Rewinding back to the fall of 1999, I was a high school sophomore in a small town in the middle of nowhere called Oceana. On one golden October afternoon some friends made the suggestion of going to the old abandoned high school. You see, in small town southern West Virginia there wasn’t much for a teenager (especially one from a large city) to do so we fought an everyday battle with boredom. A hundred feet or so from the front of the old school was a small white house where an elderly gentleman lived who instantly notified the local police of anyone trespassing the second he caught wind of it. Occasionally I would see him during the summer mowing the grass on the property and I often wondered what his relationship with the school was. Did he purchase the land from the county? Was he employed by the school board as a caretaker? Whatever the situation may have been, he despised anyone being near the building. On this particular day we waited until he wasn’t home and made our way toward the school.
Back in those days I didn’t have the passion for photography that I now possess. During high school I didn’t have the money for (and probably was in no way responsible enough) for a decent 35mm camera, and back then digital cameras were only around 1 megapixel and carried the price tag of a decent used car. Needless to say I went through my fair share of film disposables during my teenage years. The old Oceana High School was one of the first abandoned buildings I had ever been in and it planted a fascination within me that I hope will never fade.
When my friends brought up the idea of exploring the school I was instantly filled with a frenzied joy thinking about the endless possibilities that waited for us inside. As with most vacant buildings sometimes the easiest way in is the least you would expect; the front door. Immediately upon entering my eyes could not fix on one particular spot as they were constantly searching the room as my heart began to race from excitement. As soon as you entered there was a small office/administration area with papers scattered on the floor. Report cards, memos, and student records, some handwritten and some typed. It was like looking at the advancement of technology over the years. On the left side of the lobby right before the rear exit was the staircase that lead to the basement and second floor. On both sides of the building were small classrooms and a large room sat behind the office that I assumed was the cafeteria but was filled with so much debris from the upper floor that had collapsed that it was barely recognizable.
After I wandered around the first floor taking a few photos we made our way to the staircase. Upon first glance at the basement stairs a chill quickly crept up my spine as I peered into the dark abyss below. The upper floor of the school had pretty much the same layout as the lower floor with small classrooms on both sides but included the gymnasium. The gym was by far a sight that will forever be burned into my memory. Basketball goals still hung from the steel beams in the ceiling with a faded crumbling scoreboard attached to the wall. The once bright polished floor was now a dull shade of grey, covered with dust, and for the most part had collapsed to the room below. Sitting on the floor as you entered the room was an antique traffic signal that straight away sparked my interest as to the origin. The small town of Oceana had but only one main road that ran through it and only two intersections. My entire childhood of summer vacations spent there I never recall a single traffic light, where it came from still baffles me to this day.
We were on our way out when we heard the old man’s car coming up the driveway he shared with the school. After parking at his house he took a few paces toward the school and looked suspiciously around for a minute and then began to shout in his thick southern West Virginian accent “I know you’re in there.. I’ve done called the law”. Who knows how he knew we were inside. We were sure to keep the noise to a minimum and left no evidence that anyone had entered. We waited a moment for him to go in his house to make our exit. He apparently was waiting for that exact moment because he then came back outside to shout some more at us. The string of words spewing from his mouth quickly became inaudible as we ran further and further from sight.
I returned the following weekend with a friend that didn’t get the chance to go when our group went the first time. We were in there long enough for a quick look when we noticed the wind had blown open the front door just wide enough to see the front of a cop car pulling up. Quickly and silently we made our way toward the back door hoping that it too was unlocked as it was our only option of escape. At that moment our attention was diverted and we froze in silence as we could hear the officer approaching the front entrance. His police radio, jingling keys, and heavy steps immediately giving away his location. After enough jolts the rear door finally opened wide enough for both of us to pass through just as the officer walked in the front. We ran as fast as we could into the surrounding woods and up the mountain side until we noticed that the cop didn’t even bother to chase us. After coming to a rest we both immediately broke into laughter. It was far from the first time and would be far from the last that we ran from those small town cops.
The main reason behind this post is, I lost every photo I took that day (along with most of everything else I owned) when a flash flood consumed the majority of Oceana in the summer of 2001. A few feet of murky water made it’s way through my house destroying everything in it’s path. I left that small town as soon as I graduated the following year and I don’t visit family there nearly as much as I should. Years later when I became more interested in photography and finally had a decent camera, I made my way back to the old school. I was filled with sadness and regret when I discovered that it was now just an empty lot because some asshole decided to set the building on fire. This solitary building was responsible for what would later grow into the fascination with abandoned buildings that I have today. These aren’t just vacant forgotten structures to me, they’re a glimpse into history unlike any you can get from a textbook. Every one of them has a story of life to itself all the way from the people who originally sketched them out on a piece of paper, to the ones who constructed and occupied, to the those who abandoned them because of various circumstances. It is then that people like myself come through and give purpose and a glimpse of life once again with our interest in exploring and preserving history. It’s a way to travel back in time and I don’t know a single person that wouldn’t want to do that.
The photo below was taken in 2015, now just an empty lot on top of a small hill. On the right hand side you can see the roof of the home where the elderly gentleman lived.