School Blaze

Photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Dear Vance: I read your column about the 1941 Eads school bus tragedy, and you said the students were returning home from the George R. James School. Where was this school, and what happened to it? — R.T., Memphis.

Dear R.T.: The event you mention is still considered the greatest tragedy in the history of the Shelby County school system. Now, if this were the Internet, you could just click HERE and the World Wide Web would take you back to my original column in our February 2004 issue, complete with dramatic photos of the crash site. But since this is just a regular magazine story — at least for a while, anyway — you’ll pardon me if I retell a bit of that story, because quite frankly I think it, and the unfortunate victims involved, need to be remembered. 

On the afternoon of October 10, 1941, bus driver Benjamin Priddy was carrying several dozen students back home from the George R. James School, located a few miles from the little farming community of Eads. He had already unloaded several young passengers along the way, and was driving westward along Seward Road, right in the heart of “downtown” Eads. At this point, the road actually runs parallel to the N.C. & St.L. railroad tracks that run through town. Priddy made an abrupt right turn to cross the tracks — right into the path of a passenger train heading towards Memphis at 50 miles per hour. The incredible impact almost split the bus in two. Priddy was killed instantly, and mortally injured were seven children: Guy Anderson Jr., Hayden Austin Williams, Norma Jean Seward, Melvin Richmond, Murray Kenneth Bryan, and brother and sister Alma and Glenn Sherrill. Others were critically injured and had to be carried all the way to Baptist and St. Joseph Hospitals in Memphis — more than 20 miles away. There, newspapers reported that parents desperately searching for their children “found themselves in a madly revolving world suddenly but surely spinning off its axis.”

To this day, no one really knows how the accident happened. How could Priddy not possibly notice the approaching train? Some thought he became ill just at the crucial moment when the bus turned to cross the tracks. Others, noting that Priddy had driven this same route for 15 years, speculate that he didn’t stop because in all that time he never had to; he had never encountered a train at the crossing before. But on this dark day, the train was running 20 minutes late, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.

But you asked about the school, R.T. The George R. James School was located at the southeast corner of Collierville-Arlington Road and George R. James Road. As you can see from this nice photo (below) taken in the 1930s, it was a fine-looking one-story establishment, with eight classrooms, a library, and an auditorium.

The curriculum was interesting, if not downright unique. It seems that one day the principal, Janie Hinton, discovered that a student didn’t know how to use a telephone. Many families in that rural community didn’t even have telephones. So not only did Hinton start teaching children about phones, she embarked on other ventures. “Each spring the eighth grade is taken to Memphis so that no student will leave the school without at least a glimpse of what a big city looks like,” reported the Memphis Press-Scimitar. “The children are taken to the Hotel Peabody to see how a big city hotel operates, to a florist shop to sniff orchids, to the Sterick Building for a ride on the elevator, to the river, police station, courthouse, and various businesses, through a dime store, and lunch in a restaurant.”

The George R. James School served the Eads community and other areas north of Collierville for many years, until one August evening in 1974, when it burned to the ground (below). As far as I was able to establish, no one really determined a cause for the blaze. 

The school wasn’t rebuilt. Development in the area changed the demands for the school district, and nowadays parents send their children to larger and more modern facilities in nearby Arlington and Collierville. The site of the old school is today an athletic complex.

Now, I know you’ve also been staying awake at night wondering who George R. James was, and why they named a school after him. In Paul Coppock’s Mid-South, my pal Paul Coppock says, “George R. James was spoken of, sometimes, as the first citizen of Memphis.” Really? I always presumed that the Lauderdales were the first citizens of Memphis. But James certainly deserved equal billing. Born here in 1866, his first job was working as a blacksmith in one of his father’s wagon companies. The young man took over the firm after his father died. It was just the start for the young man. He soon got involved in banking, becoming director of the Germania Savings Bank and then president of the Central State Bank (predecessor to First Tennessee). After the Fire.

Not only that, but he became chairman of the board of the William R. Moore dry goods company, and President Harding named him to the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. He died here in 1937. Though the school is gone, the road near Arlington still carries his name.




The Ray Mystery

Dear Vance: While poring over the nice collection of photos in the Memphis Room, I came across this image of “Ray’s Drug Store” (below). Though I am familiar with most of the old drugstores of Memphis, I have no idea where this was. Do you? — E.R., Memphis.

Dear E.R.: The most intriguing part of your query was that bit about being “familiar with most of the old drugstores of Memphis.” Not even the Lauderdales, with their family afflictions that would test the patience of Job himself, could make that claim.

I liked this question, however, because I felt most of the work had been done for me. You had already supplied the photo, which showed a spacious, spotlessly clean, and rather simply furnished drugstore, with a soda fountain to one side (banana splits just 35 cents), some booths in the center, and neatly arranged displays for products like Fortune’s ice cream, Muriel cigars, and Oh Henry candy bars. It should be a simple matter, I reasoned, to flip through city directories until I located Ray’s Drugs, and then spend the afternoon slumped in my La-Z-Boy, resting from my half-hour of work.

So imagine my dismay when I didn’t turn up a single mention of Ray’s Drugs in old telephone books from the 1920s to the present day. I managed to find plenty of other businesses operated by fellows named Ray: Ray’s Donut Shop on East McLemore. Ray’s Sandwich Shop on Madison. Ray’s Smart Shoes on Beale. Ray’s Barber Shop on Walnut. Ray’s Beauty Shop on Thomas. Two different Ray’s Sandwich Shops on Summer. And even a Ray’s Minnow Shop on — oh, I can’t even remember. Everything became a blur.

Then I looked through the business directory — sort of an index — in the back of these books. Sure enough, under “Druggists – Retail” I found “Ray Moran.” And in the late 1940s he operated Moran’s Drugs at 865 Kerr in South Memphis. Even though it might not have been the actual name of the business, I bet customers knew the place as “Ray’s Drugs,” and that’s how the library photo got labeled that way. 

Moran was the owner, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the actual pharmacist. At least I hope not, considering his decidedly non-pharmaceutical background. Before he opened the drugstore, he worked as a meat cutter for Easy Way Grocery #5, and later as a clerk with Liberty Cash Grocers #16. He was listed as a druggist for just three years, before taking on a new venture in 1951, as president of the Dixie Venetian Blind Company.

The city directories have no listing for Ray Moran or his wife, Lois, after 1960, so I assume they died or moved away. The site of the drugstore — like so many of the old places I write about — is a vacant lot.


Ray's Drugs

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