FRONTIER SCHOOLS PROVIDED THE CITY'S LEADERS OF THE FUTURE
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, Nov. 9, 1980.
Many sources went into the writing of this article, among them, W. T. Block, EMERALD OF THE NECHES: THE CHRONICLES OF BEAUMONT, TEXAS, pp. 1-576; Deepwater Editions of the ENTERPRISE and the JOURNAL, Sept., 1910; Golden Anniversary Edition, ENTERPRISE, July 22, 1930; Texas Centennial Edition, ENTERPRISE, May 31, 1936; also, ENTERPRISE, 1880-1881; and several editions of Galveston DAILY NEWS.
To understand the development of education in early Southeast Texas, it is imperative that one comprehend the social complexities which were contributory to it. The cattle economy in Orange and Jefferson counties meant a sparse population and slow development of the cities. Compared to the cotton-producing counties to the north, slavery was a negligible factor, with only one slave for every seven white persons (respectively, 178 and 1,299 in Jefferson County in 1847).
Illiteracy was not as widespread as one might imagine. In 1847, only 123 of 617 white adults, age 20 or older, in Jefferson County could neither read nor write, indicating that 80 percent had been reared in the more populous states to the east, and in turn, could teach the rudiments of education to their own children.
Too, the "Puritan ethic" among early East Texans aided and abetted the development, for literacy was considered a prerequisite to proper Christian upbringing and the exercise of civic, economic, and political responsibilies. Hence, although the costs of education were often prohibitive, and schools were few and sometimes distant, most parents scrimped elsewhere in order to teach their children "the three R's."
Until 1852, Orange County was the eastern half of Jefferson County. In 1858 the region between Village Creek and Pine Island Bayou was separated from Jefferson County and became the southern half of Hardin County.
Courthouse archives confirm the existence of schools at Orange and Sabine Pass during the 1840s. In May, 1847, the election in Precinct 6 was "held at the school house at Green's Bluff (Orange)." In February, 1848, the first church building built at Sabine Pass was erected on the lot adjacent to "where the school house now stands."
Although the presence of a school house in Beaumont during the 1840s is not confirmed in county archives (or at any rate, has not been located to date), it is certain that one existed there. In 1850 A. L. Kavanaugh was enumerated as a school teacher at Beaumont in the seventh census of 1850.
The decade of the 1850s witnessed significant improvements throughout the region. In 1858, Beaumont had a population of about 250. About 400 persons lived at Sabine Pass, and 600 more at Orange, Texas, and each town boasted two schools in operation late in that decade. Alexander Collins was teaching a school at Orange in 1850 and was followed in 1851 by Mrs. William Hewson.
As early as 1842, Wyatt McGaffey was teaching at Sabine Pass, and following his death in 1843, was succeeded by Lucar Dubois. In 1859, Fuller's Academy was the leading school in the seaport city, and in 1861 was succeeded by Goble's Academy. In his memoirs of 1930, the late Martin Hebert recalled attending a Beaumont school, located at Pearl and College Streets, and taught by James Ingalls in 1854. Children of the Tevis and McFaddin families also attended that school. Ingalls quit teaching to become sheriff of Jefferson County. A few other teachers were private tutors in the homes of the wealthier cattlemen.
When Henry R. Green, a Galveston "News" correspondent, came to Beaumont in September, 1856, there was only one school there with 75 scholars. Green began teaching in the mill district on Pine Street (then known as the Woodville Road), where tuition was $2 monthly. Soon afterward, a second school taught by Henry G. Willis was begun on Corn Street. Green acknowledged that considerable animosity existed between the patrons of both schools, but he did not disclose the reason. As early as February, 1854, the county court divided Jefferson County into five school districts, with Dr. G. W. Hawley and McGuire Chaison as the first trustees of District No. 1 at Beaumont. In 1857, N. Holbert was paid $400 for surveying the 17,000 acres of Jefferson County-owned school lands in Archer County.
In July, 1858, the first Board of School Examiners was appointed "in accordance with Section 8 of a State Act providing for public schools." James Ingalls, John K. Robertson, and G. W. O'Brien comprised the first board, and thereafter, county funds could not be disbursed to a teacher unless he or she possessed a valid county certificate of qualification.
