Reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic & rat tails

Reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic & rat tails

Early schools had several names

By Bob Wieland

Collin County was so overrun with rats a century ago that rural schools held competitions to see how many rats a student had killed – by counting the tails brought to class. That’s according to Joy Gough, author of “Early Schools of Collin County, Texas, 1846-1960.”

Gough is the author of several books about Collin County history including cemeteries, place names and railroads. 

She said in 1921, 31 students at Bloomdale School in McKinney turned in a total of 1,190 rat tails and the school was declared the winner. 

According to the book, “The largest number of tails collected at the school were

from Elvin Proffett with 198. Rhea Mills School came in second place in the competition with 854 tails. Barnett School third place with 797 tails, Cottage Hill School fourth place with 688 tails, and Lone Oak School fifth place with 607 tails.”

Gough recently completed work on the second edition of a 563-page reference book on early schools that was printed by the Collin County Historical Commission. The books are not available for sale but have been distributed to libraries so patrons may use them for research.

“We thought we would start out doing 70 or 80 schools and we ended up with 250 schools – that we know of,” the author said. 

Gough said she printed 20 books initially and when those 20 were gone she started on the second edition because she found so many more schools. Both editions came out this year.

The book started as a COVID project, she said, adding, “During COVID, I would spend two or three hours a day on the computer,” she said. 

“I would go through old books and then newspapers, primarily the McKinney newspapers back in the day and then do research,” she said. 

One of the first things that the early settlers did was establish schools, Gough said.

“Collin County was started in 1846 and one of the first things they did was to start a school. Within five years they had half a dozen of them.” 

The county’s first known school was in Mantua, near present Van Alstyne, she said. 

Gough said Murphy’s first school was along Maxwell Creek in a cabin owned by the McMillen and Herring families. Sachse’s first school was built in the 1850s on William Sachse’s property along the Dallas-Collin County line. The Common School District #63 existed before the Wylie district was formed in 1887 and Farmersville’s first school was conducted in the Masonic Hall, with the Red Brick School built on College Street in 1891. 

Rural families would join together to create a school for their children and those schools were usually named after the family that housed the school, Gough said. As the children got too old for school, often at 12 or 13, the school would move, and other families would take over and the name of the school would change. 

 “The name could be like ‘the Bush school’ because the Bush family lived there, and it was by their farm. Once their children graduated, they closed the school down,” she said. “So, the next farmer would then take it over and it would have another name like ‘the Baldwin school’ or whatever.”

As soon as they could, communities would band together and erect a building that would serve as sort of a community center.

Preachers, teachers, professors

Wylie’s first school, known as Rough and Ready School #87, was built at FM 544 at FM 1378.

“When the building was completed in 1875, a night meeting was held to celebrate the occasion,” the book said. “During the meeting a fight developed in the overflow crowd outside. It soon grew into a ‘free-for-all.’ Someone remarked that the place was rough all ready, and ever after that the school was called ‘Rough and Ready.’”

They held school during the week, and they had four different denominations of preachers, the circuit riders, who would come on Sundays, Gough said. 

“The Methodist church was the only denomination that would publish the circuit annually,” said Donna Jenkins, president of the Murphy Historical Society, who helped Gough with her research. “The first Sunday they would be in Wylie, the second one in Murphy, the third one they might be in Josephine, and the fourth one they might be in Farmersville.” 

The whole community came to church, no matter who was preaching, because it was a social thing, Gough said. “The preachers were denominational, but the people weren’t necessarily.” If there was a fifth Sunday in the month, it was a music day, she said.

Often the preachers were also teachers because they were the only ones who were educated, and they had to have another job. Teachers might be paid per student or live with the family supporting the school.

The early schools went to about what we would consider the eighth grade and did not have curricula, the author found. “You went to school, you learned how to read and write, but you didn’t have to pass tests. They’d get some arithmetic, history, some geography, they’d get some English, like poets.” 

Teachers used the McGuffey Reader and the Noah Webster blue-backed speller. There was a strong emphasis on spiritual and moral lessons, said Gough.

Women who taught were called teachers, while men who taught were called professors. “A little bit of sexism there,” she observed.

