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Florence, Ala. Sept 12, 1921

s/ H. C. Gilbert

Gentlemen of the Florence Rotary Club:


I thank you for the honor you confer upon me by your request for the historical sketch of the schools of Florence.


The founders of Florence included such illustrious names as President James Madison, Andrew Jackson, James Jackson, John Coffee, John McKinley, Thomas Bibb, General John Brahan, Dr. John R. Bedford, Dabney Morris and many others prominent in American life and history.


It was perfectly natural that these great men should encourage the building of churches and schools. We note with pleasure the fact that they set apart two whole squares of the new town for school purposes. The Patton school is on one of these squares and the other is at present occupied by our Post Office and “Elks Home” buildings.


We have not been able to find the names of all the schools but we give you the list as best we can.


FROM 1820 to 1830


In the early twenties Prof. Wall, an Episcopal clergyman taught in a brick building on south Cedar street.


Prof. Vigus succeeded Prof. Wall and Prof. Breeze followed Prof. Vigus in the same building.


FROM 1830 to 1840


We find during this decade a Prof. Tinnon with a good school at N.E. corner Tennessee and Seminary streets – the lot now occupied by the Dillard Block.


Prof. James Lorance seems to have begun a school in the twenties near General John Coffee’s home on Coxe’s creek and then in the thirties to have followed Prof. Tinnon in the school house on Seminary street.


Prof. Oliver taught in a log cabin on a lot adjoining the present Jefferson Hotel building.


Mrs. Caroline Lee Hentz


The most noted teacher of this decade in Florence was Mrs. Caroline Lee Hentz who moved here from Columbus Ga. About 1832. She had an eccentric husband who spent most of his time in his cocoonery and museum. While he studied and experimented his wife supported the family by teaching school and writing novels and poetry. Her school was known as “Locust Dell Academy” the beautiful home, afterwards, of Major H. C. Wood for many years and now occupied and owned by Mr. B. W. Cunningham.


Her novels were very popular in the South for forty years or more. They were not small twenty-five or fifty-cent volumes but large one dollar-and-a-half or two-dollar volumes. Only a few days ago I had the pleasure of examining, in a cursory way, ten of her books now owned by Mrs. Josephine Hardin on North Pine street.


Some of their titles are:

“The Planter’s Northern Bride”.

“The Lost Daughter”.

“The Banished Son”.

“Courtship and Marriage”.


Her portrayal of the old-time southern plantation life is superb and entrancing.


About 1837 Miss James came to Florence from Philadelphia and established a Primary school on the lot just back of the Roger’s Department store and facing Pine street. Our much revered citizen Mr. James Simpson, now I his 95th year went to Miss James’s school. He tells me that one thing happened there that he will never forget. The Siamese Twins were brought to Florence and were shown to the public in this school building while he was a pupil there.


About 1835, our citizens bought the property soon known as “Prepdom” on West Tombigbee street now owned by Mr. Jas. Burtwell. They established “The Florence Male Academy” which continued for more than twenty years, doing a great work. During this period the following teachers were instructors, successively: Prof. Breeze who moved his school from South Cedar to this place.

Prof. T. N. Waul, afterwards a confederate general.

Rev. Dr. Jas. L. Sloss.

Prof. Buchanan.

Prof. McCauley.

Prof. Howard.

Prof. Jno. W. Harris.

Rev. Dr. Slack


FROM 1840 to 1850


In different parts of the town and at different times Mrs. Woodell Mrs. Henderson and Miss Stevenson taught in Florence. Mrs. Henderson, a scotch lady, kept school in a small house near the northeast corner of our present city Park. One of her pupils was Robert Andrews, afterwards the honored mayor of Florence for several years.