During this period, free schooling for indigent children became an established reality, contingent perhaps upon the parents' subscribing a pauper's oath. Thereafter, county funds disbursed to private schools frequently bore the notation, "being the amount of tuition of the indigent children in a school taught by . . . "
When H. R. Green became district attorney in July, 1859, he was succeeded at the Pine Street school by A. N. Vaughan, who later became mayor of Beaumont. In January, 1860, Vaughan quit teaching to publish the town's first newspaper, the Beaumont "Banner," at least one copy of which still survives.
He was succeeded by Felix O.Yates, who founded the Beaumont Male and Female Academy, perhaps the county's first school to shelve the one room-one teacher pattern. In a newspaper ad of Nov., 1860, Yates' school offered reading, primary geography, higher mathematics, drawing, and painting in its curriculum.
The effects of the Civil War and the Reconstruction years were devastating upon education in Southeast Texas. The economy was paralyzed, and both counties lost population. In June, 1865, half of Jefferson County's families received free county-owned corn meal and beef as a preferable substitute for starvation, and on September 13, 1865, Orange was totally destroyed by a hurricane.
For comparative purposes, there were six school teachers and 188 pupils in Jefferson County in 1850. And although losing half of its land area and population to adjacent counties in the interim, there were still 229 students and 12 school teachers in the county in 1860. In 1870, there were only four schools left in Jefferson County, each averaging one teacher and twenty-seven students.
In 1871, Jefferson County had 568 children of scholastic age (8 to 14), 427 white and 141 black, within its boundaries. The logical conclusion must remain that, in 1870, about 450 of the county's students were not attending school at all.
By 1872 conditions had improved somewhat. Many lumber mills were back in production, the economy was perking up, and education advanced in accordance with the times. In April, 1873, an article in the Beaumont "News-Beacon" indicated that the Beaumont Academy was progressing under the leadership of George H. Stovall, the principal, "assisted by the Rev. Mr. Scarborough."
"The Geometry and Algebra classes in particular," the editor recorded, "reflect great credit on their preceptor, and we doubt if, in this state, there is to be found as well-versed a set of scholars of their years in these studies."
An ad of February 22, 1873, reveals that tuition was free at the Beaumont Academy in all departments except music. There were two long semesters lasting from September to June. In the curriculum department, Stovall was professor of ancient languages and mathematics; Mrs. C. Junker taught English literature and modern languages; and Mrs. O. Rigsby headed the primary department. At a later date, Mrs. Rigsby opened a private school of her own.
On June 21, 1878, an ad in the Beaumont "Lumberman" observed that the Beaumont Academy was then under the tutelage of J. L. Lewis. In the same issue, Mrs. T. A. Lamb's private school guaranteed a "thorough English education, plain needlework, fancy work, and vocal music." Apparently, this school was for girls only, and tuition was also $2 monthly.
Because written records of the Beaumont Academy date only from 1879, and a new building for it was built in that year, some writers of school history have assumed that it was founded in 1879, which is quite untrue.
In July, 1879, a meeting of citizens subscribed $600 for the new building, organized the Beaumont Academy Company, and sold shares at $5 each. The structure, to cost $240, was built at a Park Street site donated by Mrs. S. H. van Wormer. The first board of trustees consisted of C. C. Caswell, Dr. W. A. tyree, John F. Ward, Elias T. Seale, and George W. O'Brien. The latter, as president of the board, contracted with Prof. Stovall to operate the school at a salary not to exceed $100 per month. Funds derived from festivals and concerts raised the subscription figure to $1,000.
As of that month, there were already six public and private schools for white children in Beaumont, and two for black children. On September 15, 1879, the academy, with a capacity of 150, reopened with a large local enrollment and out-of-town acholars from as far away as Anahuac. At the June exercises of 1881, the "Enterprise" published the names and grades of the pupils. From the curriculum list, it would appear that the Beaumont Academy was already approaching the status of a graded school. Grades were awarded for the following courses: dictionary, Butler's grammar, Swinton's grammar, Swinton's analysis, algebra, Hooker's natural history, complete arithmetic, university arithmetic, geometry, English, and written arithmetic.
