A Brief History of Amarillo High School

Amarillo, Texas

by Pauline Durrett Robertson

Sandie Spirit

On this 100th anniversary of Amarillo High School’s first graduating class, many of us pause to wonder about the history of “The Home of the Golden Sandstorm.”

Growth from the first graduating class of four girls in 1894 to the peak numbers of more than 600 graduates in the mid-twentieth-century years, when Amarillo still had only one high school for white students, suggests progress in education that challenges the imagination. Even with four high schools in the city, in 1973-74 Amarillo High School recorded an enrollment of more than 2,000, with the number of graduates exceeding 400.

In the spring of 1922 the new AHS athletic coach A.S. Douglass coined the school’s team name “The Golden Sandstorm,” a name that has been the proud designation of the entire student body for more than 70 years. As his baseball team practiced in the windblown sand of their playing field in a city park at Jefferson and 3rd Streets, Douglass announced that they would no longer be known as “The Savages.” Their new name was to be “The Sandstorm.” Before the practice session was over, he had enhanced the new name to “The Golden Sandstorm.” The 1922 football season saw the name firmly attached to AHS, and sports writers referring to the school’s athletic teams as “The Sandies.”

During the past century, AHS has amassed an enviable record in academics, sports, the arts, vocational training, and community service. Amarillo High School graduates–numbering more than 30,000–have continued to uphold the AHS motto SCHOLARSHIP, SPORTSMANSHIP, SERVICE. Alumni loyalty proves the saying, “Once a Sandie, always a Sandie.”

Through war and peace, hard times and prosperity, inadequate facilities and beautifully modern accommodations, a meager staff and an exemplary faculty, good weather and bad–through all this and more, the indomitable “Sandie Spirit” has never failed. Not epidemic, dust storm, depression, war nor fire could stop AHS progress. Yes, that kind of achievement challenges the imagination and makes many of us wonder about the history that has produced it.

Let us, then, go back to the beginning–to that time when Amarillo consisted of only a handful of buildings set in the middle of a seemingly endless area of level plains.


The First Schoolhouse, 1889-1900

From 1887 to 1889, while Amarillo was located on its original site near Amarillo Lake (later Wild Horse Lake), there was no building nor money available for a public school. Two women each set up a small, private class to help fill the need for education. But in the summer of 1888, Potter County built a one-room temporary courthouse in Old Town, northwest of the present site of Amarillo. When the permanent courthouse was finished in 1889, the county sold the temporary building to the school trustees.

Having bought the small frame courthouse for only $5.00, the trustees, with $2,216.44 from the Texas State Board of Education, moved the structure to a leased plot at 6th and Monroe Streets, about halfway between Old Town and Sanborn’s new Polk Street townsite on higher ground than the often muddy lakeside settlement. During the summer of 1889 the school trustees had the building repaired and painted, and they bought furniture for it.

School opened in the 6th and Monroe location in September 1889, and a teacher, Coleman G. Witherspoon from Jacksboro, was employed at a salary of $75 per month. About 35 pupils attended this first school in Amarillo.

Books consisted of whatever the pupils had on hand. The only book required was Webster’s Blue Back Speller. The girls sat on one side of the room and the boys on the other. Professor Witherspoon received a broken foot during the school term during a scuffle with two of the larger boys, and school closed on March 21, 1890. To compensate for the early closing, the trustees employed Miss Ella Croom to teach an additional three months during the summer, with a part-time assistant, her niece, Miss Eula Trigg.

The trustees desired a location for the school nearer the new town site; so the schoolhouse (the original frame courthouse) was moved from the leased plot in the spring of 1890 to a city block of land purchased for $125.00. It was Block No. 103 bounded by 8th, 9th, Harrison and Van Buren Streets (the city block just north of the present Globe-News buildings).

