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Copyright 2006


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It's hard to imagine a time when American schools lacked essential basics like paper, desks and qualified teachers. Well into the 20th century, however, Arkansas continued to offer its students sporadic education in crowded, inadequate conditions -- something William Halbrook was determined to change. Born in the Ozarks in 1878 , Halbrook grew up during a time when self-reliance was key. From early boyhood, Halbrook - the eldest of a hard-working farming family - was accustomed to taking care of his five younger brothers and making the most of himself. After finishing his education at the local one-room school, Halbrook sought to teach school himself.

It was then that Halbrook's eyes were opened to just how much Arkansas schools were lacking. Poor roads, poverty, inadequately-educated teachers and residents' fear of "furriners" were just a few of the obstacles faced. After teaching 25 classes a day at a local school , Halbrook secured a full scholarship at the two-year Peabody Normal School in Nashville, where he began to learn how he could best help improve local standards .

In addition to curriculum, Halbrook also understood the importance of building a sense of community among students . Growing up, he and his neighbors spent countless hours singing, debating, swimming and playing baseball -- developing a sense of camaraderie missing in so many students he encountered during his adulthood.

Much of the high quality opportunities seen in today's Arkansas school system is due to the ideas and work of Halbrook, described in this warm and informative autobiography. - Joanna Mechlinski, New Britain, CT

SHORT EXCERPT

From the Preface:

In my leisure of retirement I am inspired to write a review of my four score years, adding a chapter on my forbears and their descendants, . I regret that I did not keep a diary during my active career, and so I have sketchily only rehearsed incidents from my memory. This has been done at the request of my children and some of my students.

I knew what my father did in his lifetime, for I saw him every day in his daily duties and achievements. But my children knew nothing of my services, And some others might enjoy the review of a checkered career, though common place and humble it may be. And without apologies, here it is. - (W. E. H., February 1959)

From the Summary:

In my musings I may be pardoned in claiming some credit for playing a major role in the following achievements:

1. I have four children, two sons and two daughters, to whom I was both father and mother for ten years in their growing up. All have a college education,

2. In an era when there were virtually no rural high schools in Arkansas, I established a standard high school which for many years enabled some 200 young men and women to prepare themselves for more effective community leadership,

3. When the Farmer's Union was a potent political factor in our state, as a member of it I secured the support of that organization for the establishment of the Arkansas State Teachers College

4. As state agent of rural schools I sponsored several local school projects in the Ozark section of our state,

5. As county superintendent of Boone County schools I promoted a school district reorganization program in the county that attracted the commendation of educational leaders in the state and even outside the state.

6. I was among the first advocates and agitators for equality of educational opportunity for all . I stood publicly with little support and encouragement for greater state and federal responsibility in the education of the youth.

Working in the School System

So it might be said that my school life practically is contemporaneous with the public school system of Arkansas. Native Arkansans took control away from the Reconstructionists and established the present school district system. But it was optional with the citizens as to whether they wanted to have school districts or not, and it was after I was of school age before all the children of our state were in a school district that provided a free school accessible. My Grandfather Woolverton, who had of late emigrated from a much more progressive section of the South, was an ardent believer in free schools, much more than many of his neighbors, and he took the lead in organizing the northeast corner of Conway County into the county's fourth school district. My father's homestead lay within this district. My Grandfather Halbrook had largely by himself built a little boxed house near his home as a community meeting house in which was organized a Methodist church. It was seated with split logs arranged around the walls. This being near the center of the new school district it was used for the district's school sessions. Here I attended my first school and among the first in the new school district with my mother's brother as my first teacher.

...

