The History of Sewanee Elementary School
The history of Sewanee Elementary School traces the physical record of its schools, students, and teachers. More importantly, it celebrates the spirit of an entire community that has believed in education and has acted on that belief. The same spirit that kept the University of the South from foundering after the Civil War has been sustained throughout a community that has built and supported its public schools for the children of this area for over one hundred and thirty years.
The discovery of coal on the Cumberland Plateau brought some of the first settlers to this area. Samuel Franklin Tracy headed a group of wealthy investors from New York City who bought the land that contained the coal deposits, obtained a charter from the State of Tennessee to mine the coal, and set up the Sewanee Mining Company in 1852. In order to ship the coal to other areas, the Sewanee Mining Company started building a railroad up the mountain. Completed in 1856, it was the first railroad up the Cumberland Plateau and the steepest railroad in the country. The train engine that hauled the coal down the mountain was called the "Sewanee Mountain Goat". (P. Makris)
"By 1856, the Southern states were more prosperous than ever before in history and the population was growing faster than ever. The Reverend James H. Otey, organizer of the first Episcopal congregation in Tennessee and its first bishop, thought a church university should be created to train young men in the ministry. Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, expanded Otey's idea of a church university to include religious training and education. In 1857 the southern Episcopal bishops created a board of trustees to pursue the concept of creating a church university and began to search for a suitable site. Reverend James H. Otey, first Bishop of Tennessee, and Rev. Leonidas Polk, Bishop of Louisiana, were among this group of men. The president of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Company, Colonel Vernon K. Stevenson, told Bishop Polk about the mountain area that included the town now known as Sewanee. A group of men visited the mountain to explore the area. George Fairbanks in his "History of the University of the South" relates that one of the party, Dr. Safford, remembered Bishop Polk riding over the ground, up one hill and down another, to this spring and to that one, until, reining up his horse in the midst of a beautiful growth of forest trees and more than satisfied, exclaimed, 'Gentlemen, here is the spot and here shall be the University'" (p. 15-Makris).
Although other proposed sites included areas in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Huntsville and McMinnville, the Cumberland Plateau site was officially chosen in November 1857. In August, 1859 the trustees reported that the Sewanee Mining company had agreed to donate 5,000 acres of land for the University with the stipulation that the University was to be operational within ten years or the land would revert to the mining company. An additional 5,000 acres obtained from individuals created the domain of the University of the South. The cornerstone for the University was dedicated on October 10, 1860. In his book Reconstruction At Sewanee, Arthur Ben Chitty included these observations made by "one of the barefooted mountain children playing in the background:
"It was in 1860, I believe, that my grandfather, J.F. Anderson who lived about 12 miles from what is now Sewanee, gathered up all of his numerous family to attend the laying of the Corner Stone of what was intended to be the first building of the University of the South...The trip was made by wagon and horseback through the mountains, and we camped out one night on the way. I was then about 10 years old, and remember being scared by the screaming of a wildcat during the night.... I will never forget the exciting events of that day. There were certainly enough startling events to excite an ignorant country boy. The first thing I noticed was the great throng of country people, more that I had ever seen or have seen since...They had come, as we had come on foot, horseback, and in wagon, drawn by all sorts of teams, from afar and near, and they had come prepared to enjoy the day." (pgs. 65-66)
Sewanee historian Arthur Ben Chitty writes, "Every step (toward the founding of America's first university) was completely successful. A bit more time-and peace-were needed. Both were denied. Two months after the cornerstone was laid on October 10, 1860, South Carolina seceded."
During the Civil War the cornerstone was blown up, all existing buildings were destroyed, and the money invested for the University was lost. Several of the founding trustees, including Polk and Otey, died. Remembering the 1858 agreement with the Sewanee Mining Company that the land, if not used within ten years, would revert back to the mining company, the members of the diocese met and decided to resume the work of rebuilding the University. Reverend Dr. Charles Todd Quintard, Dr. David Pise, and George Fairbanks were charged with making the first steps. Since money was scarce in the southern states, Bishop Quintard went to England and raised money to help rebuild. As Bishop Quintard was planning the University, he was also planning the town. The small village was started around the depot station and began its expansion. In the autumn of 1868 the college opened with just 9 students and four faculties. The University of the South and the Sewanee community began to move forward.
