Chester Elementary School couldn’t be finished fast enough. In 1959, leading up to the opening of a new school building on West Hundred Road, elementary students living in Chester were attending class in unorthodox settings.
“They were in Sunday schools and firehouses and anywhere we could put them,” said Clarence E. Curtis, Jr., who served as the Bermuda District School Board representative from 1970 through 1987.
The elementary school opened to accommodate 600 students in grades one through seven, and it helped alleviate the onslaught of students who were part of a wave of baby boomers raising families in Chester. The new school was called Chester Elementary until April 1963, when it was dedicated in honor of Clarence E. Curtis, Sr.
C. E. Curtis, Sr. was appointed to the School Board in 1950 and was its chairman in 1960 when he died. “He was really interested in the children and the community,” said C. E. Jr., who still lives in Chester today. “It was almost a full-time job for him.” School Board members in the 1950s were paid about $25 a month. By the time C. E. Jr. was appointed to the board in 1970, board members were being paid $334 a month.
In April 1963, the Chesterfield Colonial Heights News-Journal quoted another former School Board chairman, Henry Jones, as saying, “[He played a] major role in making available the many fine school buildings and system presently enjoyed in Chesterfield. The explosive growth of the county demanded far reaching vision by those men entrusted with the problems of education. Mr. Curtis had this ability and the necessary leadership needed to bring about successful fund raising options.”
Mr. Curtis was also praised for dealing with some of the same issues the current School Board faces. “Seldom has any group been subject to such harassment by both sides of not some issues but every issue,” said Mr. Jones during the dedication. “Telephone campaigns and constant criticism must have made life unbearable at times for the board members.
Through it all, the county was fortunate that its leadership was in such capable hands.”
W. Hugh Goodwyn, who represented the Bermuda District at the time of the dedication, accepted a portrait of Curtis that continues to hang in the school today.
The Curtis family lived on Werth Street in Chester, just opposite the site of the old Chester Library. Curtis Jr. remembers how it was to live in Chester during the 1930s and 1940s. The family owned Curtis Lumber Co., located near where Dubberly Tractor is sits today on West Hundred Road east of Interstate 95. It closed in 1976.
Curtis Jr. and his wife, Vernelle, remember that Chester’s elementary school was once located where Chester Middle School is today. A two-story frame building sat near the west end of the current school and contained four classrooms on the first floor where elementary grades were taught. On the second floor, high school classes were taught. The building was razed to make way for what would be Thomas Dale High School and later the middle school.
Many in the area have seen a photo of Martin Whitlow driving a horse drawn mail cart up Werth Street in the 1940s. Curtis Jr. rode on that mail cart and at times just hung onto the side to get a boost on his bicycle up the hill to center of the village. Curtis Jr. also carried the newspaper for a number of years, riding his bicycle by every house in the village. “I got to know everyone in Chester that way,” he said.
When Vernelle was asked how it was to live in Chester back in the 1950s, she responds simply, “Great. Everybody knew everybody.”
C. E. Curtis Elementary is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In 2002, Curtis gained additional classrooms as part of a facelift. The school, one of the first modern schools built in the Bermuda District, now has a total of 44 classrooms, a large office complex, multimedia center, gymnasium and cafeteria.
The school recently held a ribbon cutting ceremony for its new sign. PTA President Mara R. Leach said the sign was “a nice little present” for the school’s 50th anniversary. The new sign is closer to the street than the old one, and its colors were chosen to coordinate with Thomas Dale High School’s sign.