Old Eagles gymnasium shows strength through time

MT. JUDEA — Nestled in the heart of Newton County is the community of Mt. Judea and the school campus began in the current location in 1885.

In 1936, a new building was added by the Works Progress Administration to accommodate a high school and it was the second project that contained President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s initials.

The dirt basketball court was a popular area of the school for students and the only playing surface for the Eagles’ teams.

That changed in 1951 when land across Hwy. 123 was purchased from Loyd Hefley and Grover Cleveland Greenhaw to build the first gymnasium.

A group of men in the area loaded into their logging trucks and headed south to the Fort Chaffee military base in Fort Smith to acquire much of the timber from a barrack that the base had torn down.

Included in the load were the large posts that were whittled down to make the round poles that hold the roof up even to this day.

Many of the students assisted in the construction of the gymnasium and were a vital resource in the building and finishing aspects of the project.

During the 1951-1952 season, the gymnasium was completed and Mt. Judea hosted the first Newton County Tournament under the guidance of coach Herbert Edwards.

The building was heated by two pot-belly stoves that were located on each side of half court. Time was kept with a stopwatch and a blackboard was used to keep score of the ballgames.

The metal roof was held up by heavy wooden trusses and lights were hung in the rafters. History tells that if a basketball ever hit the lights, then they would sway back and forth while catching a good laugh from the crowd. A ceiling was later installed and the lights were updated along with gas heating.

Glass backboards were added during the early years of coach Carl Louis Cook’s tenure as head basketball coach. Cook went on to become the winningest coach in the history of the Eagles until his death in 2017. The Eagles made many trips to the state tournament under Cook’s leadership including a few visits to the Final Four.

In 1968, the gymnasium experienced it’s first addition when indoor restrooms and additional lockerrooms were added.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, bleachers were added to the stage on the south end of the gym to accommodate more seating for spectators though were later taken down during some of the final restorations.

The largest additions came when the gymnasium was expanded on the north side of the building in 1980. The final layout of dressing rooms and a concession stand were added. At that time, the former lockerrooms under the bleachers were closed off.

To the attentive eye, markings and traces of the old entrances can be seen on the walls and the bleachers.

The gymnasium, apart from the basketball scene, was used for graduations, donkey ballgames, pie suppers, Halloween carnivals, beauty pageants and was the biggest location that the community had to use.

In 2001, the new gymnasium was built and the Eagles moved down the hill.

The original gym has now been turned into the Physical Education building along with housing a few classrooms.

A new floor was later installed in the old gym along with remodeling efforts, but the memories and structure of the historic building will last well into the future.

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