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Education in America (Well, Tennessee Anyway) – 100 Years Ago (May 12, 2010)

Posted in Education, Family Stories, Granddaddy's Stories, and History

I wrote a couple of days ago about some changes in education over the past fifty years, but I also have one first-hand account of what education was like in East Tennessee a hundred years ago. The story comes from my grandfather, Richard Hobart Williams (1898-1987). On the same April, 1985, day he told the story of Dillard Williams’ untimely Civil War death, he reminisced about his education experiences. Below are transcriptions of what he said and links to MP3 files you can listen to. If you want to hear a genuine East Tennessee dialect, check them out.

My first thought on re-reading these stories was that changes between 1910 and 1960 were more dramatic than in the following fifty years. Certainly they were for the better since the 1960 system was producing a much higher percentage of well-educated people, ready for real contributions to society and to the economy, than the 1910 system. I think however, that, by that criterion, changes since 1960 have been detrimental rather than helpful.

It seems to me that in both 1910 and 1960, the key player in the education system and the person in whom authority and power resided was the classroom teacher. My high school teachers did not have hickory switches standing in the corner, but the behavior of the students was nevertheless exemplary and discipline meant being there, paying attention, and doing the work. It seems to me that during the past fifty years the center of power and authority has shifted to the ever expanding bureaucracy and that the classroom teacher has become just another cog in that bureaucracy. And discipline has gradually become focused on political correctness rather than on academic achievement. (Before you get all upset, note that key words in this paragraph are, “It seems to me…”)

Here’s the story in two parts to keep the MP3 files to a reasonable size. Each part is about three minutes.

When I first started to school we lived up on the Pigeon River. And we went over to Wilton Springs which was come down the river ‘bout half a mile or three quarters and cross over and back up the river on the other side and then straight into Wilton Springs which I guess was about a mile and a half. In my first year, had us a one room school and a woman teacher. Awful nice lady. She was nice to me as she could be. I remember went in once, it had been raining. I had a sailor collar on. Little ole boys then wore sailor collars. It was all wet and she had a fire in the old log stove. She set me up next to the stove with my back to that to dry that collar out.

That was the first cigarette I ever smoked going around to that school. Very near the last one. We boys sat on a long bench on one side of the school house, girls on the other side, which was the custom at that time. Same way in the church. Women’d sit on one side, men on the other. So I was sitting next to the window one day and a boy that was a good deal older than I was, I’d say at the time he must have been 12 or 14 years old, he got excused and went up in the woods there to the restroom. Up in the woods on one side of the house. Girls on the other side. So when the boy came back down he was smoking a cigarette which the teacher would have given him trouble if she’d seen him. Anyway, he threw it down. Boy I got excused right quick and I run out and grabbed that duck and took up through there smoking that cigarette. So, a few mornings after that, we’d gotten up there to the house. Father, he’d gone down to tend to his horses. My brother was sitting there nursing my sister who was about a year old, year and a half. I was putting on my clothes, shoes, six year old boy. Got to picking at him. He was never bad about telling on anybody. He wasn’t that kind. Finally he told me to quit two or three times. I didn’t do it. Finally he says, “I’ll tell pop about you smoking that cigarette if you don’t quit.” Well that shook me up. I didn’t know he even knew that I was smoking. I didn’t think he’d tell it so I kept on picking at him. When pop come in, he said, “Poppa?” Said, “Yeah Claude?” Said, “You’re going to have to buy Hobart a pipe so he can smoke.” “Why?” “Well, I saw him over there at the school house pick up a cigarette and smoke it.” Said, “I’ll smoke him!” And he smoked me! I didn’t bother any more cigarettes for a while.