In 1847 Prof. S. S. Stebbins moved to Florence and induced the Cypress land Co. to turn over to himself and his associates the school square on Seminary Street. On this lot they erected a handsome brick building and called it “The Florence Female Academy”. While this was being built his school occupied a building on the lot now owned by Mr. C. C. Vaughan on North Pine Street. We have in our city to-day a lady who attended that school. I was thrilled the other day, by her description of the removal of the girls, who marched in a long happy procession, from the Pine Street school to the new Female Academy on Seminary Street. Seventy-three years ago Mrs. Josephine T. Hardin, then a young girl of twelve years, was in that procession. She remembers it so vividly that she recited to me, word for word, the first stanza of the song she sang at their first commencement in 1848: "I’m Queen of May.”


About the time Prof. Stebbins moved to Florence the city authorities erected on the other school lot given by the Cypress Land Co. a one room brick school house which was afterwards enlarged to two rooms. This is now the Patton School lot. Many teachers occupied the principal’s chair in this school among them we have found the following names:


Wiley B. Edwards

Miss Julia Young afterwards Mrs. Hiram Richardson of Waterloo.

Prof. W. M. Price afterwards a much beloved physician of Florence and father of our highly esteemed Dr. Percy Price.

Capt. A. D. Ray afterwards our very successful co. supt Education.

Mrs. Bettie Waters now living on West Mobile street continued her noble and magnificent work for many years in this school. She tells me that at one time she had 130 pupils and the authorities not only enlarged the building but gave her an assistant.




The Fifties mark another era of wonderful growth in the educational life of Florence. The Presbyterian Synod secured an Act of the Legislature of Alabama formally chartering the Florence Synodical Female College as successor to the Florence Female Academy and this school continued for about 40 years. The refining, ennobling influence of that great institution has been felt in the homes of Florence and North Alabama through all the decades since its organization. Among its honored presidents were:


Profs. Nichols, Rogers, Jones, Rev. Dr. W. H. Mitchell, father of our honored Judge J. J. Mitchell, Prof J. D. Anderson, (Mrs. Virginia Irvine of North Court St, was a student at the Synodical college during President Anderson’s administration); Rev. Mr. Walker, Mrs. Cascaden, Miss Sallie Collier, Rev. Drs. Frieson [Frierson] and Bardwell, Mrs. M. A. Thompson, Mrs. H. E. Stone.




In 1835 the Methodist church moved the famous old Lagrange College from its location near Leighton, Ala. To Florence, the citizens giving $30,000 toward its removal. In 1856 the Legislature of Alabama chartered the Florence Wesleyan University. Rev. Dr. R. H. Rivers was its first president with Prof. S. P. Blue in charge of higher mathematics. The university continued its great work until 1861 when professors and students alike joined the Confederate army.


During the war Dr. R. A. Young, the pastor of the Methodist church, and Prof. Rice opened a High school in the building.


In 1866 rev. Dr. Wm. H. Anderson, from Louisville revived the University for two sessions.


In 1868 Prof. W. D. Wills opened a High school in the building and continued for five years.




About 1870 Miss Ann Stevens, an Irish lady, taught on Pine street.


In 1872 Mrs. Susan Leigh had a school in the house now occupied by Judge J. J. Mitchell.




In 1873 the Methodist Conference deeded the property of the Wesleyan University to the state for a state Normal College. Prof. S. P. Rice became its first president with James K. Powers Prof. mathematics.


From 1881 to 1885 Dr. Hardie Brown, father of Mrs. Jas. L. Brock, was the honored president.


During 1885 – 1886 Dr. Head and 1886 – 88 Prof. T. J. Mitchell held the presidency. Prof Mitchell held the first Teachers Institute in this state and it was due to the good impression he made upon the State supt. Of Education and others that he was elected president. It marked a new day in Alabama’s educational life.


In 1888 Dr. Jas. K. Powers became president and held it until his election as president of the University of Alabama. Prof. M. C. Wilson followed Dr. Powers as president about 1900 and continued his work until his retirement from school life and removal to Florida.


Dr. Powers became president again in 1911 and fulfilled the arduous duties of that office until his death.


Dr. Henry J. Willingham succeeded Dr. Powers in 1913 and fills that honored position now most worthily and successfully. Florence believes he is the best all-round Normal school president in the South, if not in the United States.