Gough also found that women who taught were either widows or spinsters. “Women who got married didn’t teach because married women couldn’t concentrate on their students,” she said. “Widows could teach, or old maids.”

You didn’t have to have a teaching certificate and didn’t even need to go to college to be a schoolteacher, Gough said. “A lot of 16-year-old and 17-year-old girls were schoolteachers.”

Since there was no particular age when kids went to school, “You might have a 20-year-old in your class and you’d be a 16-year-old teacher,” Jenkins said. 

A lot of time that’s how couples met, Gough said. “The woman was the teacher, and the husband was 20-something years old coming in learning how to read and write.”

School in Collin County traditionally didn’t start until October because students were needed to harvest the cotton crop in September. They would close in May for the planting of spring crops.

“Rural schools didn’t have to last more than four or five or six months,” Gough said. “In the cities you would get a whole year of school, but in the country, you might only get four months a year.”

When the school year ended, there was always a big get-together for a picnic, plays or presentations. “They would sing songs and read poems or essays they had written,” she said.

There would also be spelling bees, with parents taking part, or a baseball game. 

The first recorded baseball game was played in New York in 1845 and the sport spread quickly across America.

“Some of the tiny, little, schools that might have all of 30 students would have a baseball team,” Gough found. “They would have 60 to 100 people in the stands watching the ball game between these two little schools.”

“It was an all-day thing with families coming in wagons,” Jenkins said.

The old wooden gymnasium for the Anna School was sometimes used for “donkey basketball.” 

“A gentleman from Oklahoma raised, trained and furnished the donkeys for the games. Teachers, high school students and local brave souls volunteered to ride the donkeys and tried to play a game of basketball,” the book said. The rubber-shod donkeys “balked, kicked, and bucked the riders off and, showing their stubbornness, would not budge to the delight of the audience. Sometimes a basket was even scored.”

Since there were no tests required in early rural schools, there were no report cards and no diplomas. However, the Murphy Historical Society has a very large diploma from the early 1900s, Jenkins said.

Names out, numbers in

It wasn’t until the state got involved that schools were required to have curricula and minimum academic standards, she said. 

“There was a state law in 1870 that every school had to be within three miles so the students could walk there,” she said. “Wherever they lived, the school couldn’t be more than three miles from their house. So that’s how we ended up with 150 public schools in Collin County because they had a school every three miles.”

It also was not unusual for a school to have a barn or corral for horses, she found. “An awful lot of kids did ride,” she said. 

Once schools started getting state aid, residents lost local control and they had to consolidate. 

In the 1880s, residents started putting numbers on schools, but most schools had several names over the years. Some of the names were imaginative, like Spotted Pup, Rough and Ready, Out of Sight and Who’d a Thought It. 

By 1901 the county had 156 numbered common schools. Over the next century they were consolidated into 14 large independent districts with many individual schools in each district.  

There were 28 known schools for Black students in Collin County, Gough said, with small enrollments and sometimes housed in churches. The “colored” schools were closed when integration took effect in the 1960s, she said.

Early colleges were generally affiliated with religions and were located in cities. They offered the equivalent of today’s ninth or 10th grade courses, “not what we would consider college,” she said.

Westminster College, founded north of Anna in 1887 as Seven Points College, was at different times a Methodist facility and a Baptist theological seminary. It had a large campus and was both a preparatory school and a college offering both BS and BA degrees. 

“It had a dormitory for the girls and the boys lived in town. They were studying to be preachers,” Gough said. 

In the 1899-1900 session it had 108 in the prep school, 55 in the college and eight in the seminary. The faculty consisted of six teachers.

McKinney was a hub of education for many years, but Farmersville, Celina, Plano and Allen also had quite a few schools, she said.

“If you had a way to get into the city, you could get a high school education,” Gough said, citing the story of a woman of 100 who recalled riding the Cotton Belt train into Plano on Sunday and coming home to the Murphy area on weekends. 

Such oral history augmented Gough’s research, with much of the information found in early newspapers archived in the Portal to Texas History at the University of North Texas.

The story about bringing rat tails to school was found in a McKinney paper. 

“As a former schoolteacher, I can just imagine all those rat tails being brought into my classroom,” Jenkins said.

“What would I do with them?”