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MJ History: The Caldwell Schools of Mt. Juliet

This week’s story was submitted by Nealon Agee in honor of Madelon Wright Smith, who researched and wrote this story about the early Mt. Juliet schools. It is titled “The Caldwell Schools of Mt. Juliet.” It was written over 25 years ago, so some information will be dated. There will be notes in parenthesis to help clear up some things that have changed over the years. The Madelon Wright Smith Archives house many historical documents and genealogy information about Mt. Juliet. It is located at Mt. Juliet Library. 

The only reminder in Mt. Juliet today of the early educator, William Caldwell, is name of a small street, West Caldwell Street. This street leaves the main road a little to the north of the center of town, unnoticed by hurrying travelers from highway 70 to I-40. To the north of this, through the houses can be seen a slight rise, now an open field (There is now a brick house in that field). It was here that the home of William Caldwell was located, and later, his private school. The area was then a wooded spot. The house has been described as a large two-story frame house with double porches. In addition to teaching, Mr. Caldwell kept boarding students – for eight dollars per month, Monday through Friday. He also kept several cows and was noted for his high quality dairy products. The later Caldwell Private School was on this same property, but no signs of either remain. 

Speak to any of the older residents of this community and you will learn that most of them have always lived in the vicinity and remember the “old Caldwell School,” (note: since this was composed more than 25 years ago, it is likely there is nobody in the area who remembers any of these old schools, but will remember some of the students who attended them) and there the confusion starts! One says it was one place, another has it located at an entirely different place. Descriptions of the school, and its name varies also. Piecing it all together, a picture of this part of early education in Mt. Juliet emerges. As to the quality of the education, its products were, by any standards, a group of cultured, well-educated and respected citizens. Many went on to colleges and universities, becoming professional people. 

There were earlier schools in Mt. Juliet. The Mt. Juliet Academy in 1887 had a tuition fee of $12 per session, and in 1888 the tuition was $14 per session. There was a public school much earlier, operation on three months a year until 1920. The first Caldwell school was called the “Caldwell Training School” and was founded by William A. Caldwell. It was located west of what is now the center of town, between the then existing two railroads, also west of the old mill. The property is (was) owned by Robert Baker (who lived on 4th Ave.) and was directly behind the Allie Gibson-Butler house on West Caldwell) Mr. Caldwell and his wife, the former Minerva Bryan of Shop Springs (between Lebanon and Watertown), whom he married in 1887, were among the founders of the Mt. Juliet Baptist Church. It was his fellow church members who suggested that, as he was such a good teacher, he should start a school. So, the “Caldwell Training School” was started in 1896. Details of tuition fees, financing, etc. remain obscure, but a vivid description of the school was furnished by Miss May Logue, who lived nearby as a child. It was a two-story building, a porch across the front, a wing at each end and doors opening to the porch. Each room had a front and back door. An ingenious stage arrangement was in center of the larger area. It had curtains which could open the stage to the room on either side, as needed. In the school yard was a large Bur Oak, with very large acorns, boys’ and girls’ out-houses, and a distance away were boys’ and girls’ stables. A few of the teachers were Miss Foy Carver (sister of Mr. Percy Carver), a Miss Osment (sister of Mrs. Nell Weston), Mr. William Haley, a Prof. Dotson and Mr. Caldwell. Children from first grade up attended. Rev. R.V. Cawthon (later to become a noted Church of Christ preacher and post master) was one who began there the first year. Mrs. Mary D. (Everette) Rummage started there as a very young child around 1902 and later attended high school, then music school in Nashville, commuting by train (she taught piano lessons to many students in Mt. Juliet and Nashville into the 1960s). Mrs. Mary (Jennings) Hatfield, after finishing at “Caldwell,” entered Boscobel College in Nashville as a sophomore. Others who attended this school included Cader Bass (later Mr. Mark Garrett), Annie Lee Goodall (later Mrs. Gordon Moore who later lived in Lynchburg), Frank Logue, Mary and Lloyd Scobey, Mr. Willie Pafford, Lelia Carver, Maggie, Bennie and Lewis McWhirter.  

