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Before There Was Cary, There Was Cary High School

09 Nov 2020 10:46 AM | Carla Michaels (Administrator)

As we approach the upcoming 150th anniversary of Cary’s founding on April 3, 2021, it may come as a surprise to many that classes at Cary High School started before the town was incorporated in 1871! Today, Cary High School stands at the intersection of Walnut Street and Maynard Road, but Cary High School’s origin was the “school lot”, now known as the Cary Arts Center. Let’s explore this important piece of property in Cary’s history.

“The Early Years”

Let’s look at the history of this significant property by exploring the three school buildings that have educated children on this site. We’ll start with the first building, a wooden structure that served as the school building from 1871 to 1913. To set the stage, prior to 1870, children were taught in the home, at small “common schools” dotted around the county to teach the “Three R’s”, or, for students whose parents had some means to pay, at small, local academies. It took the vision, land and building materials of Frank Page, the founder of Cary, to construct a proper schoolhouse in Cary itself “on four acres of land…well shaded by a grove of oaks.” The site of this original school house is now known as the Cary Arts Center.

A newspaper advertisement, dated December 1869, announced the first session of Cary High School in January 1870. The principal is shown as Abraham Haywood Merritt, a graduate of the University of North Carolina. Merritt was the brother-in-law of Rufus H. Jones, who was one of the original town commissioners and a colleague of Frank Page. Professor Merritt was on the Board of Trustees of the Methodist Church in Cary and also served as an original town commissioner, so he would have been well known and approved of by Frank Page to head the school in Cary. Frank Page’s children, most notably Walter Hines Page, future United States Ambassador to England during WW I, attended the school.

The two story, four room wooden school house was finished in January 1871 to accommodate ongoing classes. We know from early Cary history that the economic downturn of 1873 affected Frank Page financially and that he left Cary for the Moore County pine forests to remake his fortune. As he was making the transition to Moore County, Page sold a 1/3 interest in the school to his colleague Rufus Jones. Continuing the Page family influence at the school during this time was Frank’s brother, Rev. Jesse Page, who served as principal from 1873 to 1877.

The school’s goal from the beginning was to provide “a “high grade” education, firm discipline and thorough instruction”, but in these early years, the school appeared to search for an identity. Early on, the school was advertised at various times as a combined male and female school, a female school, a female seminary, and a Teachers Institute.

The early years also saw a number of principals. Rev. Solomon Pool, a former president of the University of North Carolina served as principal for several years in the early 1880s. Other principals we know of are Rev. W. B. Bagwell of Wake County, and Professor W. L. Crocker, a graduate of Wake Forest College. By 1886, the Jones family had purchased the remaining school property from Frank Page. Loulie and Lily Jones, daughters of Rufus Jones and both graduates of Greensboro College, ran or taught at the school in the 1890s. Although we know the names of many of the principals, the exact years that some of them served are lost to time. In the 1920 CHS yearbook, the student editors noted that the earliest records of the school were preserved largely by tradition.

Stability came to the school with the arrival of Professor E. L. Middleton. He came highly recommended for the position after successful tenures at the Wilson Male Academy and Durham Female Institute, and his arrival coincided with the purchase of the school by a board of stockholders from the Jones Family. The school was officially incorporated at this time by the State of North Carolina on July 24, 1896. Professor Middleton was the leading force at Cary High School from 1896 to 1908. His energy and enthusiasm for high quality education increased the school’s growing reputation. As the reputation of the school grew, so did the student body. Classroom wings expanded the physical size of the school, and dormitories were added on campus to accommodate boarding students from outside the Cary area. Professor Middleton was keen to develop not only the intellect of his students but their moral character as well. Catalogs of the day indicate that although it was not a sectarian school, a “broad and liberal Christian spirit (was) encouraged”.

Professor Middleton was the leading force at Cary High School from 1896 to 1908. His energy and enthusiasm for high quality education increased the school’s reputation. However, he had a passion for establishing Sunday Schools in Baptist churches, so he left the high school to become the first Sunday School Secretary of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. His departure ushered in a new era for Cary High School. In 1908, Marcus Baxter Dry was selected as the next principal of Cary High School. 

Before we explore Professor Dry’s tenure, here is a photograph of the first school building, the wooden one, near the end of its life. The school not only provided a superior education for its students, but it was a gathering place for the community. Picnics and barbecues were regular events at the beginning of school terms, and important visitors to the town used the school as a large venue to perform or speak in.

Have any of you ever heard of Noodles Fagan? Let me tell you his remarkable story and his visit to Cary. His given name was Lawrence Clinton Fagan, and he had an impoverished childhood in the Bowery of New York City. He started out at a young age selling newspapers on the street. One day a charitable person bought him a bowl of noodle soup which he promptly spilled down his coat. That earned him the nickname “Noodles”. His circumstances didn’t hold him back, though. He became a successful newspaper seller and went on to own real estate, several newspaper stands, and even became a vaudeville star. His goal was to speak to every child in America with this message: be polite, be honest, and hustle (which I take to mean work hard). Don’t miss one school session, don’t drink, don’t chew, keep your hands clean and your character clean. He traveled around the world three times, met King Edward of England, King Alfonso of Spain, and President Taft.

