Chester Shell was a man of vision whose accomplishments brought the opportunity of an education to hundreds of Alachua County children.
Mr. Shell was born in Orange Springs, Florida, on February 16, 1892. As a child, he learned how to live in the Florida woods--how to hunt, fish, prepare freshly-killed game, cook over a camp fire, and sleep in the woods; he also learned how to train bird dogs. When he became an adult he worked in two jobs; he was a porter for the Seaboard Railroad, and he was a hunting and fishing guide. Visitors from the North--often wealthy white people from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts--would come to Moore's Hotel in Hawthorne to enjoy Florida's superb fishing and hunting, and Mr. Shell was their guide.
During the early part of the 20th Century, black children in Hawthorne had only two to three months of school each year; there was no school building for them, so classes were held in private homes, in churches, and in an old Masonic hall owned by the black community. In 1926, Mr. Shell approached the Alachua County School Board and requested that a school be provided for the children. He was told that if he raised half of the necessary money the School Board would match the funds and a school would be built. Mr. Shell rode the train North, where he visited the men whom he had guided on their hunting and fishing trips, raising much of the money through those contacts. In addition, the black community in Hawthorne solicited funds, sold dinners, and made personal donations.
The goal of $10,000 was reached and the school was built; it covered only kindergarten through the eighth grade, so high school students had to be bussed to Gainesville's Lincoln High School. A high school for Hawthorne's black students was finally built in 1955--it was called Shell High School. Shell High was later converted into an elementary school; integrated in 1970, it is now known as Shell Elementary School.
Mr. Shell was very active in his church and was president of the Alachua County Voters League. He died on May 9, 1967, and was buried in the Hawthorne Cemetery. He traveled extensively, often for religious and political gatherings, visiting 37 of the 50 states. He loved sports, especially baseball, basketball, hunting, and fishing.
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