One of the great educators who blessed Florence by his noble work for boys was Prof. Alex. S. Paxton, the father of Mr. Robt. Paxton, Secretary-Treasurer of the Richardson Lumber Co. Prof. Paxton was an honored graduate of Washington & Lee University and his school known as “The Florence Institute” was held in the then City Hall building, (Now the Jefferson Hotel building.)


Misses Janie and Emily Thompson taught an excellent primary school for many years on south Pine street.


Miss Helen Ware has conducted, until recently, a very successful Kindergarten or primary school on N. Wood Ave.




It is true that the public school system of the state had its legal start by an Act of the Legislature in 1856 but is had a very feeble existence in Alabama for many years. In the seventies and eighties, the different counties and cities would have free schools for some two or three months of the year, the teachers continuing the “pay term” for the rest of the session.


The public schools of Florence were conducted in this hap-hazard way until 1891. This ear marks the birthday beginning of the City Graded schools of Florence.


The R. M. Patton school building was erected at a cost of $22,000 and Prof. J. W. Morgan Jr. was elected the first City School Supt. Morgan He was born and reared in Florence and I do believe that no better man has ever taught in any of her schools than her own brilliant-minded, pure-hearted Morgan.


H. C. Gilbert succeeded Morgan and continued in service 12 years. He was followed by Supt. A. F. Harmon, now Co. Supt. of Montgomery county.


Then came W. W. Hall, J. B. Lockhart, H. B. Norton, W. R. Harrison and our present, efficient Supt. F. T. Appleby.


I am sure you have been impressed with the idea that Whatever the men and women of Florence set their hearts on doing they do it well. The Florence Male Academy of 1835; the Florence Female Academy of 1847 followed by the Florence Synodical College of 1855; The Wesleyan University of 1855 followed by the state Normal school of 1873, these all were the products of the brain and heart-life of the good citizens of Florence and for every one of them we say “well done”.


When in 1891 Florence caught a new vision of better schooling for her children are you surprised that she did her best and, while other towns were only attempting free schools for short terms that Florence opened her heart and said “We must have a nine-month school for our children and a sure enough graded school system, too.


Still another vision came in 1916 when Florence began the erection of the Coffee High School which was planned by a Government Expert in school and architecture. Dr. ---essier from Peabody College, Tennessee. This was followed by the new Brandon school for East Florence, the Gilbert school for North Florence and, when the Patton school is rebuilt, no city in the South, of our population, can boast of better buildings or a better school system than ours Florence. When the present school bond issue is consumed – the value of our city school property will be about is almost one-half million dollars. (3)


We have now 57 77 employed in the public our city schools.


In the High School         12_

In the Grammar Schools  33

In the colored schools      6

& Janitors                       6


[Written in here is the following which must have been added after the speech was given: Our school enrolment for 1924-5 was 2,964. Our graduates since 1918 are 247 and over half of this number have gone on to higher institutions of learning in our own state and other states including two at Annapolis Naval Academy and two at Westpoint [sic] Military Academy.]


The cost of the schools per annum is $60,000 $ 80,000


The course of study, in addition to the elementary training as given in the first seven grades, includes Latin, French and Spanish, languages; The sciences, Higher Mathematics; Commercial Courses, Manual arts and Household Arts.


Our school is an accredited High School, and our graduates can enter any college or university in the south without examination. The certificate of its graduates is accepted by all colleges that admit students on certificate.


The City Colored Schools


John F. Slater School


At the same time that the first Brandon school was built for East Florence the Slater School building was erected for the colored children of the city. In fact it has been the policy of the school board of Florence since the organization of her public school system to furnish school facilities for the colored race and to encourage the education of their children. The Slater School; the Pine Ridge School for east Florence and The Chisholm Road School (to open soon) for North Florence are in the public school system of the city.




In addition to the educational advantages given to the colored children of the city by the public school system, Florence is fortunate in having the Burrell Normal School for their education.


The Burrell Normal is a continuation of the Carpenter High School which was organized under the auspices of the Congregational Missionary Association of New York in 18_2. [‘7’ typed, ‘6’ or ‘8’ written over it.]


