Prior to the Civil War, Taney County was a wild and remote place except for a few small towns and settlements along the banks of the White River. The earliest schools were subscription schools, taught by enterprising but often poorly educated individuals who collected tuition from their students.
Around 1850, groups of neighbors began banding together to form local school districts. These neighbors built and furnished the schools through their own labor and funds, provided lodging and a salary for the teacher, and contributed necessities such as firewood and lamp oil. As you can see from the picture above, taken at South Bee Creek School around 1910, the smaller districts changed little over the next 50 years. Perhaps the best way to understand schooling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is through the words of the individuals who experienced it. Here are some of our favorite excerpts:
“Schools are also unknown, and no species of learning cultivated. Children are wholly ignorant of the knowledge of boos, and have not learned even the rudiments of their own tongue. Thus situated, without moral restraint, brought up in the uncontrolled indulgence of every passion and without a regard of religion, the state of society among the rising generation of this region is truly deplorable. In their childish disputes, boys frequently stab each other with knives, two instances of which have occurred since our residence here. No correction was administered in either case, the act rather being looked upon as a promising trait of character.”
Henry Schoolcraft–December 27, 1818
Schoolcraft was at the mouth of Beaver Creek and the White River. Thirty years later, things had improved a bit:
“I well remember the first school I ever attended. My parents were living at the mouth of Beaver Creek. In the early part of 1849 a few citizens employed Bill Wheeler who had a little education to teach a small subscription school in a little log hut near Bob Thurman. This was the first school in that vicinity and my parents sent me there five days in succession. I was too much astonished to think of anything except the noise made in the hut.
Though I was not five years old, I remember that school distinctly for three reasons: First because it was the first school I went to. Second because I did not learn my ABCs and the teacher accused me of “sucking the hind teat.” That is, I lagged behind all the other scholars. Third because the students were allowed to spell as loud as their vocal organs would permit, thus making a mighty racket during school hours.
Silas Turnbo–White River Chronicles
“A few citizens who lived on the south side of the river from Forsyth met one day for the purpose of organizing a school district. They assembled about two miles from Forsyth. There were eleven men there and a peculiar and strange feature of this gathering to me was that the men had on their hunting garbs and all wore moccasins. Boy, like I thought they ought to have on their Sunday clothes! Ten of them carried their rifles.
The most amusing part of this assembly was the discussion the men had over the game they killed as they went to the . . .meeting. Hack Snapp killed four squirrels; two of the Haworth boys killed two squirrels each; Z. P. Moore, Dave Wood, and Jim Phillips killed a turkey apiece; Elisha Thurman and Ward Stover each killed a deer; Ben Chenoworth and John Mitchell brought in a deer between them.
Though this was the first school meeting held in the neighborhood, yet it was a lively one, from the fact that the men had a warm discussion over their game as well as a funny debate about school matters.”
William Thurman to Silas Turnbo–White River Chronicles
“There were no schools at first, but we finally built a little log school house, cut out one log about half up in front for a window, split logs in two and drove round poles into them for benches. There was a fireplace with a stick and clay chimney, and we had to move the rocks out of the way in order to find a place to build that clay chimney. The school was a novelty, of course, and I liked it that way, and learned to spell some at school. I never carried a slate or an arithmetic to school in my life; all I had was a McGuffey reader and Webster’s old blue-back spelling book—and just to see the books the children have today—why, it’s a sight on earth! I didn’t care much for school, though, after the first, and I was needed with the herds.”
Joe McGill–from Stories of the Pioneers
by E.J. and L.S. Hoenshel
Schoolhouses. We have in the county about twenty-five or thirty buildings that bear the name of school houses, but they are all built of logs, owing to the scarcity of sawed lumber, consequently, we have not a first class school house in the county. Some of the districts are making arrangements to build respectable school houses, and I fondly hope the day is not far distant when every pupil in the county will have a comfortable and well-furnished school house, in which to secure instruction.
Grounds. The people are beginning to learn that it is a dangerous practice to build school houses on the public domain, or lands belonging to some individual, without requiring a deed for it, hence nearly all the subdistricts are purchasing the ground on which their buildings are being erected; and I yet have hopes that at no distant day, they will have them beautifully ornamented with groves of trees suitable for the purpose.
