From Maine To Kentucky: Letters Of A Maine Schoolteacher

Author's Note: This series of articles is excerpted from a book manuscript, From Maine to Kentucky: Letters of a Maine School Teacher, 1920-21. Sources include personal letters and records of Ethel V. Applebee, interviews, the Lexington Leader newspaper, 1889-1920, files of the American Missionary Association (housed at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans), and several books on the history of the A. M. A.

By Eleanor W. Cunningham - 2000

The schoolteacher from Maine, my mother, Ethel Valentine Applebee, had been teaching at Chandler Normal School in Lexington, Kentucky, for a year. She and her friend, Lena Spencer, also from Maine, had been assigned in 1920 by the American Missionary Association to teach in this school that trained black students to become teachers. They met another teacher from Maine there, Sara Leighton.

Sara, near the close of the school year in 1921, invited Ethel to come home with her for the summer and mentioned that she had a brother named Howard, who was just Ethel's age. After seeing his photograph, Ethel became very interested in meeting this young man.

On their way home to Maine in June, Ethel, Sara, and Lena took the train to Washington, D. C., where they did some sightseeing, then went on to Boston by train. There Ethel and Sara said goodbye to Lena, and took a ferry to Portland, Maine. Sara had written home to inform her family of their arrival, so she expected that either Howard or his brother, Edward, would meet them.

Ethel was nervous. She was about to meet Howard. Presently, a shining black Model-T Ford touring car came alongside the curb, where the girls were waiting. Ethel recognized Howard immediately and Sara introduced them.

"Howard, this is Ethel, my friend from Chandler, who I wrote you about. Ethel, this is my brother, Howard."

Ethel shook his hand and liked his firm grip. Howard smiled shyly and hastened to put the girls' baggage in the car. Sara quickly climbed into the back seat, forcing Ethel to sit in the front with Howard.

Howard didn't say a word until they reached the farm. He drove into the front yard, and his mother, Nina Leighton, a short, slightly stout woman of about 45, was standing in the doorway. Her warm smile made Ethel feel welcome immediately.

"Come in, girls. I have been expecting you. Supper is about ready. I hope you are hungry."

Howard brought the suitcases in and took them up the winding stairs. Mrs. Leighton showed Ethel to the room she would share with Sara.

As soon as Mrs. Leighton went downstairs, Ethel sank into the soft featherbed, relishing the moment. She thought, "I really like Howard. I like his sweet mother. I feel so welcome here."

She quickly washed her face and hands, straightened her hair, and went down to supper and to meet the rest of the family.

In the days that followed, thoughts of Chandler Normal School were left behind. Sometimes Howard would take the girls for a ride in his new Model-T Ford. One day Sara asked him to take them up to Yarmouth to Princess Point. There was a summer hotel there, where they applied for summer jobs. They were hired and were told to come to work in two weeks. This would give Ethel a few days to visit her family in Bucksport, before beginning her job at Princess Point.

It was great to see her mother and brothers, and Ethel enjoyed helping her mother with summer canning. She told her mother about Sara and her family, and finally about Howard. Mabel could tell Ethel was quite smitten with him. She got to meet him the day he came to take Ethel back to Princess Point to begin her summer job.

Howard learned that Ethel had Sundays off and asked if he could come to see her on Sunday afternoons. She assured him that she would like to see him whenever he could come up.

She could scarcely wait for Howard to arrive, when Sunday afternoons came. As soon as church was over and he had dinner, Howard headed up to Princess Point. They took leisurely long drives up the coast, stopping at lookouts along the way, viewing the ocean and listening to the waves beating on the rocky shore. Their love blossomed. Howard's brother, Philip, later would say it was "love at first sight."

Ethel learned of some of Howard's heartaches (he had lost his father to a stroke the past year, as well as a younger brother, Wilfred, in a car accident). He told her of his brief stint in France with the Army cavalry, during World War I. She learned of his great interest in plants and trees and flowers, and hopes that one day he would work in landscaping. For now, he helped his mother run the farm.

Ethel told Howard of her experiences at Chandler Normal School in Kentucky and how and why Lena and she had gone there. He wondered if she was planning to return.

Somewhere, on a Sunday afternoon drive along the seashores of beautiful Maine, Howard asked Ethel to marry him. He slipped a simple amethyst engagement ring on her finger. It had been a whirlwind courtship, and they set the wedding date for October 20th.

Ethel gave up her dream of going back to Chandler and in September said goodbye to Sara, who was taking the train back to Lexington. Sara was happy for Howard and Ethel, but very sorry she could not be at the wedding.

Ethel headed up to Bucksport to prepare for her wedding. The ceremony would be held in her home there. She knew her mother approved of Howard and would help her with the sewing and the other preparations.

She took time to write a note to Mr. Werking, Director of Chandler Normal School, telling him that she would not be returning in the fall, as she was to be married to Sara's brother, Howard. Sara promised to send her the books she had left in her room at Chandler.

While Ethel had no misgivings about marrying Howard, she couldn't help but feel a twinge of regret that she would not be teaching at Chandler that year. She loved teaching. She had loved the Werkings, the other teachers, and of course, her students. She would surely miss them all. She wondered if she were giving up teaching forever.

Howard's mother was very happy that Howard and Ethel were engaged and wondered if Howard would be bringing his bride to live at the homestead. But Howard had other plans. In his spare time he went househunting. He found a bungalow in Cumberland Center, not far from the farm.

He and Ethel corresponded during those weeks, and Howard's letters tell of his repairing and painting the house, buying things like beds and mattresses, pots and pans, and furniture, sometimes enlisting his sister, Mabel, to help with the cleaning.