As heretofore mentioned travel in this mountainous section was quite inconvenient. The natives had few if any cars, occasionally there was a Ford Model T. Roads were such that a car was impractical. Most of the time I had passes on the railroad, but reached the interior in mail hacks or on horseback. But I could see that the auto was coming and that improved highways were concomitant with improved schools. Wherever it was expedient I joined with forward-looking citizens in meetings, assisting them in promoting better highways. Just before leaving Shirley I took a leading part in sponsoring what is now Highway 9 in the state, the first state highway through Van Buren county, and we called it the Mammoth Spring-Hot Springs highway. I led delegations from Shirley to Mountain View, Salem, Mammoth Springs, Morrilton, and Hot Springs to that end. Then I took the lead in circulating petitions in Van Buren county. At that time we had no gasoline tax and no state highway system. Our only state road fund was derived from the sale of car licenses. To build highways we formed road improvement districts and taxed the benefits accruing to each tract of land on either side of the proposed road. Such a tax a little later evoked considerable opposition from many land owners. Scarcely any of them had cars, did not dream of ever having one, and were unable to envisage the future changes in transportation. Some of my friends became irate. Mass meetings were held denouncing us promoters, and one speaker at Clinton harangued against me personally. So I was told. I was not there.

...

We soon had our county pretty well organized and only a few districts refusing to come in. But we would send the bus into any of those conservative districts and transport the children of those that so desired to the consolidated school, thus weakening the conservative district. We had our inter-school activities, teacher improvement programs and a system that attracted visitors from other counties and other states. The patrons were for the most part enthusiastic, and its popularity and support were established.

...

there came the Great Depression. Consequently farmers were unable to pay debts or taxes, banks were closed, and school finances like the finances of all business enterprises were in a bad way, especially in those recently formed units with their liabilities to meet. Many citizens became panicky and lost their sense of balance.

The funds of the respective school districts were tied up. Furthermore the boards had been borrowing money from the banks, and several of their time warrants had been paid off by the boards, but had been kept in the bank which was carrying them as assets; such was the desperate straits of the banks prior to closing. I dug up the facts, got the proof, went into the chancery court and salvaged over $100,000 of false indebtedness for my school districts.

A re-actionary governor and legislature were elected, including both senator and representative of Boone county, and they proceeded to wreck the public school system. So my office was thereby closed on April Fool's Day in 1933. I began to cast about for other fields of labor.

One might wonder with the achievements of our school program why it would elect representatives in opposition to it. Well, there was still smoldering those that were ever opposed to progress. The candidate for representative had quite a following of his own, having been an active and successful politician in the county for years.

His Politics

I was born thirteen years after the close of that war and it was a few more years before I had memories registered. In my first recollections around firesides and at public gatherings there were constant references in conversations and public addresses to events and experiences during the war. The impact of that war was still evident on the minds of all adults, and it dominated political alignments and platforms and prejudices for some years after I became aware of things. Feeling continued somewhat bitter for a long while with many people. Some carried it to the grave. Southerners who took sides against secession and were loyal to the Union were reproached by their neighbors as traitors to their states and disloyal to the South, while the Union loyalists considered the pro-slavery and secession faction as rebels and disloyal to the superior Federal government. My Grandfather Woolverton had been a slave owner and supported secession. The Halbrooks with few exceptions remained loyal to the Union. My mother's oldest brother fought under the Confederate flag, and my father's oldest brother carried a wound to his Grave that he got as a soldier in the Federal cause. I had an uncle on either side in the Battle of Shiloh, which was fought near enough to my mother's home that she heard the roar of the cannons.

I was old enough in my boyhood to sense the partisan feeling between the two families. No personal friction, however, occurred. I never heard a derogatory word from any of my grandfathers or uncles relative to other members of my family. But I do recall hearing each of my grandmothers make remarks that were not complimentary.

Being with mother in my early days I heard her side of the story. She was not at all bitter, but she was sympathetic to the Confederacy. Her vision of the event became larger in later years.

But when Woodrow Wilson was nominated by the Democrats on a progressive platform, and in his campaign he outlined his New Freedom in a series of magazine articles, I supported him enthusiastically. Here was an educator, an author, a historian, a man with a vision and asking an opportunity to test some of his intelligent conceptions of statesmanship. I could support him with enthusiasm. In the same campaign ex-president Theodore Roosevelt led a bolt from the Republican party and became the candidate of a Progressive party, which also appealed to my political proclivities.

