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 Beautiful Belmont, Part 08 -- The Log Schoolhouse.

by John Salisbury Cochran.

See previous entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 07 -- Our Neighbors.

The old log schoolhouse of our district stood on what subsequently became the Jacob Van Pelt farm, fronting on the State Road, about 300 yards south of the Van Pelt mansion, near the Gow gate, and about 100 yards south of the subsequent Ferry View schoolhouse. It overlooked Martins Ferry, the ferry landing, and a part of North Wheeling in West Virginia -- then part of the state of Virginia, and a slave state.

With the exception of a small field or so, cleared off on the Van Pelt and Gow farms, the land extending from the log schoolhouse was heavily wooded clear to the river bottom at the foot of the river hills. An occasional glimpse of the clear waters of the Ohio River could be had through this woods as one passed along the old State Road past the Van Pelt farm. When the brow or lower hill was reached just above what was then the Noah Zane mansion in Old Martinsville -- later the large and hospitable Sheets suburban home known as the "Elms" -- the beautiful Ohio River broke into view with all its incomparable loveliness.

The waters of the Ohio River did not seem muddy and turgid then, as they sometimes did after the adjacent country had been cleared of its forests and turned into cultivated fields. Its mirrorlike surface seemed placid and kind, reflecting in perpetual patience the shady dells and sunny openings of the forests and farms along its borders. It seemed so gentle in its leisurely sweep, holding in its waters the shadows of overhanging elms and willows, not forgetting the smooth-barked beeches on which we carved our names and those of our sweethearts.

George Lippard, in writing of the Wissahiken River, said: "The Wissahiken, is a 'Prophetess' which comes to us out of her cavern in the woods, and speaks to us in that low, sweet voice which awes and wins our souls." So seemed the Ohio River in those early days. No more charming spots could be selected for lovers to meet than those presented by the old State Road in the vicinity of our old log schoolhouse on the river hill. The shady, sandy road, inviting pathways, fragrant wild flowers, delightful, healthful atmosphere, pure springs of sparkling water, large stately trees with a thick growth of most luxuriant blue grass beneath, with an occasional glimpse of the river through the parting foliage, and a thousand songs of nature -- all filled the soul with romance and aspiration.

From the Van Pelt and Gow farms, "Mingo Bottom" burst upon the vision like a panorama. In that beautiful bottom land along the Ohio River, lived and ruled the much wronged, noble-hearted, mighty Logan -- chief of the Mingoes and "friend of the white man." "Here lived and loved another race of beings" and "here the untutored savage wooed and won his dusky maiden." From the same vantage points in later years, the eye would still sweep over some of the most grand and lovely scenery in the country. But it would see more.

Zane's (or Wheeling) Island, diamond-shaped and beautiful like a gem dropped from the garden of the gods, divides the waters of the Ohio River from Martins Ferry and Wheeling. A more lovely island never existed. And in time, connected by numerous bridges with either shore, it became the home of many educated, wealthy, and happy people. Wheeling, Bridgeport, Benwood, Bellaire, Martins Ferry, and Steubenville, with their numerous manufacturing firms and teeming populations, are swept by a single glance of the eye, while the expansive country beyond them forms a mystic and fitting background.

From these vantage points can be seen the site of Fort Henry, on the Virginia [now West Virginia] side of the river where the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought and won by the American pioneers. At the time, due to poor and slow communications facilities for obtaining news from the East, this battle was fought after peace had been declared between the United States and Great Britain, unbeknownst to the participants. The place east of Wheeling, where William Cochran, my grandfather, fell in that invasion, was also plainly visible from the old schoolhouse. What a glorious country those hills were for instilling a love and respect for liberty.

