Articles & Stories

John M. Whalin: A Kentucky
One-Room Schoolteacher

Through Years Of Struggling To Rear His Children, Whalin
Kept A Death-Bed Promise Made To His Wife For 29 Years

By Charles R. Whalin - 2005

John Milton Whalin's life as a schoolteacher was devoted entirely to teaching first through eighth grades in Kentucky's one-room schools. Born in Grassland, Edmonson County, Kentucky, on January 1, 1817, his road through life was a rocky one.
John's mother was from a comparatively prosperous and well-educated Kentucky family. His father's idea of living, however, was to clear out just enough wilderness space for a log cabin, then devote his time to fishing, hunting, trapping, and prospecting; leaving his wife to rear the children, tend the garden, care for the livestock, and do housework.
John was the second oldest of nine children. He somehow was able to attend school in Brownsville, Edmonson County, for a few years then began his teaching career at a salary of $30 per month. A normal school term back then was only seven months a year.
Each of these small, rural, one-room schools was administered by one or more trustees who had the power to hire and fire a teacher and set the salary. Trustees were very reluctant to hire a teacher for more than one year at a time, in order to prevent the teacher from earning tenure which made firing more difficult.

The John M. Whalin Family at their home on Sunfish Creek, Edmonson County, Kentucky, on September 14, 1913. Back row, l-r: John Milton, Ella Davis, Clarence Milton, and Eugene Bryan Whalin. Front row, l-r: Ralph Warren, Alma Beulah, Carrie Lillian, and Roy Herchel Whalin. Ella died six-and-one-half months after this photo was taken.

(Photo courtesy of Charles R. Whalin.)

There is a story of a trustee interviewing a young schoolteacher who had applied to teach school and the trustee asked, "Young man, do you teach that the world is round or flat?" Thinking quickly the young teacher replied, "Sir, I can teach it anyway you want it taught." According to the story he got the job.
John met his future wife, Ella Davis, at a school play given at the Old Hickory School, which later became Sunfish High School. On January 3, 1895, John Milton Whalin married Ella Davis in the home of her parents. Ella, like John's mother, was from a family that highly-valued education, and like John, Ella was also a schoolteacher.
In an effort to improve the quality of teachers, Kentucky began conducting teachers' institutes which focused on teacher education and training, and later, during their first year of marriage, both John and Ella attended a teachers' institute with approximately 54 teachers present; 37 men and only 17 women. Later, John and Ella received their teachers' certificates which Kentucky had begun to issue.
In trying to improve their income the young couple moved to Nashville, Tennessee, around 1896, where John had landed a job as an insurance agent for Sun Life Insurance Company. To save money he rode his bicycle everywhere on the job. On July 12, 1897, Eugene Bryan Whalin, their first child was born in Nashville.
John's burning ambition was to become a doctor, and a friend was instrumental in gaining approval for him to enter the Vanderbilt Medical School. At that time all that was needed was an eighth grade education, $100 for tuition, and one year of study. Ella, however, prohibited this, stating that she did not want her husband "waiting on other women," so John gave up his dream of becoming a doctor.

Harris School, Edmonson County, Kentucky, 1916. John M. Whalin was the teacher. (Photo courtesy of Charles E. Whalin.)

As he gained experience in the insurance business he was soon named Nashville's district manager of Metropolitan Insurance Company. This work, however, put John under so much stress that he developed severe stomach pains. John's doctor told him that he was dying and there was nothing that could be done. In preparation for his upcoming death John quit his job and moved back to Edmonson County, in order for Ella and their son to be near Ella's parents.
After their move, however, John did not die. For the rest of his life, to treat his stomach pain which probably was due to ulcers, John took a mush of bread and milk every evening before bedtime.
Returning to Edmonson County the couple first moved in with Ella's parents on Sunfish Creek. In 1898 Ella's father gave the couple 27 acres of creek bottomland across Sunfish Creek, and there they built a small, one-room, log cabin where they lived for several years. John purchased more adjoining land, and by 1906 they had acquired 148 acres, were operating a family farm, built a new home, and were rearing a family.
Eight children were born to this couple, with six of them surviving. Eugene, the first, had been born in Nashville. The others were all born in the family home on Sunfish Creek. They were: Clarence "Sam" Milton, born February 8, 1899; Roy Herschel, born August 26, 1902; Carrie Lillian, born October 13, 1904; a "blue baby," born August 10, 1907, who died the next day; Ralph Warren, born July 3, 1908; Alma Beulah, born April 18, 1912; and Thomas Beckham, born March 28, 1914, and died the next month on April 5th.
In 1913 John was hired as schoolteacher for the Sweeden School in Edmonson County about 20 miles from home. He taught grades first through eighth for 79 students. He and Ella looked forward to a brighter future with the additional teacher's income, but tragedy lay just ahead.
When Ella gave birth to Thomas Beckham Whalin on March 28th of the next year, the doctor who delivered the baby had infected sores on his hands and arms, and as a result Ella contracted peritonitis. Realizing her condition she calmly met privately with her husband and each child to say her goodbyes. She asked John not to ever remarry, because she was afraid a stepmother would not provide good care for her children.