Teachers. We have, at this time, some very able teachers, who, as a general thing, manifest considerable interest in a popular education, though I regret to say that a very large portion of them are poorly qualified to teach school. The people being, generally, uneducated themselves, are as apt to make choice of an imposter, as a competent person, for their teacher, and if the superintendent refuses to grant a certificate, the local directors, being governed by public sentiment, will employ none.
When the people learn to elect men to office who are intelligent, and have the good will of the county at heart, then we may expect the cause of education to advance, but so long as the people are so ignorant that they will elect men to offices of the greatest importance, simply because they are good citizens, so long we may expect the cause of education to be retarded.
It has too long been the practice in our border counties, to elect men to office, without regard to qualifications, and so long as that is kept up, our public schools will not rise above the present grade of education.
I do really think that our Legislature ought to give the State Superintendent the sole power of appointing the county superintendents and require him to appoint none but those well qualified to discharge the duties.
Nineteenth Missouri Report of Public Schools
J. J. Brown
June 30, 1887
County Clerk T. L. Layton had a discussion of a new school law requiring school districts to have an official seal, but it applies only to cities, towns and villages, and Taney County at this time has no such schools.
Mr. Layton said that there are 45 districts in the county and that the seal would cost $3.50 and he thought that burden would be entirely too heavy for a district in Taney County to bear.
Taney County Republican
Joseph Gideon comprised the first and entire graduating class of Forsyth in 1913. He quickly became a teacher himself and wrote an account that described the educational situation locally.
One improvement of the first importance is our well. Before it was drilled water was secured from the farmhouses nearby. Now we have an inexhaustible supply of good cold water.
Our library has been greatly enlarged in the last few years. At present we have more than one hundred volumes of well selected books. One recent addition to our library was an International Dictionary. We have an excellent bookcase, large enough to hold all our library. The school is well supplied with maps, charts and pictures. We have an assortment of maps on rollers, all of which are enclosed in a case attached to the wall of the schoolhouse. The charts are of the ordinary up-to-date class, that are useful in all grades. We have quite a variety of pictures, composed of animals, birds, landscapes, leading men of the United States and England; many of these have been secured during the last two years.
The inside of our schoolhouse was painted last year; up to that time it never had been painted inside. The teacher’s desk made by the local carpenters has been displaced by an up-to-date desk. Patent desks have taken the place of homemade ones. We have secured an organ and a globe, both of which have an important place in our school. Our schoolhouse has plenty of good lamps, which have proved to be an important adjunct, inasmuch as we are trying to make the schoolhouse the social center of the community.
The last addition to our equipment was a blackboard and basket ball outfit. The well, seats, blackboard, and most of the library was paid for by a levy voted for that purpose. The remainder was paid for by having pie socials or by private donations.
Joseph Gideon, Teacher
State Superintendent William Evans mentions a teacher in Stone County who “would do good work, I believe, if she did not get so home-sick and discouraged, and could brace up and not get disheartened, and come to school early instead of late, mornings. “
(During this era, there was a strong movement to change from local districts to county schools systems.)
Why house the finest stock on earth, the rural boys and girls of Missouri, in unventilated, poorly heated, badly lighted, unsightly boxcar-like rooms? Why expect to get good teachers for less than mail carriers? Practically all the power of administration of rural schools is vested in the local board, the majority of whom have slight knowledge of their duties and little intelligent interest.
This district system is now universally condemned by the leading thinkers, all of whom advocate the county educational unit as the best and most practicable. The most common argument against the county unit is that the plan is undemocratic in removing the administration of the schools from the locality to the larger community. Just how anything can be undemocratic that the people do and can undo at will is not evident.
As conditions are now, scarcely 20% of the country boys and girls who complete the eighth grade have any opportunity to secure a high school education, whereas 80% of the city boys and girls have such opportunity. Someone says, “Will not consolidation solve the rural school problem, especially the rural high school problem?” In fourteen months under our new consolidated law, 62 schools have been organized, thus consolidating for high school purposes about 300 small rural schools. There are 9,400 rural schools in Missouri. Hence, at the present rate of consolidation, more than 35 years will be required to form a complete system of consolidated schools in the State.
Missouri Public Schools Annual Report
Wm P. Evans, Missouri State Superintendent of Public Schools