The History of Early Denton Schools and Robert E. Lee School
Arthur J. Seely, Mrs. E.C. Wiley and Miss Willie Brashears
Mrs. Sallie Morris Simpson, Editor
This special online edition of The History of Early Denton Schools and Robert E. Lee School - 1871-1957, was first published in 1957 to commemorate the Centennial of the City of Denton. The original edition was a 32 page booklet with illustrations and annotations. This online version is word for word the text of the original, but is published here without the illustrations or footnotes. I am endebted to Mr. Art Seely for graciously giving permission to republish this excellent work on education in Denton and on the interesting history of Robert E. Lee School.
Mike Cochran, February 2001
The purpose of this study was to seek out and gather the facts on the history of the Robert E. Lee School in Denton Texas, with particular reference to its historical background and the part that private schools played in the development of a public school organization in the town.
An effort has been made to combine previous research with new study in the field and to present a composite picture of Denton's early schools. The data, in many instances, have been scanty, some unable to find, and this points up the need for a study which will gather information from many sources and combine it in a form that can be preserved for coming generations. The difficulty in locating authoritative data in the present research shows that in some instances some very valuable material has been forever lost.
The Lee School Centennial Committee is very grateful to all who have so generously given material and time in aiding the project. Miss Edna Haynes McCormick, who published the notes of her father, W. L. McCormick, has most unselfishly shared her information and other valuable material. Dr. C. A. Bridges, who is writing an extensive history of Denton, has made available his research. Mr. B. E. Looney gave the information concerning the Masonic school activities. Odd Fellows Lodge, No. 82, cooperated by providing the minutes of the Lodge pertaining to Denton's first schoolhouse. City Secretary W. D. Buttrill. located needed minutes of the City Council in furthering the research. Jagoe Abstract Company supplied priceless information concerning deeds and records. County Clerk A. J. Barnett gave valuable assistance in locating deeds and other records needed for the study. Mrs. W. C. Potter provided much background information on the training and personalities of early-day Denton teachers. Many, many others have given information on the project. To all of these, the Centennial Commission tenders its sincere appreciation.
This study has been undertaken as a public service to the schools of Denton. It is hoped that the information herein contained will through the years preserve to a better extent than is now available the history and story of the development of the Robert E. Lee School, which, in turn, is a part history of the Denton public schools as a whole.
Mrs. Sallie M. Simpson, Editor April 1, 1957
Historical Background of
Public Education in the City of Denton, Texas
The roots of the Robert E. Lee School extended back into the early days of the town's history. For some thing over ninety years some type of schoolhouse has been located on the site of the present-day school, and to many of the senior citizens of the town the Lee school campus is the only one which they claim as their own today. Around this campus, therefore, were centered many of the activities of the pioneer city which was first organized in 1856, and the story of the development of the public school system of Denton begins at this spot.
Many factors enter into the story of the development of the Denton schools into the present-day institutions culminating with the magnificent school plant now nearing completion in the city. Some knowledge of these factors is helpful in tracing the growth of the public schools, especially the Robert E. Lee School on whose campus was located the first public school in the City of Denton.
In the first place, the citizens of Denton have always been "Schoolminded." They came to Texas from the "old states" where public free schools were already established and where there were many higher institutions of learning. Not too many of these emigrants were financially able to send their children to other states for an education, and efforts were made to establish private schools where the State had not as yet established public schools.
Texas, in 1856, had made a beginning on providing public school education. In the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, adopted March 17, 1836 a provision was included which made it "the duty of Congress. . . to provide by law a general system of education." This was restated in the Constitution of 1845 when Texas was admitted as a member of the United States, and the further provision was included setting aside not less than one-tenth of the annual State revenue for the support of a system of free public school education.
In 1854 a permanent school fund for the maintenance of common schools was set up by the Legislature. The law appropriated a "Special School Fund" of two million dollars from bonds in the United States Treasury and made available the interest on this fund at 6 per cent for annual school support. The first distribution, made in 1854-55, was sixty-two cents per capita. The time of this distribution directly preceded the date on which the town of Denton was established. This per capita apportionment, then, was the sole amount provided by the State at that time for the support of public schools.
