School History: Forestville Elementary School (1922-1953)

Between 1907 and 1915, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) established its first high schools for white children in communities such as Clifton, Falls Church, Floris, Herndon, McLean, and Oakton. In 1916, citizens of Forestville, eager to provide their children with access to higher education, convinced the School Trustees of Dranesville District to open a high school in their community. It was agreed that the new building would be large enough to house both high school and elementary school classes, and that the Forestville community would be responsible for excavating the site and constructing the foundation of the building. On July 21, 1916, the School Trustees purchased two acres of land from the Oliver family in the village of Forestville for $600. The two-acre lot was bounded on the north by Walker Road and on the south by Georgetown Pike.

Black and white aerial photograph of the village of Forestville taken in 1937. The village is seen from directly overhead. The intersection of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road is on the right. Several homes and businesses are visible, but much of the surrounding area is farm fields. The Forestville School, in the center of the image, has been circled in red.
Aerial view of Forestville in 1937 with the new Forestville School circled in red. The school property was sold to the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department in 1959. Photograph courtesy of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Even though the site for the school was purchased in 1916, it would be several more years before enough funding became available to begin its construction. In 1920 and 1921, the School Trustees applied for loans from the State Literary Fund, and Forestville residents held fundraising carnivals and rallies. In March 1922, Chester L. Smith of Oakton was awarded the contract to build the school at a cost of $19,219.

The high school at Forestville which will include two years of high school work is expected to open immediately. A number of pupils in these grades are out of school, while others are attending at McLean… The primary grades, under the supervision of Miss Hope Fleming, are carried on in the old building.
~ The Fairfax Herald, October 13, 1922

On October 19, 1922, a group of concerned parents from Forestville spoke at a meeting of the newly consolidated Fairfax County School Board and described several serious defects in the construction of the building. A committee was formed to investigate the matter in conjunction with the State Architect, and work continued on the school into the winter months.

Black and white photograph of the front exterior of the new Forestville School. It is a two-story structure constructed of brick and has a basement. The main entrance to the building is a set of double doors at the top of a staircase. A porch awning, supported by brick pillars, is over the steps. The top of the porch has a balcony with a white wooden railing. Behind it, a set of double doors or windows is visible on the second floor. The windows have a glass archway above them. Four sets of windows are visible on the front of the building, one on each side of the entrance and similar ones above on the second floor. There is a flag pole out front and the United States flag is visible at the top. People can be seen milling about on the steps in front of the building.
Forestville High School, circa 1950. The building was modeled after the Franklin Sherman School in McLean designed by renowned architect Charles M. Robinson. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

It is believed a portion of the building opened for high school students before the end of the 1922-23 school year, however records are unclear if elementary students were housed there prior to September 1923. On July 30, 1923, a committee that had been appointed to conduct a final inspection of the building reported to the School Board that some things were not yet up to standard, but on the whole the building was ready for occupancy. While many photographs depicting the exterior of the Forestville School have survived, photographs of the interior of the building are exceedingly rare. Milburn Sanders described the interior in an article published in The Great Falls Gazette.

A wide entrance hall ran the full depth of the building to a rear porch. Two classrooms were located on each side of the hall. Upstairs there were two more classrooms to the rear and an auditorium ran across the front of the building. The school was capped by a bell, which was sheltered by its own roof. The bell was rung by pulling a rope just outside the entrance to the auditorium. Horse-drawn covered wagons provided the earliest transportation to and from school. Homer Presgrave and Clyde Wenzel were drivers. The first motorized bus was a Model T Ford driven by Theodore Utterback.
~ Excerpt from Milburn Sanders’ article “Gone, Forever, the Little Red Schoolhouse” published in The Great Falls Gazette, September 12, 1979.
Black and white photograph of students at the new Forestville brick schoolhouse taken in 1924. 19 students and a female teacher are pictured. The children are arranged in three rows, standing on the steps in front of the building.
Forestville School, elementary classroom portrait, 1924.

Higher Education

The new school at Forestville was referred to as the Forestville High School and Forestville Junior High School in records, but the building also housed children in the elementary grades. The first known principal of the school was Frederick Bruce Cunningham. In his Principal Term Report for 1925-26, Mr. Cunningham indicated that the Forestville School had six teachers, including himself, and that 24 students were enrolled in its high school program. At this point in time, high school in FCPS consisted of grades 8-11. Junior high schools typically offered only grades 8-9, but, by 1927-28, tenth grade education was also being offered at Forestville. During that school year, there were 188 children enrolled in the school, 45 of whom were in the high school grades.