The schoolhouse was set facing east on the new plot, and a fence was built enclosing the grounds to keep the cattle and hogs out. A room was added on the north side of the building to accommodate increasing enrollment. For the 1890-91 school term, a homesteader east of the town, T.L. Simpson, was employed as principal at $100.00 per month, with two women as assistants.


School in the Lake Bed, 1890-1900

But to the dismay ‘of school patrons, it was found that the schoolhouse was located in the flat bed of a dry lake. During the rainy season water covered the entire area, forming a lake between 8th and 10th Streets, extending from the west line of Polk Street to the school grounds.

Hunters shot ducks on the lake where the Santa Fe Building later stood. Boys went swimming in the lake by the schoolhouse. Board walks on stilts were built from the fence to the door, but water frequently came up to the floor of the schoolhouse. A drayman was employed by the school board to haul pupils and teachers across the lake. He made two trips a day with a long flat wagon bed hitched to four horses.

During the decade that school was held there (1890-1900), classes were sometimes suspended when heavy rains came. Not until 1899 when city engineer W.D. Twitchell drew up a plan for grading and draining unpaved Polk Street was a solution begun for the downtown lake problem.

Meanwhile, with several hundred inhabitants in Amarillo, the school beside the lake experienced expansion as well as hardships. Three additions were made as the population grew. For the 1891-92 school year, the trustees added an extension to the south side of the frame building. The next year it was necessary to add to the west side, and finally in the fall of 1895 the trustees purchased a saloon building and moved it to the back of the south side addition.

The August 29, 1892, issue of The Amarillo Champion newspaper pointed with pride to the extension of the city, “Amarillo has a large public school building divided into five departments. It is presided over by a principal and, three assistants.

The cost of running the school for the ten-month term is $4000.”


Hard Times, 1890s

During the 1891-93, three rural, school districts in Potter County were named, and three schools were established outside Amarillo. Spring Grove School, in the west district extended to the Oldham County line, and Liberty Schoolhouse and Independence School served the eastern part of the county.

But in 1892 the salary of the Amarillo principal, W.C. Cousins, who taught the high school courses, was reduced to W per month because at the drought and grasshopper plague, and because of shadows cast by the approaching worldwide money panic of 1893.

Further hard times came in 1894, when the 1892 incorporation of the city of Amarillo was rescinded. The action came as a result of injunctions filed by a group of disgruntled Amarillo citizens to restrain the City Council from claiming incorporation and levying taxes. The group challenged the city boundaries claimed and the number of inhabitants listed to qualify for incorporation. The original incorporation of Amarillo as a city was finally and permanently brought to an end early in 1894.

For the succeeding five years, Amarillo was without city government. Potter County Commissioners’ Court administered community affairs. City improvements languished with no tax moneys or leadership. Frame buildings lined Polk Street, creating fire hazards. Streets were unpaved and ungraded. In wet weather the streets were deep with mud and slush; in dry weather the dust fogged. Despite dire needs in the school system, no help was forthcoming.

But in the spring of that bad-news year of 1894, the close of the Amarillo public school term was marked by good news: the first high school graduation in the city. Exercises were held for four girl graduates in the Opera House at 418-420 Polk, with its real stage, velvet curtains and enchanting scenery.

During this time of the deepest depression which had enveloped the country, Potter County rural schools closed March 15, 1895, for lack of funds to continue. The school in town graduated four girls and two boys that year. From 1895 to 1899, the Amarillo public school struggled along in the downtown lake bed, with a different principal each year.

For the 1895-96 term, an elderly man was employed as principal and paid $90 per month. Discipline, broke down during his year as principal, As he was attempting to whip one of the older boys, a general fight ensued in the classroom. The girls ran screaming into the yard and many ran home. There were no graduates for the school that year. Many students withdrew to attend a private school opened by W.D. Twitchell at his home, and the public school felt the loss keenly, since a number of the transfers were top students.