As provided, this per capita apportionment was to be applied toward the payment of teacher salaries. When the amount was insufficient, parents, who were financially able to do so, were to make up the difference. Tuition for indigent and orphan children was to be paid by the state out of the permanent school fund. Provision was also made for the immediate organization of common schools in the state and the division of the counties into common school districts.
These provisions, scanty as they were, would, it is believed, have resulted in the rapid organization of public schools if the Civil War had not disrupted living conditions. The State was in line for rapid development and one-tenth of the annual revenue would soon have provided school funds. With the outbreak of the Civil War, a twenty-year period of confusion and disorganization resulted. Texas seceded from the Union, joined the Confederate States. then later rejoined the United States. A "carpet-bag" government after the close of the war sought to make radical changes in education, with authority over all local districts centered in Austin. Compulsory education was also legislated. In the midst of the confusion, the school officials appointed looted the school funds that had accumulated. The reversion of feeling of the people against this radical school legislation resulted in restrictive school provisions in the Constitution of 1876 wherein the amount of money set aside for school support was limited to one-fourth or less of the occupational and ad valorem taxes instead of the one-tenth of the state revenue as originally provided in 1845. School support, thus, had gone backwards instead of forwards. Further, all provisions for the division of counties into school districts were eliminated, and local taxation for school support and for building schoolhouses was impossible under the provisions set up.
The duty of establishing and making suitable support for the support of free public schools was placed on the Legislature. School laws, as written by it, replaced the district school plan with the "community system" whereby parents could unite and organize themselves into school communities. There were no definite boundaries to these school communities and reorganization was necessary each year. Any group, however small, could form a school and receive the benefits of the state school fund where the teacher was legally qualified to teach. "Legally qualified" meant a person who held a certificate of competency to teach. Securing a certificate to teach was not a difficult matter. As far back as 1840 the chief justice and associate justices of each county were a board of school commissioners with authority to examine applicants desiring a teacher's certificate. The School Law of 1856 required the county court of each county to appoint a board of school examiners. After the Civil War, county police courts also appointed a board of examiners. Subsequent laws continued the practice. The applicant was examined in reading, writing, grammar, composition, geography, spelling, and arithmetic. If the applicant "passed" the examination, he could be granted a county second grade certificate, valid for one year and renewable at the option of the examining board or the county judge. In this way, it was possible for one with little academic training to secure a certificate, set up a small, sometimes neighborhood, school and draw the per capita support provided by the State.
The amount of money available for the support of the schools was pitifully small. In 1871-72, the per capita apportionment was $1.81 per pupil and in 1874-75 it was $1.59. By 1884, the time in which Denton's first public school was established, the per capita apportionment had grown until it was $4.50. This was not much but it amounted to considerable funds where there were as many as 500, pupils in an area. One main thing that prevented the more rapid growth of public schools in Denton County was the provision against local taxation for building purposes. Some counties sold their public lands which had been given them by the State, but Denton County, for some unexplained reason did not locate or sell its quota of school land until 1876. Prior to this time, then, the sole source of income for the support of the schools in the county was the per capita apportionment.
Since the apportionment of the per capita funds was not in itself sufficient for the support of a public school, the only recourse to the people of Denton was the organization of private schools. The number of such schools organized and maintained is an indication of the interest in education in the community and the resourcefulness of the citizens as a whole.
A large number of private schools are mentioned in the accounts of early-day Denton history. W. L. McCormick, who served Denton for many years in an official capacity, wrote down the names of various early-day teachers and the locations of their schools. His notes were preserved and have been published by his daughter, Miss Edna Haynes McCormick, and they form a valuable source of information concerning the early schools of the town of Denton.(1) In these notes, Mr. McCormick listed forty-seven people as those who at some time between 1858 and 1884 "taught a Literary School in Denton." (2) Dr. C. A. Bridges in his research on the early schools of Denton reports that the names of over fifty individual school teachers are known prior to the establishment of the first free public school in 1884.(3) He further states that no less than two dozen separate buildings were used for school purposes and that in many instances several schools were going at the same time. An example of this is an item in the Historical Edition of Denton Record-Chronicle, 1953, wherein it was stated that Miss Miranda Bass, Mrs. Hogg, and Professor E. D. Keyte were all conducting separate private schools at the time the new public school building was built in 1884 and that these teachers with their pupils transferred to the new public school and became teachers therein.