Black and white photograph of Forestville High School students. The students are seated on the steps leading to the main entrance of the school. 17 students and three adults are pictured. Most of the students are wearing winter coats. The girls are seated in the first two rows, the boys in the third row, and the adults in the back row.
Forestville High School class photograph taken between 1923 and 1930. Courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

Did You Know?

In 1927, the average monthly salary for a teacher at the Forestville School was $85. The principal earned $140 per month.

Forestville Elementary School

On June 5, 1930, the Fairfax County School Board voted to close the high school department at Forestville and transport the students to Herndon High School at the beginning of the 1930-31 school year. By consolidating the high school program at Herndon, FCPS was able to offer a broader range of academic subjects and vocational courses in agriculture, home economics, and business.

Color photograph of the Colvin Run Community Hall in 2013. The building is an old schoolhouse. It still retains the bell tower and bell on top of the building. The school had two classrooms and an auditorium. It was built on the south side of Colvin Run Road west of its intersection with Walker Road, on the site of an earlier schoolhouse in the village that burned down. The building faces Colvin Run Road. It has white clapboard siding and a gray tin roof. There are tall windows on all sides and a red brick chimney juts out from the roof above the classroom on the left. Today the building is used as a dance hall.
The former Colvin Run School, 2013. In anticipation of the departure of the high school students from Forestville, the School Board closed the two-room schoolhouse in the village of Colvin Run in June 1930 and transferred the children to Forestville. The schoolhouse still stands today on Colvin Run Road and is owned by the Colvin Run Citizens Association.

Forestville Elementary School, as the school in Forestville became known, opened in September 1930 with six teachers: Ruth N. Smith (Grade 1), Blanche B. Cornwell (Grade 2), Helen Quigg (Grade 3), Dora K. Cox (Grade 4), Margaret Jeffries (Grade 5), and Edith Rogers (Grades 6-7). Ms. Rogers also served as the principal. In December 1930, the School Board authorized the installation of electrical wiring, lighting, and a Delco-Light electric plant. Delco-Light plants created and stored electricity using an ingenious design that combined a small combustion engine with a battery storage system. They were widely sold in the 1920s and 1930s and were used to provide electricity to rural schools, churches, homes, and farms.

Photograph of an advertisement published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 25, 1919. The ad shows an illustration of the Delco-Light system with a small kerosene powered generator on the left and a bank of batteries on the right. The generator is connected to the batteries by pair of wires. Text on the ad states – Free demonstration in your home. A complete electric light and power plant for farms and country homes. Self-cranking and air cooled, ball bearings, no belts, only one place to oil, thick plates, long lived battery, runs on kerosene.
Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper advertisement for the Delco-Light system, 1919.

The Great Depression

During the 1930s, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, a severe world-wide economic downturn. By 1933, approximately one-fourth of Americans were unemployed. This led to extreme poverty, homelessness, and malnutrition for many families. The Great Depression caused tremendous financial hardship in Fairfax County, leaving many families unable to provide for their children. In 1936, the Forestville Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) created a soup committee to provide meals to underweight and indigent children. During January and February 1936, the Forestville PTA's soup program kept 67 children from going hungry. The PTA also collected toys to give to children in need. Throughout the 1930s, the Virginia Health Department held annual dental clinics in public schools, providing children with dental cleanings, fillings, and extractions. A report to the Fairfax County School Board in August 1934 stated that during the prior school year 4,680 Fairfax County children were examined, and clinicians performed 808 tooth extractions, made 2,030 fillings, and provided 581 cleanings.

Black and white photograph of students at Forestville Elementary School taken in the 1930s or 1940s. The children and their teacher are posed on the steps in front of the building. 31 children are pictured, 17 girls and 14 boys. A female teacher is seated in the back row on the far right.
Forestville Elementary School class photograph, undated. Courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

School Days

During the 1930s, the typical elementary school day began at 9:00 a.m. and ended at 3:20 p.m. School bus service was provided to children who lived outside of walking distance, however the poor condition of the dirt roads in the rural countryside surrounding Forestville led to several instances where the school buses were delayed because their tires had become mired in thick mud and clay. When roads became particularly bad, school bus drivers would hire and operate horse-drawn wagons with open tops. During bitterly cold weather the brakes on the school bus would sometimes freeze; however, Forestville bus driver Homer Presgrave told the School Board in 1935 that, “being frozen proved no hazard since brakes were not needed because the mud was so deep.”