Amarillo is Reincorporated, 1899

In 1899 things began to improve in Amarillo Judge W.E. Gee was employed as principal of the school in that year. He served two terms and was the first principal in “The Red Brick” schoolhouse, which was completed on Polk Street in 1900. He endeavored to standardize, courses of study and to upgrade the entire curriculum so there were no graduates during his term of two years.

Also in 1899, Amarillo citizens proposed reincorporation of the city in order to provide authority to vote bonds for much needed public improvements. A new schoolhouse was urgently needed. Citizens of the town realized that the school in the dry lake bed was in the wrong location. The request for incorporation, some contended, was made principally to build a new schoolhouse, to get the children out of the mud. Also, streets, sidewalks and other public facilities Were in a deplorable condition.

In compliance with a majority of votes cast in the election of March 17, 1899, for incorporation, Judge Marrs issued a proclamation on March 23 setting forth the boundaries of the incorporation (about two square miles). Taxes were ordered levied at 25 cents on the $100 cash valuation on real and personal property, and an annual poll tax of one dollar for each male who voted.

The City Council then turned much of its attention to the improvements of city streets and schools. During the next few years, great strides were made in public as well as civic improvements, including brick-paving of the main city streets (completed in 1912) and development of city and county schools.

Plans for a new school began immediately after Amarillo was incorporated in 1899. At that time there was no law that allowed a community to bond itself for a school building. So creative Amarilloans found a way. Bonds were voted for the erection of a city hall in 1899, with the understanding that the building would be leased to the school trustees at a yearly rental of $1.00.


“The Red Brick” School on Polk Street, 1900

The school (city hall) was to be built of red brick. At a cost of $535 the city acquired the entire block No. 167, bounded by 12th, 13th, Polk and Harrison Streets. Amarilloans wondered why the city fathers had bought land “out in the country,” since there were no residences south of the school plot, and most citizens thought the town would never extend that far.

Construction of “The Red Brick” schoolhouse was begun in the spring of 1900 near M Street on Polk. Plans for the three-story structure called for eight classrooms and a library initially, with the third floor unfurnished, and a basement room to contain the heating apparatus. The total cost of the structure was not to exceed $12,500.

When school started in September, 1900, the building was not completed. On October 29 the school body moved into the building before it was finally finished in December. The new schoolhouse afforded ample room for students and faculty. Sheds were provided for horses belonging to children coming in from ranches. The old school in the lake bed was sold in .1901 for $1,000.

By 1903, with Amarillo attracting many new settlers, The Red Brick that had been built for 500 pupils was housing 700. Overcrowding necessitated additional facilities. Although the city decided then to erect a building elsewhere specifically for a high school, The Red brick continued to serve lower grades until it was torn down to make room for the proposed new high school building at 12th and Polk Streets.

In 1903, as a stop gap measure to relieve overcrowding at The Red Brick, another elementary schoolroom was opened in a small frame building at 509 Buchanan. Two additional little square buildings were constructed between 8th and 9th Streets on Johnson Street for elementary classrooms. Several of these little houses, popularly called “chicken coops,” were erected and moved from location to location in the next few terms as needed. School authorities repeatedly reprimanded those who referred to children taught in these little houses as “chicken coop kids.”


Johnson Street School 1905-1911

Establishment of the Amarillo Independent School District and incorporation of the Amarillo school district was voted on May 8, 1905.

For the first time Amarillo was ready for more than one permanent structure to house its school students. Construction of a high school building was assured on June 12, 1905, when Amarillo citizens voted $25,000 to build it on property bounded by 5th, 6th, Lincoln and Johnson Streets. The area represented the best residential section of town. A state-of-the-art school was built, with four rooms on the ground floor and five on the second, including an auditorium and stage, with several rooms in the basement.

The school term of 1906-07 opened on Johnson Street in the shining new building, with 1,005 pupils. Two years later 1,476 were registered, forcing the school board to consider still another facility to house the high school. After 1911, when the high school students were moved to the new tan brick Polk Street facility, this state-of -the-art building that had housed Amarillo High School for five years became Johnson Street Elementary School.