Jabez Wheeler Hayes, an Episcopalian from New Jersey, who had been encouraged by Bishop Quintard to move to Sewanee, built the first public school on the mountain. In 1867 Hayes leased a one hundred acre plot of land on the bluff (where St. Mary's stands today). He moved to Sewanee after the death of his wife in 1870, built a large steam sawmill, and, according to Fairbanks, "furnished the means on credit for erecting boarding halls and private residences." "Hayes was the first large scale benefactor to Sewanee after the war. His gifts were civic improvements in the community. Builder of the first free school, he may be regarded as the founder of the Sewanee Public School, long before the concept of free education had permeated the South. Tennessee did not pass its first compulsory school law until 1907. Hayes may have put as much as $100,000 of his fortune into the early development of the village, most of this before 1875." (Sewanee Sampler, Arthur Ben and Elizabeth N. Chitty, 1978, p.26)
St. Paul's on the Mountain school and St. Paul's on the Mountain church were wooden structures, which stood on the site of the present playground and the 1999 addition to Sewanee Elementary School. Two of the first volunteer teachers were Miss Flora Fairbanks, daughter of George Fairbanks, and Miss Charlotte Elliot, daughter of Bishop Stephen Elliot. Field Dunbar, a student who entered the college in 1870, also volunteered. By 1872 there were seventy- five pupils. An article from a local newspaper dated May, 1875, describes a visit to this school:
"A very few years since, an unbroken and untenanted forest occupied the site of the University, visited occasionally by hunters or traversed by transient travelers. It was almost solitude. The establishment of the University has changed all this and the influence of the University is felt in widening circles. No more striking illustration could be given of this than the work so successfully instituted and carried out at St. Paul's. Through the kindness of Mr. Hayes, a neat building for school purposes was erected near the railroad station, some three years since, and a small beginning was made toward affording the means of education to the population in that neighborhood. After a year or so, the work was taken hold of by young ladies, members of families connected with the University, and carried on with a devotion and earnestness, which deserved and secured success.
Today we visited the school, and found within its walls nearly one hundred children, neat, orderly, attentive and proficient in their studies. A spelling-match, participated in by seventy-five of the children, was in progress while we were present, and we were surprised to see the ease and fluency with which the little ones of tender years spelled scores of difficult words, and the general proficiency of all in this important branch of education. The parents of these children, owing to the absence of schools in their early days, are, as a general thing, uneducated, and it must be a source of heartfelt pleasure to them to see their children in the enjoyment of those advantages of which they were themselves deprived. We doubt whether, all things considered, a more creditable school can be found in our State, or out of it. The neatness of the children, their bright, intelligent and earnest faces, and the hearty good will subsisting between teachers and children exemplified what a school should be.
Since the retirement of Miss Elliott, Mr. Field Dunbar has been associated with Miss Fairbanks in the work of instruction."
Jabez Wheeler Hayes returned to New Jersey in 1877 and died there in 1882. His home and lands in Sewanee were sold to the Sisters of St. Mary, an order of Episcopal nuns who in 1885 opened a school for underprivileged girls of the coves. Arthur Ben Chitty writes that although New Jersey remembered him as one of that state's greatest citizens, "on the balance he was probably more important to Sewanee than to his home state."(Sewanee Sampler, p.29)
The School on Billy Goat Hill
In 1891, Otey Parish, the present stone Episcopal church, was built and St. Paul's became the school and church for the black community. The public school was now located on top of Billy Goat Hill near the site of the old Mountain Goat railroad. Today only pine trees on top of the hill mark its location.
Mignon Winn, a student at Billy Goat Hill and former teacher at S.E.S., wrote that "at first the building consisted of two rooms and a hall, but later a third room was added. Large, old-fashioned pot-bellied stoves provided heat. Water was carried from a well at the depot, and the children having the best grades and best behavior got the privilege of going after the water. At first the children drank from the dipper, but later a barrel with a faucet was installed, and each child brought his own drinking cup."
Mr. Theron Myers, father of Mignon Winn and principal, described the school in 1899 as having two rooms, two teachers, nine grades and one hundred fifty pupils. The older children were taught Latin, plane geometry and algebra. Students shared desks with wooden benches up in front for the classes who were reciting. Later the school had one hundred ninety pupils and three teachers!
Mrs. Riley remembered the school in 1900 as having a first and second grade room called the "little room', a similar sized room for the third, fourth, and fifth grades called the 'middle room', and the larger "big room" addition for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Water was carried from the depot for the coolers and sometimes the boys carrying the water put all sorts of things into it. Paddles and switches were used for discipline. In the winter children brought their sleds to school and slid down the hill to their homes. Mrs. Riley remembered her daughter Nellie Mae (a future teacher in Sewanee) not wanting to go to school on the first day if her father, a school board member, was going to be giving a talk. Nellie May said that she could hear him at home.