One of his letters was quite tragic, telling of the fire that destroyed the barn and the animals. He had managed to save the farmhouse and his Model-T Ford, just in time. Howard made plans for their honeymoon in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but did not tell Ethel.

Ethel's letters tell of shopping for her wedding dress, hat, shoes and gloves, and other preparations for the wedding.

October 20th, the day of the wedding, Howard is up early. He will drive his mother and two sisters, Ethel and Mabel, to the wedding, 150 miles away. He has the wedding ring in his pocket. He arrives about 1:00 p.m. and meets with the minister, Rev. Cass, to go over last-minute details of the ceremony.

Ethel is nervous. Her mother helps her with her dress; a straight, dark blue dress with a short surplice down the back. Her hat is a matching dark blue with a plume, and she wears French-style suede shoes, also dark blue. She feels quite stylish.

The crowd moves into the chairs in the parlor, which is decorated with fall leaves. The minister takes his place. The music from the Victrola begins, and Ethel begins to slowly descend the stairs. She sees Howard, looking very sober, waiting to join her in front of the mantel. Beside him is her brother, Vinal, the best man, smiling. The two mothers and families are seated in the front row; one on the right, the other on the left. The wedding cake and punch waits in the dining room. The house is decorated with fall leaves.

The ceremony begins. Soon the solemn words are spoken, "I now pronounce you man and wife," and Howard bends to kiss his bride. It is over in a few minutes, and family and friends gather around to greet the newlyweds.

Back At Chandler Normal School

Back at Chandler, for the school year 1920-21, Sara Leighton writes to Ethel Applebee on October 2, 1920. She says a teacher from Portland, Maine, Maime Griggs, will take Ethel's place. Katherine Lewis was to occupy Ethel's room at the teachers' home, and Lena Spencer would move into Katherine' s room. All the clothes that Ethel had left behind had been sold in Mrs. Werking's store, but Sara would be mailing Ethel's books to her.

She continues: Virginia and Myrtle are at Wilberforce; Rozell went to another college; Cecil is going to teach at Taylor; Seales was sent to a college in Atlanta, sponsored by a white church, for two years; Ella, Helen, Marie, Susie, and Bessie all asked about you. Let me hear from you soon. Forever your sister, Sara.
In another letter, written October 11, 1920, Sara writes: Nearly all of your pupils have inquired after 'Miss Apple' or 'Miss App'bee.' The first time I saw Harry Lee, he asked, 'Where's my teacher? Why didn't you bring my teacher back?'

Records show that Sara Leighton was to teach at Chandler for only one more year. Chandler Normal School was built in 1889 with $15,000 donated by Miss Phoebe Chandler of Massachusetts and would close in 1923. Proceedings that led to Chandler's closing are indicated in the minutes of the Executive Committee of the American Missionary Association, October 12, 1920, which state: Voted: That $8,000 be appropriated to maintain the school program at Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky, during the school year 1920-21, it being expected that the treasury of the A. M. A. shall, in the amount expended, be reimbursed by special contributions from citizens of Lexington and others.

The minutes of the Executive Committee of November 9, 1920, show that a committee on the "Future Policy of Chandler" was appointed, and the minutes of April 12, 1921, state: Voted: That the office conference consider immediately whether any schools now operated by the A. M. A. should be discontinued next year, this including especially Mobile, Wilmington, and Lexington...

The minutes of the May 10, 1921, Executive Committee meeting: Voted: That Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky, be continued during 1921-22 with an appropriation for operating expenses not to exceed $4,500, and on condition that guarantee be given that local support of the school will reach an equal amount for the coming year."

On May 22, 1923, in a meeting of the A. M. A. Executive Committee, the Report of the Committee on Appropriations was presented. Included in that report is this statement: In turning to the budget of the Department of Missions, the question of Chandler Normal School, Lexington, Kentucky, was taken up, and it was voted to recommend that the educational work in Chandler Normal School be discontinued with the Commencement of 1923.

Chandler was built in 1889 for the purpose of educating Lexington's African-American children. It was dedicated in February 1890 and held is first graduation exercise on June 21, 1892. Now, it faced increasing financial and educational competition from the city public school system.

After Chandler Normal School

On September 11, 1923, it was voted that the Congregational Church of Lexington, Kentucky, be allowed immediate use of the property of Chandler Normal School, Lexington, consisting of a school building and a teachers' home, as a Community Center, without rental charges.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School was opened in 1923, the same year that Chandler closed. In many localities, A. M. A. schools set the educational standards for public schools. Chandler's educational mission was completed, but its buildings are still in active use.

Ethel V. Applebee taught at Chandler just one year, 1920-21, after which she came home to marry Howard M. Leighton. They had four children. Eventually Howard and Ethel moved to Rockville, Maryland, where he became foreman of the Rock Creek Nursery. She lived to be 80 years of age and is buried with her husband in Arlington Cemetery.

Sara Leighton taught at Chandler through the 1922 school year, after which she moved back to Maine, taught at Yarmouth, Freeport, and other schools, and later married Nelson Aikins. They had one daughter. Sara died at age 91 in Oxnard, California.

Lena Spencer stayed in the South, and after the death of Mrs. Werking, married Mr. F. J. Werking, former director of Chandler Normal School, after he moved to Atlanta, Georgia. She was in her 80s when she died in Atlanta, Georgia.

The author, Eleanor W. Cunningham, 221 Hutton Street, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, is the daughter of Ethel V. Applebee of Maine. We thank her for sharing this delightful story and photographs with our readers.