The cursed institution of slavery, nurtured and protected by the laws of the country and some of the states, was forced well up into the "panhandle" of Virginia [West Virginia] -- as if attempting to separate the free states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Yet there was too much of an atmosphere of liberty hanging around the crests and crags of those Ohio and Pennsylvania hills to tolerate its blighting presence for long; many fugitives from Virginia made their way to Ohio and Pennsylvania and from there to Canada, and ultimately rendered slavery unprofitable there.

From the Virginia [West Virginia] side of the Ohio River, the slaves with cautious whisper pointed out to each other "the brick house (Van Pelt's) by the log schoolhouse," as the first station on the hill and stopping place in Ohio on their way to freedom, by what was then [and ever since] known as "the Underground Railroad."

This schoolhouse, which was not unlike many others of that period, was the first in that district. It was a good building of its kind. It was a structure made from hewed logs, some 25 feet wide by 40 feet long. Even at that early day it was modern in the sense that it had a shingle roof. The floor sills were large logs with matched flooring of oak boards. The cracks between the logs of the walls, where there were any, were carefully "chunked and daubed." The chunking consisted of pieces of timber cut to fit the cracks as nearly as possible, and the daubing of tough clay mixed with straw and water, was placed in the remaining cracks. These came even with the surface of the hewed logs inside and out, and the inside was neatly whitewashed. The windows extended nearly the whole length of the building and were composed of sash and glass, the sash sliding horizontally instead of vertically.

Continuous desks with bench seats were arranged along the sides of the building, which were occupied by what was then called the "big scholars." They sat at these desks facing the wall, while the central portion of the building had two rows of long bench seats, having aisles in the center and on the sides. These ordinarily were occupied by the younger children. The seats were made from thick slabs containing drill holes into which wooden legs were driven.

The east end, and entrance, faced the road and at the opposite end were the recitation platform, the teacher's desk, and the large blackboard on the wall, behind which the master kept his hickory rods. The middle seats all faced these; and with what holy terror we contemplated the "justice" to be administered by those rods protruding from behind the blackboard.

Some of the teachers of those days were very severe, and the most trivial infraction of some despotic rule would result in use of the rods. On one occasion a student, Joshua Williams, was brutally flogged with a squared pine walking stick an inch in diameter. Suit was brought for damages, and judgment obtained for $5.00 against the teacher, a Mr. Anderson. Anderson subsequently paid by taking a daguerreotype picture of the pupil -- the teacher took photographs on the side to aid in earning a livelihood. With what pride Joshua Williams subsequently showed that picture to the other students, and how we envied him having a picture of himself, which was something so new then. Our envy had nothing to do with his appearance in the picture, however, for Joshua was no beauty.

Our schoolhouse was dignified with a large stove -- somewhat of a luxury in those times -- which stood in the middle of the room. On the whole, the building was very comfortable even in the coldest weather. The chimney flue was of brick and extended from the attic floor through the roof. The ceiling was of matched pine and had an ominous trapdoor cut through it to the attic about half way between the stove flue and the door and immediately over the middle aisle. It could scarcely be called a door. It was an opening about three feet square with a lid on it, which was painted to match the ceiling. It would be difficult to name the number of bears, which I, as a child, imagined up in that unexplored, dark attic and likely to come down at any time through the trapdoor.

Barring The Schoolmaster

One notable event connected with the school I shall never forget, though it occurred when I was only six years old and in my first term at school. I doubt if there is a single student, old or young, who was present on that occasion, who ever forgot it either. It was a student rebellion, foiled at the very moment its participants were declaring it a great success.

A new schoolmaster had been employed in our district. His name was John Weeks, but in the neighborhood he went by the name of "Old Johnnie Weeks," as he appeared to have long since passed the best years of his life. He was a fair representative of the pioneer teacher of that day. He was short, though well built, brusque, dogmatic, determined -- all characteristics of a tyrannical despot. Furthermore, he was cross-eyed. One eye looked straight at you with a searching stare, while the other seemed to take in all the surrounding country, focusing with a fearful squint on your unguarded side when he was angry or displeased. To the younger children that look was an element of profound fear. To the "big scholars," who were approaching adulthood and beginning to have a desire to test their physical or mental prowess, it presented a challenge that could not go unaccepted.

