Rural education looms large in the American imagination and heritage. Illustrative of this symbolic power is that the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp commemorating the distinctively American “one-room schoolhouse.” Beyond or, rather, beneath these graphic icons historians can go deeper into analyzing and reconstructing these pioneering structures and institutions of public education in Kentucky. This study looks closely at one rural, remote area, Rockcastle County. In so doing, there is an unusual legacy and connection—the role of a private, higher-education institution, Berea College, as a catalyst and source of finances, facilities, and faculty to provide primary public education. Significantly, Berea reformed the way state departments of education and state universities extended and staffed statewide educational systems. Before this relationship can be discussed, it is important to understand the commitment, development, and desire of Berea College to provide quality teacher training for the Appalachian region.
Even from its meager and unpromising beginning in 1855, Berea College sought to do more than just educate those who would come to their simple one-room school building. The first teachers and neighbors of the college erected the building in a half-cleared wilderness [End Page 33] region in southern Madison County. Cassius M. Clay donated the land to John G. Fee and his followers. Even before Clay had encouraged Fee to come to southern Madison County to open a school, he had “sold off much of this land at an exceptionally low price because he wished to develop there a thriving community that would demonstrate the advantages of life without slavery and might even increase his political strength in the state.”1 Clay encouraged Fee to come to the wilderness area and gave him a homestead of ten acres located on a brushy ridge, lying between the Bluegrass plains and the uncleared slopes and crests of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Fee, more of a preacher than a teacher, decided to give this nonslaveholding community the biblical name of Berea. Fee had in mind “the town in Greece visited by the apostles Paul and Silas and whose inhabitants were described in the New Testament book of Acts as people who searched the scripture daily and received the truth with all readiness of mind.”2
Fee wanted to have this community and school in Berea based on faith in God and on the love of truth. The actual idea of starting a school at Berea occurred to John Fee in the late fall of 1854 when he and George Candee, a student who had come from Oberlin to assist him in preaching and settling the community, were clearing and chopping wood on Fee’s homestead. Fee recalled:
About this time Bro. George Candee came; and whilst he and I were chopping wood, then piled up in my yard, we talked up the idea of a more extended school—a college—in which to educate not merely in a knowledge of the sciences, so called, but also in the principles of love in religion, and liberty and justice in government; and thus permeate the minds of the youth with these sentiments.3
This general idea gave birth to what would later be known as Berea College. Fee, because of his limited teaching ability, decided to persuade several people to come and help set up the school and [End Page 34] teach the students.
By 1869, Fee’s school began offering college-level courses, thus becoming Berea College. After an extensive search, Fee, Berea teacher John A. R. Rogers, and the board of trustees hired Edward Henry Fairchild, a teacher from Oberlin College, to become the first president of Berea College. President Fairchild’s first responsibilities were organizing the administration, administering a fund-raising policy, and incorporating blacks into a higher-education environment. President Fairchild realized the deficient education that mountain people and blacks were facing and set forth steps that Berea College and its graduates could make to ensure a better life for the people in the region. In his book, Berea College, Kentucky: An Interesting History, Approved by the Prudential Committee, published in 1875, Fairchild “called attention to their high rate of illiteracy, their poor...