Next two years then we went over to a different school. Came down the river the same way and went on down past the bridge. It was following a dirt road course we’d cut through the woods and field some. Little closer than Wilton Springs but we went there one, two years. It was still a one room school. Man teacher there and he was the kind that would work on you. He didn’t take any foolishness. He’d have a big hickory a hanging, standing up in the corner of the school house all the time up next to the black board. He’d bring in a big long one ever once in a while; he’d stand it up there in the corner. Heck he had me a standing on the floor seemed to me like half the tune or using one of them switches on me one. Last time I remember him whipping me was a couple of Taylor boys lived on up past our house a little ways. We was always fighting going home, my brother and I and them two, was about the same size. Course we wouldn’t hurt anybody, each other. We’s fighting so he’d let one of us, me and my brother, out one time a little ahead of time. Next day he’d let the others out. But we’d fool along and get together of course. So if they had a little chance to get someone in trouble, why we’d do it. So I was running the oldest one of them boys one day. Just after running him we’s just playing and he went in and told the teacher I hit him in the head with a rock or something. I didn’t do that. I didn’t throw nothing at him. So only thing I could figure out, I had some mud on my foot an it might have flew off and hit him in the back or head or somewhere. Anyhow he went in and told the teacher. Boy he didn’t take any explanation from me. He pulled me up there and gave me a whipping with one of them there switches. He gave me more whippings in that two years than my father did in the same length of time.



Boys and girls had to stay separate. There were restrooms that was different sides of the house. Sat on a different side of the house. They had, oh, four, five, or six young men and women going there. They must have been sixteen, eighteen years old, maybe twenty. So my uncle had a store up next to where we lived, up the river. Somebody had a watermelon patch down the river. So the girls wanted to go the store, but these boys wanted to go to the watermelon patch. “Well, OK You can go to that but don’t you’ns get together.” Well, they wouldn’t, so they went down the road a little ways and all got together and all went someplace together. I don’t know which place they went but anyway, he found out about it. I remember him having them all up there quizzing them you know. Go through a little trial. Find out what they did and what they didn’t do. He didn’t whip ’em. They was young men, I mean they was up, and young women, sixteen years old anyway and maybe eighteen. Heck, they went to school back then till they was twenty years old, lot of ‘em. When I went to school up at the college, why there was a young man, married couple up there in the seventh grade. They must have been twenty five years old. It was Maryville College.

We came back to Maryville in the last week in December, (19)13, and I started to school up at Maryville College the first of January, (19)14, in the eighth grade. I’d fooled along, should have been farther along than that, but I started in the eighth grade in the winter term as they called it. Started the first of the year. And there were two young women came in the same time I did, had been teaching school in the county there. Had about four months schooling at that time, four or five, and then school would be out at the first of the year and they’d come back up and go to school then in the eighth grade. They had the seventh and eighth grade at that tune. Used to have lower grades than that, but they’d cut it down to the seventh and eighth and high school, the preparatory department they called it, and then college. And one couple there out of somewhere, I believe out of Kentucky maybe, somewhere up that way, married couple it must have been, they must have been anyway thirty years old. Fellow by the name of Williams there that must have been thirty, thirty five years old. He carried the mail from the Post Office over to the college. He came down there, they’d got him up here in Cocke County, or Sevier County somewhere, some of the missionary minded Presbyterians did, and they were going to school him. He came down there and he went through Maryville College, and taught school afterwards. His widow still lives there in Maryville they tell me. I’ve never seen her.

But there was a lot of people at that time that couldn’t read or write, grown people, a lot of young people didn’t even ever go to school. In fact I had an uncle, Richard Driscoll, my mother’s oldest brother. His father died way back when he was just a boy like. He had to go to farming, looking after the family. He was out in the field plowing a team of steers. Some preacher passed along, saw him out there, and got out talking to him. He lived over north of Newport, near Parrotsville. As I understood it, the Presbyterians had a school over there at Parrotsville. He got my uncle to come over there and started in the school. Twenty, twenty five years old. Never been to school as I understand it. He got an education, went to teaching school there, became county superintendent, principle of the high school, running private schools. My father and mother and their generation, generation a little bit younger would go to school to him. So although he got a late start in life with his education, why he became very popular and prominent in that county as an educator and a good man. He died with a heart attack in ’15, I believe it was. We hadn’t been here long. ’15 or ’16. They said it was one of the largest funerals had ever been in Newport at that time. More people attended it. He was known all over the county. Lot of the people had gone to school to him. Although he was a late starter, he got along all right as an educator. 

Granddaddy went on to comment that the Richard in his name was from his highly respected Uncle Richard Driscoll and that he wished his parents had called him Richard instead of Hobart.