Walker County Historic Schools

Posted 4/14/19

In recent columns I have attempted to resurrect history of many of the old schools that were in Walker County. There have been many who have assisted me in this endeavor, to which I am grateful. …

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Walker County Historic Schools

Posted

In recent columns I have attempted to resurrect history of many of the old schools that were in Walker County. There have been many who have assisted me in this endeavor, to which I am grateful. Elizabeth Blanton at the Carl Elliot Library has been very helpful. My sister, Lora Bagwell loaned me a copy of DIXIE'S DIVERSE DESTINY authored by Margery Thompson Lockhart (1979) in which there is a chapter (pages 64-68) titled SCHOOLS OF THE 1870'S 1880'S AND 1890'S in which she names several schools in the southern part of the county. Roger Minor of Parrish also furnished me with copies of SALMAGUNDI - A CENTURY AND A HALF; written by Hewitt Johnston, M.D. (1957). He includes a chapter titled Early Schooling (pages 78-106) in which the names of early schools are given, beginning in 1879 when he started to school. These schools were also located in South Walker County. After reading Doctor Johnston's chapter, it became evident to me that there is no way that I can identify all the old county schools as many of them were taught in the dwellings of individuals as opposed to a school building.

Hewitt Johnston gives a firsthand account of the early schools as he started as a student in 1879, 140 years ago. This was long before any type transportation was provided for students. Dr. Johnston had a very clear memory of those early school days and even gives the names of 35 students that were in his first class, including siblings, Powell, Flem, and Archeive. He identifies it as the Smith Schoolhouse but gives no location for it. An interesting account of school days 140 years ago is given, and I will copy some it, with credit given to Dr. Johnston.

Watt Rhea was the teacher who is also mentioned in Mrs. Lockhart's book as a well know educator of that era. He is also identified as being the teacher of Hewitt's sixth school taught in the France Bradley schoolhouse in the summer of 1884. Only four subjects taught: spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Only a few of the older pupils were taught writing; practicing with pen and ink following the copies set by the teacher. Ink used was made from “ink balls” that grow primarily on red and Spanish oak trees.. The ball is about the size of a large marble, round, slick, containing a purplish juice which, when pressed out, makes a good substitute for writing ink. Poke berry juice was also used for writing ink.

Studying numbers was called “ciphering.” Instead of saying the pupil was studying arithmetic (or math,) he was learning to “cipher” which was done on a rock slate (a far cry from today's modern electronics.) A blue-back speller was used to learn the alphabet. He writes “The alphabet was where the beginners first started, and most of the children wore the bottom of that page through holding the book open with their thumb, which soon wore the bottom letters away, usually before the pupil had learned them.”

The first school that he attended was made of pine logs, with the bark left on, no sealing of the cracks between the logs, and no ceiling overhead. The roof was made from boards split from oak logs which was sawed into 3 or 4 ft. lengths. There were only two benches lengthwise inside the building which was approximately 24 ft. long, one on each side of the room, made of split logs flat side up, each resting on an end log of the building at a height to accommodate those of 10 to 20 years of age. The feet of the smaller children did not touch the dirt floor. The boys sat on one side of the room and the girls on the other of the 16 ft. by 24 ft. building. The choice seat on these benches were the ends, in the corner which provided a good “lean back” position. Hewitt recalls that it was because of this corner seat that he got his first punishment at school. Pulaski Knight had the corner seat, which he wanted, part time at least. Because Pulaski would not allow him to sit in the corner seat, Hewitt bumped his head up against the wall, causing him to cry. When the teacher, who was having a grown up “ciphering” class in another part of the building, inquired as to why he was crying, Pulaski answered, “Hewitt Johnston bumped my head against the wall.”  The teacher called Hewitt over and asked why he had done it. After answering, he was ordered back to his seat and as he started back, the teacher gave him one little tap on his shoulder with his hickory stick (which every teacher kept by their side or in their hand.)  

In 1880, Hewitt's second year in school, he was at the same schoolhouse with essentially the same students. His teacher that year was Abner Knight. His third school year was at the Snow school which was located about two miles north of Taylor's Ferry near a spring called “Snow” Spring which he placed as being about halfway between Asbury Snow's house and his ferryboat landing on the river going toward Low Gap Baptist Church. His teacher that year was Jim Hancock, who unexpectedly voluntarily gave up the school. Hewitt speculates that the reason he did this was to enter Medical College as some years later he was Dr. J.F. Hancock, located at Toadvine in Jefferson County. He must have been the only doctor for a radius of thirty miles in the counties between Jonesboro and Bessemer in Jefferson County, Dora, Jasper and Days Gap in Walker County, and Northport in Tuscaloosa County.

Hewitts fourth school was in the summer of 1882; Jim Johnston was the teacher. This school was held in France Bradley's house (18 x 20 to 24 ft) which he had built after his wife's death, and he and his son, Bill, had lived in it at intervals. In the corner was a one-poster bed, the walls answering for the other three post. It was small but had a plank floor, the first for Hewitt, the others had dirt floors. His fifth school was at the Ab Knight Schoolhouse taught by Jim Chilton, summer 1883. The school term was eight weeks. The teacher went barefooted as did all the pupils in every school in those days.     

Things have changed in the past 140 years! Where would kids be today without their Nikes?

We will continue with this history next week.

Contact Wheeler Pounds at 3424 Kings Mill Rd, Oakman, AL 35579, or at wheelerpounds@gmail.com.