A Lunch Room Built by Barbecue
"Together, we are the three dirty old men of Cove Creek," James "Andy" Andrews said with a laugh.
It was one of those classic summer days, sun shining, grass glinting in the field by the old Cove Creek High School. While a couple hundred feet away people were jogging, strolling and sunbathing, Andrews and his cohorts, Hugh Hagaman and Jack Simpson, were carrying trophy cases.
"Moving these is about all we have left to do," he said.
You'll find them here most mornings, in the lunch room (take care not to call it a cafeteria) of the old high school. The three have taken it upon themselves not to renovate the space, but to peel away the carpet and reveal what it used to be.
"We were going to save this building, not let it go become a sand pile, a rubble, whatever," Andrews said, "making the place become a viable property in the county for at least another two or three generations."
If it weren't for an errant drawing of Winnie the Pooh on the wall, one might never know that after its high school days, this room was turned into part of a kindergarten. By the time the trio found it, it barely resembled what it used to be.
A bathroom had been added in the corner, and a divider was placed across the room. The rust colored tile was covered with carpet. The ceiling was lowered. The space was full of junk.
Little by little over the years, the trio has transformed the space. Thirty wells were dug. The ceiling additions were removed, as was the carpet "that had been glued in." Now, thanks to new kitchen equipment and tables, it's starting to look like it once was. Trophy cases are starting to take their place at the right side of the building, the future home of historical displays to honor not only the school, but the community.
Andrews, a retired professor at the University of Cincinnati and an expert in school planning, construction and maintenance, took on the project as a challenge a few years ago.
For Simpson and Hagaman, it was personal. After all, they graduated from Cove Creek in years 1954 and 1950, respectively.
The three have spearheaded a fundraising effort to turn the "lunch room" into a viable community space, and what better High Country method than barbecue?
"Our goal was this facility right now," Hagaman said. "It was the lunch room. Don't use the word cafeteria, because it was never called that. It was a lunch room. It takes a lot of money to keep this place going. We have spent probably somewhere in the length of a million dollars, including the heating and air conditioner."
And, while grants covered a chunk of the cost, good old fashioned barbecue has covered the rest and continues to fund the project.
"Everything that's been done to this room has been paid for by barbecue," he said. "It cost us somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 to redo this room, and that's not including anything in it."
The diligence of the self-proclaimed "dirty old men of Cove Creek" led to even more barbecues.
"We borrowed a grill for the first four or five years," he said.
And then the fundraisers became monthly, causing the trio to purchase a grill. The barbecues have become a staple, not only as stand-alone events, but as part of the MusicFest 'n Sugar Grove and Heritage Day.
To Simpson and Hagaman, it's about preservation and memories.
"There was a ping pong table right outside that door," Hagaman said, pointing. "Junior-senior proms centered right around this room ... I guess this is probably the space that friends were made and where you got to know people outside the classroom of course ... it was a small school. There were 30 some in my graduating class."
"The serving line was basically where it is now," Simpson said. "You did a lot of socializing. I don't remember any specific food fights or anything that stands out except that it was pleasant atmosphere, and they served good food."
The good food came directly from farmers or the cannery, "not the stuff you have today, much better."
"We didn't have pizza," Hagaman said. "We didn't know what pizza was at the time."
Simpson ate lunch, years ago, with his high school sweetheart, Mary, the woman he courted within these walls, the woman he would later marry.
Maybe it was the isolation of Cove Creek that made its students particularly close. After all, there was only one road leading to the high school. Maybe it was the fact that they came from close knit one-room school houses, with families closely connected through church, lifestyles and careers (farming, canning). However it happened, the kids that found themselves within the walls of Cove Creek had a special connection that never went away.
The community, as well as the place, may have contributed to Simpson and Hagaman's return to the High Country later in life.
"It's home," Simpson said. "I always intended to come back here. When I was in school, you had to leave to make a living. There was not much unless you wanted to farm the side of these hills ... there wasn't much you could do to make a living. I left with the full intention of coming back."
As for Hagaman, the return was unexpected.
"Well, when my mother died, I ended up with the old home place," he said. "We started to renovate, and we forgot to stop, and we ended up with more house than we planned to have."
Cove Creek kept bringing him back, and eventually he decided to stay.
The lunch room project is where he spends much of his time.
"It will never be finished totally," Andrews said, though the trio expects to have the lunch room ready for full community use by the end of this year.
Friday marks a way you can help the effort and fill your stomach at the same time: The Fourth Friday Barbecue. It happens this Friday, June 25, at Cove Creek High School from 4-7 p.m. Plates are $8 and include the meat, baked beans, slaw, Stickboy Bread Company cornbread, a brownie and a drink.