Mauldin High School has seen many changes over the years. When ninety-three-year-old Nell Thompson drives by the site where Mauldin Cultural Center now stands, she can remember the original school built in the mid-nineteen-twenties. A two-story building with an adjacent teacherage that housed the superintendent and his family and provided residence for single teachers stood in that very spot. That structure burned to the ground one night in 1935, necessitating the hasty relocation of children to nearby schools, churches, and other buildings to provide continuity in their education. Around 1936, WPA employees completed the building that now stands at 101 East Butler. WPA, an acronym for Work Projects Administration, was the brainchild of President Franklin Roosevelt, who used this system as part of his New Deal to put Americans back to work in the midst of the Great Depression.
Nell Thompson graduated from this Old Mauldin High School in 1942. She says that it was a country school at that time and Mauldin was all farm land with cotton the predominant crop. She lived about a mile and a half from the school and walked there every day until she could ride the bus. The school housed grades 1-11 with no kindergarten or twelfth grade. They had seventh grade commencement and then graduated into high school when they entered eighth grade. Feeder elementary schools would send their students there when they attained high school age. World War II began in December 1941 and she recalls young men in her class being eligible for the draft with at least one student losing his life in that war.
Fast forwarding to more recent times, this Mauldin School continued into academic year 1956, housing elementary through high school grades. Students from Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Fountain Inn would merge into one school called Hillcrest High School at 3665 South Industrial Road, Simpsonville when the 1957 academic year started. The Mauldin School building would be converted into Mauldin Elementary that same academic year.
Gwyn Savage Balcombe was a sophomore that last year at the old Mauldin High School and entered Hillcrest High as a Junior. She remembers Jerry Conyers, a great person and fantastic coach, who led Mauldin High School to many championships in the area of basketball. A crowd followed the basketball team and the community provided great support for these young athletes. She served as a cheerleader and recalls that there was great concern for how they would fit into the new school. As it turned out, they used cheerleaders from all three schools until they could elect a new team, so everything worked out fine. During the 1950’s, the campus included a tennis court. She remarked, “In the afternoon and night, summertime mostly, people would come play tennis or just plain fellowship. What fun we had!” Gwyn recalls that the small school size allowed everybody to be good friends.
Elaine Ballenger Wilder, a junior that last year at the old Mauldin High School, entered Hillcrest High as a Senior. She remembers that the school lacked air conditioning. In the summer, when the days grew hot, they would throw open the windows to cool things down. Behind the school, farmers grew and harvested crops. Black bugs from the wheat fields would enter the school and go everywhere, but that was just a part of life back then. With her home near where Sam’s Warehouse used to be located on Laurens Road, Elaine had gone to Greenville Junior High but did not really like it there. When she transferred to the Mauldin School, her whole life changed. She says that people were warm and welcoming at the Mauldin School and you knew everyone and where they lived. Elaine remembers the area around the school as well. There was no City Hall or fire department, only a few houses down Butler and up Main Street. A Methodist church was located across the street, but it was an older structure. In those days, Laurens Road was only two lanes with a stop sign rather than a red light at the intersection of Butler and Laurens. She says that she loved going to school there in the special time of the 1950’s. She feels that children lived in a more sheltered life in those years with drugs not being so much of a problem.
Betty McWhite taught business courses such as shorthand and typing that last year at the old Mauldin High School. She says that the school was very family-oriented especially with all the grades being in that same building. Teachers really got to know their students well and she has such pleasant memories of them. She had begun her teaching career at West Gantt where she worked two years before coming to Mauldin. Her teaching emphasized real-life, marketable skills that would help the graduate make his or her way in the work world. While other teachers made their plans for transfer to the new school, she concerned herself with the birth of her very first child in 1957. Betty would take a leave from her beloved profession and later return to teaching at West Gantt, Welcome, Carolina, and eventually back to Mauldin High School after it opened its doors again at its new location, 701 East Butler, in the 1970’s. Betty retired from teaching in 1989 and now enjoys reading during the winter and walking each day at the Mauldin Sports Center where she sometimes encounters her beloved students. She says that the old school, repurposed as the Mauldin Cultural Center in 2003, looks much the same on the outside today. Of course, the inside has been remodeled to fulfill its new purpose.
Elaine Wilder recalls many of the teachers at the old Mauldin High School with fondness. Elaine especially remembers Mrs. King, who has since passed away, to be a great teacher of English and literature and Ruth Verdin being a wonderful instructor of history and Latin. Elaine emphasizes that all the teachers there were so supportive as was the school itself. Her favorite teacher though was Betty McWhite whose instruction helped greatly when Elaine entered the workforce. Among other things, Betty instructed her on conducting herself at interviews and composing a resume. Betty went out of her way to help Elaine succeed in her chosen field and Elaine never forgot such dedication and kindness. Betty encouraged her to run for a district office at FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) and even drove her back and forth to the meetings as she continued to mentor her student. When Elaine experienced misgivings about speaking before groups, Betty gave her an important piece of advice which Elaine used throughout her career at Greenville Water System—don’t look directly at the audience but, rather, look over them!
