By Jerry Wilkinson
The famous American educator Horace Mann is quoted as saying, "A human being is not, in any proper sense, a human being till he is educated." There exists the moot question as just when is a human being educated?
Today, the high school diploma is assumed to be available to all; albeit it takes more sacrifice for some than others. Because there was not a high school in the Upper Keys until some 43 years ago, which is not ancient history, the sacrifice was to move to some other town. The other town was usually Homestead or Key West.
Local history gives us a feeling of what it must have been like to have been an early homesteader and, a better understanding of a way of life, now gone forever. This is exactly as our present lifestyle will be in a short time, as 40, 50 or 60 years ago attest to.
To review how public education in the Upper Keys became established, let's briefly glance back and begin when Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821. At that time, most Florida children were taught only in Sunday schools or in the home. Henry Hill in Pensacola opened the first Florida formal school in 1821, two years before the establishment of Monroe County. In passing, this was the same year the first Florida American newspaper and first Protestant church were started in St. Augustine.
Moving on, President John Tyler signed Florida into statehood as the 27th state on March 3, 1845. In 1849, Florida established a public school system with David S. Walker as the first superintendent of education. By 1850, there were 97 public schools in Florida and Key West was its largest city with a population of 2,645. Still, there was no high school. Public schools began in Monroe County in 1870. James Locke was the first superintendent. The first reported private school was when a Alden A.M. Jackson held classes in the Monroe County Court House at Key West in 1835. Depending on the subjects, the costs were from $2 to $4 per month.
The first written reference to a school in the Upper Keys was an 1877-1878 education report submitted by Monroe County Superintendent J. V. Harris. ". . . Key Largo School No. 5, at Key Largo, under instruction of Mrs. M. Johnson, with attendance of twenty-two . . . . The school at Key Largo, although in fair condition, will probably not receive any increasing numbers during the coming term; and although there are a sufficient number of children upon the island to justify the establishment of another school, the want of harmony among the people is so great and the traveling so difficult owing to the rocky nature of this island, that the Board, in its present cramped state, has not deemed it advisable to risk another school . . . . The school at Key Largo has not been open for two terms, owing to difficulty of getting a teacher; but we have made arrangements for reopening the school in a short time. The reduction of the school tax by the last legislature was a serious blow at the cause of education. It caused much embarrassment in operating the schools in this county, and prevented the establishment of new schools. . . ."
I do not know where the Key Largo school was located. I would surmise that it was at Planter. There is a description of the early settlement of Planter (not Tavernier) where in 1891 there were 5 farms, a post office, Barnett Chapel and a schoolhouse. Patriarch Sam Johnson settled Planter and I find mention of his sons Samuel, Charles, Raymond, John, Tom, Payson, and daughters Mary and Caroline. Of course, the Amos Lowe and Robert Albury families were all in the same area of southern Key Largo. I would assume that the aforementioned Mrs. M. Johnson was the wife of one of these Johnson’s, or at least a relative. Historically early Upper Keys schoolteachers were from Key West. More early Key West teachers in the Upper Keys were: Jennie Mae Johnson, Mavoreen Meadows, Elise Warren, Elizabeth Lowe, Mary Louise Pinder, Floyd Schrader, Gladys Ingraham, Dora Perez, Marie Haskins, Violet Kemp, and Grace and Ada Johnson.
In Newport, the Pinder family alone had six children, ages 13 and under, in the 1870 census, so the Key Largo school could have been there. According to the 1870 census, there were 62 children ages 6 through 17 on all of the Keys. Indian Key had eleven residents in the same age range, but I never have found a reference of a school there.
The next early reference of a formal school in the Upper Keys was in Newport, in 1884, when a Mrs. Gould taught nine students. This would have been less than the ten students required by the county, but there are many reports from older residents that they started school as early as four years old to meet the county's requirements. Matecumbia [sic] and Planter definitely had schools by 1889. Few records exist for the Upper Keys before this time. There appears to have been what was known as "moving schools." The school did not move, the teacher did. A teacher would teach at one location for three months and move to another. Finding accommodations for teachers was difficult.
As an example, the following expenses were approved by the school board per calendar month from its minutes dated October 4, 1894: “. . . East End Matecumbe School, Mr. Wm. A. Perpau $40.00; Plantation Key School, Miss. Lelah Ridlow, $40.00; Planter School, Miss. Ellen Coleman, $40.00; Rocky Bay School, Miss. Sarah Whigham, $40.00; Basin Hill School, Miss. Marian Roberts, $40.00 . . .” The location of Rocky Bay is not known. As the list appears to go from south to north, Rocky Bay may have been what we know as Rock Harbor. I must admit however that there are random mentions of a school at Whalton. Rocky Bay and Whalton are never mentioned in the same minutes. There may have been two and they rotated. There were also "little schools" which appears to have school for four months, then an unspecified vacation.
