Historic Buildings in Halifax County, Virginia
Cluster Springs Academy 1865 - 1917
By Kenneth H. Cook
Article published in the News & Record
When in 1728, Colonel William Byrd made his famous survey of the Dan River and its tributaries, he described in glowing terms the land over which he passed. "Charming valleys bring forth like the land of Egypt. Grass grows as high as a man on horseback, and the Rivers roll down their waters to the sea as clear as crystal. Happy will be the people destined for so wholesome a situation, where they may live the fullness of their days with much content and gaiety of heart."
One of the rivers described by Colonel Byrd was the Hico-ott-mony Creek, or Turkey Buzzard River; and it was between this River, long since shortened to Hyco, and the Dan that a settlement sprang up that was to give Halifax County some of its largest plantations and to flourish as one of the principal centers of culture in Southside Virginia.
"This day we met with such uneven Grounds, and thick Underwoods, that with all our Industry we were able to advance the Line but 4 Miles and 312 Poles. In this small Distance it intersected a large stream four times, which our Indian at first mistook for the South Branch of Roanoke River; but, discovering his Error soon afterward, he assur'd us 'twas a River called Hicootomony, or Turkey-Buzzard River, from the great Number of those unsavoury Birds that roost on the tall Trees growing near its banks." - from The Dividing Line by Colonel William Byrd
After Colonel Byrd came the white colonists, hacking their way through the wilderness, and it was natural for them to settle in a region where the forests and grasses gave ample evidence of the fertility of the soil and where pure water gushed from the ground in clusters of springs. Too, these settlers must have learned from the Indians of a place where fourteen springs came to the surface at one place, two of which brought forth waters good for the ills of man. The Indians knew of the medicinal properties of the springs, and after them, the white men came great distances to drink of the calcium lithia and sulphur water, and to take away quantities of the surrounding mud, which was said to cure boils, sprains and other illnesses.
The fine soil of the uplands grew Virginia's golden crop, tobacco, of a superb quality, and the lowgrounds along the Hyco river and the numerous creeks yielded a rich harvest of grain. Farms became plantations, just as the South's economy shaped up elsewhere, and as the plantations made money they built churches, and schools for the education of their children.
There was a tavern and overnight stage stop at Cluster Springs, which in 1834 was owned by a Dr. Easley, father of Andrew Easley who lived at Black Walnut. The stable at the stop held 100 horses for changing the stage teams and for hire to guests. The coming of the Richmond-Danville Railroad in the 1850's put an end to most of the stage coaches, but the property at Cluster Spring continued to flourish as a hotel and summer resort until the War Between the States. The popularity of the springs drew visitors from all over the country, and the stable still furnished horses for riding purposes.
Some of the summer guests lingered on throughout the winters, and it was natural that they looked around for a way in which to supplement their incomes. So it was that a boys school was started for the sons of the nearby families. After the war, when Virginia and the South lay prostrate, summer guests fell off rapidly, and from a resort Cluster Springs became chiefly a boys school. From the boys school came Cluster Springs Academy.
The academy ended with the outbreak of World War I. After the World War, there was an attempt to recreate the summer resort, but after a few years, the springs, the lake for fishing, swimmng and boating ceased to attract visitors and the resort closed down. Latter, it became a week-end night spot for dancing, but this, too, played out for lack of interest.
Then for years, Cluster Springs, now off the highway, stood as a veritable ghost town. An occasional visitor wandered down to the springs, looked over the still beautiful, but fast deteriorating hotel buildings, and the empty, dusty rooms of the academy, and speculated on what the place must have looked like in its heyday. Later, some of the better dormitories were rented to families, and the hotel served as an apartment house.
Then, some ten to 12 years ago , the property was purchased by private interests, the buildings torn down, and new lakes created. Most of the original springs are now under the waters of one or the other of the three lakes, only one of the original buildings still stands, and all that remain of the academy are some crumbling brick foundations.
The Black Walnut Baptist Church was organized in 1824, and was moved to its present sight in 1838. Part of the building erected in that year still remains, but it has been remodeled several times, and it is doubtful if the original building can be recognized anywhere in the present alterated, and enlarged place of worship. Recent additions were 10 now Sunday School rooms.
Black Walnut Baptist Church antedated Spring Hill Presbyterian Church by over 10 years. In the years 1836 and 1837, the Rev. A.D. Montgomery preached occasionally in the neighborhood but there was no stated preaching by any Presbyterian minister.
Then early in the winter of 1838, delegates from Harmony, Carmel and Cluster Springs met and made arrangements for regular preaching. Harmony agreed to give $150, Carmel $150, and Cluster Springs $300 toward the preacher's salary, and the Rev. Mr. Montgomery moved to Cluster Springs into a home owned by Dr. Henry Easley.
There is word to the effect that a girls school was once taught in the Miss Bessie Jordan home at Black Walnut although there is no record of this available. It is known that the house was once the Presbyterian Manse.
The nearest thing to a public school of which there is any record were the classes taught in the home of Dr. John W. Craddock. Here, when a teacher was hired for the Craddock girls, came a few other girls from the neighborhood. In the attic of the Craddock home at Cluster Springs, where the classes were taught, the white plaster walls still bear the monograms of girls who attended there and smoked their initials on the walls with candles.
A public school was opened on what is now the Cherry Hill road sometime before the turn of the century. The next public school was located near Black Walnut Baptist Church, and served the community until the present high school was built in 1918.