A previously undated photo of the school in the Cary High School Archives has recently been discovered to commemorate Noodles' visit to Cary in 1912. In this close up view of the photo, he was surrounded by delighted children. In many early school photos, children wear stoic faces, but in this photo their faces are beaming, as is Noodles’. Even Professor Dry has a smile on his face! What a day for those lucky schoolchildren to remember.

Now let’s turn our attention to the longest serving principal of Cary High School, Professor Marcus Baxter Dry. Mr. Dry was born in 1871 on his father’s farm in Union County in western North Carolina. He attended Wake Forest College and returned to Union County to serve as principal for 12 years of the newly established Wingate High School. In 1908, when Professor E. L. Middleton retired from Cary High School, Professor Dry was elected to replace him. Under his direction, Cary High School rose to prominence in the state.

“A Modern Brick Building”

The wooden building that had served the school so well for 40 years became outmoded and inadequate for the growth and expansion of school programs. Professor Dry wrote a letter to the Wake County School Board appealing for a new, modern, school building. The wooden structure came down and the first brick building was built in its place. Work started in the fall of 1913 and the new building was dedicated in April 1914. Quite a turnaround!

One newspaper article recounted the that the building had “every whim of modernity”. The article went on to say that the original 4-room schoolhouse had been renovated or extended 12 times. It had definitely served its purpose. However, not all was lost! Part of the old building was upcycled to become part of the boys’ dormitory. During its long history, it’s fortunate that the wooden school building itself never burned. However, fire destroyed the wooden boys’ dormitory in 1916. When the new brick dormitory was built, the boys acted with gallantry and turned over their new home away from home to the female students. In 1920, a dormitory of similar design was built for the boys who had been housed among local families.

Professor Dry was a firm believer in quality education that suited the student, not a “one size fits all” approach. He believed in superior academic training and college prep for students who wanted to go on to further their education after high school, but he also recognized the importance of vocational education to equip young men and women to work in their communities. Because the new school building had space to grow, Professor Dry created several vocational departments in the next few years, the most notable being the Farm Life School.

Even the space in the new brick school building proved inadequate for the expansion of the curriculum. By the early 1920s, a vocational building was built through a local bond issue that the town fully embraced. It was named for Walter Hines Page, Cary’s most famous son who believed in “the free public training of both the minds and hands of every child born of woman”. Around the same time, a full commercial department was instituted, with six manual typewriters representing the high tech instruments of the day.

For a short while, Dry introduced teacher training at Cary High School to meet the increasing need for teachers in Cary and beyond, but the program was phased out when colleges in the state were able to train teachers in sufficient quantity to meet demand. Dry also pioneered vocational training for mentally handicapped children. His "Betterment Association”, forerunner of the Parent-Teacher Association, enabled him to provide hot lunches for children. Other programs he instituted include: student council, public school music and band, and physical education (establishing the first rural high school gymnasium in the state). School ledgers from the 1920s show that young men and women from outside the county and from as far away as Virginia and South Carolina attended the school along with local children. Under Dry’s direction, Cary High School became a model for the development of North Carolina's public school system in the 1920s. It’s entirely appropriate that the street that runs in front of the former Cary High School is named for this champion of education, Marcus Baxter Dry.

The big event of 1929, the stock market crash and the ensuing Depression brought challenges to the school. The high school yearbooks, which are important sources of details about student life, were discontinued and didn’t resume until after WWII. School newspapers tried to fill the gap, but few exist from this time period, so our understanding of school life during these hard years is limited.

The community pulled together to help each other through the hard times, and the school played a central role. The Fall Festival, a community event like a mini-fair, with exhibitions and judged competitions, offered a source of entertainment and community involvement to Cary-ites. Local businesses sponsored the printed booklet, which records businesses of the time. Here is the cover to one of the booklets and some advertisements naming local businesses. The cover features a likeness of the Templeton Gymnasium, named For Dr. James M Templeton, a respected local doctor and member of the School Committee.

The high school’s character began to change with the introduction of school buses in the county. Here is a photo of the wood sided buses all lined up, waiting to transport students.

Because bus transportation allowed former boarding students to attend new regional schools closer to home, enrollment at the high school consisted mainly of local students, and by 1933 the dormitories closed. The girls’ dormitory, which had been named the Frank Page dormitory, was converted into “The Teacherage” that had apartments for married teachers and single rooms for unmarried teachers. 