The first impressions of all the students toward him were not very positive; and, as was quite usual in those times, the day was rapidly approaching when it was to be determined whether the teacher or the students would rule the school. It came about in this way:

Just before the Christmas holidays the teacher was asked to provide a treat of nuts and refreshments to the students some time during the holiday week. He reportedly replied he was not made of money and that such charity should not be expected of one so modestly paid. Word was secretly passed around among the larger students to appear at the schoolhouse before daylight on the Thursday morning after Christmas, for the purpose of "barring out the master."

They were promptly on hand at the time designated. The door was fastened on the inside by braces made of rails placed against the top and center of the door, and extending to the floor, where they were secured by nails. A strip of wood also was nailed on the floor against the bottom of the door. The sashes of the windows were fastened in place by nailing strips behind them to prevent them from sliding. One sash, on the side of the school looking away from the schoolmaster's home, was left movable so that the students could get in through it as they arrived, but was to be securely fastened when the master appeared in the distance.

A good supply of fuel was provided for the stove, and with a full bucket of drinking water and loaded dinner buckets, the rebellious students felt themselves well supplied and equipped to stand a siege of at least one day. This was all the length of time desired. It was sufficient in their estimation to bring into question the absolute mastery of the teacher and show him the will, desire, and ability of the "big scholars" to be consulted in school matters.

Usually, successful barring-out processes had only one result. It demoralized those at the school and it did no good as long as that particular teacher remained. On this occasion, however, the barring-out seemed a complete success. All the scholars had arrived and the last "little one" had been lifted in at the window, which then had been fastened securely. We had in the school that winter many young men who were larger than the schoolmaster, and I remember I had selected -- in my own childish judgment -- at least four of the big boys who were able to whip that cross-eyed teacher. I think there were many more on the morning of that day who imagined they could do so also. It was within ten minutes of the time for opening school when the last child was taken in at the window, and still no teacher appeared.

It is strange how completely unruly a group of school children can become when they are gathered in a schoolroom and feel they are absolutely free from all restraint. Being so young, this scene had a bad effect upon me, and I still look back to it with anything but pleasure. It seemed as though total pandemonium had broken loose. Nothing but disorder prevailed. All were making whatever noise they could in one way or another. Some were beating benches, desk lids were raised and dropped, one boy was marching around the schoolroom beating on the sheet-iron coal bucket with a stick, some were dancing, others jumping and stamping and howling. One boy threw a tin cup of water in another's face, and a fight was the result. This was stopped by someone crying, "The schoolmaster is coming."

It proved to be a false report, but it seemed like a convenient time for me to think of bears again, and instinctively my eyes wandered to the trapdoor in the attic. I noticed it pushed slightly to one side, but all in the attic appeared dark and foreboding. Again the noise and din began. A student imitator of our cross-eyed teacher had taken his position on the platform and there, with book in one hand and rule in the other, with crude mimicry and cross-eyed squint, was calling school to order. A girl's copybook went flying across the room at him, and soon it seemed every school book in the room was following its example. Benches were overturned, the noise began again with redoubled energy, only to subside slightly by the cry again raised, "The master is coming."

This was responded to by "Let the old squinty come," "Let old cockeye get in if he can." One half-grown boy, who was parading around the room with an iron poker, yelled out with great vehemence, "If old baldy shows his head at that window, I'll swipe him one with this poker." Another said, "I'll throw this bucket of water on his old bald head."

Just at this moment, when the din was at its worst, the hands of the great school clock pointed to the hour for school to begin. Suddenly the trapdoor in the ceiling was pushed to one side with a bang, and the schoolmaster dropped down from the attic, landing on his feet in the middle aisle. He came like a shot from a cannon.