John M. Whalin with his students at Little Mountain School. The date and location of this photo are unknown.
(Photo courtesy of Charles R. Whalin.)

Ella Davis Whalin died on April 2, 1914, at the age of 42, leaving John, age 43, to rear their six children: Eugene, Sam, Roy, Lillian, Ralph, and Beulah.
Forced to immediately shoulder his new responsibilities as both sole parent and provider, John Whalin, in the same year that his wife had died received an assignment to teach the Hayse School in Edmonson County, several miles away. He traveled by horseback to his job leaving his oldest son, Eugene, to stay at home, farm, and look after the five younger children.
The next year in 1915 John was able to secure a teaching job closer to home, still traveling on horseback. That same year he sent his eldest son, Eugene, to Bowling Green in order to attend the Western Kentucky Normal School.
In 1916 John taught at the Bethel School in Warren County and had all of his children as students there. The following year, however, was much more difficult for the family.
In 1917 unable to find a teaching job closer to home John was forced to teach the Harris School near Leitchfield, over 45 miles away. Leaving Eugene and Sam, ages 20 and 18, to raise a crop and keep the house up, John took his four younger children and moved into a two-room shack near the Harris School. Here Roy, age 15, was charged with the responsibility of caring for the three younger ones during the day while John was teaching. As winter approached John moved the family into a vacant, three-room, log cabin where they lived for the remainder of the school term.
Despite these hardships John found time to devote to his brothers and sisters. A niece, Madge Miller Hack, recalled how every year John would come riding his horse for a short visit. Madge's parents had very little education and would tell him what they planned to build, what crops they wanted to raise, etc., and John would figure what and how much the family would need to buy. Madge credited her uncle, John, with enabling her parents to continue to farm for a living.
In one of the most loving and unselfish decisions of his life, John Whalin moved his family from the little farm on Sunfish Creek to Bowling Green where Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) and the Normal School offered high quality education. All children enrolled at Western and the four sons eventually earned their college degrees there.
In November 1919 John purchased a house and lot in Bowling Green for $1,500. Next year, 1920, he bought another property from H. H. Cherry, President of Western, for $800, and began operating a rooming house for Western students.



The John M. Whalin Family, ca. 1908. L-R: Clarence (Sam) Milton, Ralph Warren (infant), Ella Davis, John Milton, Carrie Lillian, Eugene Bryan, and Roy Herschel Whalin.
(Photo courtesy of Charles R. Whalin.)


For two years, 1921 and 1922, John taught at the Lockwood School in Warren County, and in 1923 he was employed to teach at the Boiling Springs School, also in Warren County.
With all of his children attending school at Western in Bowling Green and as his financial condition improved, John was able to buy a house at 1346 High Street in Bowling Green paying $2,750 for the property. This was to be the Whalin family home for many years.
While his children were attending Western John taught at the Warren County Schools of Red Pond (1924, 1925, and 1926) Penn's Chapel (1927), and the Robinson School (1928); where his salary was $84.25 per month for the school term of seven months.
In 1929 and 1930 John taught at the Indian Creek School in Warren County, where he earned $85 per month for seven months. In 1930 to supplement his teaching income of $595 he received $110 for work on the Bowling Green tax list and another $339.37 for school census work, a total of $1,045.37 for the year. By now his six children were grown and financially independent.
In 1931 John was able to obtain a school in Warren County, and was forced to take a teaching job for a partial term at the Cedar Flat School in Meade County over 100 miles from Bowling Green. There he earned $60 a month for four-and-one-half months.
In 1937 John once again had to travel to Meade County where he taught at the Mt. Hope School, earning $66.50 per month. This was his last school to teach. He was then 68 years old. Although he tried he was unable to obtain any more teaching jobs. He was also just one year short of earning any teachers' retirement pension.
John continued to live in his home at 1346 High Street until 1939 when his poor health forced him to live with his six children who took turns caring for him. While living with his son, Roy, in Louisville, John became very sick and was placed in a nursing home where he lived only a few weeks before dying July 28, 1943, at the age of 72.
John Milton Whalin did not leave many personal possessions, but his precious legacy lives on in the lives of his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren. After earning their college degrees from Western and graduate degrees later, Eugene became a career high school teacher, principal, and an officer in the Kentucky State Department of Education. Clarence (Sam) was a teacher and a high school principal in Kentucky and Ohio schools. Roy served as a high school teacher, coach, and principal in Kentucky and later owned and operated Spencerian College in Louisville. Ralph was a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, where he was acclaimed as the father of that school's Industrial Technology College and has a building and monument erected there in his honor. Both John's daughters, Lillian and Beulah, received some college education and married. Lillian was childless. Beulah had two daughters, both leading very successful lives.
John's final legacy was the deathbed promise he kept for over 29 years. John Milton Whalin never remarried.

Sources: Tally Books of John Milton Whalin, John Milton Whalin's old photographs, Edmonson and Warren County Kentucky Deeds, and Autobiography of Roy Herschel Whalin.

Charles R. Whalin, 2303 Newmarket Drive, Louisville, KY 40222; [email protected], shares this article with our readers. Charles R. Whalin is the grandson of John Milton Whalin.