The tall, red brick building that was once home to Rowlesburg High School still stands after surviving the historic 1985 flood.
After the flood it was no longer used as a school, but today it remains the heart of the community of Rowlesburg – it's where people meet, festivities are held, weekly dinners are made, etc.
Above the basketball gym on the second floor, visitors can find another mecca of community. For six years, the Preston County Sports Museum has preserved sports memorabilia from the original 10 high schools of Preston County, West Virginia, located in the northern corner of the state, bordering Maryland and Pennsylvania.
In the process, the museum has also preserved memories — of sports rivalry, team spirit and of community — that faded as the county's high schools closed their doors.
Beginning in 1957, 10 high schools across Preston County closed. Over the years they consolidated into fewer schools, and in 1991 the entire county merged into one high school – Preston High School located in Kingwood.
School consolidation plays a large part in both West Virginia’s history and present. In the 1990s the state closed over 300 schools in attempt to save money, which proved unsuccessful according to a Charleston Gazette investigation.
But for former students of consolidated schools, the loss of a school is intertwined with the loss of their history.
“There was a lot of weeping and mourning going on, especially from the elders and people who graduated from here,” says Anna Nassif, a former student of Rowlesburg High School. “It was a terrible loss, and I don’t think people have gotten over it.”
Anna graduated from Rowlesburg High in 1951. She helped design the Preston County Sports Museum, which features memorabilia from the former high schools — Arthurdale, Aurora, Bruceton, Fellowsville, Kingwood, Masontown Valley, Newburg, Rowlesburg, Terra Alta and Tunnelton.
In closing those 10 schools, the county lost 10 competitive sports teams and the rich sports legacy each team built over the decades. That is something Anna’s brother, George Nassif, is familiar with. He played baseball, basketball and football at the now-shuttered Rowlesburg High.
George graduated in 1958. He still remembers almost every game and every player.
Framed photos of war veterans line the walls of the stairs leading up to the sports museum. George remembers the veterans as legendary athletes.
“And this fella was the best basketball player to ever come out of Rowlesburg. James Ayersman. He’d give demonstrations dribbling between his legs and so forth,” he says.
At the top of the stairs the hallway opens into a big hall of memorabilia. There are mannequins sporting the original sports uniforms. There are 10 banners on the museum's wall recognizing each of the schools in their “hall of fame.”
Hinting at the rivalry that still exists today, Anna says they intentionally painted the walls of the museum a neutral shade that would not favor any one school’s colors.
“To insist on we’re going to have this hall and it’s going to be painted this color - not green, not purple. Gray – so all the colors could come out,” she says.
On the left is a room dedicated to the high school teams that formed during the years of consolidation. On the right, is a room featuring all the original schools.
It is a dark room, with spotlights shining on 10 different sports displays, each representing one of the schools.
The structure of all the displays is the same, yet again not to prioritize any one school. They are handmade, including a table with a wooden backdrop to hang things on.
There are awards, photos, letterman jackets, shoes, jerseys, etc – all donated from former players and their families, people who at one point were fierce competitors. Even without the schools the rivalries remain alive, so keeping all the memorabilia in Rowlesburg was contentious.
“To ask people to bring their things to Rowlesburg - I didn’t think it was possible,” George says.
There is a CD featuring former students singing their school’s song. Anna even sings the Rowlesburg fight song with a line that includes, "Comrades old and comrades new, cheer for Rowlesburg High we say...”
Walking through the museum, different memorabilia sparks memories for George.
“When we played the first football game under the lights September 6, 1957 in Kingwood - the whole town came out,” he says. “We played Terra Alta and our nemesis Ron Lewis - his shoes are over there and I’m sure I got a few cleats in me from those shoes.”
He points out a 1957 basketball team photo in the Rowlesburg display. The photo is gray and white, not quite in focus and weathered from time, but George can still name each player, including himself.
“We were going to play against that darn team Aurora. They beat us by three points and went all the way to the final,” he says.
He finds a picture in the Aurora display. It is of Bucky Bolyard. He was one of the top athletes in the whole county, and he only could see out of one eye.
“I got to play against him my freshman year. He was a senior,” George says. “When he jumped, he went way up there. And he knew where the ball was going if he missed.”
Bucky averaged 30 points a game.
There are records of the score from almost every sports game between the 10 high schools in the museum.
George says every game was packed with the high school’s respective towns. It was like an entire sports league all within one county. In fact, it is believed that the organized basketball league among the 10 high schools was the first of its kind in the state.
George recalls one basketball game at Fellowsville High School.
“It was famous. It was a very tight stadium, very close in, it was hot, tempers were fired up,” he says.
The bleachers were positioned right behind the one basket net, and the crowd did things that would never be allowed today.
“So when you shoot a foul shot they’d shake the ball out,” George says.
There are also stories of people pulling player’s pants down or throwing a coke bottle at them.
“But it was all in good fun, nobody ever got hurt,” he says.
There was also a lot of chanting from the crowds. George and Anna sing some of the old Rowlesburg cheers - where their colors were orange and black.
Some of the lines include, “Orange Black, set em’ back, way back.”
And, “You can, you can, you know you can, you must, Beat, beat, beat, beat Kingwood High School.”
The way Anna speaks of the original 10 high schools and the towns they were in, it is almost as if they are synonymous. She uses the words “town” and “school” interchangeably.
“If you look around in here there are 10 mascots for each of the 10 original towns,” she says.
Anna says a bit of each town died as the 10 high schools closed.
“The feeling of loyalty toward a place, toward your roots, I don’t think it happened with those kids that graduated in the last 20 some or 30 some years,” she says.
It is not necessarily that students in Preston County do not care, but rather they just do not know about the history. The glory days of the 10 high schools and their sports teams was over 60 years ago.
George says he was surprised while leading a tour of the exhibit with some sixth-graders from Aurora last year. He showed them the picture of the Aurora sports hero Bucky Bolyard – the one-eyed basketball player mentioned earlier – and none of them knew of him.
"They all looked quizzical and they didn’t know Bucky Bolyard. So that’s what we’re talking about,” he said.
For George, knowing about the county’s sports heroes like Bucky is a must, and that is why George and Anna are so passionate about the museum. They want today’s kids growing up in Rowlesburg, or Terra Alta, or any town in Preston County to understand and cherish that history. To have a love for their small town and the sports heroes that came before them.