Amarillo High School, 14th at Polk 1911-1922

Although at first the Amarillo Public School System had leased The Red Brick plot from the city, in 1910 the school system bought the entire block from the city for $20,000. This purchase later provided land for school structures, two of which served at different times as the Amarillo High School.

In 1910 a new tan brick high school building was started at 14th and Polk just south of The Red Brick, which continued to serve pupils under high school age. This new facility was known as Amarillo High School when the first, students entered in the fall of 1911. The first Amarillo High School football team came along in 1913, and the sport has continued without interruption to the, present except for one semester when in 1918 during the. influenza epidemic, schools were, closed and used for hospitals.

Amarillo and America concentrated on World War I from 19 17 until the Armistice on November 11, 1918. But in 1919 bonds of $80,000 were issued remodel the tan brick high school and to construct an additional building on the southwest comer of the campus. The 14th at Polk building served as the high school until 1922, and then as Central Junior High and Tyler Street Elementary School (in the south wing). Later Central was, renamed Elizabeth Nixson Junior High in honor of its former principal. The building was razed in the 1960s to make room for an Amarillo High School gymnasium.


Amarillo High School, Polk at 12th Streets, 1922-1973

From 1922 until 1973, for more than 50 years the home of Amarillo High School was the stately dark brick building at 12th,and Polk Streets. With The Red Brick demolished to make room, construction began on the new school in 1921 on the big campus north of the tan brick structure which had served AHS for 12 years.

The Gothic-style Amarillo High School that opened in 1922 was designed in a U-shape, with the center area open. The building was 300 feet long, 100 feet wide, three stories high with an additional basement. It was one of the most exemplary high schools in Texas, and was the pride of Amarillo.

In,1927, at a cost of $215,970, additions to fill in the “U” included a cafeteria to serve 900 in three noon shifts, a gymnasium, a manual training department, and an auditorium. On December 8,1927, a special assembly ceremony marked dedication of the auditorium, which seated 1,300 people and provided a velvet-curtained 80’x 26′ stage. It was the second known such auditorium in all the schools of the Southwest.

That change completed AHS at 12th and Polk except for the following additions:

  • 1930-a physical education facility (referred to as The Armory) built across Tyler Street at a cost of $24,140.00, with an expansion at the west end in 1938 at a cost of $24,550.25;
  • 1937-a band room (later used as the choir room) and classroom addition, comprising a northwest wing, at a cost of $21,389.00;
  • 1941-an auxiliary gymnasium at a cost of $58,739;,
  • 1951-a separate cafeteria building, metal shop, drafting room, and auto mechanics shop at a cost of $303,331.00;
  • 1952-the old cafeteria converted into a study hall and audio-visual room with additional classrooms in the vacated space, at, a cost of $183,850.00.
  • 1964-a separate band room and gymnasium on the site of the razed Elizabeth Nixson Junior High, at a cost of $478,740.01, together with a major renovation project of the AHS main building at a cost of $799,769.37.

The 1964 complete renovation replaced the worn slate stair steps and the wooden floors with tile. In following years, slabs, of the foot worn steps were engraved and sold to the alumni as souvenirs or were given as awards at AHS class reunions. The extensive modification of the building was noted by Mr. and Mrs. H.M. Timmons in an article: “The main building was renovated to the extent that it was one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Enough of the old was retained to perpetuate the traditional atmosphere and dignity so prevalent in Sandieland.”

Amarillo High School, after the 1964 construction and renovation, consisted of 149,130 square feet of structures, with an accumulated cost (buildings, alterations, additions, and land) of $2,600,000.00.

Although three other high schools had opened in Amarillo since 1955, AHS still boasted an enrollment approaching 2,000 students enthused with Sandie Spirit. Each year graduating classes gave permanent gifts to enhance the buildings.