Martha McDuff 

Independent Research Project 
Fall Semester 1999

The following text and photographs summarize my research concerning the first public school system in North Carolina.  These schools were known as the Common Schools.  I did the work as an Independent Research course in history at Elon College under the direction of Dr. Carole Watterson Troxler.

The Common School system flourished before the Civil War and ceased to exist during the war.  I specifically looked at two schools  in Alamance County, for District 21 and District 26. The original buildings survive and are featured here in two Photo Galleries.

The District 21 school was for the Travis Creek school district.  When the county schools were organized in the 1870s, the building continued in use as the "Cable" School.  It is just north of the town of Elon College.

The District 26 school was for the Graham school district but was located in the southwestern portion of that district, near the confluence of Alamance and Little Alamance creeks.  This building also was used again in the 1870s and later and was known as the "Capps" School.


1.  The Original Common School System in North Carolina
2.  The Alamance County Board of Superintendents of Common Schools in the 1850s
3.  N. C. Superintendent of Common Schools Calvin H. Wiley
4.  Teachers in the Common Schools
5.  Teacher Certification and Training
6.  Subjects in the Common Schools
7.  The District 21 School: "Travis Creek School" a.k.a. "Cable School"
8.  The Building: District 21 School
9.  A Student at the "Cable School"
10.  The District 26 School: "Graham School" a.k.a. "Capps School"
11.  Teachers and Students in the District 26 School
12.  Comparisons and Reflections

Photo Galleries:

District 21 "Travis Creek School" a.k.a. "Cable School"
District 26 "Graham District School" a.k.a. "Capps School"

1.  The Original Common School System in North Carolina

    The common school system, with its goal of free, state-sponsored, education for as many white children as desired it, was started in the 1840s. It was a by-product of the Whig political party's appeal to the "common man. The beginnings of the common school system were rocky because the idea of school was new for most people, and the minority who could afford school sent their children to the academies.

       By 1860, Alamance County had 46 common school districts with functioning schools. There were 2,854 common schools in the state, and North Carolina's common school system was being sought out by "States south, west, and north of us" on the eve of the Civil War.1 At least two of these original public school buildings in Alamance County are still in existence and are presented on this site. One school was the District 21 school, on the northern edge of the town of Elon College. The other school was District 26, which is south of Graham.

    The state legislature provided for a system of common schools in 1839 legislation. The section of the Public School Act specifying the organization and administration of the county and district units is known as the "Cherry Bill," for William W. Cherry. Under this bill an election would be held in each county to vote either for "school" or "no school." For participating counties, a board of County Superintendents met each year on the third Monday in April and chose committees for the districts of their counties. Parents or guardians whose children benefited from the school funds and who were legal voters could petition for the appointment of a particular committeeman. If a vacancy occurred after the annual meeting of the board, it continued until the next annual meeting. Furthermore, any citizen was allowed to complain to the board of Superintendents about any of the committeemen neglecting their duty, and this could result in the removal of a committeeman.2
The Chairman and board of County Superintendents were appointed the third Monday of April as well. The Chairman of the board of Superintendents were required to report annually to the general Superintendent of the State.

William W. Cherry:


2.   The Alamance County Board of Superintendents of Common Schools in the 1850s 

    The Alamance County Board of Superintendents were John Trollinger (chairman), John Faucett, Jesse Gant and Edwin Michael Holt. Faucett seems to have kept most of the records, and Gant and Holt examined Trollinger's and Faucett's annual accounts. As superintendent receiving county tax money and legislative appropriation from the state Literary Fund, Trollinger was required to post bond to the state. Gant and Holt stood as security with Trollinger for the public bond. Trollinger received a commission of two and one-half percent of the money he handled annually, and his and Faucett's expenses were compensated on a per diem basis. The following is from an annual report John Trollinger made to the state Superintendent:

