From Maine To Kentucky: Letters Of A Maine Teacher
Opportunity For Romance Knocks At Ms. Applebee's Door


Editor's Note: This series of articles is excerpted from a book manuscript, From Maine to Kentucky: Letters of a Maine Teacher, 1920-21. The 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. Miss Applebee and her fellow teachers taught at Chandler Normal School, a school for Negros, in Lexington, Kentucky.

By Eleanor W. Cunningham - 2000

It was early June 1921. Ethel was in her room finishing a letter to her mother in Bucksport, Maine. She had been homesick that evening and was looking forward to the end of the school year and going home. Someone knocked on her door, and Sara Leighton, another Maine teacher at Chandler, looked in.

"Ethel, Ethel, are you still up? I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"Oh yes, I'm still up. Just completed a letter to Mama. Come in." Ethel grabbed the damp handkerchief that lay on her desk and wiped her tearstained face.

"Ethel, you've been crying. What's the matter, dear?"

"Just a case of homesickness, I guess. Got to thinking about home. Guess I'll never fit in here." She dropped her head. "How about you, Sara? What will you do next year if Chandler closes?"

"Well, I really don't believe it will close. I plan to come back, and Lena does, too, I expect. Of course, you will be back with us. It wouldn't be Chandler without you, Ethel.

"I really came to ask you something. Just an idea that has been buzzing around in my head. How about you coming home with me for the summer? There's plenty of room at my home, and Mother would love you. I know where we can get good summer jobs up in Yarmouth, too. Wouldn't that be fun? Besides that, you know I have a handsome brother not spoken for. Perhaps that would appeal to you?"

Ethel laughed. "Well, there are certainly no prospects in Lexington! The white men won't look at us twice, when they hear our Maine accent. When they learn we're teachers at Chandler, they think we are really strange. I never thought I was that bad looking, and you and Lena haven't had a nibble, either! That surprises me, for Lena was a real flirt in high school."

"Well, think it over, Ethel, and let me know. Why don't you sleep on it. You look very tired."

The next evening it was Ethel who tapped on Sara's door. Ethel blurted out, "You didn't tell me his name, Sara. What's his name?"

"Whose name?" replied Sara, innocently, knowing full well who Ethel meant.

"Why, your brother's. If I am going to meet this man, I want to know his name!"

"So you are going home with me, Ethel? How wonderful. I'll write Mother that you are coming. I'm so glad. It's going to be a great summer."

"Are you going to tell me his name?" Ethel was sounding exasperated.

"Oh, his name is Howard, born May 8, 1894. You see, he's just the right age for you."

Ethel liked the name. Howard Leighton. As she walked back into her room, she said to herself, "I wonder if she has a picture of him? Maybe I'll ask tomorrow, if I can get up my courage."

When she had mustered up her courage a few days later, Ethel asked Sara if she had a picture of her brother. Sara replied, "I have been waiting for you to ask. I'll bring it to you this evening."

Ethel could hardly wait. Finally, that evening, Sara came to her room bringing a small photo, framed, of a young man in an Army uniform with a handsome, but serious, face. Sara took the little rocker by the window and told Ethel about Howard and the rest of her family.

Howard was the oldest of seven children, and they lived on a 75-acre farm in Cumberland Center. He was drafted into the Cavalry of the U. S. Army in 1918 and served in France. He had run the farm since the death of their father the year before, but landscaping was his greatest love.

Besides Howard, the oldest, who was 27; there was Ed, 25; Philip, 12; and Nathaniel, six. They had lost a brother, Wilfred, in an automobile accident, when he was just 21. There were two sisters: Ethel, 21; and Mabel, 19. Ethel learned that each Sunday the family attended the Congregational Church in Cumberland Center.

Sara described Howard to Ethel. He had light brown hair, blue eyes, was 5'8" tall, had a nice build, and was very quiet. When the evening was over, Ethel thought she could hardly wait to meet him and set the little Army photo of Howard on the dresser beside her bed.