The present high school building was erected after the School Board agreed to erect a $4,000 building, provided the community would raise $1,000 of the cost.
As has been related, the resort and hotel property at Cluster Springs gradually became a boys school. Sometime after 1865, the Rev. John Bunyon Shearer purchased the property and ran a school until 1875, when he left to establish Davidson College in North Carolina. Oscar Rogers, of Albemarle County,purchased the property from Dr. Shearer, and operated the school until 1890.
At the time Mr. Rogers was operating the school, one of his nephews, T. S. Wilson was attending the University of Virginia, and it was the Rev. Mr. Wilson who took over the property in 1890 and founded the Academy. Mr. Wilson employed Hampden Wilson as master of the Academy. Hampden Wilson bought the school in May 1900, and remained there until the Academy closed in 1917.
It was under Mr. Wilson that the school reached its peak, attracting students from all over the nation. It was to Cluster Springs academy, too, during these years that many of the present citizens of Halifax County went to receive their education.
That the academy was well-supported may be seen in the story of how a dormitory was replaced by the alumni after it had burned to the ground. Perhaps it was the healthful properties of the water that attracted students from a distance to attend the school, just as the springs had attracted summer guests. J.E.Traynham, of Cluster Springs, recalls the following:
"I have seen boys come to the school in the fall pale and skinny, and go away in the spring looking fat and rosey. This was attributed to the water."
When Miss Sarah Craddock came home after teaching at Chowan Institute, she was asked to teach elocution at the academy. At that time, a girl teaching at a boys' school was a rare occurance, but Miss Craddock was prevailed upon to take the position.
With a smile, Miss Sarah recalls how the position brought with it a present of a revolver from her brother, who taught her how to shoot and insisted that she wear the gun to school.
"I'll never forget the expression on the boys' faces the first morning I walked into class with a big pistol by my side," Miss Sarah said.
It was perhaps Miss Sarah's instruction that gave the academy its most famous students for it was she who taught public speaking to Martin Dies, late Texas congressman and long-time chairman of the Committee on Unamerican Activities, which became known as the Dies Committee. When questioned about Congressman Dies' scholastic abilities Miss Sarah said: "He did very well in class."
Miss Craddock also taught State Senator Harry Stuart, of Elk Garden, but there were many other students at the academy who later became top men in their professions. Scattered throughout the country are prominent doctors, lawyers and ministers who attended school at Cluster Springs.
With the outbreak of World War I, students at the academy were fast to volunteer, and thus ended the school. When it closed down in 1917, a number of foreign students, including three from South America, were enrolled.
That the plantations flourished at Black Walnut may be deducted from the fact that two cavalry companies, and one fully-equipped infantry coupany organized there at the outbreak of the War Between the States. Of the three, the Black Walnut Dragoons, mounted on fine, blooded horses and tailored uniforms is said to have been the flashiest company to leave Halifax County. When this company rode through South Boston and Halifax, crowds lined the roads and streets to see them pass.
Although a community much addicted to hounds and horses, visiting, barbecues, picnics and other gala occasions, the social customs at Black Walnut do not jibe with the story-book pictures of plantation days, with endless mint-juleps and a whirlwind of balls and dances. Recordings in the Spring Hill session book show that morals and manner were strict and public censure swift and certain.
The session book of Spring Hill Presbyterian Church gives a case of two of the church's prominent members being suspended for "having been the abbettors of publick balls and parties at their own house". In another instance, the book records that Mrs. S. B. was suspended from church on public rumors charging her with "dancing in promiscuous assemblies . . ." Witnesses were called to testify that she had danced in a home in Halifax, and again while visiting in Person County, N.C. In another case, church proceedings were instituted against Capt. R. F., "for drunkeness at High Hill, in Halifax, Virginia, on April 10, 1852."
The name Cluster Springs originally applied only to the resort and later the academy, and the village was known as Black Walnut until 1889, when the Lynchburg-Durham railway went through. Then at the request of railroad officials, who found this name of the school and a different for the station and post office confusing, Black Walnut was dropped in favor of the Springs.
At the present Post Office site, residents believe there has been a store of one kind or another for over 150 years. Earliest record of the store is that it was owned by William L. Owen, who was also one of the largest plantation owners. Frank Faulkner, of South Boston, has a bill of lading on a shipment of salt that came up the river from (?).
One of the William L. Owen slaves, Alex, represented the county in the General Assembly during reconstruction.
While built around the agricultural resources of the community there was also a cannery at Black Walnut before the turn of the century. At that time, the canning concern ran the store, but the cannery burned in 1889 or 1900, and did not rebuild. Traynham Brothers next opened the store and ran it for 20 years.
The village of Cluster Springs has shown a big growth since the end of World War II. The Alton Road, from Route 501 to the Post Office, is lined with new houses, and others are still being erected. This is true also along route 501 itself, and on the Old Cluster Springs Road to South Boston.
Despite the new growth, the village that was thriving when South Boston was a cowpasture, still keeps its Old South atmosphere. Ancient Oaks spread shade over wide lawns, the beautiful old houses are well-kept and hospitable in appearance. Along the shady lanes and paths, roses and honeysuckles climb along the fences. There is past glory there, but new growth is in evidence.
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The transcription and the updated photos are the work of Dan Shaw. In some cases modifications to the original text have been made to improve the flow of the story, correct typos, and insert new or clarifying information. Additional facts or further corrections are welcome. This author takes no credit for the original publications and its research. These local historians should be honored for the their endless hours of efforts to document this county's history for posterity.