themselves, they knew how valuable it was. Whole communities would take it upon themselves to not only politic for a one-room school they would also volunteer supplies, they would volunteer their own physical labor to build these schools and I think that says a lot about the character of the people in the county.

AG: The biggest thing to me is that public education is extremely important and it takes a lot of effort from a lot of people. That was true in the past, it’s true today, and it will remain true in the future.

We take for granted that we inherited these institutions, but they have changed dramatically in a short amount of time. Dad and I are both supporters of and advocates for public education. For all the differences that there were in these schools at the time, there was a common commitment among everyone at these schools to public education and improving themselves. It is something that current citizens of Franklin County can take pride in.

The Vanishing Schools of Franklin County exhibit is expected to open at Ferrum College in the fall of 2023. Learn more about our fellowship opportunities including the Public Humanities Fellowship.

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