BEN WHEELER SCHOOL HISTORY
Van Zandt County Genealogical Society History of the Ben Wheeler School by Mrs. L.L. Cates
(The facts for this article were compiled from information furnished by Dr. D. Leon Sanders of Wills Point; from Mr. Mills' "History of Van Zandt County;" from Texas history and from the memory of Mrs. Cates and others. This article was written by Mrs. Cates and read by her at a community association meeting during Public School Week in March 1954, and was published in the Canton Herald on 18 March 1954. It was republished in the program for the Ben Wheeler School's final closing on 18 January 1968.)
Our boys and girls are the most important things we have, and their education is therefore important. Texans fought a war over this very thing. Texas declared her independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836. One of the reasons for this was that Mexico had made no provision for the education of Texas children. This kept desirable residents from moving into the state.
In 1839, when Lamar was president of the new Republic, congress passed a law granting three leagues of land to each county for school purposes, and fifty leagues for establishing a university. President Lamar was known as the Father of Texas Education.
About ten years later, around 1849, the first school house was built in Van Zandt County, at Jordan's Saline, about one mile east of the present site of Grand Saline, and James J. Kuykendall was its first teacher.
Also about this time, a man named Benjamin Wheeler moved from New Orleans, LA, to Tyler in Smith County. Later, he contracted to carry the mail from Tyler to Buffalo. When the Civil War came, he refused to take the oath for the Confederacy, as he had several times sworn to support the Constitution of the United States.
But in 1875, when the war was over, we find him again carrying the mail. This time from Canton
to Edom, three times per week by mule back. The mail was carried in saddle bags. He would stop at a friend's home, George W. Clough, and spend the night. They got to be great friends. Finally a post office was established in the Clough home in February 1876. The new post office was named Ben Wheeler after the mail carrier, and George W. Clough was its first postmaster. Clough and his neighbors also built a school house on his land about ½ mile east of the present school on what was later known as the old Covey (Couey) place. The Rev. Covey (Couey) married one of the Clough girls, I am told.
George Clough later built the first store in Ben Wheeler, its present site, and applied to Washington for permission to move the post office from his home to the store, and to change its name to "Georgetown." He was granted permission to move the office but not to change its name as there was already a Georgetown in Texas. A Mr. Wallace built a drug store so that the town began to grow.
About 1885, James F. Davidson, who was brother of my husband's mother, saw the need of a larger school. He gave land for a school, a Methodist church and a public square for the town. With some financial aid from Will Downs they built a school house about 40 feet by 60 feet, a frame building, about one and one half stories high. It had dormer type windows on top and a belfry. It was named the Alamo Institute. Boarding students came to attend this school. It had a nine months term of school and was fully accredited with the university. I am told that at one time this school had a brass band of some 60 pieces, and their services were sought by surrounding communities. For many years J.F. Davidson was superintendent.
The Clough school was merged with the Ben wheeler school, a two story addition was built onto the building in "L" shape, and for many years the Alamo Institute school was a successful institution. Two or three day exhibitions were given at the close of each year, using mostly home talent of the students. People came from far and near to attend. Some noted persons have come from this school. A few are Dr. D. Leon Sanders of Wills Point, Honorable Morgan G. Sanders, former member of Congress, Canton, Rev. Will Downs, and his brother, Arthur Downs, both successful minsiters in the Methodist Church, Rev. Cary Youngblood and his brother Virgil, both successful Baptist ministers, and Dr. Coke Youngblood, and a little later, Dr. Girlie Castleberry, Dr. Arlin Cooper, Dr. Gurley Sanders, Dr. Grace Humphrey Hood, Judge L.F. Sanders, and Cranfill H. Cox, past county school superintendent; registered nurses, I recall, are Ellen Wilson Ford, Dona Bobbitt Sides, Geneva Tipps, Clova Nell and Mabel Chandler and Ruth Grisham. Bankers, we have Carroll Youngblood, Clyde Gulledge, Ivy Fulgham and Harold Stringer, that I recall. Teachers galore have come from this school and also merchants and other professions. Businessmen still in our midst are Leland Moore, Booster Moore, Roy Land and Andrew Reid.
When I was a little girl I came to Ben Wheeler with my sister, Mrs. Lena Dean, and her husband, Alex G. Dean. They were both teachers and the occasion was one of these school exhibitions. I happened to be visiting in their home at Grand Saline so they brought me along. Mr. Dean had been invited to make an address, which he often did on such occasions. The teachers were J.F. Davidson and M.F. Chancellor, both good friends of Mr. Dean. I often heard him speak of them as outstanding teachers. I think this exhibition was about 1895.
I moved to Ben Wheeler in February 1904, never dreaming that I would ever teach a school or work in a post office. Strange things, or freaks of nature, sometimes make big differences on ones career. A thunder cloud and a stroke of lightening put me into a life's career in the Ben Wheeler post office. It was March or April when this thunder storm came in the night, and a bolt of lightening struck the store of W.B. Cox and burned it to the ground. Mr. Cox was postmaster and the office was in his store. He said he did not wish to rebuild the store and was going to send in his resignation as postmaster. He asked my dad if he would like to be postmaster. On May 7, 1904, my father, E.L. Ansley, received his commission as postmaster and he took over the office, with my assistance.
