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Bill Plaxco remembers attending classes at the former York Graded School “as a country bumpkin.” He added, “Of course, I didn’t know I was a country bumpkin until the city slickers told me.”
When he returned years later to serve as principal of then McCelvey Elementary, Plaxco said, much remained the same. “The principal’s desk was still the same. The only difference was, this time I was on the other side of it.”
Plaxco and other local dignitaries, including former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, who also attended school at what is now McCelvey Center, shared fond memories with a crowd of about 75 people on March 16 as they dedicated a state historical marker. The event included music by York Comprehensive High School and a color guard presentation by the ROTC.
One side of the marker unveiled in front of McCelvey commemorates its history as the site of Yorkville Female Institute; the other marks the York Graded School. The marker was presented by the Culture and Heritage Museums and Yorkville Historical Society.
“For more than 150 years, this stately old school has stood here like a rock of ages,” said Spratt, who remembered the teachers who led classes there. He said its start as a school for women was “bold plans indeed, coming at a time when many felt women did not need a formal education.”
Spratt, who attended elementary school at the building, said he left “with an appreciation for hard work and motivation that carried me through college in good form.”
The school was built by Bethel Presbytery, which founded the Yorkville Female Collegiate Institute in 1853 and built the three-story brick building on East Jefferson Street. Over the next 134 years, the school underwent a series of changes, until the last school bell rang on June 4, 1987.
The Yorkville Female Collegiate Institute taught a general curriculum of spelling, reading, geography, music and French, according to a history compiled by CHM archivist Nancy Sambets. Tuition ranged from $6 for spelling to $10 for embroidery and $20 for piano.
In 1867, the institute became a boarding school, and in 1879, the integrated high school was opened with boys as day students. After South Carolina passed an act in 1888 to organize free public schools, the Yorkville Graded School opened in 1889 for first through sixth grades and a “higher school.”
In 1900, the building was destroyed when the chimney caught fire, and the school was rebuilt on its original foundations. It reopened in 1903 with modern electricity, steam heating and plumbing.
It continued as York Graded School, and the theater and east wing were added in 1922, according to Sambets. When a new high school was built in 1951, the school became York Elementary, and an annex was built in 1956 for grades one to three.
The school was renamed McCelvey Elementary School in 1973, in honor of the late George McCelvey, who served as principal of the York Graded Schools from 1912 to 1948.
York Mayor Eddie Lee also noted McCelvey’s Civil War purpose, serving as a shelter for war refugees from 1863 to 1866. “Neither war nor fire could destroy the school on Jefferson Street,” he said.
Plaxco said he wondered about the future of McCelvey when the school closed in 1987.
McCelvey, owned by the CHM, now serves as a historical center and venue for community events. “It was my privilege,” Plaxco said, “to be one little speck on the timeline of the building, and for that I am grateful.”