The recollections of Mrs. Jim Harrison covered the period 1908-1916. The school population was almost three hundred pupils with three teachers. There was no electricity?lanterns and lamps around the wall were used. Each fall a new bucket and rope were purchased from Brook's or Prince's stores for the well. "If you forgot to bring your individual folding cup you would borrow from your next seat neighbor, and if she wouldn't lend you hers, you went thirsty." Students brought lunches in buckets.
School board members, made up of local men, and parents visited the school often. Mrs. Harrison had remarked that she "wouldn't be a teacher and just have three dresses with different sets of collars and cuffs for change." The teachers' small salaries were called "warrants".
After the construction of the new public school Billy Goat Hill School was sold for $150, disassembled, and parts of it still exist today incorporated into framing and floors of older homes in town.
Sewanee Public School: 1924-2002
Although the citizens of Sewanee paid sales taxes, people living on land owned by the University of the South did not pay property taxes until the late 1960's. Since the beginning of the public school in Sewanee, many of the children attending the Sewanee Public School did not live on the University domain, but because the school buildings were located within these boundaries, the Franklin County Board of Education agreed to pay the salaries of teachers, but did not provide the buildings. As an unincorporated town Sewanee did not have any taxing facilities. For almost fifty years the voluntary commitment of the town to its children had maintained its educational system. By the early 1920's the school on Billy Goat Hill was overcrowded and becoming dilapidated. When the Sewanee Civitan Club, today called the Sewanee Civic Association, was organized, its general objective of good citizenship included a comprehensive program looking to the betterment and improvement of every phase of community activity. One special objective of the program was the providing of school facilities for the grammar grades.
Beginning in 1922, the minutes of the Civitan Club recorded the efforts of the citizens of the town to sponsor and build a new public school. "Contrary to the expectations of the Club, the State and County are unable to contribute toward the defrayment of the expense of the new building, because of the fact that it will be situated on ground leased by the University. It is a Tennessee law that the State and County cannot give appropriations for educational buildings to be placed on land leased by other than State or County Institutions. Since the University is unable to aid in the defrayment of expenses the burden of the project is upon the shoulders of the Civitan Club." The proposed building would be located on ground leased from the University of the South, owned by the Sewanee Civitan Club, and operated by County School Board which would provide the teachers and pay the operating expenses.
The proposal was carried forward by acclamation and within minute's names and pledges were received that started them on their goal of $10,000. An account, overseen by Herman Green, was opened at the local bank where people could deposit their pledges. The University promised to contribute the stone for the building and $1,000 as soon as the other $9,000 was secured in cash and estimated labor. Mr. A.M. Githens, architect of Johnson and Cannon Hall at the University, donated the plans for the four rooms, mountain stone structure and auditorium. A play given by the French club raised $43.00. Additional funds were raised by means of bridge parties, a play, "Professor Pep", given by village children, and a fancy dress ball, which alone netted $75!
The first step in the construction of the new school was the removal of St. Paul's church to Happy Hollow. Material from the torn down St. Paul's was used to build a temporary school for the black community. When this new school (located near the present Head Start Kennerly School) was completed in 1936 the name was changed to St. Mark's in honor of St. Mark's Guild, a student missionary organization begun in 1869.
"The cornerstone of the new Sewanee Public School building was laid on July 9, 1924. Harry Clark officiated at the ceremony. Professor MacKellar gave the address, since the Assistant State Superintendent of Schools, who had been asked to speak upon that occasion, was unable to be present on account of a delay caused by the breaking down of his automobile. The stone was laid by the Masons." (The Sewanee Purple, July24, 1924) In her brief history of the school, Mignon Winn adds to this description, "One raw, windy day the student body and faculty consisting of Mr. Theron Myers and two other teachers, marched from the school to the site of the present Sewanee Public School for the laying of the cornerstone and a speech by Major William MacKeller. The old Andrews house, formerly located here, had burned; and Major 'Mac' stood on the old hearthstone to deliver his speech."
