By Eleanor W. Cunningham - 2000
As the train chugged its way through the lonely forest, Ethel Applebee, a young, pretty schoolteacher, leaned her head on the seat cushion behind her and closed her eyes. "Why am I headed home, after teaching in Easton only two years? Why am I taking another daring leap into the dark?"
Yes, the winters in northern Maine were extremely cold, and there wasn't much excitement for a girl who loved adventure. But in her pocket was another reason for being on the train traveling southward that day. It was a letter from Lena Spencer, her longtime friend, also a teacher in Maine. That letter would change both their lives, drastically.
The letter arrived the day after Ethel had heard a speaker, one evening, in the Easton Methodist Church. He was from the American Missionary Association and had told about the many opportunities for teachers in the South, to teach Negro students to become teachers. It caught Ethel's attention, when he told of how many young teachers from New England had already gone. He said the door was wide open, all they needed to do was apply.
Ethel thought about those young ladies going off to do missionary work in the South. Was that the kind of challenge she was looking for? Oh, to do something magnificent with one's life, something glorious and meaningful. A quiet restlessness settled upon her, which she could not seem to shake.
Then came Lena's letter. She took it out of her pocket and read it again:
"Dear Et (Lena had always called her 'Et'): Are you ready for a big adventure? How would you like to leave the cold North and go South, where there is little snow and a lot of opportunity to make our marks in the world? You have probably heard that many Yankee girls have been sent South to teach in private schools and have made as much as 15 dollars a week.
"I saw an advertisement in the Bucksport Enterprise, yesterday, about a Chandler Normal School in Lexington, Kentucky, needing teachers. How does that sound, Et? Let me know if you are interested. I am, and I wish you would go with me. Please answer, right away. We could apply now and be on our way for the term beginning in October. Love, Lena."
Ethel Valentine Applebee, my mother, was born on February 12, 1893, in Enfield, Maine, where she attended grammar school with Lena. After graduating, Ethel moved with her family to Bucksport, where she enrolled in East Maine Conference Seminary to complete high school and normal school. She received her diploma on June 14, 1911, at age 18. In reply to an inquiry about a teaching position, she received a letter from School Superintendent Rev. E. S. Burrill, offering her a position in Sebec Village for the fall term, teaching nine children for eight dollars a week. She accepted the job, immediately.
After Sebec Village, Ethel's teaching experience fades from view until 1918. A personal interview with a former pupil, Dwight Fuller, now 87, revealed that she went to Easton, in northern Maine, to teach at Fuller School. She boarded at the home of the Fullers, a warm, closely-knit family, with four boys. They welcomed her with open arms. They took her to church each Sunday in their Winton automobile, which, they told her, was only one of three in all of Aroostook County. It was while there that she had been frostbitten, as she navigated by the fence posts through deep snow drifts to get to school, one extremely cold winter day, and it was then she decided to seek a school further south.
The train followed the Penobscot River, stopped at Bangor, and in 45 minutes, would arrive in Bucksport. There, Lena Spencer, her longtime friend, would be waiting for her. Ethel gathered her things together and peered out of the dusty window for a glimpse of Lena.
Ethel quickly rushed to the door, jumped down, and Lena threw her arms around her. Lena had acquired a Model-T Ford, and they were soon at Ethel's home. Mabel Applebee, Ethel's mother, was waiting at the door. Tall and stately, her dark hair pulled up in a knot on top of her head, she was a dear figure to Ethel; and the one she had missed the most. Mabel had wanted the best for this only daughter with the twinkling, blue eyes; wavy, auburn hair; and attractive, slender figure; for she had seen in Ethel high ambition, unusual intelligence, wit, and charm. She was proud that she had chosen to be a teacher.
That evening, Lena and Ethel went to Ethel's room to share their teaching experiences, and also to discuss Kentucky plans. Ethel wanted to know more about it.
"Now, tell me about this Kentucky business. What did the ad say, and when can we go?"
Lena, excited, replied, "You mean you really would go with me to teach school in the South? Here, let me get the paper and show you the advertisement."
She read aloud, "Teachers wanted. Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky. Openings in primary, upper grades, and normal school. Salary $1,000 per year. Send resume and experience to: Dr. James W. Cooper, Secretary, American Missionary Association, 53 John Street, New York, N.Y."
They immediately wrote to the AMA, telling of their desire to help educate the Negro children of the South, enclosing their resumes, and requesting applications. A reply came the following week, with the information that there were two openings at Chandler, and the annual salary was $1,000 a year. Listed in the enclosed newsletter was a list of qualifications required:
Education: Must be a graduate of normal school or college;
Character: Must furnish credentials of Christian standing and be of impeccable character. Evangelical Christians preferred, but teachers may be appointed from any Protestant denomination. Must have commitment to aid freedmen, feel the importance of the work, and have their hearts in the cause they represent.
Desirable qualities: Good health, energy, ability to endure hardship, common sense, good personal habits, and the ability to get along with colleagues. No one, who uses intoxicating drinks or tobacco, is employed. (See Joe M. Richardson's Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890, University of Georgia Press , 1986).
Ethel and Lena agreed that they met the qualifications, carefully filled out the applications and sent them off, hoping for an early reply. As they waited, that summer of 1920, Ethel Applebee and Lena Spencer went to work as waitresses at Mt. Kineo House, a popular resort on Moosehead Lake.
Soon, a reply came from the New York office of AMA, accepting their applications and appointing them to Chandler Normal School in Lexington, Kentucky. Lena would teach the primary grades, and Ethel was to teach the seventh and eighth grades. They were to take the Louisville and Nashville train from Cincinnati on September 26th, arriving in Lexington at 5:20 p.m. Mr. F. J. Werking, director of the school, would meet them.
Their spirits soared. They would soon be on their way to the biggest adventure of their lives.
Their trip from Maine had taken them by way of Boston, Niagara Falls, then through Cleveland, and on to Cincinnati. As expected, the Louisville and Nashville train pulled into the station at Lexington at 5:20 p.m. Ethel and Lena were sober now, realizing they had taken a big step into the unknown.
The presence of so many Negroes on the streets surprised them, for they seldom saw them in Maine, although they knew that Maine had been foremost in granting Negroes equal civil and political rights.
As they disembarked, they saw a middle-aged couple coming toward them. The man was small, with thinning brown hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and he wore a suit and high collar that made him look like the professor he was. His wife was almost as tall, heavier set, with a pleasant, motherly face. He extended his hand.
"Miss Spencer, Miss Applebee? Mr. and Mrs. Werking of Chandler. Come, we have a car."
As the car turned into a driveway, Ethel was struck by the massive, three-story, brick school; the large, comfortable, brick home nearby; and the spacious, beautiful campus.
So, this was Chandler.
(Part Two Continues Next Month)
Eleanor W. Cunningham 221 Hutton Street, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, shares this mini-series with our readers. This series of articles are excerpted from a book manuscript, "From Maine to Kentucky: Letters of a Maine Teacher, 1920-21." Sources are personal letters and records of Ethel V. Applebee, interviews, the Lexington Leader newspaper, 1889-1920, and several books on the history of the American Missionary Association.