Others, living too far to travel each day were boarding students. The Wright brothers and Porter Hamblen stayed with a Mrs. Lane on the Old Lebanon Road for $8 a month, Monday through Friday. It was here that these boys took their first automobile ride when Mr. Lane bought a car. In the evenings they enjoyed games of “Rook” with Mrs. Lane. Other students boarded with Mr. Caldwell, notably Annie Lou McDaniel, who commuted by train each week all the way from Tucker’s Cross Roads (east of Lebanon). According to her account, she suffered acutely from homesickness. In fact, on the first Friday evening she packed up every “thread” of her belongings, having no intention of ever returning. Her father had other ideas, however, and after a few weeks she liked it so well that she didn’t even go home on the weekends. She only attended the last year, 1913, and says she didn’t learn much. Nevertheless, for many years she quite capably took care of business at the Bank of Mt. Juliet (Note: “Miss Annie Lou,” as she was called, and Mrs. Estelle Evins, mother of Danny Evins of Cracker Barrel fame, were the only two employees of the Bank of Mt. Juliet, and Miss Annie Lou was the chief loan officer, cashier, etc.). Olney and Ridley Wright only attended that one year. Though four years apart in age, they went to school at the same level. After finishing at Caldwell, they went on to Cumberland “Prep” School and University, graduating together. Later, Olney returned to the Mt. Juliet public school, where he taught for many years.

Mrs. Olney Wright (then Annice Ward) went to the “Caldwell Private School” two years (1912-1913). The first year, Mr. Haley taught at one end of the room and Mr. Caldwell in the other. For the age, the curriculum was a radical experiment in education. The students studied whatever they chose. Mrs. Wright recalls that a group decided to study French. The teacher did not know French (but was doubtless versed in Latin), but nothing daunted and they sent for French “Primers.” Teachers and pupils all studied together, then graduated to intermediate readers and finally studied the equivalent of our high school textbook.

No one seems to know what became of Mr. Haley, but the old house where he lived still stands, in an isolated spot in the very northwest corner of “Old Mt. Juliet.” Mr. Caldwell continued one year alone. That last year Annice Ward and Olney Wright were in school together. She was 16, but when asked if that was when they began “courting,” she said emphatically, “there was no courting in that school – we played Rook!” It is doubtless true, as four or five years passed before they married, during which time he was at Cumberland University and she was at Martin College in Pulaski.

As for “Rook,” it was apparently the current rage. Pupils arrived early to play before the bell rang, began again during the lunch hour and sometimes after school. On one occasion, at least, a group played “hookey” and were playing Rook on a rock in the nearby woods. As one boy shouted “I trump you,” a passerby on horseback called out, “Mr. Caldwell will trump you in the morning!”

Other days of fun are remembered. Once the whole student body, an enrollment of usually 20 or so, rented a wagon and a team of “poor old” horses from the livery stable in Mt. Juliet, and with picnic lunch, traveled all the way out to Cook’s Rd, off of Lebanon Pike, to gather chestnuts. They brought back an abundant supply.

The names of the alumni of one or more of the Caldwell Schools – Houston Murray, Virgil Philpot, Guill Sharp (now Mrs. Ralph Kidd), Geneva Boyd, Hubert Ligon, J.W. Bradshaw, Sam Hamilton, one of the Crittenden boys, Hooper Jennings, to name a few. Some are living, some are gone (Smith died in 1991, so that must be considered when reading this).

Mr. Caldwell had three children, Willie, Charlie and Mary. Willie, now Mrs. Charles J. Farris of Atlanta, is the only one living. She and Mr. Farris were married on her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, Dec. 22, 1912. Later, Mary married J.T. Young of Lebanon on this same anniversary date. Mary is described by one former pupil as “the most beautiful girl I ever saw – blonde with blue eyes.”

According to Mrs. Farris, who contributed some pats, and corroborated others of this story, Mr. Caldwell’s children persuaded him – after 1913 – to give up the school and move to Nashville near his family. This he did and taught at Central High School for a few years before retiring. By this time a public school was being provided for nine months each year in Mt. Juliet and a certain unique “way of education” was over, but perhaps, not surpassed. 

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