Much happened during the last year at the old Mauldin High School. Molly Massey Richardson was a Junior that last year and would enter Hillcrest High School as a Senior. At the time, she was dating Lawrence Richardson, a Junior at Simpsonville High School who would attend Hillcrest as well. Molly was the daughter of Joel Massey, who owned a grocery store located where Moonstruck and Monograms now stands. Molly’s father moved the post office into his store and later a separate facility, serving as postmaster for Mauldin until he retired in 1967. Lawrence’s family has lived in this area since the Revolutionary War. His grandfather, fondly called “old’ Dr. Richardson, had an office in Simpsonville but would but would visit Mauldin two or three nights a week just to see patients there. Molly said that they knew the merger would occur, but they felt hesitant at the time. After all, many of them had attended the old Mauldin School most of their lives. One thing reassured her though. She would know friends from the Mauldin facility as well as people from her church and her boyfriend. There was no special ceremony when the old Mauldin High School ended. Construction continued to the last minute and there was a question as to whether the Hillcrest facility would be able to open in time for students to attend on 9-3-1957. As it was, the new facility had a lot less concrete and a lot more mud. Lawrence Richardson recalls people saying that they “slid in” into the new school.
As part of the planning effort for the new Hillcrest High School, a Committee of Nine, composed of a Senior, Junior, and Sophomore, from each school met to determine colors, design a ring, and choose a mascot. Lawrence Richardson served as a senior representative from Simpsonville while Elaine Ballenger Wilder served as the same from the old Mauldin High School. The group met in the summer at each of the different schools. Elaine says that it was a great honor being able to be involved in making these decisions. According to Lawrence, a critical problem would be the sports rivalry, especially in football. He says that putting Simpsonville Whirlwinds and Fountain Inn Blue Devils under the same roof was like putting Clemson and University of South Carolina in the same school! Some refused to play on the same team with folks from the other school. Although the Mauldin Bulldogs excelled at basketball, Mauldin didn’t have a football team at the time. It was something they didn’t really miss according to Gwyn Balcombe, but some of the guys at Mauldin looked forward to the opportunity to become involved in this sport at the new school.
Henry P. Bennett became Hillcrest High School’s new principal when the school opened its doors while W. H. Chastain, the principal of the old Mauldin High School, initially transferred as a teacher at the new facility. Lawrence remembers Mr. Bennett as being a very nice man from a military background who kept everything under control and maintained discipline in the early years of the new school. The teachers took care of the administrative part and decided who would teach the different subjects. Many of the teachers were absorbed into the new school. Students were simply told that was where they were going. The total number of seniors in the combined school added up to a graduating class of around 105, with 20 or so coming from the old Mauldin High School.
Despite the fears and misgivings, things worked out extremely well at the fledgling new school. According to Gwyn Balcombe, the merger provided opportunities for new friends and connections. Lawrence Richardson says that they discovered they could make friends with each other and didn’t have to fight. Elaine Wilder says that she loved old Mauldin High School, but she came to love Hillcrest High School as well, and, in the end, they were glad to attend such a beautiful new school. She recalls that the larger gym at Hillcrest allowed the community more room to watch basketball games. At the old Mauldin High School, people would pack the small gymnasium to attend basketball games and some could not even get into the facility. The Mauldin girls’ basketball team had won Girls’ State Championship in 1957. Gwyn Balcombe remembers that after the merger, the Hillcrest team was composed mainly of Mauldin girls. As a new team, they went on to win the Girls’ State Championship in 1958. Adrith Mullinax Thayer, who began in Mauldin, became captain of the all-star state team. Gwyn also remembers that James Christopher from Mauldin played football for Hillcrest that first year of the merger and made the first two touchdowns of that season. For Gwyn, the merger of the three schools played out a very personal story. After becoming a student at Hillcrest, she was in a car accident with several other cheerleaders. Her arm in a sling, she had sat down to rest after a group hug with fellow cheerleaders. That’s when Jerry Balcombe, from Fountain Inn, came up to her, stooped down, and asked if she was OK. It was the first time they had met and spoken to each other. They fell in love and, after high school, they married and had two daughters. The school merger made it possible for them to meet, but she believes God meant for them to be together and they would have met this way or in some other fashion. Molly and Lawrence continued dating after the schools merged and following college, they, too, married. Molly became an English teacher at Hillcrest Middle School where both her daughter-in-law and granddaughter have taught English as well. Her son attended Mauldin Elementary when it was located at her old Mauldin School. When Mr. Bennett, the first principal of Hillcrest High School passed away in 1963 after a prolonged illness, Mr. W. H. Chastain, the last principal of the old Mauldin High School, eventually served as his replacement, became a mayor in Mauldin, received the Order of the Palmetto from Governor Dick Riley, and completed a 42-year career with the Greenville School District before passing away at the age of 86 in 2009.
The best thing of all is how the friendships forged during those early years at the old Mauldin High School have endured and flourished. Gwyn, Molly, and Elaine keep in contact. Whenever she passes by the Mauldin Cultural Center, Gwyn Savage Balcombe remembers sitting on those very steps as a student with her dear friends and gazing out at a much less crowded skyline. Elaine Ballenger Wilder thinks about the good times there. She recalls sitting under the oak trees at recess—just sitting there and talking to each other. There were no cliques—everyone was just part of the community. “We were Mayberry before there was Mayberry,” she fondly says.