All the teachers appear to have been from Key West and would stay in the home of one of the local families. From the diary of Dora Perez, she wrote, "Nov. 4, 1910- Left Key West today on the sail boat Mystery. Three other passengers besides myself, a Genevieve Parker and her two brothers. . . . Nov. 5, 1910- . . . Reached Plantation [Key] at eight o'clock. . . . Nov. 7, 1910- School opened today with eight pupils, three boys, Cleveland Knowles, Alfred Knowles and Courtney Thompson and five girls - Emma, Mary, and Sara Pinder, Susie and Maud Adams." These are all Plantation Key names and is another example of less than 10 students in a school. The 1910 census of the Upper Keys shows 95 children between ages 5 and 17 so there must have been other schools. However, it was a practice for children to live with relatives elsewhere for schooling. Also, in those days in farming and fishing areas, older children tended to stop formal schooling earlier than today. However, writings indicate that in the Upper Keys, children as young as four were admitted, if for no other reason than to meet the School Board requirement to have 10 children for a paid teacher.
When William Krome surveyed for the railroad in 1904, he showed only one school building on the drawings and it was at Planter near what we call Tavernier today. I deduce that there were teachers that rotated between communities and those who had a specific location. The building could have been a separate structure, an out-building of a farm, or in a home. The School Board records are consistent in requiring 10 students in order for it to pay a teacher yet early writings as above indicate less than 10. The 1900 census of the Upper Keys shows 87 children between ages 5 and 17.
Curiously, the Monroe County School Board meeting of May 1, 1909 read, "It was moved and seconded that the Board dispense with the services of married teachers." In February, this same school board authorized a four-month school in Marathon. Folklore has it that a man named Rigby lived there for many, many years and had 20 children. The only Rigby I found was in the 1900 census was married, and no children were listed.
John Roberts, on September 8, 1914, requested a new school at Planter and Ms. Elsie Warren taught grades 1 through 8 in this one-room wooden school. I believe that this school was around the point closer to Tavernier. A few years later, Maven Meadows moved up from Key West to teach in a one-room school on middle Upper Matecumbe Key. Bernard Russell of Islamorada remembers that Ms. Meadows boarded at his parents' house.
This probably was the one-room wooden school built on the beach of Upper Matecumbe, near where the Cheeca Lodge is now. Florence Pinder also taught there. Around 1924, this little one-room wooden building was replaced by a two-room rock building. Etta (Parker) Sweeting of Islamorada remembers being taught by Ferran Pinder (Florence's younger brother) and Charles "Prof" Albury in this building before the 1935 hurricane washed it away.
In 1915, Ms. Lillian Knowles of Key West was hired by Key Largo lime growers (Thompson and Spencer) to teach 11 students in grades K through 6 in a little wooden house near the Largo Sound community park. "I brought the schoolbooks with me and taught every subject," Lilly said. She added: "After 15 minutes of review, the children recited their lessons every morning. When classes were dismissed after noon, I began preparing lessons for the next day." Miss Lilly later married John Pinder and still later became the postmaster.
I wish to establish a fact to remember reading this bit of history. Until post 1935 hurricane schools, none offered education past the eighth grade, some less but none greater.
About this same time, the Rock Harbor-Mandalay settlement started a small school about where the First State Bank is now (mile marker 97). Harold Kinchlow was the first teacher, and later Ms. Lorraine Garfunkle came up from Key West to teach at this school. The 1920 census showed the populations of Rock Harbor as 131, Tavernier 91, Matecumbe 180 and Marathon 100.
Shortly after this the Largo Sound and the Mandalay schools merged into a two-room rock building on land donated by Beauregard Albury in 1923. This is where the present Moose Lodge is located (mile marker 98.5) and was known as the Rock Harbor Grammar School. Lenora Albury of Rock Harbor remembers seeing her husband's (Calvin Albury, President Hoover's fishing guide) 1924 report card. A Mr. Chandler came up from Seaside, where Snapper's Restaurant is now, to teach classes.
It is interesting that records reveal the Rock Harbor and Matecumbe schools closed in May, 1925 because of mosquitoes. Harold Russell taught at Rock Harbor from 1926 until the schools were consolidated in Tavernier in 1939.
The Rock Harbor school was a two-room building where student enrollment once got as high as 42. This was during the mid-1920s Overseas Highway construction period. During the depression period, Harold Russell's monthly pay dropped as low as $75 a month. He said he got along as he was living with his future father-in-law and the Johnson's would take him hunting and fishing. Life was good; birds and fish were plentiful, and there were no restrictions on taking them.
Harold Albury (brother of Merlin and Rodney) drove the Tavernier children to school in his converted Ford station wagon. He had removed the rear seat and built benches along each side.