A good area: Bonaire High, football and the rise of Warner Robins

Houston County is seemingly perpetually growing.

The United States census gives credence to that. Starting with the 1940 census, Houston County has grown in every count. The county had 110,765 people in 2000, a growth from 89,208 in 1990. In 2010, the number was 139,900. Currently, the figure is estimated at 152,122.

A major reason for Houston’s size is Robins Air Force Base, which opened in 1942.

In 1940, Houston County had an estimated 11,303 citizens. In 1950, it had nearly doubled to 20,964.

Warner Robins, the city appended to the base, grew from nothing. In 1940, all that was in that section of Houston County was the tiny community of Wellston. Seventy-five years later, the population is nearly 75,000.

Six miles from Warner Robins is Bonaire.

Bonaire is unincorporated.

It has an elementary school and a middle school. An elementary school has been permanently there since about 1961. A middle school was added in the mid-1990s. By that progression, it seems that Bonaire is just now beginning to boom.

The area is at its highest population currently, but there was a time that Bonaire’s star was arguably even more.

When Warner Robins was named in 1942, there wasn’t a high school there. There were white high schools in Houston County at Perry, and, at Bonaire.

It is Warner Robins that pushed it further and it was Warner Robins that inadvertently led to Bonaire’s obscurity.

The Macon Telegraph reported in 1941 the Houston County community of Wellston contained “one box station, one general store, six homes and less than 50 inhabitants.” That quickly changed when the United States War Department opted to build an airfield in the area. By the middle of 1942, construction was speeding along on 250 new houses in the area.

The airfield and the area around it already were being referred to as Warner Robins by the time the War Department made the name change from Wellston official on November 2, 1942.

The sudden boom of Warner Robins meant families were moving into the area. World War II had begun officially for the United States in December 1941 and with a new air base came not just jobs in the air base, but jobs to support it.

In 1941-42, Houston County had seven white schools. Only two, Centerville and Bonaire, were located in the northern half of the county. Of those, only Bonaire had a high school.

The influx of young people to the air depot area was quick and Bonaire was unequipped to handle the surge.

The Macon Telegraph reported that an addition to Bonaire was being rushed in early September.

“With the added space, the school will accommodate 200 extra pupils,” it said. The entirety of Bonaire school had 10 teachers in 1941-42 and was scheduled to have the same in 1942-43. The Warner Robins students likely nearly doubled the school’s attendance.

Bonaire’s addition, however, was not enough.

The February 18, 1943, Houston Home Journal reported that Warner Robins was building its own school, funded by the federal government. The Bonaire addition was to have held 200 students. This new school at Warner Robins was to house 600-800.

Superintendent F.M. Greene of Houston schools hoped this was the answer to accommodate all the new students.

The Warner Robins school was not ready by the start of the 1943-44 school year, meaning the students began the year in an old USO building and in the recreation building on base.

When school started, Warner Robins enrolled 421 pupils in grades 1-7. Congestion in the lower grades was reduced at Bonaire, which was a reasonable 150 students.

Remarkably, the high school enrollment at Bonaire was greater than the elementary; Warner Robins was still sending the high school students to Bonaire, giving its high school (grades 8-11) attendance of 175.

While small today, a high school of 175 students was decently sized in 1943 and big enough to do something unknown in Bonaire before: Under the auspices of the athletics department of Robins Air Force Base (led by Sam Mayer), Bonaire played football.

Football was almost entirely an unknown sport in Houston County.

Perry High, which lived and breathed basketball, did not take up the sport until 1954 and only then after a major campaign by both boys and the Houston Home Journal. Houston County Training began playing in 1953 after collecting their own funds.

Bonaire’s first game was October 8, 1943 at Mary Persons High in Forsyth. Mary Persons took an 18-0 win.

Players barely had a week of practice before making their debut, but plans were quickly made for game No. 2, versus the B-team of Macon’s Lanier High, which took place at Warner Robins’ Civilian Barracks.

Lanier’s B squad took a 19-0 victory, but hopes were very high for the future.

