On Saturday, February 4, 2023, the historic gym in Wayland, Kentucky saw its first high school basketball game in over 50 years as the Mountain Sports Hall of Fame hosted its first ever Throwback Game. The game, a face-off between Floyd County Central and Knott County Central high schools, paid homage to two Eastern Kentucky high schools lost to consolidation in the 1970s.
During the game, Floyd Central’s team wore Wayland Wasp jerseys, while Knott Central players represented the Hindman Yellowjackets. Displays of memorabilia from schools throughout Eastern Kentucky – most no longer in existence – lined the walls of the gym’s second floor. Cheerleaders wore retro uniforms and performed cheers popular during the schools’ heydays. And the gym, looking much as it did when it was built in 1937, was packed with young and old basketball fans alike.
For Jerry Fultz, the mayor of Wayland, the event was an opportunity not just to show off the gym, which has undergone significant restoration over the last decade, but to honor the impact and legacy of small community schools in the mountains.
“This was a special moment, I think, for an awful lot of folks, whether you were connected to the Wayland gym project or not,” said Fultz. “I think the gym is kind of representative of all these older gyms that were such a vital part of their communities years ago before consolidation.”
“Every community seemingly had a high school years ago. And because we have such little flat land, football typically didn’t play into it. It was most often basketball. To go to the gym, that was the social event of the week,” he said. “Maybe the first time you held your girlfriend’s hand was at a ballgame. The first kiss you got could have been at a ballgame. The first four-letter word you didn’t dare repeat, you probably heard at the ballgame. So a lot of things happened there, and it was just an event that brought communities together.”
These opportunities for community gathering changed with the consolidation of small community schools into larger regional ones, which took place in many Eastern Kentucky communities throughout the 1970s.
“No one, I think, understood how much it meant until it was gone,” said Fultz. “Consolidation probably had a greater impact than any of us ever realized – that the heart of the community was that school and those school functions.”
Carole Bentley, an attendee of the Throwback Game decked in full Wayland Wasp attire, certainly recognizes that impact. A 1976 graduate of Allen Central High School (a school that has since been further consolidated into Floyd Central High School), Bentley attended Wayland Elementary until she was in eighth grade - but Wayland High School was consolidated into Allen Central just as she started her freshman year. While she loved attending school in Wayland, Bentley said she felt lost once she started attending a larger school.
“For me, it was terrible,” she said. “In elementary school, there were a bunch of kids that lived right here in town, and we had our own little group. We played together in the evenings and we had our little tree that we sat under at the school and we hung together, you know. But when we got to high school, the only class I had with anyone I knew was band, and that was just with my best friend Irene. Other than that, I had no classes with anybody that I knew. So I was in classes with people from Garrett and Maytown and Martin that I didn’t know. And because back then most kids didn’t have a car, you couldn’t go to these other towns, so you just didn’t make good friends. And I was just alone. So it just got to the point that I really fell through the cracks when I went to Allen Central. And it was just a really hard and sad time for me.”
Fultz, a longtime Wayland resident, also recognizes the tradeoffs of consolidation. “At one time, you had Wayland High School, and three miles down the road, you had Garrett High School. Three more miles, you had Maytown and Martin. In less than a 15 mile stretch, you had four high schools on the Right Beaver section of Floyd County – and on the Left Beaver section, you had Wheelwright and McDowell. And I look at Floyd Central High School, and they’re doing a tremendous job with a beautiful facility and modern technology. But I look at that one school and I see eight different high schools now represented in that one building. And I have great difficulties with that piece of it.”
“When Allen Central High School opened in 1972, the year previous to that there had been a basketball team at Wayland, Garrett, Maytown, and Martin, and we’re talking 12-15 kids on the varsity team. Then there are 12-15 kids on the JV team. And if you multiply that times four, you get around 100 kids. At Allen Central, they had 15 kids on the team and 15 kids on the B team. So you go from 100 to 30 kids. What happened to those other 70 kids? And I can take that out to saying you had four sets of cheerleaders – all of a sudden you have one. You had four bands – all of a sudden you have one. What happened to all of those kids that participated in these smaller community schools? And then today, with eight high schools being represented at Floyd Central covering a much wider geographic area, where are all those kids that would be playing if all these schools were still open? And what do they do?”
Bentley said that for many in attendance at the game – nearly all of whom had been affected by consolidation in some way – it was a chance to recognize the role these schools once played in their upbringing and the life of the community.
“I was just excited about everybody coming back in that gym and being a Wayland Wasp again,” she said. “I had that excitement to be in that Wayland gym again, and I just didn’t have that with Allen Central. But you look at the people who were there that night, that were older men in their eighties, and that was just part of their growing up. And they were willing to come no matter how much they might have been in pain or not in good health. They were there that night because it meant so much to them.”
Fultz agreed that the event had an undeniable energy of celebration – one made even sweeter in the wake of the July 2022 flooding that devastated much of Eastern Kentucky, including Wayland.
“That entire evening was just something really, really special,” he said. “And it really made it extra special when I think about what we’ve been through for the last seven months. It was just so heartwarming to see people laughing and reminiscing and recalling all those good times and local community schools from throughout the area and forget about the flooding, the devastation, the hurt. And it was just an evening that was so gratifying to be a part of it, to be there.”
Fultz said the Mountain Sports Hall of Fame has high hopes to continue hosting events like this in the future – and to expand upon what they’ve built so far. His aspiration is to hold an annual tournament in which high school teams can play at several historic gyms throughout the region, continuing to honor the schools that were once such a fabric of Eastern Kentucky communities.
In all, the Throwback Game was more than a basketball game – it was a reminder of the importance of spaces and events that held Eastern Kentucky communities together, and of preserving their history for younger generations. Amanda Kool, a legal strategist and Harvard Law lecturer originally from Bracken County, KY, was one of those in attendance that night who understood the event’s impact in the wider community.
“We may not ever be among the first people to learn the new ways of doing things, but we're likely to be among the last people who can recall the old ways of doing things,” said Kool. “There's untold value in preserving our history for future generations."