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Owen Historical Society News: Owen educators have a history of sacrificing

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By Bonnie Strassell

Some of us older folk in Owen County shake our heads in disbelief as we struggle to come to grips with modern technology. The ability of our  youngsters  to manipulate the advanced equipment of today never ceases to amaze us. Now the Kindle is visiting the classrooms in our schools and the kids are delighted.
For those who wonder if the Kindle is a foreign ambassador from another planet who has traveled to Earth and has chosen Owen County schools as its designated point to disembark, the answer is no. Neither is Kindle a new disease nor an animal cruising the school hallways in search of a student’s lunchbox.
Kindle is a small hand held computerized unit into which books are programmed, and it gives a student the opportunity to hear the book read to them or to view the book on a screen to read at their own pace. Technology has changed the face of education, but educating our children has always been a vital mission of Owen countians and our teachers who employ every resource possible to inspire students.
Author C.S. Lewis once wrote: “The task of the educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts” and the history of Owen County schools staffed by dedicated teachers confirm C.S. Lewis’ observation.
It has been said that the first elementary schools of the county were established around 1830. Two early schools of note were Concord College at New Liberty, established in 1845 and Harris Academy at Long Ridge. In 1842, the state legislature enacted a bill to amend the laws establishing common schools allowing the county school commissioners to divide the county into school districts and included a provision for levying taxes in each district. Sometime around 1854, the three commissioners of Owen County were replaced by one man, and that same year Joel Herndon presented a bill of $27 for his services as school commissioner.
Shortly after the Civil War, there were 68 school districts in Owen County with a total maintenance cost of $3,602.18 and in the late 1870s, the first school records, kept separately from the county orders, were begun. The first African-American school of record was taught in Owenton in 1878-79 by J.W. Womack.
In 1881, there were 75 school districts in the county, and the average attendance per school each month was 15 students. During these early years, the monthly salary for a gentleman teacher was $30.04, while the women teachers received on average  $23.09 a month.
In March of 1913, the county board of education petitioned the county court to levy a tax sufficient to produce $8,000 in taxes from the county to be used for the schools. Although it is not recorded as to whether the court approved the measure, the dire need was indicated by an entry made by the secretary of the school board Herbert Smith “Motion made and seconded that we can’t build any more school houses and dig any more cisterns till we get out of debt.”
Owen County abounds with stories of devoted teachers who not only fired the imagination of their students, but in many cases sacrificed their own meager funds to buy gloves or shoes for a child whose family could afford neither.
In Mariam Houchens’  book “History of Owen County, Kentucky,” which is available for sale at the historical society museum, Nell Lucas Scott reminisces about her days as a pupil in a one-room schoolhouse in Owen County. She recalled the school water dipper shared by everyone, and conceded that most were not overly concerned about passing on germs. School bags did not sport bottles of hand sanitizer with which to wipe down desks and wash hands. Rather, students wore a bag around their necks with a piece of asafetida in it. Just before entering the schoolhouse children would chew on this bag which encased the fetid gum; but considered this preventative worse than contracting the disease.
Lela Maude Hawkins taught at Monterey Elementary School and recalls making a splint for a young boy who had broken his arm and then sending him on to the doctor by way of a neighbor. She bought gloves and clothes for children who came to school in the winter with reddened hands and clothes too thin to protect them from the elements. Lela Maude, her husband, and several in-laws put linoleum in one of the rooms in the school so the children could have a lunchroom. John William, Lela Maude’s husband, would often bring the children treats and he always took them out on the hills to find a Christmas tree.
Today, Owen County teachers are still sacrificing to assure that our children are not only educated but also inspired. Many others are dedicated to the preservation of the history of our schools. Books written by John Forsee and Mariam Houchens include chapters devoted to the Owen County school system. Historical society member and genealogist Doris Riley has spent innumerous hours compiling school records; and just recently Shirl Marks, a historian from Stamping Ground, has visited our research room at the museum to collect information on the African-American Rosenwald school in New Liberty.
Julius Rosenwald was the son of a German-Jewish immigrant, and in 1909 he become president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. He was one of America’s leading philanthropists and partnered with Booker T. Washington to build African-American schools in the South. He donated funds to help New Liberty build an African-American school for their community. The school has burned down but Shirl Marks, who is dedicated to the preservation of African-American history, is on a mission to find these schools. If they no longer exist, Shirl is applying for funds to purchase markers which will be placed on the sites of these schools. If anyone has information on the New Liberty Rosenwald School or would like to help Shirl with her endeavors please contact her at DevitaLee@roadrunner.com
Don’t miss our historical society meeting tomorrow evening, April 12, at the I.O.O.F. hall. There will be a business meeting at 6:30 and the program begins at 7. “Owen County Cemeteries”  will be presented by historical society members Doris Riley and Glenna Clifton. Come and join us as we delve into the Kentucky law concerning cemeteries, and listen to stories of cemeteries found and cemeteries being restored.
A reminder that Christie Kennedy is our resident genealogist and researcher who works at the museum on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. She is at your service to answer questions and help locate your ancestors.
President Jeannie Baker wants to thank all who have sent cards with wishes for a speedy recovery. Thank you also for your kind prayers. Please keep her in your thoughts as she is still struggling to overcome complications from surgery.