Black and white photograph of Fred Jones standing next to his school bus in 1941. Jones is leaning back against the engine. The side of the bus, showing the engine compartment, driver’s seat, and the first row of student seating is shown. The bus is parked on a dirt road next to a farm field.
Like Homer Presgrave, Fred Jones was one of the first FCPS school bus drivers. He transported students to Fairview Elementary School. This photograph of Jones with his bus, taken in 1941, is a good illustration of the kind of school busses that came into use in FCPS in the late 1930s. Photograph courtesy of Lee Hubbard.

During the 1939-40 school year, Homer Presgrave’s salary as school bus driver was $35 per month, and Forestville custodian G. R. McCutchan’s salary was $45 per month. The five teachers at Forestville (Mildred Dodson, Mary Money, Gertrude Oliver, Elizabeth Read, and Elizabeth Thomas) earned between $760 and $1,000 annually, and Principal / Teacher E. P. Orr’s annual salary was $1,200.

Undated black and white photograph of Forestville Elementary School’s Student Council Association officers, most likely taken during the 1940s. Eight children are pictured, standing in two rows on the steps in front of the main entrance. There are five girls and three boys. The three boys are wearing belts and sashes indicating they are on the school’s Safety Patrol.
Forestville Elementary School SCA officers, undated. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

Forestville Elementary School had an active Student Council Association (SCA), Safety Patrol, Glee Club, and 4-H Club. The children eagerly anticipated annual celebrations of Halloween, Christmas, and May Day.

Black and white photograph of a group of approximately eleven students in costume. They appear to be dressed as pirates. There is a girl wearing a long white dress, so it may be a production of Peter Pan. The students are posed in the parking lot behind the school. A white fence and car are visible behind them. On the far left, parents and small children can be seen in the far distance walking toward the school.
The seventh grade class at Forestville performed a school play each year. The plays were a popular event that brought out the entire community for an evening of entertainment. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

The 1940s

Enrollment at Forestville Elementary School swelled from 155 pupils in September 1937 to 185 pupils in September 1940, an upward trend that would continue throughout the next decade. During World War II, several improvements were made to the school such as the installation of electrical lighting in first floor classrooms, the construction of an entrance to the basement from the outside of the building, and the installation of a ceiling over the lunch room in the basement. In 1944, the Forestville Fire Department constructed a cistern on the school grounds to supply water for firefighting in the vicinity of the school and for the protection of the school itself.

Black and white photograph of the front and right side exterior of Forestville Elementary School taken in 1942. It is a two-story structure constructed of brick and has a basement. The main entrance to the building is a set of double doors at the top of a staircase. A porch awning, supported by brick pillars, is over the steps. The top of the porch has a balcony with a white wooden railing. Behind it, a set of double doors or windows is visible on the second floor. The windows have a glass archway above them. Four sets of windows are visible on the front of the building, one on each side of the entrance and similar ones above on the second floor. There is an identical placement of four windows on the side of the school. A metal fire escape staircase leads down from the second floor to the ground on this side of the building. There is a flag pole out front and the United States flag is visible at the top. Several students can be seen outside the building.
Forestville Elementary School, 1942. An insurance survey conducted in 1950 valued the building at $25,000 and its contents at $2,500.
Black and white photograph of Forestville Elementary School’s first grade class in 1942. Approximately 24 students and their teacher are shown. They are standing next to a fence outside the school with trees in the background.
Forestville Elementary School 1st grade class, 1942. The teacher is believed to be Elizabeth J. Read. By the mid-1940s teacher salaries had risen significantly in FCPS. Miss Read’s salary in 1943 was $1,600 annually. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Miller.

The Baby Boom Begins

Following World War II, rapid growth of the Federal government brought an influx of workers and returning veterans to Northern Virginia. In June 1945 there were 8,235 children enrolled in FCPS at 42 schools. By June 1949 enrollment had increased to 12,118 children, but there were still only 42 schools in operation. Overcrowding was becoming a serious concern at Forestville Elementary School, necessitating the partitioning of the auditorium to create additional classroom space.

Black and white photograph students and their teacher standing together outside behind Forestville Elementary School. The rear entrance to the building is visible in the distance behind them. Two female adults and approximately 27 children are pictured. One adult is standing behind the students and the other is on the left. She is partially obscured because she is walking out of the picture.
Forestville Elementary School students, circa 1948.

FCPS Superintendent W. T. Woodson advocated for the sale of voter-approved school bonds as a source of potential revenue for school construction. However, bond referendums met with limited success at the ballot box because record-setting suburban growth was primarily taking place in eastern Fairfax County and voters in unaffected communities were unconvinced of the need for additional funding.