World War I came and at the close our President Wilson led the nations of the world to adopt a League of Nations as a functionary to insure international peace and render war unlikely. But Theodore Roosevelt, sick, and insanely jealous of Wilson, abandoned his Progressive party, returned to the leadership of the Republican party, and together with certain Republican senators, while Wilson was at Paris, formed a scheme to defeat any international league that President Wilson might bring back, which they did. Much as I had admired Theodore Roosevelt and regarded him as a great statesman and still do, I never could forgive him for his part in this.

Rural Schools

This section of Arkansas was known to be the most retarded educationally of the white schools in the state. Adult illiteracy was high; many of the communities were more or less isolated, and little had been done to arouse their interest in an educational program of school advancement. Most of the inhabitants were in the low economic level. Poor roads were the rule, it being before the motor car had made its advent into this section very much. The population was homogeneous, lived on what they could produce and most of the folks were self-satisfied. Limiting my territory enabled me to pursue a more intensive program. In fact I never attempted to work all over the territory assigned me.

...

It was a Herculean task to undertake the overcoming of the opposition of these three well entrenched elements of our citizenry: First, the well-heeled East Arkansas aristocracy in their paternalistic attitude that the privileged few have little or no responsibilities toward the underprivileged beyond mere subsistence, especially in paying more taxes for their education; Second, the leaders of the chambers of commerce in their attitude that business would suffer if other taxes were levied, and that really the masses are incapable of more education; and Third, the prejudice of hillbillies against progress, who are unconscious of the value of more learning. In reality the first two forces still nurtured the idea that the common people, if given more education, would leave the drudgery of farm and other common labor, thus reducing the labor supply upon which their economy was built. But the job had to be done, and the sooner begun the better. My major problem was with the third category.

...

Only once in my life did I ever take a drink of whiskey. It was when we had a consolidation in process and we needed the support of a certain influential citizen. When I went to see him I met him in the road with a tow sack on his shoulder. He asked the usual compliments and I told him I thought I was taking the flu. He threw down his sack and said that he had the very stuff in it for the flu and opening it he offered me a drink. I took it. Then after a few words I asked him if he would not sign my petition. "Sure," he said, "I'll sign anything you say is for the best." After securing his signature, there was no difficulty in getting others of his crowd also to sign and the consolidation was effected without friction.

...

After the reorganization of school districts was practically completed, my next objective was to revise the curriculum, install vocational departments, and improve the quality of the teaching corps. To my pleasant surprise teachers entered into the spirit of the program with alacrity. One teacher, I recall, came and said, "I understand you plan the improvement of your teaching force."

"Yes," I replied.

"Then I shall help you. I am quitting!"

The teachers became more efficient. The same teachers that were in our rural schools were incorporated in the new system. For instance many teachers that were a failure or near failure in the one-teacher schools of eight grades and thirty to forty classes a day, after being assigned to such grades as they were best adapted became most successful. I recall that one who made one of our most successful primary teachers was a failure in handling larger students in the one-teacher setup.

...

In practically every home was kept what they called a "spare bed," one for company which the family did not use except occasionally. I realized that once in awhile through oversight of the housekeeper such beds became infested with bed bugs, fleas, or like pests. So in my grip I carried a puff box whose powder was a repellent, and placed it within my reach when I retired. I recall one night that E. B. Matthew, supervisor of the Smith-Hughes division of the department, and I slept together in one of these mountain homes, and during the night he whispered to me for the puff box. It saved us a night's rest after a hard day over rough roads with the car, for that was before we had highways to some of these school centers.

Information on obtaining the book at:
Rock Island Press
or
jamesmskipper@netzero.com

7/30/2006



Posted 7/30/06