Also in 1881, a visitor noted: "The Beaumont Academy was visited; the building erected two years since -- one story only, but large, roomy, and well-finished. And if Beaumont can pride herself on any one thing more than another, it is, from all accounts, her most excellent school. It draws students from all the surrounding country."
As early as 1886, bond issues to build the first brick school were consistently voted down. The Galveston "News" observed that these bond issues were supported by the businessmen and property owners who paid nine-tenths of the taxes, but were opposed by those who paid no taxes, yet furnished nine-tenths of the enrollment.
In 1887, another description of the academy was considerably less flattering, noting that: "The present school house in everything except strength resembles Noah's Ark on a cheap scale as pictured on a 5-cent animal book. In fact, it is a disgrace keenly felt by those who have the welfare of the city at heart."
After the passage of a bond issue, a contract for a new school was signed in March 1889, and Beaumont's new $10,000 structure, later known as the "Main-Calder building" (on the Millard School site), was completed in April, 1890.
In addition to its private schools, Jefferson County in August, 1882, had "seventeen public free schools and a scholastic population of 582."
The Beaumont Independent School District was organized in 1883, under a board of trustees appointed by the city council, and the first graded school system began in 1884. The first board of trustees included Mayor H. W. Smith, as ex-officio president; G. W. O'Brien, J. L. Williams, William Wiess, L. P. Ogden, J. W. Keith, and G. W. Carroll. One of the board's first actions was the purchase of two old buildings for $567, and the employment of 8 teachers. The Rev. Thomas White was appointed as interim superintendent and was authorized to grade the schools and assign the teachers. During the next two years, he was succeeded by H. E. Chambers and W. H. Foute, as superintendents, when in October, 1885, the management of the Beaumont schools was returned to the principals.
In July, 1889, the office of superintendent was revived and once more filled by Prof. C. F. Johnston, who added the first high school grade (eighth) to the curriculum in 1889 and the ninth grade in 1890. C. A. Bryant, who added the tenth grade, served as superintendent from 1892 until 1894, and was followed by Prof. P. A. Dowlen, who also served two years. For a period of years, the Beaumont free schools had been supported by state funds at $5 per capita, and because no funds were available during the 1896-1897 scholastic year, the city schools were closed. The state funds rarely permitted the school year to exceed six months of instruction, and the inevitable result was local taxation.
In 1897, Dr. George Stovall served a brief term as superintendent without salary, and was succeeded in office by the following men: T. H. Bryant, 1898; F. A. Parker, 1898-1901; B. F. Pettus, 1901-1903; and H. F. Triplett, 1903-1919. Under Parker's administration, the high school was affiliated with the state university in the disciplines of English, history, and mathematics, and two years later, in Latin. By 1910, accreditation had been extended to the fields of chemistry, physics, botany, civics, French, German, and Spanish as well.
In 1901, building bonds were voted, totaling $85,000, and a new high school on College Street was completed in 1904. In 1906 another bond issue permitted the building of the Ogden and Junker schools. In 1909, a $100,000 bond issue authorized the erection of three more brick schools, Averill, Southend, and Millard, and the "Main-Calder building" was moved to Pine Street and became the Pipkin School. These additions brought the number of classrooms to 87 and the teaching staff to 85.
It was the Spindletop boom, with its bulging enrollments, that triggered the never-ceasing struggle to keep school facilities abreast of the population, and continues to the present day. Eventually, three districts, Beaumont, South Park, and French, were included within the city's confines, as well as a number of parochial schools.
In a 45-year span, school enrollments skyrocketed as follows: 1886--427 pupils; 1900 -- 1,203 students; 1904 -- 2,739 pupils; 1910 -- 3,668 scholars; and 1930 -- 13,511 pupils. And the number of campuses, teachers, and the size of school budgets have advanced steadily as the population mushroomed.
Today, there are about as many schools in Beaumont as there were scholars in 1856. The curriculum of 1881 may have lacked the sophistication and teaching aids of the present day, but there is no indication that the quality of education was any less. At any rate, the old Beaumont Academy provided the alumni who were to guide the economic and cultural destinies of Beaumont through many crucial decades of the twentieth century.