Just when and where the first private school was conducted in Denton after its incorporation in 1856 is not definitely known. Dr. Bridges reports that James B. Ford is said to have taught the first school in Denton in 1858, probably in the courthouse.(4) In the same year James W. Bryson, according to the notes of W. L. McCormick, taught another school on the east side of South Elm Street where the Le Blair Hotel is now located. McCormick, himself, did not attend this school but his information was given him by Boone Daughtery who said he attended a school taught by Professor Bryson at this location in 1858. According to the Record- Chronicle of July 11, 1952, Bryson taught three sessions at this location. A cession, however, was often of very short duration due to limited finances. Sessions, too, were usually held during the summer months.
John S. Richardson, a native of Scotland, and a civil engineer by trade, came to the United States about 1850 and settled for a time in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he served as principal of a school for several years.5 He moved to Denton before the Civil War and in the year 1859 is said to have taught a private school on South Elm, or Sand Street as it was commonly called, a short distance south of where the Bryson school had been conducted the year before.
After 1860 two fraternal organizations contributed a great deal to the further development of education in Denton. These organizations were the Masons and the Odd Fellows. At a time when there were no funds for schoolhouses and little for school support, these organizations either provided or assisted in providing buildings where schools could be held until there was sufficient legislation and funds for a public free school. The people of Denton with their wonderful schools of today are much indebted to these organizations for the material help they gave in the pioneer days of the town.
Stanfield Lodge No. 217, Masonic order, was set to work under dispensation at Denton, Texas, in 1857, and its charter was issued in June, 1858.6 Its first meetings were held in the county clerk's office in the courthouse, but a Masonic Hall was constructed in 1859 on a lot donated by F. L. Moore on the west side of South Elm Street where the Old A. J. Barnett home now stands. A large part of the lumber used in its construction was hauled by ox teams from Winnsboro in Wood County, and the remaining portion came from the wooded areas of Denton County. The new hall was a two-story frame building, twenty-four feet wide and forty-eight feet long. The first floor was intended for use as a schoolhouse, and the second floor for lodge meetings.
The construction of a lodge with room for a schoolhouse was in line with general Masonic policy to promote education in the areas of its membership. According to Haywood and Craig, Freemasonry, from the beginning, has taken the position that, . . our citizens must understand and be loyal to the ideals of our country, its traditions, manners, and customs; and to do this must be intelligent, as well as honest and sincere.(7)
For this reason the Masonic lodges as they were established, especially in the newly settled areas, supported the cause of education in every way possible. Providing buildings where schools could be held was a great contribution to the development of a system of public schools. In describing the service provided by the Masonic Hall in Denton, Judge S. M. Bradley, Past Grand Master of Masons in Texas, wrote: This building served as the only school house for children of Denton for several years. The only requirement made by this lodge was that all orphan children of Master Masons should have free tuition. It was also used as a church or house of worship, by all religious denominations free of charge.(8)
The first person to teach in the Masonic Hall in Denton was John Richardson, mentioned previously as the head of a private school conducted between the Masonic Hall and the square. He began teaching in the Masonic Hall in 1860 and continued to teach there at irregular intervals from 1860 to 1865. Richardson was highly educated, spoke several languages fluently, and was altogether a cultural contribution to the sparsely settled area in which he lived and taught. After the Civil War, he went to Austin, taught there for a number of years, and finally became connected with the State Land Office. He died in Bell County, Texas, on July 14, 1881, and is buried in Denton, Texas.(9)
In February, 1866, Judge F. E. Piner, a Tennessee lawyer, moved to Denton, Texas. Before coming to Denton he had taught in Lane's Academy at Honey Grove for two years, and after he came to Denton he taught the two years after Richardson's departure in the Masonic Hall while he built up a law practice. (10) Needless to say, Judge Piner was well qualified to conduct a successful school.