The day after school closed, the teachers cleaned their rooms, packed trunks, and said goodbye to the other teachers and the staff in preparation for their departure for home the next day. Mr. Werking had asked at the breakfast table that morning that all the teachers meet in his office at 11:00. Perhaps this was when he would tell them whether or not Chandler would be open next year.

Lena popped into Ethel's room. "What do you think, Et? Are we fired or hired? Guess we'll find out today."

"Yes, they certainly ought to let us know, before we leave for home, whether we'll be coming back next year."

Ethel, Lena, Sara, and Katherine, along with the other teachers, Mattie and Laura, met at the appointed time in Professor Wer-king's office. He came in, smiling, and asked the teachers to be seated as he took his place behind his desk.

"You will be glad to know that I, just yesterday, received a telegram from the American Missionary Association in New York," he began. He took a yellow telegram from his top desk drawer and read: "Just received donation from benefactor. Chandler will remain open next year."

Placing the telegram back in the drawer, he removed several sheets of paper from a large brown envelope on top of his desk.

He went on: "AMA has been very pleased with the progress made by the students at Chandler this past year. I commend each of you for a job well-done. I received your next year's appointments a week or so ago from New York, but could not give them to you until I had the assurance that funds had come in to cover expenses for next year. So you, Ethel Applebee, Lena Spencer, Sara Leighton, and Kath-erine Lewis have been officially re-appointed as teachers at Chandler Normal for the year 1921-22. Also, you, Laura Carroll and Mattie Smith, have been re-appointed. Here are your official papers. Congratulations to each of you."

Ethel wrote her mother a short letter that evening, telling of her plans for the summer:

"Dear Mama, We have finally heard that all of us teachers have been re-appointed to Chandler for next year. We are relieved that someone has come forward with enough funds to keep the school open for at least another year.

"I want to tell you, too, that Sara Leighton, the teacher from Cumberland Center, has invited me to come home with her for a week. She lives on a farm with her mother and brothers and sisters. She is very nice, and I am sure I will enjoy visiting with her family. So, if this is all right with you, I will plan to stop there for a week on my way home. That means I will be arriving in Bucksport about June 12th. I will let you know the exact time and date later. Lena will go on to Enfield to her parents' home. We all need to get jobs for the summer, and it could be that I will be working with Sara at a "Y" this summer. Will let you know later. Can't wait to see my family and home again. Love, Ethel."

Now that Ethel had her official appointment to teach at Chandler Normal School, in Lexington, Kentucky, the following year, she pondered what she should pack to take home and what she should leave. She finally decided to take all of her good clothes and leave her older clothes at Chandler. If she did not come back (thoughts of Howard were in the back of her mind), they could be sold at Mrs. Werking's store. She also decided to leave her beloved books, knowing that if she did not return, Sara or Lena would send them to her.

It took two trips for Mr. Werking to drive the girls and their trunks to the railroad station on Monday morning. At 10:30 a.m. Ethel, Sara, and Lena boarded the Louisville and Nashville train; and in Cincinnati transferred to the Baltimore and Ohio line that would take them to Washington, D. C. Ethel had always wanted to see Washington, especially to view the new Lincoln Memorial, which was to be dedicated the following year (1922) on Lincoln's birthday (and hers).

After viewing the Capitol building, they hurried to the Lincoln Memorial. The massive white marble structure surrounded by 36 Doric columns took her breath away. In silence, the three teachers climbed the wide steps leading to the main hall, where sat the huge statue of the somber Emancipator, surrounded by inscriptions of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. Ethel recalled how much her friends in Kentucky and the South owed to this great 16th President of the United States.


Sarah Leighton, Lena Spencer, Howard Leighton

(Series concludes next month)

Eleanor W. Cunningham, 221 Hutton Street, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, e-mail: ewcunning@aol.com, shares this series and photos with our readers.