“A Bigger and Better Building”

To help communities struggling through the Depression, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, funded projects around the country, and this program funded yet another school building for Cary. The school had outgrown the first brick building, and the Federal Government stepped in to build what is now known as the Cary Arts Center. The old brick building was razed with a wrecking ball in 1938 and all the students were squeezed into existing buildings for the duration of construction. A rare construction photo shows work on the building that now houses studios and ceramics kilns in the basement and classrooms and exhibition space in the upper floors. In the background is the teacherage on the left and Professor Dry’s house on the right. Because of ongoing construction, the 1939 graduation exercises were held in various venues throughout the town.

A photo of the 1939 graduating class on the steps of First Baptist Church on Academy Street signals the make-do efforts of the school.  In a newspaper article, J. M. Broughton, who was running for governor, came to deliver the commencement address at the church for the graduating class. He made his speech, which he thought was a good one, and sat down. There wasn’t the faintest suggestion of applause, so he thought his speech had flopped. Later, as he observed the graduates receiving their degrees without any audience response, a school board member whispered that an unwritten rule of the church was that absolute decorum was to be observed. No clapping in the sanctuary! It is said he swore off making commencement speeches in Baptist churches from that day forward.

The new brick school building was eventually finished, and in the dedication address, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction said in his knowledge Mr. Dry was the only man who had literally worn out a school building!

Not long after the new building was completed, America was shaken by Pearl Harbor and our country's entry into WW II. A number of Cary High School graduates answered the call of their country; some did not return. The Cary VFW post is named after two men from the area who died during the war. One was William Perry Sloan, Class of 1937 and another, Carl E Franklin. From the school archives, a poignant letter accompanied by a newspaper clipping from Iva Stuckey, mother of David Stuckey, a 1941 CHS graduate who lost his life in the South Pacific in 1943 reads:

My dear Mr. Cooper, I am mailing under separate cover the flag presented to me at the re-burial service of my son, Private David Warren Stuckey. I consider it an honor and a privilege to thus pay tribute to Cary High School in memory of my son who made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty. Yours very truly, Mrs. Iva A Stuckey.  The newspaper clipping gave details of the many awards that Stuckey received for his service. It is unclear what happened to the flag, but we have a record of Private Stuckey’s gallantry and courage to inspire and move us all these years later.

In 1942, another era came to an end when Professor Dry stepped down as principal of the high school. He served for 34 years in Cary and 51 total years in education. It is hard to overstate the impact he had on education in Cary. His innovative approach to academic and vocational training was admired and copied across the state. Here is an image of Professor Dry in the student newspaper, the Echo, at the end of his long career. With his passion for education, he couldn’t stay out of the classroom! He continued to teach until he developed health issues in 1944. He passed away January 1946 and is buried at Historic Hillcrest Cemetery.

The school continued to educate and graduate students during the war years, but by 1944, enrollment had dropped to its lowest point in about 30 years. However, after the war ended, life at school and in the community gradually returned to normal. Over the next 10 years, enrollment almost doubled. The yearbook resumed publication in 1945, and in 1948, the name of the yearbook was changed to YRAC, and that name has stuck through the years.

After Professor Dry retired, two men assumed the principalship of CHS in rapid succession: Thaddeus Frye and Earl R Franklin, who had been a student, teacher and assistant principal at the school. Paul W Cooper was selected as the next principal, and he served from 1948 to 1967.

To round out the high school years on this property at the head of Academy Street, let’s focus on three teachers who served the school and school children for many years. The first is Miss Irma Ellis, the granddaughter of Henry B Jordan, a trustee of the Methodist Church, founding Cary Town Councilman, and a mayor of Cary. “Miss Irma” attended the State Normal College, now UNC-G, for teacher training and began her teaching career in Cary in 1907. She retired in 1950 at the age of 70, having had an impact on virtually every child in Cary who entered first grade here. Along with her work with children at the Methodist Church, which extended past her retirement as a school teacher, she influenced countless children in Cary. Known both as a strict disciplinarian and beloved teacher, many long time Cary residents still remember her.

Rufus Sheldon “Dad” Dunham was another long serving teacher. He was from Bladen County, graduated from NC State in 1930 and worked as a teacher of agricultural studies at CHS for 40 years. He didn’t change much over the years and it’s apparent why he was nicknamed “Dad”! Not only was he a respected teacher at the school, but he was a deeply admired Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church. He was also known for a dry sense of humor! PTA minutes from 1953 tell that “Mr. Dunham acted as Master of Ceremony and “in clever doggerel introduced each teacher.”! His wife Rachel, a former boarding student at Cary, married “Dad” after she returned to Cary after teacher training. The Dad Dunham Park on Walnut street was named in his honor.

Another teacher who had enormous impact on students was Claire Marley, who taught junior and senior English and dramatics. Senior class plays were a community highlight each year. Mrs. Marley involved all her students in some capacity, both on and off the stage.