I have visited about one half the school houses, and find them in better condition than I expected, and have been treated with courteous attention by all. I purchased a set of the schoolbooks and paid for them, one set for each district, and left them with each committee, with a catalogue, in order that the parents of the children know the prices, and where they might be had.3

3.  N. C. Superintendent of Common Schools Calvin H. Wiley 

    The person to whom Trollinger and Faucett sent their reports was Calvin Henderson Wiley, the first Superintendent of North Carolina's common schools. He held this position from 1852 until 1865. Wiley was a well-known educated man and in the 1850s became the South's foremost public educator. In addition, Wiley was at various times a fiction writer, journalist, lawyer, and Presbyterian minister. Wiley represented Guilford County in the House at the time of the passage of the Cherry Bill. Having promoted the concept of common schools, he was well known to the legislature and the public. The legislature selected Wiley over two other men.4

        During Wiley's thirteen years in office, he worked at reorganizing and bettering the educational system of the state. Marcus C. S. Noble noted that "Out in the state the schools were in hopeless confusion, with few teachers, whether good or bad, without any kind of supervision, without comfortable buildings, with practically no conveniences, surrounded by many hostile critics.5

        He continued to promote the system of which he now was a symbol. To get people excited about the schools, Wiley gave tours through the state and started an educational campaign throughout North Carolina.

        Wiley's leadership built up the professional status of teaching. His annual reports to the legislature helped to improve the schools by facilitating public discussion of their conditions. He led the formation of an educational magazine and the State Teachers Association. At first, most of the teachers were men. Wiley was credited with getting the men away from the farm labor to make more money. Morever, it was commonly thought that women teachers could not control classes. Wiley believed otherwise and welcomed women into the classroom. Wiley got more females to become teachers, characterizing them as "more patient, more likely to mold, [with their] virtuous and refined sentiments, the plastic nature of childhood." Wiley increased the number of teachers and brought up the standard of teaching qualifications.6

Calvin H. Wiley:


4.  Teachers in the Common Schools 

        In the year 1853, there were twenty licensed teachers in Alamance County The total number of licensed teachers in the state is not known. Four years later, there were 24 teachers in Alamance County and 2,256 in the state. A recent study of common schools in Alamance County lists about 230 teachers in the county's common schools in the 1850s.7 The county's number at 44 peaked in the 1857 and 1860, at forty-four. The numbers went down after that. In 1862, there were only ten males reported and in 1863 there were nine men teaching and twenty women teaching. These changes reflect recruiting and conscription for the Civil War. Throughout the state, the number of men teachers dramatically decreased in the year 1863, when conscription hit. In 1860, 2,164 men had taught, and only 525 were teaching in 1863.8

        One teacher taught in the schools during a session and the teachers usually taught two or more sessions each year. During a year, two or more teachers could use a school. A session usually ran for about three months, though there were some two-month sessions and then some that lasted for four months.

        The district committee hired a certified teacher. The teacher made his or her own arrangements with the committee. Pay was influenced by the length of the session, with a four month session paying about ninety dollars. R.A Beard was paid twenty dollars and seventy-five cents for teaching one month. Most of the money in the county school budget went to paying the teachers. "In 1860, the entire budget went to teacher pay except for about $300 for repairs, wood, travel, and subscription to the state educational journal." In June 1859 the Raleigh Standard estimated that 95 percent of statewide expenditures for common schools was teachers' salary.9


5.  Teacher Certification and Training 

        Teachers became certified starting in 1857, on five levels of competency for each of the following subjects: spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and geography. This type of certification allowed them to teach new beginners and small children. For instance, in 1858, J.H. Phipps, a teacher for District 21, scored one under each subject. A score of one was the best and a score of five was the worst. R.A. Beard of District 26 scored two under each subject. Callie McMurray, a female teacher in District 26, scored a one under each subject. Such scores generally were posted on court house doors for public inspection.10
        In May 1860, there was a training session in Graham for the Alamance County teachers. It lasted for three days and took place at Graham College. The invitation began as follows:

The Board of Superintendents of Common Schools for the County of Alamance desire to inform you that Professor W.H. Doherty, President of Graham College, has kindly consented to devote three days, viz: May 28, 2, 30, to the gratuitous instruction of the Teachers, Ladies and Gentlemen of Common Schools in this County.11
link to full text of invitation
        Certification and training of this type were innovations. Before teachers had to be certified and had training opportunities, they were "loosed and often immoral and lacking in professional standards." There were examinations offered but they were not required. Anyone who could read, write, and do arithmetic could teach. Those who taught did not have much education beyond the grades they taught. "Ability to teach meant primarily the ability to maintain order in school, and high moral and intellectual standards were not often demanded or expected." The following letter to a Virginia newspaper was printed in 1843.
Good men deem it disreputable; think it too laborious; or that it pays too little; other stay in it, because they can do nothing else; they outbid good teachers; they have some physical misfortune; and parents have to send his or her children to somebody to get rid of them.12
        Along with any local initiatives such as the training session at Graham College, Wiley urged local support organizations for teacher resources. Foremost was the formation of the Teachers Library Associations, potentially one for each county. This group was made up of the committee of examination and the Board of County Superintendents of Common Schools in each county The local association had the power to: "Acquire and hold property; appropriate from the County Common School fund for the use of the Library Association one dollar for each school district in the county annually for two years." These groups allowed the teachers to get together in their county town on certain days to borrow books from their library, to discuss subjects being taught, or to hear noted educators speak.13


6.  Subjects in the Common Schools 

        The curriculum of the common school has been described as "very narrow, consisting of the minimum essentials of an English education." An English education included reading, writing, arithmetic, and spelling. During the 1850s, the female teachers were examined on these subjects and that the male teachers also had to know grammar and geography. However, not all-male teachers were expected to be knowledgeable in all these areas. It was not a general requirement. In 1858, W.W. Denny, from District 21, scored a low "four" in geography. Callie McMurray, by contrast, still received "ones" on all subjects, including grammar and geography.14
        Geography for the most part was neglected even in the higher schools. When it first entered in the lower schools it was not treated as a separate subject. Geography when studied was not meant to impart knowledge of world movements or current events and largely was a memory exercise. Books on this subject were used as readers rather than Geography texts.
        Grammar was not required to be taught, and most teachers seem not to have taught it. The early books on this subject were hard to understand, so many concluded that grammar was a meaningless subject. Lindley Murray, known as a father of English grammar, published the Murrays English Grammar. Its main purpose "was to teach the correct use of spoken and written language and to assist the more advanced pupils."
        History as a subject was late in entering the common school curriculum. Its lateness has been attributed to the higher institutions not encouraging its value as a subject for study. "Nor was it believed that history was capable of making direct appeal to human interests, to curiosity, to the imagination, or strengthening intellectual habits" Teachers, furthermore, were not prepared to teach this subject.
        One subject that was stressed in the common school was spelling. Often a child's first book and perhaps only book was a "speller." The most popular one was Websters, better known as "Old Blue Back." Spelling became a fad, and the spelling bee was a very popular activity.
        From a curricular standpoint, the mid-19th century classroom seems chaotic today. There was no uniform text for any subject, and instruction was for the most part individual. "Studying or learning in the school was a passive process of the individual rather than an active social process of the group." Furthermore, the classroom was rather noisy because the children studied aloud.15