Our family had mostly been school teachers, so I soon grew tired of the office and decided I wanted to teach school. I had been out of school for several years, so I enrolled at the Alamo Institute to review a bit before entering teachers college at Denton. In 1911, I came back home and was given the position of primary teacher at the same old school. Arthur Farrell was my superintendent and Mr. Vinson was intermediate teacher. It was a three teacher school. My salary was $45 per month. I think the superintendent got about $100. The Alamo Institute was a thing of the past by this time. We had about seven months term of school and no affiliation. I had the first three grades in my room and enrolled 70 pupils. We had no compulsory school law then and lucky for me many dropped out. I think we had about 140 in all.
When school opened each morning I had about a dozen pupils and they came straggling in all morning. Conditions like this are very detrimental to learning. In those days we had to bring in wood and draw water using a bucket and about two dippers in each room. After recess each time, there was a stampede to see who could first serve himself at the water bucket. The weaker ones sometimes fared badly....and I decided school teaching wasn't so fine!
Later the Van oil field was discovered and we benefited by it, in that we got electricity, bringing lights and water syestems. Buses began to run and tardiness was eliminated.
Some of my pupils still live here. Valretta (Heard) Hardwick, Ruth (Stephens) Brown, Bernice (Austin) Beggs, and Leland Moore were all outstanding first graders. I soon discovered that Valretta's was memory work. She had to begin her reading at the first and go straight through. One day she didn't know any of it and when I inquired why, she said,"Holl didn't have time to teach it to me."
Some others in my room were Vera (Lee) Bailey, Vera and Zera Clark, Buck and Burtis Adrian, Bert Coker, Ruby and Floyd Hines, Andrew Reid, Curtis Clark, Mary (Brooks) Berry, Omega (Adrian) Huddle, Otto and Clayton Huddle and Nancy Moore.
The old Alamo Institute building was torn down about 1915. That is, the original wing (was torn down). The two story part was sold to George Wood and was moved to his lot on the square and used for a store. Later it was torn down and built into two rent houses on his place. They are now owned and occupied by Garland Coker and Jack Malloy. A new school building was erected on the school grounds which was much more impressive than the old one. More teachers were added and we once more had a nine months affiliated school. This building served about 30 years and was replaced with the present one. (This building was later torn down and replaced by another around 1950. The old gymnasium was left. Some time after 1968, the school house was torn down and all that was left was the old gym which was burned around the early 1990's)
(Note: Stanger Springs School was consolidated with Ben Wheeler School in 1928 or 1929. Pine Bluff School was consolidated about the same time and their buildings moved to the Ben Wheeler School grounds.)
Some old newspaper articles from the 1890 Canton Telephone gives us more details about the history of schools at Ben Wheeler. )
Dateline: May 23, 1890, Ben Wheeler: The contractors of the Ben Wheeler Academy declare the work half completed, the building is 30 X 60, l and ½ story high, we think that the surrounding country owes Prof. Davidson many congratulations for such an enterprise; we hope he will accomplish much good, and we should take pleasure in testifying the high morals and business capacity that a good school in our county may bring forth. What enterprise could be greater than a good school surrounded with religious influence? Pupils who are seeking an education will find it much cheaper to patronize a school in the country like this one will be, because rents and board will be cheaper than a large town or city.
Dateline: June 20, 1890: School Exhibition: Closing exercise of Ben Wheeler Institute on last Wednesday night, June 18th; we witnessed the second closing of Ben Wheeler Institute. Before night people were seen coming from every direction. By the time of opening, the place was alive with people.
Prof. Downs delivered an address of welcome. This was followed by various recitations and speeches, abounding in wit, humor and pathos.
Recitations: "Curfew shall not ring tonight" by Miss Millie Youngblood
"We have always been provided for, and we shall always be" by Miss Dora Cullen
"Why shall the spirit of mortal be proud" by Miss Georgia Chandler deserves special mention. To these might well be added:
"Courtship" by J.F. Smith
"A Political Speech" by J.B. Cullen
"Agricultural Address" by J.H. McMahon
"Let her rip" by Judge Kellam
Two plays, "The Scandal Monger" and "Fortune Hunter" were well presented. Mr. C.L. Stanford's address to young students, abounded in much sober thought.
The music was of superior excellence. We had the violin, banjo, harp, accordeon (sic) and bones by the best talent of the country. The whole entertainment was a grand success, Instructive as well as entertaining.
Diplomas of honor were awarded to C.F. Stanford, J.F. Smith, J.O. Castleberry, J.H. McMahon, J.B. Cullen, Miss Dora Cullen and Miss Georgia Chandler for attendance, punctuality and deportment. Highest honors to Mr. C.F. Stanford for best average in closing examinations.
This closed two very successful years for Prof. Downs at Ben Wheeler. Since his going there, there has been a marked improvement in that community. Prof. Downs is now twenty-two years of age, and ranks among the first teachers of his country. It does not take the eye of a prophet to see that a bright future awaits this young man.
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