When his law practice had grown to the point where it demanded his full time, Judge Piner was succeeded as teacher in the Masonic Hall by C. C. Bell, another well-qualified teacher. Professor Bell's parents came to Texas in 1836 from Mississippi, and he was born in. Milam County, Texas, in 1840. He attended McKenzie College, quit to join the Confederate Army, and afterward taught school at Springhill, near Paris, in 1866. In 1967 he .moved to Denton and soon thereafter began teaching school in the Masonic Hall. He taught school here for two years, 1867 and 1868, and was assisted by Mrs. Bell's sister, Miss Mary Inge. This was the first time there had been two teachers at the same time at the hall. In describing the work of Richardson, Piner, and Bell as teachers, Cobb made this statement: Stanfield Lodge provided the building, and these pioneers did the teaching upon a basis that could hardly be said to be either permanent or remunerative. The success of the school depended upon them; the attendance and the morale were built purely on their personalities. They carried the banner of education when otherwise there would have been little promotion of learning in Denton county.(11)
J. S. Chapman succeeded C. C. Bell as teacher at the Masonic Hall, and the records are not clear as to his exact term of service here. According to an interview with Mrs. J. S. Chapman, now deceased, her husband taught twice at Grapevine and twice at Denton in the Masonic Hall. The notes of W. L. McCormick place Professor Chapman as teacher in the Masonic Hall in 1871, and that he transferred with his pupils to the new schoolhouse on the Lee school lot when it first opened its doors in that year.
Sometime between 1869 and 1871, John M. Dixon, a Methodist minister, and his sister, Miss Mary Dixon, taught a session of school in the Masonic Hall. A Professor Buck, father of General Beaumont Buck taught at the Masonic Hall some time during 1872 and Alvin C. Owsley, who came to Denton during that year taught a session directly after reaching Denton. According to a statement in the Denton Record- Chronicle of April 9, 1934, Judge Owsley, as he later became, said that he advertised in the Denton Monitor for pupils and that 115 attended his school. Thirty-five of these pupils were older than their teacher. Miss Fannie Lee followed Judge Owsley as teacher in the Masonic Hall, although her term of service is not known.(12)
Up until this time, the lodge hall had been furnished free to the teachers and they, in turn, collected tuition for their services. In the case of orphan children of members of the Masonic Lodge, the lodge itself paid their tuition. The minutes of Stanfield Lodge show that on January 21, 1872, a committee was appointed to confer with the board of school directors in regard to renting the lower room of the hall for "public free school" purposes. In later minutes it was developed that the "board of school directors of Denton County" had requested the relinquishment by the Masons of all control of the lower story of the lodge.(13) This request could not be granted due to lodge regulations, but the matter was adjusted and the Hall continued to be used as a schoolhouse. The significance of the material in these particular minutes for this study is that it shows indisputably that a "board of school directors" for the Denton schools was already then in existence.
On September 6, 1873, the lower floor of the Masonic Hall was restricted to use only "for public worship and primary and Sabbath School purposes."(14) Then, in 1875 a resolution was passed "to organize and put into operation a Masonic Male and Female High School" to be taught in the hall until a more suitable building could be erected. A board of five trustees for the school was appointed, and this board was charged with the management of the school. Under this plan the Board assumed direct operation of the school, although the instructors were paid from tuition which they collected.
Professor E. B. Keyte, a native or Arkansas and a graduate of Yale, had come to Denton in 1875 and he was chosen as the superintendent of the "Masonic Institute of Denton" as the school was called. Professor Keyte was assisted at the Masonic Institute by his wife, Mrs. Lizzie Keyte and later his daughter, Miss Jennie V. Keyte and Doctor Pitts. A very successful school was thereafter conducted by Professor Keyte, and, according to newspaper reports, he was still teaching there in 1884 when the first free public school was opened. As reported, E. B. Keyte, teaching in the Masonic Hall, Miss Miranda Bass, teaching a private school in her home, and Mrs. A. E. Hogg, also teaching a private school, transferred their pupils to the new public school on the Lee grounds and became a part of the first faculty of this school. The Masonic Hall, therefore, is seen to have performed a very great service in providing a building and later in operating a school at a time when there were no provisions by the State for such a facility. The type of teaching personnel brought to the small town of Denton, too, has played no small part in giving it the distinction of having an intelligent, cultured citizenship.
