The historic gymnasium in Alapaha, Georgia, is filled with enduring memories of school, sporting events, concerts, social activities — where many residents experienced the gamut of human emotions. Unfortunately, by late spring 2013 heavy rains had caused considerable roof leakage and ceiling/wall disintegration, exacerbated by two dilapidated chimneys and shingles that flew off anytime major winds arrived.
The sudden prospect of losing the building to the classical elements prompted the community to think proactively. A fundraising project astonishingly raised $48,200 from local businesses and individuals. The Town of Alapaha made an additional contribution of $31,000 towards a metal roof and air conditioning installation.
Funded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s innovative New Deal initiatives during the Great Depression, the Work Projects Administration [WPA] built the gym rather hurriedly in late 1938 while Edwin Gaskins was attending his freshman year of college. Since then, the gym has been the cultural touchstone of the little town with a big heart for an astonishing 80 years, withstanding a May 1952 tornado that scattered school books along the banks of the Alapaha River.
Basketball and school functions played a tremendous role in Alapaha’s community spirit. Evelyn Riner actually fell in love with her coach and future husband, Alvin, in the late ’40s while playing forward on the basketball team.
The school had a contest circa 1957 to choose a mascot. Robert Gaskins’ superb suggestion, the Alapaha Tigers, won in a landslide. Berrien High School did not have a gym until the early ’60s, so basketball home schedules were hosted in Ray City, Enigma, and Alapaha. Our community was renowned for its then state-of-the-art facilities.
Friendly basketball matches between the Harlem Globetrotters and the formidable Lion’s Club, players riding donkeys and managing to score a basket, and county-wide games coached by W.C. Sams that left spectators hanging on the edge of their seats and visitors outraged that Alapaha usually beat them occurred regularly.
Physical education teacher Ronnie Floyd coached girls’ and boys’ basketball for 14 years until the school was consolidated in 1994. During his tenure, the girls’ team went undefeated through one regular season, ultimately winning the county tournament. After the roof was blown off during one particularly rough storm, Coach Floyd singlehandedly repainted all the gym floor lines.
The Halloween carnivals hosted by Principal Dona Fields [1977–1993] encouraged families to participate together and have fun. Booths and games lined the gym’s floor. In the basement, a sinister horror house and a peculiar fortune teller awaited unsuspecting students.
Charity drives for dreaded diseases such as cancer also encouraged community participation. Hee Haw-inspired follies, a concert by the original Chuck Wagon Gang, a womanless wedding sponsored by the Lion’s Club, and an auction where emcee Rufus Powell “coaxed” Hubert Moore and Carl Dixon to battle until a cake went for an incredible $2,000 all made an indelible impact.
Without question, the gym remains Alapaha’s only gathering place for special events. During the summer months Alapaha Tutoring Center maintains a fulfilling lunch program for local youth. The annual Easter Passion Play and Alapaha Station Celebration — i.e. the beauty pageant and Sunday morning community worship service — continue to use the facilities.
The latter festival bore witness to sold-out gospel concerts headlined by Southern gospel legends including Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters and the rambunctious Little Roy and the Lewis Family. Rock and roll fans had their moment in the sun in 2011, experiencing unparalleled jubilation as Elvis Presley tribute artist Todd Allen Herendeen danced with 87-year-old Jean Dixon after handing her a sweat-soaked scarf midway through “Love Me.”
When disasters strike unexpectedly, the gym is the community’s only source of relief. In 1999 the gym became an invaluable refuge for folks along the Georgia-Florida coast seeking shelter from the destructive Hurricane Floyd. It was quite a sight witnessing sleeping bags and makeshift tents lining the basketball court.
The first phase of the restoration project saw a new metal roof and some painting done in the foyer, stage area, and dressing rooms. Phase two included ceiling sheeting installation — caused by the extensive water damage — painting in the gym area, wiring updates, restroom repairs, and a new stage drape. A vandal[s] had damaged the previous expensive curtain with a knife, severely ripping apart four distinct sections.
Sylvia Roberts of Bank of Alapaha stated, “Every week brought more contributions with residents and past residents/students eager to help. Folks heard about the project thru the Alapaha Station Celebration’s Facebook page, word of mouth, or thru initial publicity efforts aimed at area newspapers and ultimately profiled by a WALB Channel 10 news segment.”
Next time you are in the vicinity, stop and take a look at the vast improvements. Because of generous, heartfelt contributions, in another 80 years the Alapaha gym will still be standing.
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