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Relics unearthed beneath Bethesda gym

Photo: David McGregor                                                          Bill Hammock looks through old relics pulled from an old storage room underneath the Bethesda Elementary School gym on Saturday morning in Lawrenceville.

Photo: David McGregor Bill Hammock looks through old relics pulled from an old storage room underneath the Bethesda Elementary School gym on Saturday morning in Lawrenceville.

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Photo: David McGregor Craig Camp, a building and maintenance technican for the Gwinnett County Public Schools looks through an old storage area underneath the Bethesda Elementary School gym on Saturday morning in Lawrenceville.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Eyes squinting with exertion, Craig Camp pushed with all his might against the thick, metal entryway.

One time, two times, three times, he slammed his body against it, until the hinges squeaked, and the door swung open.

A group of a half dozen volunteers leaned forward. They peered into the cavernous space, like a long-forgotten tomb beneath Bethesda Elementary's gymnasium.

Cobwebs drifted and danced, surfing on a rare burst of fresh air inside the school's former cafeteria.

Principal Deborah Harris enlisted the help of community members and district employees to drag relics out from beneath the space Saturday morning.

What has served for decades as a storage room -- the resting place for countless antique toys and physical education equipment -- will soon be needed to house a new air-conditioning system, Harris said.

The room, she added, has been left undisturbed and sealed from the elements for a long, long time.

"We wanted to get in here and see what we could find and salvage before they put in the new A/C," said Harris as she walked a squeaky-wheeled tricycle out of the old cafeteria. "We're going to keep a lot of this stuff here and display it in the school."

While the current facility at 525 Bethesda School Road wasn't built until 1931, many of the items found during the cleaning session Saturday could possibly have dated back to the school's founding in 1905, when it was located next to Bethesda Methodist Church.

As the oldest school building in the district, former staff over the years managed to garner quite the collection of children's artifacts.

As the group of volunteers ventured Saturday into the musty space, they stooped to examine some of the objects. Harris dusted off an old, wooden horse on wheels, while Camp picked up a rusty can of sealed roofing tar.

Another volunteer grabbed a decades-old Anheuser Busch bottle from the floor, laughing to himself.

Overturned Radio Flyer wagons -- some with holes rusted all the way through -- were abundant. A three-foot tall abacus with multi-colored wooden beads stood in the middle of the room, still ready for use. The principal and her daughter tried out an old see-saw that showed little wear.

Carolyn Beaty, who attended the school from 1939-46, said she remembered some of the stuff. In a phone conversation Saturday afternoon, she recalled playing on the see-saws and rolling the wagons along outside during recess.

More vividly than the toys themselves, she remembers the space where they were housed for so long.

"During (World War II), my mother and other members of the community had a Victory Garden, and they would send some of that fresh food with us to the cafeteria to share," Beaty said.

She said she remembers the space "had concrete floors and a drain in the middle of the room. There were big tables with benches on the side too."

Cleff Mays, who also attended school at Bethesda in the 1940s, said she recalled "big sinks in the cafeteria...those big, steel sinks."

Whatever was left of the old plumbing was no longer apparent Saturday morning as volunteers moved about in the former cafeteria. They did, however, find an old chalkboard with chalk dust still caked against it. They also unearthed a dozen hula hoops, a dusty board game with a Wheel-of-Fortune-like spinner and a child-sized mobile basketball goal.

"It's like a treasure hunt," Harris said as she helped haul the final salvageable items into a new storage area to be cleaned.

"We want our current and future students to be able to see this stuff," Harris said. "We're going to find a great place to display all these treasures, so everyone can enjoy them. It's like witnessing history right before your eyes."