Black and white photograph of a newspaper clipping showing a classroom at the Forestville School. Students are seated at desks on the auditorium stage. A teacher is standing on the stage next to a bookshelf. The photograph caption reads: Pullman Classroom – There’s an upper and lower section in this seventh grade class at Forestville School but it has nothing to do with the standing of the pupils. Mrs. Margaret Marshall teaches 35 students in a partitioned-off section of the auditorium that includes the stage. Forestville crowds 249 students in a space meant for 180. The bond issue would have provided a new school.

As early as 1948, FCPS administrators formulated plans to build a new school at Forestville to relieve overcrowding, but progress was hampered by a lack of funding. In September 1950, Principal Gertrude Oliver was granted permission to remove the stage in the auditorium in order to make more space available for the two classes being conducted in that space. One year later, FCPS entered into a rental agreement with Forestville Methodist Church to use part of the church for classroom space at a rate of $30 per month.

Black and white photograph students playing behind Forestville Elementary School. Mostly girls are shown, playing on the grassy lawn.
Recess at Forestville Elementary School, 1947. The rear entrance of the building is shown. The girl on the far right facing the camera is Carolyn Cornwell Miller.

“We’re Moving at Last!”

On April 1, 1952, the Fairfax County School Board awarded the contract for the construction of a new elementary school at Forestville to the Howard-Mitchell Construction Company of Richmond, Virginia, in the amount of $280,012. The building, consisting of ten classrooms and a cafetorium, was designed by architect Robert A. Willgoos of Alexandria, Virginia. The 1952-53 school year began with 20,260 students enrolled in FCPS, an increase of more than 2,000 from the previous year. Forestville Elementary School was significantly overcrowded, so the Forestville Grange permitted FCPS to use the old two-room Forestville schoolhouse rent free to house two classes of students with the understanding that the School Board would pay for heat, lights, and water. It was initially hoped the new school on Walker Road would be ready by late December, but a scarcity of construction materials such as steel, brick, and glass, combined with poor weather, delayed completion of the building until springtime.

Black and white photograph of Forestville’s seventh grade class during the 1952 to 1953 school year standing on the steps in front of a building in Washington, D.C. 25 students and three adults are visible. The building behind them has decorative arched entryways with tall columns.
The last seventh grade class at the old Forestville Elementary School, 1952-53, on a field trip to Washington, D.C.

At the end of the 1952-53 school year, Forestville's SCA published a 7th Grade Annual—a retrospective literary work documenting the history of the school year. The annual was comprised of student-written stories, poetry, general interest articles, and student artwork.

Photograph of the dedication page from the annual. It was written with a typewriter using blue ink on white paper. The paper and ink have faded over time. The text reads: We the staff of 1953 dedicate this little booklet to all the teachers and to all the pupils who attended school in the old building at Forestville, as well as those who will follow after us in this new school. May they carry with them always the cherished memories of seven of the most important years of their lives - their childhood school days! The staff of the Three Ring Circus consisted of literary editors John Anderson, Joyce Burgess, and John Nichols; art editors John Nichols, Joyce Ann Beach, and Jimmy Kieffer; photographers Danny Johnson and Robert Natton; jokes editors Jerry Ankers and Chris Wolfe; business editor Joyce Ann Beach; and sports editors Vincent Cazenas and Joyce Burgess.
Dedication page from the 1952-53 seventh grade annual.

In 1993, a copy of this annual was donated to Great Falls Elementary School by John Anderson, one of the annual’s editors who also served as the SCA President in 1952-53. Pictured below is the cover Anderson created for his copy of the annual.

Photograph of the cover of John Anderson’s copy of the 1952 to 1953 seventh grade annual. The edges of the cover and pages are worn, folded, and ripped in many places. The cover itself is made out of tan-colored construction paper. Anderson has drawn in pencil pictures of elephants, clowns, lions, and seals performing in a three-ring circus. The figures have been colored in with crayon or colored pencils. The annual is bound together at the top with two brass brads.
The annual was circus-themed, and the student authors found creative ways of describing events from the prior school year in keeping with this theme. Principal Gertrude Winston became the "ringmaster," the teachers became "trainers," and the students became "monkeys."

In addition to descriptions of SCA activities, Glee Club performances, and 4-H Club awards, the seventh graders described opening day at the new Forestville Elementary School.