The IOOF Lodge No. 82 also played an important part in the development of education and free public schools in the city of Denton. Organized in 1859, the lodge lost so many members due to war conditions that it was necessary to disband and reorganize in 1966. Unfortunately, the minutes of this organization prior to 1873 have become displaced, and much of the part that the lodge played in the sponsorship of educa tional development can only be inferred through subsequent minutes. There is conclusive evidence, however, that IOOF Lodge No. 82 furnished a large part of the capital for building the first structure in Denton to be used exclusively as a schoolbuilding or as a place of worship, and that it transferred the building and the land on which it stood to the Board of City Trustees of the Denton schools on December 28, 1881. The exact procedure which took place can only be inferred.
There are some known facts which are helpful in interpreting what occurred. In the first place, Block 23, according to some abstract data, was originally set aside by the county for church and school purposes. This block, consisting of six lots, lies one block south of the square with Lots 1 and 6 fronting on South Locust Streets where the First Methodist Church is located today. Recorded deeds of this Church show that the police court of Denton County (Reconstruction days) offered to deed Lot I of Block 23 to any church organization which would build a church on the lot costing as much as $2,000 or more. Since the Radical regime was particularly interested in education, it seems reasonable to suppose that a like offer could have been made for the construction of a schoolhouse.
Be that as it may, the manner in which the IOOF Lodge No. 82 acquired Lots 2, 3, 4, and 5 of Block 23 is not clear. The county court house burned in 1875 and many deed records were destroyed. An intensive search of present-day records failed to find any deed records of such a transaction. The absence of early records of the IOOF prevents checking data from them. A few known facts, however, are available. According to a news item in the early Denton Monitor, (15) lumber from East Texas was being hauled in to Denton in September, 1869, for the construction of a "college.' At that time, any school above the elementary level might be designated as a "college," "academy," or "seminary." A schoolhouse was built on what is now the Lee School campus, and school started here in the late 1870's or early in 1871. Sessions were held thereafter until 1881 in this building. During this time the school was called by various titles - the Denton High School, the IOOF Lodge School, and the Odd Fellows Seminary.(16)
The IOOF Lodge No. 82, through funds subscribed by individual members, furnished the funds, or a large part of them, for constructing the schoolbuilding. The lodge was responsible for the upkeep of the building and paid for repairs. Apparently, the school itself was fostered by an organization known as the Denton Joint School Association as frequent mention is found in the Minutes of the IOOF of such a group. No information was given concerning the membership of the organization, but presumably it was a stock company wherein interested parties bought shares to finance the construction of a schoolhouse. The Minutes show that on August 14, 1875, the Lodge was given shares in the School Association to reimburse it for the money supplied for building purposes, and henceforth the school was referred to as the Odd Fellows Seminary. (16)
The schoolhouse as built was typical of the early day one-story frame schoolhouse. W. L. McCormick described it as facing west, with two front doors, one for the boys and one for the girls. The traditional gourd dipper hung on the wall along with the dinner pails brought by the pupils.
J. S. Chapman and Mrs. Myrtle Cash, who had been teaching in the Masonic Hall, were the first teachers in the new schoolhouse. Professor Chapman's term of teaching - is uncertain, but it is a matter of I record that W. W. Davis was in charge of the school in 1874-75.(17) He was followed in 1875-76 by Misses Hattie Hart and Hattie Barton. J. T. Bottorff taught a session about 1877, the exact date being uncertain. In 1878 Professor Chapman returned to Denton and resumed teaching in the building on the Lee School campus and taught there through 1881.(18) In 1876 legislation was passed permitting municipalities to assume control of the schools within their corporate limits. Eleven Texas cities, among which were Dallas, Denison, and Paris, took over the operation of schools within their limits in 1877, and seventeen did the same within the next two years. Gainesville, Sherman, and Decatur, all comparatively close neighbors of Denton, were among this group.19 The question, naturally, began to be discussed in Denton, and the Minutes of the IOOF from 1876 through 1881 reflected a growing concern on the part of the Lodge members regarding disposition of the IOOF Seminary.