7.  The District 21 School: "Travis Creek School" a.k.a. "Cable School" 

        There were at least 45 common schools in Alamance County by the late 1850s. District 21 was officially the "Travis Creek District" before the Civil War, and its school was known as the "Travis Creek School." The building continued in use as a school under the 1870s reorganization of county schools. At that time and thereafter, the school was known as the "Cable School." In 1857 the school committee for District 21, the "Travis Creek District," were George Tickle, Jesse Gerringer, and Joseph Chrisman. These names were obtained from the deed by which Lewis Huffhines sold the first land to the school committee. Two years later, Israel Cable sold more land to this committee.16 The next time for which names of committeemen for this school are known is 1877, when the reorganization of the system was underway. In 1877, the committee were Daniel Whitsell, Louis Huffines, and Joseph James.17 By that time, townships had been established, and the "Cable School" was in Boon Station township.
        When the school committee bought land from Israel Cable, the school had been built already, on the land purchased from Lewis Huffines. The school's water supply came from a spring on the land Cable sold the school committee. Cable had bought this tract from Lewis Huffines as well. The 1850 and 1860 census returns give some information about the Huffines and Cable families, both of which had been living in the area since the mid-18th century. The few details of their lives that were recorded in the census returns tell something about the life of the community that built the Travis Creek School and was served by it.
        The 1850 census listed Cable as a 40-year-old farmer. He and his 35-year-old wife, Lucrecia, listed one slave in that year. At that time, Cable's property was valued at $1100.00. This included 60 acres of land being used for farming and 100 acres which not in use. The farm livestock was valued at $200.00. The Cables grew wheat, corn, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes and clover, and kept bees.18 Ten years later, he worked ten percent less of his land and the total cash value of his land was $200.00. Cable's overall property valuation had grown to $6500.00, however. There were no slaves, and a teenager living with the middle-aged couple probably worked for them. The same kinds of animals were on the land, and the farm produced wheat, corn, potatoes, oats, hay, flax, and honey. They were among 18 households producing as much as 100 pounds of flax in 1860, and only three households in the county grew more flax or flaxseed..19
        The houshold of Lewis Huffines lived near the Cables. Also a farmer, Huffines was listed as 43 in 1850, and his wife, Elizabeth, was recorded as 33. His estate was valued at $400.00 in 1850, and ten years later it was listed as $2500.00, with his farm valuation constituting approximately one-half that sum. He farmed 100 acres in 1860 and owned 100 additional acres. There were three school-aged children in the Huffines household in 1860.20


8.  The Building: District 21 School 

        The District 21 school was made up of a schoolroom with an adjacent room to the side. The adjacent room could house the teacher, enabling him or her to live in this room during the session. Mrs. Alvic Greeson, whose father attended the school in 1879, said his teacher boarded nearby instead of living in that room. The fireplace opened into both rooms and so heated them concurrently. In its later years a stove was used, requiring a ceiling hole. There are indications of electrical installation as well, but it has not been established that the building was still used as a school when electricity was used.
        Near the center of the larger room, a board ran along the ceiling and the floor, suggesting that the school room was partitioned. This may have divided a group by age. It also appears that the schoolhouse was added onto, because the boards on the ceiling are different towards the back of the building. The 1850s records of disbursements from the Alamance County school funds show expenditures for school repair. A back wall was painted black, perhaps as a chalk board. Preservation for a farm storage was responsible for the structure's survival.


9.  A Student at the "Cable School" 

        To understand more about the Cable School, I interviewed Mrs. Alvic Greeson. Her father, Lacy Huffines, attended the school in 1879. He was nine years old and lived on a farm with his family, lived less than two miles from the school. He walked this distance twice a day, carrying his books, slate, and lunch. Mrs. Greeson still has his schoolbooks: the Second Reader, and Blue Back speller, and a dictionary. Mrs. Greeson said his lunch sometimes was ham biscuit, sweet potato, or rabbit. She described the school water bucket, from which everyone drank and related her father's pleasure in pumping the water: it gave him a break from school and a chance to get outside.
School usually lasted six months for young Lacy.
        The sessions were scheduled around "crop time." School was not held at the times when farm work was most demanding. This pattern had been observed in the pre-Civil War "common schools" that preceded Lacy's experiences. His teacher, Kate Hayes, boarded near the school during the sessions. Mrs. Greeson said her father thought his teacher had "the biggest hands," for they hurt when punishment was given. Students were whipped for fighting, and fighting among the children was common.
        One of the most interesting thing I learned from talking with Mrs. Greeson and from reading an article she had written was the practice of "rhyming the school." It was common for students to write a poem to remember the names of all the student names in the school. Mrs. Greeson gave me a copy of Lacy Huffine's "rhyme" for Cable School. It began:

I tell you these lines they are hard to compose,
Commencing with Walter in the very first row.
Now comes Anner and then I reckon Daisy,
Florance and Etter and Effy a little bit lazy.
        There are no attendance reports for the 1870s, but the 1850s and 1860s reports made by Faucett and Trollinger were preserved by Wiley as Superintendent of common schools. Today they are in the North Carolina State Archives. They show that in 1853 and 1854, there were forty-six white males and forty-five white females of school age living in District 21. Among those, thirty boys attended the school at some time during the year, and at least forty girls attended it. Two years later, there were thirty-three males in the district and of those males eighteen were taught. Fifty-two females lived in the district at this time and of those twenty-eight attended school. 21


10.  The District 26 School: "Graham School" a.k.a. "Capps School" 

        Approximately four miles southeast of the Cable School, "as the crow files," is another Alamance County school building that apparently survived from the common school era. It was built for District 26, which was the Graham school district. The building was erected between Alamance Creek and Little Alamance Creek. Although the building has been moved since the time it was used as a school, the structure still is in its original neighborhood. The area is south of Graham, in the southwestern quadrant of today's Graham township. It's location clearly is within the "Graham" district, as indicated in a school map that John Faucett drew to record the locations of the school districts. (Faucett's map is not a part of the Wiley-generated records in the North Carolina State Archives but survives as an isolated item in the North Carolina Collection).22
        The land on which District 26 school was built was part of a the land Robert Capps bought from his relatives around 1850, following the death of Cason Capps. In the 1870s reorganization of the county schools, this school was called the "Capps School."23 The 1860 census lists eight children in the Robert Capps household between the ages of 4 and 20 and indicates that seven of them attended school during the year. Capps farmed 200 acres and owned an additional 300 acres in 1860, approximately double his 1850 acreage. Like the Cables and the Huffines, he owned no slaves in 1860. His farm produced a typical mix of grain crops and livestock and more than usual quantities of flax and beeswax.24


11.  Teachers and Students in the District 26 School

        The names of 1850s teachers in the District 26 school survive. During 1854 - 1855, which may have been the school's first year, William Lambeth was the teacher. Next, in 1855 to 1856, John Freeland taught and then RA Beard was the teacher from 1857 to 1858. Cally McMurray taught there from 1858 to 1859 and from 1860 to 1861, William Faucett taught. Finally, in 1863 to 1864 Jonathan Brook was the teacher. Teachers' scores on certification tests indicate that McMurray and Beard always did well.25
        At the start of the Alamance County common schools, District 26 had a the largest potential school population in the county, but the district included private schools and academies in the new town of Graham. Apparently the district school was located where the need was perceived, near the fork of Alamance and Little Alamance creeks. However, In 1853-54, only sixteen males and twenty-one females attended school there. In 1858, the figures were twenty-six boys and thirteen girls. Two years later, there were thirty-three males and fifty-two females in the district, with sixteen and twenty-two, respectively, attending the school.
        It is hard to imagine even that many students in the the District 26 school building, which is is much smaller than the District 21 structure. It consists of one room. The exterior is thirteen feet eight inches wide and seventeen feet long. The interior is ten feet from floor to ceiling.