So fast was the program moving that despite this contest being a 2:30 pm. start, Bonaire reps were attempting to purchase lights from Mercer University in order to have future night games.

Sam Luthi was head coach of Bonaire in 1943.

Luthi was a Vidalia native and attended the University of Georgia, where the Macon Telegraph described him as a mascot of sorts for the Bulldogs’ football team as well as catching batting practice for Spud Chandler.

“Luthi is accomplishing a lot [at] Bonaire. He is taking kids who knew nothing about football and whipping them into a team. He has lost two games this season but takes pride in just the fact that he is able to give Bonaire and Warner Robins their first football team.”

Though the school had answered to the nickname of Wildcats, the gridiron team seems to have used Bombardiers, very appropriate given the strong military ties of the program.

Bonaire was to have met Mary Persons again – this time at Warner Robins in a night game – but plans fell through twice and the game never happened.

It is likely Bonaire only played twice in 1943. The Macon Telegraph had no mentions of further games. The Houston Home Journal did not mention Bonaire football at all.

Bonaire’s football program was quite short-lived. Those two games and only one season.

By February 1944, the Federal Works agency had already approved the building of a new 12-room high school at Warner Robins, as well as addition to the brand new elementary school and a school to accommodate 325 black students (though just six rooms in size).

The new high school for Warner Robins was not finished when school opened for the 1944-45 term, but it had already been determined that the city’s students would stay in town, rather than go to Bonaire.

That fall, Warner Robins kids were playing on their own football team. The Bulldogs were not an official high school squad, but did tangle with the B teams at Lanier High and Griffin High and were scheduled to play a varsity opponent in Dexter High.

The Bulldogs played again in 1945, finishing with a 3-2 record. It is unknown currently if this Warner Robins team kept playing. As the Warner Robins High Demons, the team’s history stretches back to 1953.

After the departure of the Warner Robins children, Bonaire kept going as before, with an estimated average daily attendance of 155 in 1948.

But in that year, the school was wiped off the map.

In the early hours of May 9, 1948, the main portion of Bonaire’s school burned to the ground.

The building was partially insured. Insurance for Bonaire School was higher because the town lacked any fire-fighting equipment.

With a donation of desks from the county school system, Bonaire finished out the school year in local buildings and graduated from a local church.

A month later, the State Department of Education advised the Houston County School System not to rebuild at Bonaire.

A letter from R.G. Williams, J.E. Owens and Pendleton Mitchell recommended “that both elementary and high school departments of the Bonaire school be consolidated with existing units of Houston County.”

The main reasoning of the trio was costs.

“The annual per pupil cost of $142.81 for the Bonaire high school is extremely excessive as compared with the annual cost per pupil of $87.92 for Warner Robins high school and $108.23 for the Perry high school,” the letter said. They also believed opportunities would be better in other towns.

Students were divided between Perry and Warner Robins. It was nearly 15 more years before Bonaire again had its own school.

Had the fire not occurred, Bonaire would have been considered for elimination in the 1950s as Georgia was streamlining education under the Minimum Foundation Program. It is possible Bonaire could have held on through the end of the decade. Clearly, population was ticking up in the Bonaire area if a new elementary school was needed where there was none.

Houston County High opened in the area in 1991. Veterans High opened in 2010. It carries an address of Kathleen, but is also nearby.

Had it not been for unfortunate flames, the athletics history of Bonaire could have been much different.

Sources: United States census figures; Macon Telegraph – July 12, 1942, Aug. 16, 1942, Sept. 5, 1942, Nov. 3, 1942, Oct. 8, 1943, Oct. 27, 1943, Nov. 3, 1943, Nov. 9, 1943, Nov. 10, 1943, Feb. 18, 1944, Dec. 1, 1945; Houston Home Journal – Feb. 18, 1943, Sept. 9, 1943, Sept. 23, 1943, May 13, 1948, June 17, 1948, March 5, 1953; Georgia Educational Directory – 1941-42, 1942-43.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s