In 1878 a committee was authorized by the IOOF Lodge to sell the interest in the Seminary, and on December 14, 1878, C. W. Geers was appointed to sell the schoolhouse provided the amount subscribed by the Lodge for its erection could be obtained. Mr. Geers was not successful in selling the schoolhouse, and on January 17, 1881, W. S. Cash was appointed to confer with the "town trustees" of the Seminary in regard to selling them the entire stock held by the Odd Fellows in the building. On December 10, 1881, F. E. Piner was appointed to prepare a transfer of the IOOF Seminary to Trustees of the City. Although no mention of any ownership of the land on which the building stood is found in the available minutes, the deed executed and recorded on December 28, 1881, for the sum of $300, conveyed Lots 2, 3, 4, and 5 iii, Block 23, Denton, "the same being the Lots upon which the Odd Fellows Seminary stands" to the Board of Trustees of the City of Denton. The purchase price was paid by M. W. Davenport, Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
Since this transaction foredates the assumption of control of its schools by the City of Denton, the exact status of this Board of Trustees cannot be ascertained nor neither is it known where the Board obtained money for purchase of the IOOF Seminary. The money could have been raised by public subscription. The only funds known to have been available for such a purpose were those derived from the sale of the county school lands, the per capita apportionment Prom this being approximately seven cents. According to Lewis, there were 265 scholastics on the Tax Assessor's lists in 1883 in the town of Denton, and seven cents per capita would not have yielded sufficient funds for the purchase.(20)
The disposition made of the schoolhouse purchased from the Odd Fellows by the Denton School Board is unknown. There is no record of any school being taught at this place after 1881 until April, 1884, when the new free public school was opened. The exact date on which Denton assumed control of the schools within its corporate limits is also not definitely known. Lewis, who made a study of municipalities assuming control of their schools between 1876 and 1884, states that Denton assumed control of the public schools prior to August 31, 1882. His information was taken from certified reports on file in the State Department of Education, Austin,(21) The city records at Denton, he stated, had been destroyed by fire. No mention of the date of assumption of its schools by the city of Denton was found in reading early minutes of the City Council, but an item entered in January, 1883, states that an Ordinance was adopted on January 22, 1883, levying a tax of one-half of one per cent upon all real and personal property within the city limits for the support and maintenance of a free public school in the city. The day of the private schools, in Denton, therefore, had come to an end.
In the appraisal of these schools, there are some definite conclusions. The first of these is that from near the beginning there was some type of organized schools. The County Judge and the Board of Commissioners served as a "County Board of Directors" for a time, and later the County Judge was ex-officio county superintendent of schools. The Tax Assessor made out the list of scholastics within the county and the per capita apportionment was paid on these where they attended school with a qualified teacher. County boards of examiners were provided in order that qualified teachers might be granted certificates of competency to teach. Although there were no funds provided for school buildings, the two fraternal organizations in the pioneer town of Denton made it possible for children to have a place to go to school outside private homes. There is evidence that as early as 1873, a board of trustees or directors had supervision over the community schools as established. The viewpoint that Denton's school system began with the first public school in 1884, therefore, is not substantiated by a study of the educational activities in the town from 1860 down to the early 18801s. These years were the seedbed which nourished the tiny plants which have grown into one of the finest public school systems in the State.
Another conclusion reached is that the people of Denton were very definitely educational-minded, even from the beginning. It was no accident that teachers from the outstanding universities of the country came to this pioneer town to teach. There was a definite need for their services, a definite desire on the part of the people here for the best that there is in education, for their children. The seeds of the two great colleges in the town, of our magnificent school system as it stands today, were very definitely planted in the soil of Denton by the caliber and professional training of its early teachers. Thus early in the pioneer days, Denton began to chart for itself the pattern of life that was to prevail and earn for the city the well-deserved sobriquet, "Little Athens of Texas."