We’re moving at last! We had planned to go (1) Christmas, (2) mid-term, (3) Valentine’s Day, (4) Easter, and finally made it on May Day. During this week, we had sent ahead our extra books and room possessions. The movers arrived about ten in the morning with three trucks. At ten till twelve, we, the seventh graders, were the last to abandon the old school building. There we had spent the past seven years of our life. Mr. Presgraves took us over in the bus. We left eleven of our old desks, and when we arrived at the new building, we found no new desks. We deposited the flag, flowers, pictures, pencil sharpener, etc. We were permitted to go into the most attractive library and select one of the new books on the shelves. A thunder shower came up at recess, so we had to stay inside. One of the glass bricks in the front of our room leaked. We washed the new blackboards five or six times. One of our patrons, Mrs. Murphy, sent a lovely potted geranium to each room. The buses came – we left – happy and determined to love and cherish our New School!
~ Joyce Burgess
Black and white photograph of the front exterior of the new Forestville Elementary School taken in 1954. The building is a two-story brick structure with classrooms on both sides of the building separated by central hallways. The main office is located on the first floor near the main entrance. The main entrance, a set of double doors surrounded by windows, is covered by a metal awning. A circular driveway curves in front of the building. In the center of the circle is a grassy area where several trees or tall shrubs have been planted.
The new Forestville Elementary School, 1954.

Carolyn Cornwell Miller, who graciously provided us with many photographs of the old schools of Forestville, was one of the seventh graders who moved to the new building on May 1, 1953. In 2018, she shared some of her memories of the old Forestville Elementary School:

The Forestville School building was a brick building with two floors and basement. The front door was not used, because they had put an office at the front entrance with another wall of glass and door out into the hall. There were four classrooms on the first floor. The hall had dark trim with dark wood paneling half way up the walls. The stairs were also dark wood. The second floor had two classrooms on either side of the hallway which opened to an auditorium with a stage. The auditorium was in the front of the building. In later years they divided the auditorium into two classrooms. The fifth grade was in the back side and the seventh was in the front side with the stage. There was a fire escape on the back side of the auditorium. The basement had restrooms, a kitchen, and a dining area. There was a door on the right side of the basement to the outside. The last year at the school, Nellie Woods and Ida Gray were the cooks. The seventh grade class voted on the last meal they wanted to be served. It was vegetable soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
~ Carolyn Miller

Serving the Community

In April 1957, representatives from the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department spoke at a meeting of the Fairfax County School Board. The representatives described the department’s need for larger facilities in order to better serve the community, and cited how well they felt the old Forestville School property could fulfill that need. They also stated that the department wanted to raze the existing building and construct a new fire station on the site. The School Board sold the property to the Great Falls Fire Department two years later, on May 19, 1959.

Black and white photograph of the front and left side exterior of the old Forestville Elementary School taken in 1954. It is a two-story structure constructed of brick and has a basement. The main entrance to the building is a set of double doors at the top of a staircase. A porch awning, supported by brick pillars, is over the steps. The top of the porch has a balcony with a white wooden railing. Behind it, a set of double doors or windows is visible on the second floor. The windows have a glass archway above them. Four sets of windows are visible on the front of the building, one on each side of the entrance and similar ones above on the second floor. There is an identical placement of four windows on the side of the school. The bell tower has been removed. Two men are standing at the top of the steps at the main entrance.
The old Forestville Elementary School, 1954. After the school closed, FCPS used the building for equipment storage. The Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department purchased the school property in 1959 and built a fire station on the site.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Photograph of the bell from the one-room schoolhouse at Forestville. It was also used from approximately 1922 to 1949 on top of the Forestville high school and elementary school building. The bell is painted gold and is mounted in a black-painted steel housing. There is a wheel to the right of the bell on which a cord would have been wound so the bell could be rung. The bell and housing have been mounted to a brick pedestal outside the fire station.

Pictured above is the bell that sits in front of the Great Falls Fire Station. In 1889, this bell was installed above the Forestville one-room schoolhouse. In 1922, the bell was removed and placed atop the new Forestville High School building. By the late 1940s, the bell was beginning to cause damage to the roof of the school. It was removed about 1949 and given to Alice Cornwell, widow of George Gunnell, the couple that had donated the land for the Forestville School in 1889. Ms. Cornwell gave the bell to Mr. E. P. Orr, a former principal and teacher at Forestville Elementary School. When Mr. Orr fell into ill health, he donated the bell to the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department.

The Principals of the old Forestville High / Elementary School

1923-25: Frederick Bruce Cunningham

1926-27: R. Watson Durham

1927-28: John E. Quintrell

1928-29: Clayton Scyphers

1929-30: J. D. Hardy

1930-32: Edith Rogers

1932-33: G. Claude Cox

1933-40: E. P. Orr

1940-42: Harry W. McCary

1942-46: Elsie Haynie

1946-47: Janie G. Nance

1947-53: Gertrude Frances Chesley Oliver