Rev. W. H. Ash was the first principal, Rev. S. G. Northcross, Rev. T. J. Austin and Miss M. L. Corpier following in order.


The first president of the Burrell Normal was B. F. Cox, 1904. He was followed by President G. N. White, 1907, who is still directing the work of this school in a very efficient manner.




I do not count the building of a $70,000 Female University in North Florence a failure.


_________________ manifestation of the educational spirit of [remainder of this paragraph is missing.]




There is no part of our school system more delightful for me to talk about [than] the Florence Free Kindergarten. I hope the Alabama school laws will soon be changed so as to allow Florence, and any other city that my so desire, to incorporate the Kindergarten in their public schools. In spite of this legal obstruction do you know that Florence has the honor of organizing the first free kindergarten in Alabama? Do you know that next to Mrs. Caroline Lee Hentz, Miss Maud Lindsay is the most noted teacher Florence has ever had?


Do you know that she has written seven [9 written in] Kindergarten books already and that some of them are used as textbooks in the schools of London England? All kindergarten and first grade teachers are eager and anxious to use her books. Miss Maud Lindsay has had definite and attractive positions offered her in New York and elsewhere but her heart clings to her firs love – her very own school in Florence.


I am happy to tell you that the Maud Lindsay Kindergarten #2 will begin its beautiful work next Monday on the grounds of the Coffee High School. Miss Ellie Huston, who received her training from Miss Maud Lindsay and has had several years experience, will be the principal of the kindergarten.


[Written in: The Maud Lindsay Kindergarten, the first free Kindergarten in the state, was started by Miss Lindsay nearly thirty years ago in one of the rooms of the Brandon School building where it remained for several years. While financial aid from the school treasury is not permissible by law there is mutual and loving co-operation between the City Schools and the kindergarten. We are working to inc----------- the Kindergarten within the …… [copy too poor to decipher.]]




As a proof of the fact that Florence is an educational center I mention, with pleasure, the fact that we have the “Florence Business College” located on Morrison Ave, Mrs. Mary Wesson Howell is the owner and manager of the college.


Mrs. Howell was assistant to Prof. Henry in the commercial course of the Normal College until that course was diminished discontinued. She began the Business College in 1915.


Her school has continued to grow in patronage until it is well established. Only recently she has practically rebuilt the school.


It is a beautiful school home for young ladies and gentlemen who wish to prepare themselves for a business career.




You can read the history of Florence by the growth of her schools. From the $150 log cabin to the $150,000.00 High School shows as much progress as from the ox-team of our ancestors trudging along at small pace to the handsomest Limousine on concrete road, gliding as on air at 50 -60 miles These trainers of immortal minds have been with us through all the decades. They are moulders [sic] of character and inspirers to higher ideals and nobler deeds. Our schools today from kindergarten to High School and College are better than ever before.


All honor to the heroic men and women who have taught and are teaching the children and youth of Florence. Without them we would not stand where we are today, in the lead among the towns and cities of the state.


Gentlemen of the Rotary Club there’s a greater day yet coming to our fair city and you are one of the greatest factors in that onward movement. The noble impulses that prompt you to lend a helping hand to every worthy institution and cause in our city will bring a rich reward to you individually and as a club. May God bless you and help you. Florence is proud of you and hopes for you many years of such beneficial service.


(3) The High school Faculty is made up of men and women who are college trained and experienced. Each is a specialist [sic] in his line of work.


The High School maintains, under direct faculty supervision, an orchestra, debating teams, glee clubs and eight literary societies. Social events between the various classes and societies eliminates much of the rough rivalry often associated with high schools.


The “stimulator,” the school paper published twice every month and the School annual, “The Coffee Pot” have added much interest and enter------------- among the High School students.


The present ---------- of the Board of Education included the erection of the Junior high school ---------- a graded school ------- white and also colored ------ [remainder of this copy is too dim to read, plus the handwriting is horrible, and it is written by H. C. Gilbert.]

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