I never saw anything so electrifying. It was like a streak of lightning from a clear sky. He shook his head like a powerful lion ready for fight. He took in the whole room at a glance. A deathlike stillness fell over the room for what was just a moment, but it seemed to me to be fully five minutes. To this day I still feel the intensity of it. It was the calm before the storm; the schoolmaster's look was terrible.

That look was the signal for the big boys to attack. They sprang upon him from every direction. It was like pouring water on a goose's back. He shook them off like fireflies, and five of them were lying on their backs at one time from the merciless and well directed blows from the schoolmaster's brawny fists. Once when they were pressing him to a corner he sprang upon a desk with the agility of a cat and kicked three of them in the face almost before they knew he was there. He was no longer on the defensive. He sprang upon those who were still wavering, knocking them right and left.

Having knocked down every boy of any size opposing him, except one who was standing defiantly with the big iron poker in his hand, he cleared two seats at a bound, wrenched the poker from him with fearful speed and laid him sprawling on the floor with a single blow from his fist. The next moment he sprang on the platform, drew from back of the large blackboard a toughened hickory rod, sprang to the front of the platform again, and with rod in one hand and poker in the other stamped upon the floor and in thundering voice cried out, "Every last one of you take your seats."

The smaller children, half frightened to death at what had taken place, had huddled together behind the schoolmaster's great desk. They obeyed the order immediately. The older boys, now completely whipped and cowed, did so with equal hast. It had just dawned upon their bright minds that they had had a run-in with a frontier fighter.

The schoolmaster took a seat beside his desk, rested his elbow on it and his hand under his chin, and in that position looked into the faces of the whole school for fully ten minutes. As the minutes wore on, I could see the look of passion on his face and in his eyes being slowly replaced by one of calm resolution, not entirely unmixed with kindness. Reason and order had been restored. He calmly rose from his seat and in a kind, though firm language, directed some of the boys to remove the barriers from the door and windows. This was immediately done. I am certain the studiousness of the remainder of that day was never surpassed in that schoolroom. While some of the students were much the worse for that day's encounter, the affair was the sensation of the neighborhood, and it established the complete authority of the schoolmaster.

Just at the noon hour on the day before "New Year's Day," in the week following this encounter, a wagon drove up to the schoolhouse door and unloaded a bountiful supply of baskets filled with nuts, apples, and sweetmeats. The schoolmaster announced these were for the students and that there would be no school that afternoon and none until after New Year's Day, and he wished one and all a "Happy New Year."

We had misjudged our schoolmaster. He had a really kind heart behind a rough exterior. No teacher was ever more highly respected by his pupils than "Old Johnnie Weeks" after this. He taught long and well in that district, bought a farm, settled down, raised a family of most respectable and influential children and died at a ripe old age, loved and honored by all.

It was long wondered how the schoolmaster got into the attic. It seems he had anticipated the action of the bigger boys -- which he had encouraged through the rumors he had helped start -- and, having correctly guessed the day the barring would logically take place, had come to the schoolhouse before any of the students. By means of a short ladder used for the purpose of entering the attic, he had climbed through the trapdoor, drawing the ladder up after him. Then he had closed the trapdoor so as to leave a clear view of the lawlessness going on below. The pupils of "Pinch Ridge" always voted the military tactics of "Johnnie Weeks" in that great skirmish an astonishing success, surpassed only by his fighting abilities.

See next entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 09 -- School Day Diversions.

For the table of contents and first entry in this series, see: Beautiful Belmont, Part 01 -- Table of Contents and Brief Introduction.

This entry is adapted from Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War, by John Salisbury Cochran, which was published originally in 1907. The book has been reedited extensively for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This special edition of Beautiful Belmont is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. It may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that this Stratton House Inn iteration of the book does NOT include the subject headings assigned each chapter for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.

CO-AUTHOR: Wall, C. Edward. (Editor)
CO-AUTHOR: Schultheiss, Tom. (Asst. Editor)

DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 2000 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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