Backroads

All grades were housed in Temple’s first public school, completed in 1884. This building, located at North Main Street and West Downs Avenue, was replaced a decade later. This was considered a “modern” school for its time, while rural children frequently attended modest one-room schools only a few months each year.

Besides the aroma of cookies browning in the oven, nothing beats the smell of a new pack of crayons fresh out of the box.

No matter the grade, the beginning of school is full of anticipation for the new school year and a sense of dread that the carefree summer vacation is over.

While the kids and teachers were enjoying their break, church and civic groups throughout Bell County busied themselves with collecting school supplies and stashing them into new backpacks for preschoolers through high school from low-income families. Crayons, pencils, papers, glue, notebooks, scissors and facial tissue — the lists were specific and extensive for each grade.

More than a century ago, shopping was simple: A slate board and a piece of chalk were all a child needed. This year, TISD’s “Backpack Buddies” drive is expected to distribute stuffed backpacks to more than 1,600 Temple ISD students getting ready for the Aug. 21 start of school.

Meanwhile, Belton’s Project Apple Tree — a community wide back-to-school project of Helping Hands Ministry — provides school supplies, a backpack, hygiene items, clothing and shoes to students in the Belton and Academy school districts. Killeen and Copperas Cove volunteers are gathering school supplies for their annual “Stuff the Bus” campaign.

Even smaller communities are gathering stuffed backpacks. Troy churches, in conjunction with Mays Elementary School and Troy Elementary School, are working to provide backpacks and school supplies for more than 70 children whose families cannot afford supplies.

In the early days of Bell County, back-to-school preparations were nearly non-existent.

“Public school funds were nil, and money was scarce,” said James Joseph Bishop (1866-1961), who grew up in the cedar breaks of the now forgotten hamlet of Sparta, now under Lake Belton.

As a young schoolboy growing up in Bell County in the late 1800s, he described his classroom.

“There were no lead pencils and scratch tablets in those days for children to scribble on and then throw into the waste basket,” he said. “Instead, each pupil was supplied with a slate and chalk tied to the frame with a long string. A slate cost a dime and would last not only for a whole school term, but for years, if properly cared for.”

Nineteenth-century parents regarded their children’s education as private matters and individuals’ responsibility, generally sidestepping any state involvement. Newspapers, such as the Austin Statesman in 1880, editorialized, “a state has no right to tax one man for the education of another man’s children,” accusing lawmakers of “overstepping their bounds” by attempting to create public school systems.

Bishop penned and self-published reminisces of Sparta. Situated on Cowhouse Creek, Sparta was a settlement of a few interrelated families who built a mill in the late 1860s and operated a post office, opening in 1873.

Neighbors chipped in to build the schoolhouses and pay the teachers.

“Tuition was frequently paid to the teacher in barter such as corn, hogs and lard,” Bishop recalled. Schools were open only when the children weren’t needed to harvest crops or work on farms; the teachers were then dismissed until the next year.

Bishop’s father, Samuel Wheat Bishop (1832-1919), moved to Bell County in 1866 after service in the Confederacy.

“The soil where the break was situated was fertile so the trees grew thick on the ground. At that time, not an axe had ever been wielded by man in this forest to fell a tree. Its valuable time was never molested by man until the year 1879,” the younger Bishop recalled.

These trees were perfect for school construction.

“The entire manhood of the community turned out and erected the (school) building,” he recalled. “It was 16-by-24-feet and had a chimney at one end (built by Bishop’s father). It served the community for 10 years before any change was made. The seats were made of slabs of lumber with legs at each end, and most of them without a backrest. A 12-inch board was nailed to the walls on each side for a writing desk. Penmanship was one of the chief requirements of the pupils. They had a half hour writing period each day.”

Since many children walked three or four miles to school each day, they brought their lunches with them — tin buckets filled with molasses, buttered biscuits and — maybe — a slice of bacon or salt pork.

Texas’ common schools had organized in 1854 with a system for payment of tuition for poor and orphaned children. By that year, Bell County was divided into 15 school districts scattered across the countryside. Since Texas did not have compulsory education, many farm families opted to keep children at home to work.

From 1845, when Texas joined the union, to the late 1870s, Texas lurched in fits and starts toward a public school system despite episodes of gubernatorial and legislative political haggling. Texas briefly had a public education system during reconstruction in the late 1860s, but soon disbanded it.

Nevertheless, education remained a priority. A Galveston Daily News reporter in 1870 praised Bell County residents for their devotion to education.

“The people of this county are taking a great interest in the cause of education,” he wrote. “There is scarcely a neighborhood but what had a flourishing school.”

That commitment also prompted other changes. The Belton Journal in 1869 reported that so many students were attending school that citizens were building a bridge over the Leon River “to allow ... many more children coming to school, and altogether the educational interests of Bell are promising.”

By 1873, the Belton Journal advertised that the “Little River Academy for the Education of Young Men and Ladies” would begin Sept. 15 with tuition listed between $10 and $25 for each class for the half year. Lodging was $8 monthly.

The school eventually closed, but its name remained on the surrounding community to become forever Little River-Academy.