"Work had begun on the new school on November 6, 1924. Citizens of the community and a few students of the University cleared the ground and completed the foundation excavation, with the ladies serving a bountiful picnic. Students of the University and cadets of the Military Academy assisted in furnishing part of the building. The Senior Grammar School class agreed to furnish the front door. Money was raised by the Eastern Star and kindred organizations." (Sewanee Purple, Nov. 12, 1924-Trudy Mignery)
John Henry Castleberry was paid $7.50 per day to be the Superintendent of Construction and Fred Reid was in charge of the stonework. People donated labor, often working on the school after finishing their day jobs. The citizens of the mountain built their school. A Civitan letter to the community stated, "This beautiful and dignified $18,000 structure, built from plans donated by Mr. A.M. Githens, architect of Johnson and Cannon Halls, stands as an enduring witness to the ability of this community to do big things when everybody lends a helping hand. As such it is worth the toil and self-denial and sacrifice that have gone into this building."
The school was dedicated at the beginning of the 1926 school year. Mr. Ralph Black was the first principal. The following year Mr. Theron Myers became principal of the school that included eight grades and two years of high school with five teachers. (Hopes to have Sherwood and Alto schools come in and make possible a four year high school never materialized and the school dropped its own high school section in 1940.) The County paid Mr. Myers $1800 and the community added $300 to his salary.
The school population continued to grow. In his principal's reports Mr. Myers writes that in 1929 the school had 180 pupils and four teachers. By June 1932 there were 245 students. The Civitan Club realized that an addition was already needed and in 1933 the "Roosevelt Addition" was built with the aid of the PWA and the assistance of a number of the town's people. This addition included the two classrooms on either side of the old stage and two classrooms below.
At this same time the Women's Club fostered a project to establish a soup kitchen and provide hot lunches for the children. Located in the Parish House across the street, the cook, Mariah Barker was given $2.50 a week and lent her stove. Children paid five cents per meal or what they could for a bowl of soup, day old bread, and a glass of milk. Families contributed vegetables for the soup and when the children brought enough berries Mrs. Barker would bake a pie.
Minutes from the Civitan Club during the late 1930's and 1940's help clarify the working relationship between the Franklin County School Board and the Civitan/Civic Association:
1943 - "The school built at no expense to the County was for several years free of rent to the county, but when the insurance and maintenance costs could not be paid by the County during the depression of the 30's, the building was returned to the Civitan Club and was rented to the County for less than the actual cost of maintenance and insurance, a source of continuing concern. Negotiations were begun to get the County to assume more responsibility for the school"
1943 - "Extended the school year 1 month-raised money to do so. Extended the Negro school, too. Franklin County provides a school year of only eight months. Community Chest funds have been used for the last three years to give Sewanee children a ninth month of school. These four extra weeks make possible a richer curriculum, and allow time for the several extra-curricular activities that have, in recent years, added so much to the life of the school and the community." More than half of the town's Community chest budget continued to be used for allocations to the school, for enrichment and the purchase of basic supplies.
In 1948 the school opened the Nellie Mae Riley Library. The local citizens donated many of the books.
In 1950 the Civic Association also solicited funds to build a permanent schoolhouse for the African-American children. Made of concrete blocks, the school had a large classroom, bathroom, restrooms and kitchen and was named after John "Fess" Kennerly who had devoted much of his life to educating the children. After his death in 1949 his wife, Mrs. Gertrude Kennerly was employed as the teacher.
By the end of the 1940's and the early 1950's the needs for repairs and expansion began to outpace the ability of the Civic Association and donations from the members of Sewanee and the other small mountaintop communities to fund the school. Negotiations began in 1949 to turn the school building over to the County in exchange for an addition of a gymnasium and lunchroom. This was finally accomplished in 1955. A quote from the 1956 PTA newsletter written by James E. Thorogood summarizes this process best:
"Until last summer, the University owned the Public School, and the Civic Association had a School Committee, which tried to look after the school. The County rented the school from us, but we had to do the repairs, replace worn-out roofs, floors, plumbing, furnace, etc. We had to pay the insurance, pay part of the janitor's wages, and do any improvements we could. This would have cost about $5,000 a year to do a good job, but the County would only pay us $1,000 a year (rent). By last spring the furnace was completely worn out and could not be used anymore. The Civic Association had no money for replacement of the furnace or anything else. It looked as though we would have to close down the school when cold weather came.
At this point, since we were unable to take care of the school ourselves, it was suggested that we strike a bargain with the County. The Civic Association got permission from the University which owns the building and the land to turn the school over to the County provided the County would make certain improvements, give us a new furnace and cafeteria, and take responsibility for keeping up the school in the future
This was done. The County authorized $50,000 for a new furnace and other improvements."
