Editor's note: This column was first published May 18, 2016.
Pea Ridge schools have changed a bit since my Pea Ridge school days in the 1940s and 1950s.
On Tuesday evening this past week, I attended the Scholarship Awards assembly at the High School gym, and was astounded and much impressed with the magnitude of the scholarship grants awarded to help our 2016 graduates in pursuing a college education, and also with the sheer number of graduates who have excelled in their high school work and were receiving scholarships.
The size of our PRHS graduating classes is nearing the size of our entire school as it was when I entered first grade in 1946. The number of seniors who were awarded college scholarship on Tuesday far exceeded the size of my 1957 graduating class. Although we had been a class of as many as 25 during some years, at the time of our graduation in 1957 we were a class of 15 seniors. In 2016, we are becoming accustomed to recognizing graduating classes of more than 115 seniors each year. In comparison, within the years of my memory, that has nearly reached the size of our entire Pea Ridge School, grades 1 through 12, as we were until about 1948.
Of course, much has changed across Benton County and throughout northwest Arkansas since the World War II years of the early 1940s.
Before World War II, our area was still almost entirely a farming community. But it was changing from an economy based on apple orchards and general farming to the new poultry and dairy and beef cattle farms which were appearing. The town of Pea Ridge, as I first remember it, had a population of about 200 people. Saturdays, back then, were the busy days in town, when all the farm people would come into town to do their weekly shopping. Farm people, back then, didn't just run to the store when they ran short of an item or two, they used Saturdays as "going to town" days, to do their weekly shopping. The day might involve first driving to Bentonville, then Rogers, then back to Pea Ridge to pick up all the things that would be needed on the farm for the week. That included not only groceries and clothes and gasoline and oil, but feed for the chickens and cows and other livestock. Back before electricity on the farm, our Saturday trip to town included bringing in the radio battery for recharging, and picking up the charged-up battery at the filling station where it had been on slow charge for several days. Also, many of us spent time visiting with neighbors and friends and catching up on the latest while we were parked at Webb's Feed and Seed.
Before World War II, our area was still very much impacted by the Great Depression. Not many promising jobs were available in northwest Arkansas. There was very little manufacturing, almost no tourist industry, no lakes to offer significant recreational activities. World War II had the effect of opening up the wider world to people in our area, including each year's graduating seniors. Several of my own relatives made the move to California, where they found jobs in the burgeoning aircraft industry.
From about 1940 to about 1958, many of our high school graduates were joining the trend of moving west in search of the good jobs. In our area, the job seekers tended to head for Wichita or Los Angeles, still following the old "Go West, Young Man, Go West" resolve, which had been a rallying cry for the westward migration of pioneer families in the 1870s and 1880s.
For our area, that all began changing in the late 1950s, as manufacturing plants began establishing in Rogers and Bentonville, plants such as Daisy Air Rifle, Munsingwear, Wendt Sonis, and, a little later, businesses such as Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt, Emerson Electric and Union Carbide. Also, at the same time, the creation of Beaver Lake and the opening of the Pea Ridge National Military Park greatly expanded the options and opportunities for life and growth in northwest Arkansas.
When I graduated in 1957, Pea Ridge High was still a "B" rated high school. We barely offered enough credits for high school graduation. The only electives offered, as I recall, were typing and bookkeeping. There were no advanced placement courses. Still, even back then I always thought a person could get about as good an education at PRHS as we were willing and interested in gaining. But, although Pea Ridge in the Academy/College days from 1887 to 1916 had offered college level courses and maintained a prestigious and respected educational institution, that strength and prestige had faded during the 1920s and 1930s. It would only begin rising again significantly in the 1970s.
It is very gratifying to me as an old PRHS alum to see the growth of our campuses, the strong faculty and administrative leadership, the expanded educational programs, the strong and varied athletic programs, and the strong academic achievements of today's PRHS graduates.
Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge, is an award-winning columnist, a retired Methodist minister with a passion for history. He is vice president of the Pea Ridge Historical Society. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected] centurytel.net , or call 621-1621.Editorial on 05/20/2020
Print Headline: Town, schools have grown and changed