12.  Comparisons and Reflections 

        According to the owner of the Capps School building, George Brewer, the building served as a residence after it was no longer used as a school. Thereafter, the structure was moved near the Capps house and used for a "cookhouse," or detached kitchen.26
        Mr. Brewer uses the schoolhouse as a shop, so it is in much better condition than the District 21 school. Seeing it helps one envision the 1850s appearance of the District 21 school. The two schools have many things in common. They have tin rooves and similar boards and hinges. The Capps School had a fireplace, but Brewer removed it when he added an extension to the building. Windows in the two structures are similar, allowing for differences in their condition. One surprise in the Capps building was the hinges on the floor. Perhaps there was a storage area beneath the building at its original location. Also, ceiling supports in the Capps School are fastened with pegs.
        I photographed both schools and showed them to my grandfather, who builds furniture and knows a lot about wood. He noticed that there were no knots in the wood and commented that very good, strong wood had been used. Today, this quality of wood is rare and very expensive, according to my grandfather. It is interesting to think that the builders of pre-Civil War common schools were able to use this kind of wood to build schoolhouses.
        There is much to learn about the common schools in Alamance County and in the state of North Carolina. I would like to find out more about the teachers who taught here and the students who came to learn. I was lucky to find Mrs. Greeson, who was my closest link with this piece of the past. She painted a compelling picture of what her father's life was like, attending the public school less than two decades after the common schools ended with the cessation of state allocations at the beginning of the Civil War.

1     Edgar Wallace Knight, Public School Education in North Carolina. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916, 238; Clyde Vestal Ferguson, Educational Growth in Alamance County. M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina, 1931, 35.
2     Area residents could read the act as published in Hillsborough Recorder.  Marcus C. S. Noble, A History of the Public Schools of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1930, 58-59.
3     Carole Watterson Troxler, "Old Allemance," in Carole Watterson Troxler and William Murray Vincent, Shuttle & Plow: A History of Alamance County, North Carolina, [Graham, N.C.] Alamance County Historical Association, 1999, 252.
4     Noble 134; Knight 235; Troxler 250; William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 6 vols., 6:197-198.
5     Noble 135.
6     Knight 235-237; Noble 166-167.
7     Troxler 249-261, 511-513.
8     Ferguson 38.
9     Troxler 254; Secretary of Public Instruction, Alamance County reports 1852-1865, North Carolina State Archives (hereafter NCA); Raleigh Standard June 1859.
10     Secretary of Public Instruction, Alamance County reports 1852-1865, NCA.; Noble 156-157.
11     Troxler 254.
12     Knight 294-295.
13     Noble 162-164.
14     Knight 270; Secretary of Public Instruction, Alamance County reports 1858, NCA
15     quotations from Knight 273, 286-289, 296.
16     Troxler 252-252; Alamance County Deed Book 3:73-74.
17     Alamance Gleaner August 1877.
18     1850 census, Alamance County, N.C., abstracted to Access database from National Archives microfilm of manuscript returns (slave schedule and agricultural schedule) by Carole Troxler's Elon College history seminar students; Marian Dodson Chiarito, Alamance County, North Carolina 1850 Census, p.p. 1987.
19     1860 census, Alamance County, N.C., abstracted to Access database from National Archives microfilm of manuscript returns (free, slave, and agricultural schedules) by Carole Troxler's Elon College history seminar students.
20     1850 and 1860 census returns cited in notes 6 and 7.
21     Secretary of Public Instruction, Alamance County reports 1852-1865, NCA.
22      Provenance of the map is unknown. Troxler, p. 253 prints the map and identifies its handwriting as that of John Faucett, who also was Alamance County clerk of court. Wilson Research Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Initial research for the Capps School was done by Max Way in the 1970s and deposited with the site files of the Alamance County Historic Properties Commission; I thank Mr. Way for his ccourtesy and helpfulness.
23     The local school committee in 1876 and 1877 included W. G. Wallace, W. P. Denny, Edward King, and R. M. Stockard. The district trustees at reorganization were Robert R. Capps, Peter F. Holt and Thomas C. Foust. Alamance County Miscellaneous Records, NCA; Alamance Gleaner August 1877.
24     Alamance County Deed Book 1: 261, 505, 529, 701; 1850 and 1860 census returns cited in notes 6 and 7.
25.    Secretary of Public Instruction, Alamance County reports 1852-1865, NCA.
26     Interview with George Brewer;  Descendants of Robert R. Capps 1805-1891 compiled by K. Paul Holt.
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