Thorogood finished this report by saying, "I don't believe there is another town in the world with so many generous and public-spirited citizens and I wish I could mention every person by name." PTA Chairman, Mrs. Robert P. Moore added, "A community is unquestionably reflected in its school and the reverse is also true. We point with pride and gratitude to our Sewanee Public School and the accomplishments of this year as very real evidence of a true spirit of community."
In 1960 two more classrooms were needed and the county built the first brick addition next to the stone school. At this time the Sewanee Civic Association petitioned to integrate the school starting one grade at a time with the first grade. This did not occur. In 1964 the County lost an integration suit filed by eight families in the county. In order to have all the children in the Sewanee area go together to school in one building the Sewanee Civic Association had a town meeting to discuss the need for an additional four classrooms. A portion of a 1965 letter written to the community by the Community Chest chairman of the Civic Association, T. Felder Dorn eloquently sums up the results:
"Slightly over a year ago, our community was faced with a crisis in our public school. The Sewanee Public School was overcrowded, with some classes meeting in Claiborne Parish House across the highway; the Kennerly School was conceded to be an inadequate educational plant, in terms of physical facilities and because it provided only two teachers for eight grades. These problems were greatly intensified when a Federal court ordered a geographical zoning plan for desegregation. Sewanee's response to this crisis was to offer to furnish adequate space for all pupils under one roof, by constructing four rooms on the Sewanee Public School.
In order to accomplish this, Sewanee citizens devoted time and energy to negotiations, persuasions and solicitations' contributed substantial sums of cash and/or made generous pledges to the building fund; and in the case of eighteen residents, made loans with no assurance of repayment but their faith in the community. The effort, excitement, and frustration of the initial fund drive, and the fact that the rooms were completed and occupied last November are now part of our community record."
An article in the March 2, 1964 Chattanooga Times said, "Sewanee is believed to be the only community in the nation to dig into its own pockets to provide facilities making total school desegregation possible."
In the last thirty years principals have included Fred Langford, Mary Sue Cushman, Ann Turlington, Ruth Ramseur, Ann Watkins, and the current principal, Mike Maxon.
In the early 1980's a kindergarten room was added onto the primary wing. Extensive renovations and additions occurred during 1983-84 when a new library was built, the original stone building was connected to the primary wing, ramps were installed, the old auditorium was turned into office space, and the lower section of the Roosevelt addition was turned into one large and two smaller classroom spaces. Principal Ruth Ramseur credited Maury (Bimi) McGee for volunteering information and planning that made the complicated task easier. The following year, 1985, a new cafeteria was built.
In 1989 the Sherwood Elementary School was closed and approximately 25-28 children from Sherwood, a teacher, and several aides became part of the Sewanee Public School community.
During the 1990's the community explored the possibility of either building a new school in a new location or building an addition. In 1999 Franklin County funded an addition that consisted of six classrooms for grades four through six, a computer room, a teacher's workroom and a stage. Discovering that this last addition would take place right over the site of the first school building, the original St. Paul's on the Mountain, the sixth graders participated in a simple archaeological dig. No whole treasures were found, but many bits and pieces of colored glass, crockery, and coal served to connect this circle and remind the children of their school's rich and full past.
After Franklin County took over the support of the Sewanee Public School, the Sewanee Civic Association continued to focus much of its annual Community Chest money on funding for the school. In the past thirty years, the community has annually contributed money that has paid for an additional classroom teacher and part time teachers in art, computer, library, music, physical education, and science. These donations also have funded visiting artists, the purchase of classroom computers, teacher workshops, special field trips, and a summer recreation program located at the school. This commitment to funding many of the school's needs has served the intentional purpose of eliminating the door-to-door fundraising that many school children have to do. The 2007-2008 Community Chest drive collected $86,000 from over 400 individuals. Of this amount approximately $25,000 will go to the Sewanee Elementary School!
In addition to this financial support, the community sustains its history of volunteer work at the school. People come together to tutor, work in the library, improve the playground, teach "Friday School", and share their interests and expertise with the children who are here. We strive to make the history of this school one that reflects the nurture and caring of the past one hundred thirty years.
Many people served as sources for this history of the Sewanee Elementary School. We gratefully acknowledge the following: Annie Armour, Scott Bates, Arthur Ben Chitty, Elizabeth N. Chitty, Ilene Degen, Pat Makris, Una McBee, Trudy Mignery, Ina May Myers, Gary Phillips, Ruth Ramseur, Ann Watkins, Mignon Winn, Mike Winn, and The Sewanee Messenger.