The costumes, sets AND the programs were designed with amazing detail. The Flora McDonald play from 1951 had a hand colored cover and was cut in the shape of a book. The program for "The Robe" had original student art work on the cover. Both attest to the care and creativity Mrs. Marley instilled in her students.

Cary High School has long been known for its excellent music program. From its earliest days, piano and violin instruction were part of the curriculum. In 1922 a marching band was established. According to minutes of the school committee, the committee granted band members “the privilege of selling refreshments at commencement” in 1923 to raise money for equipment.

Under the direction of band directors Harold Burt, Jack White and Jimmy Burns, the marching band gained local, national, and international acclaim. Harold Burt was hired as an Industrial Arts teacher and began the band program part time. He taught at Cary for five years before replicating his success at numerous other schools in Wake and Johnston Counties. He was known as Cary’s “Music Man”. Jack White, a jazz trumpet player and charismatic band leader, went on to serve as the Elon College band director until his retirement. Mr. White won numerous local awards for his service to the school and community, and he began a Cary tradition known as Cary Band Day in the late 1950’s. Jimmy Burns built on Jack White’s success and propelled the Cary High School Marching Band to national and international acclaim, taking the band to the Rose Bowl Parade and to Switzerland, among other successes.

Twenty plus years of heavy use and school growth took its toll on the third Cary High School building. A new Cary High School was planned, and in May of 1960, the third Cary High School building saw its last high school graduation. The campus then became Cary Elementary and Junior High School. Before we leave the old campus, here is an aerial view of the “old” Cary High School campus, showing the quadrangle design of the campus and all the buildings that many “old Cary” folks fondly remember! The Class of 1960 was the last class to attend all their grades, from 1st to 12th, on one campus.

“Way Out Walnut Street”

Let’s take a moment to summarize some important events that happened in the more recent past at the “new campus”. The new Cary High School was built “way out Walnut Street” on land owned by Luther Maynard, whose family is the namesake of Maynard Road. Luther Maynard was a farmer and saw mill owner and had furnished wood for football field light poles at the old site.

It was at the campus on Walnut Street that Cary took lead in the desegregation of Wake County Schools during the 1960s. In the early 20th Century, James P H Adams and Arch Arrington of the African American community had been friends and worked alongside each other, setting an example for how the two communities could come together harmoniously. James’s son Henry Adams, owner of Adams Drug Store (now Ashworth’s Drug Store) and member of the Wake County school board, learned from their example and promoted desegregation in Cary Schools.

On Aug 30, 1963, six young African American women integrated Cary High School. Although the difficulties these women encountered were enormous, support from key members of both the black and white communities in Cary ensured that the process was ultimately successful. Over the next few years, the schools were fully integrated.

Over the years, the current Cary High School has grown and changed. In a photo from the 1962 yearbook we see the modest size of the campus and lack of development around the school. This shows that the school really was “way out Walnut Street”!

This newspaper photo of students doing a landscaping project shows that even in 1970, the surrounding area was largely undeveloped. The house and field in the background are now occupied by Bank of America and Outback Steakhouse!

A photo of the campus in 1996 shows campus expansion and development around the campus. Even more buildings have been added to date. The campus is no longer considered “way out Walnut Street”! Why, it’s now conveniently located “inside Maynard Road”!

In 1996, the school celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school’s incorporation by the State of North Carolina. Mr. Tom Byrd wrote an 88-page synopsis of Cary High School history and Jerry Miller created new artwork to celebrate the occasion. Class reunions, a parade, and other celebratory events also marked the milestone. 

Today, Cary High School continues to fulfill the mission started 150 years ago: to provide quality education, preparing students for success in life and their chosen field of interest. Unlike the first years, CHS is a diverse community reflecting the growth and cultural expansion of the Town of Cary itself. We wish Cary High School another 150 years of academic success.

As we draw our overview of the history Cary High School and the "school lot"  to a close, we encourage you to further explore the Friends of the Page Walker website. We welcome volunteers and contributions to help promote historic preservation, education and the cultural arts in Cary.

We also strive to preserve historic documents and photos in our digital archives. If you have items of interest regarding Cary and Cary High School, please contact us!

Many thanks to Principal Nolan Bryant who graciously allowed the Friends of the Page Walker to digitize the Cary High School Archives recently and has allowed us to use the images to promote Cary and Cary High School history. Thank you, also, to Mr. Tom Byrd who researched the history of Cary and Cary High School which has told the story of Cary and Cary High School in a compelling and thorough way.


  • 21 Nov 2020 1:51 AM | Madbomr Empty Marker
    When i see this post that i lear a lot of history of 150th anniversary of Cary’s founding.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 28 Dec 2020 1:14 PM | Kris Carmichael
    Carla, this is excellent!! So much information - so well organized and presented! BRAVO
    Link  •  Reply
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