Pioneers - Memoirs of Robert B. Kooken

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Pioneers of Ellis County

Memoirs of Robert B. Kooken

The following, pertaining to Ellis County, is abstracted from Mr. Kookin's complete Memoirs written while he was Superintendent of Arlington, Texas schools.

Contributed by Virginia Taylor


"My father, Robert B. Kooken, was born in Fairfield County, Ohio, and became an orphan at the age of twelve. He migrated to Texas in 1851, and was married to Miss Jane I. Andrews, November 20, 1856. Four boys and three girls were born to this union.

Both of my parents possessed some outstanding character traits, and they were diligent in teaching these traits to their children. Honesty, truthfulness, industry, perseverance, prompt obedience, unselfishness, and sobriety were a few of the character traits impressed upon the children of our home.

My parents were consistent members of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, both being charter members and my father an Elder in the church at Ferris, Texas. When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 my father joined Captain W. G. Veal's company of the 12th Regiment of the Texas Dragoons.

He received a wound in his left arm at Cotton Plant, Arkansas while his company was making a desperate charge and never fully recovered from the amputation of his arm. The lack of attention and the exposure on the deserted battle field was the cause of his death, January 6, 1881.

He was a devoted husband, a kind father, a devout Christian and a loyal citizen. My mother was really a wonderful mother. In thinking of the pioneer days of sixty years ago, I cannot understand how Mother was physically able to spin, weave, sew, cook and wash for the family and farm hands. Then, too, she heard all the cries of the little ones, and when the strenuous day's work was done she drew the trundle bed out, sang lullabies, listened to their prayers and with loving care tucked them into their beds.

Mother died August 6, 1921, at the age of 87. She had no physic nor mental ailments in her last days. Her demise resulted from a worn-out body due to a long strenuous life.

In the forties of the Nineteenth Century my ancestors secured a grant of land lying between two tributaries of the Trinity River in the eastern part of Ellis County, twenty miles south of Dallas, Texas.

This colony was known as the Andrews-McKnight Colony. Most of the first generation of this colony migrated from Tennessee in the traditional Prairie Schooner drawn by horses, mules or oxen. Extra horses and cattle were driven behind the caravan of covered wagons by boys and girls in their teens.

The early settlers of Texas found the task of securing food and clothing a real problem. The first generation of our colony drew liberally upon the wild life which abounded in all regions occupied by the first settlers. The most available included the deer, wild hog, turkey quail, squirrels and rabbits.   Surplus meats were cured in the smoke-houses, dried, or pickled.

Then, too, in our colony along the Trinity River and its tributaries were found bee trees filled with a fine quality honey.Corn and wheat were taken to mills located on streams at places favorably situated for the installation of turbine wheels. Other food products were hauled long distances from navigable points along the Trinity and Brazos Rivers.

Our colony marketed its cotton in Houston and brought back lumber and other supplies. These round trips to Houston with ox teams sometimes required months, depending upon time lost waiting for swollen streams to become fordable.

In those days nearly every home was a manufacturing plant where raw materials were produced or secured through barter. The spinning wheel and the loom constituted the chief pieces of machinery for producing cloth from which clothes were made. The good housewife and girls of the family fashioned this material into clothes for the family. Moccasins and buckskin suits were made from the hides of the deer which had been killed for meat to supply the table,

Soap was made from lye produced from wood ashes saved from the big fire places and emptied into the "ash-hopper." When the housewife was ready to make soap, she poured water over the ashes in the hopper, collected the lye, put it into the wash kettle with certain fats and later cut the soap into bars.

Every home was supplied with candle molds and suet, bullet molds and lead from which candles and bullets were made by the colonists. There were a few tradesmen in the colonies, such as blacksmiths, shoe and harness makers, etc.

During their courting days, my father and mother went to church on horseback, a distance of eight miles. The church announcements included those about strayed or stolen horses and cattle, giving color, age, sex, and brand.

Dr. J. W. Harper, a Methodist minister, a Latin and Greek scholar from one of the eastern universities, migrated to Texas in 1883 with the avowed purpose of securing a grant of land and devoting the major part of his time to teaching and preaching. He was employed as one of the teachers of our school and made some fine contributions in both of these fields.

At the Bluff Springs Camp meeting grounds, and at other great religious gatherings, the people were greatly moved by the unction and power of Doctor Harper's sermons. In the spring of 1884 Doctor Harper became sick unto death, and the problem of finding a teacher for the unexpired term was very difficult for the trustees to solve.

At this time I was probably the oldest boy in school. I had been through Ray's Third Part arithmetic, Butler's Practical English grammar, and had parsed involved and inverted sentences from Pollock's "Course of Time." Then, too, I had been a "star" in a play entitled "Boarding School Accomplishments" at the Annual School "Exhibition" at the close of the preceding school session. Moreover, I had been catcher for the community baseball team for two years and was chief advisor of our big thirty-year-old first baseman who was given to partaking of artificial stimulants before the games were called. These qualifications were all I had to recommend me to the favorable considerations of the trustees. I was unanimously elected. A few weeks later I passed the county examination and received my first certificate which gave me legal authority to teach in my county.

I resigned my position at the close of the school session and entered Trinity University at Tehuacana the next year.

After I received my teacher's certificate in Waxahachie, in Ellis County, from Judge C. E. Dunlap, and after completing with some degree of success and acceptability, the unexpired term of Doctor Harper in my home town, I thought that the worst of my troubles were over.

Finally, the harvest was finished, the summer was ended, and the entire family was busy getting ready for my departure to Trinity University, at Tehuacana, the following day.

I had not been away from home for more than two nights at a time, and the matter of breaking away from the home next where mother, brothers, and sisters had been such a large part of my life, weighed heavily on my mind. However, I determined to treat the occasion as just another passing event. This resolution carried very well  until I reached the gate and saw Mother and sisters weeping on the front porch. I never recovered from the emotional upset until I reached the big gate, a half mile from the house.

My first college experience, in 1884 and 1885, was eventful in that day. It seems to me now to have been very uneventful.

After returning from Trinity University I found that there was no vacancy in my hometown school so early  one morning in July I mounted one of the farm horses and headed for the Goose Pond School, a one-teacher school some four or five miles distant, bent on getting the school for the next scholastic year. I crossed Ten Mile Creek, up the gently sloping hill, beyond which the fields were thickly studded with shocks of golden grain and great ears of corn were pendant from the stalks in the corn field.

The Goose Pond School and the pond which gave the school its name were now in sight. A quarter of a mile beyond the school I saw Mr. A. T. Pullback, one of the trustees, gathering his first mess of yams. I braced myself in the saddle and drew up the bridle reins hoping to make a good appearance.

I greeted Mr. Pullback and after talking for a short time about the abundant crops that year, I made application for the Goose Pond School. Responding to his questions I told him that I was not married and that I had had practically no experience in teaching. He replied that they wanted a married man; that the young teacher they had last year spent too much time courting, that his behavior was a shame, a scandal, and the talk of the whole community. In addition, he did not open the school until the sun was an hour high and always dismissed at four o'clock. He said that the next teacher must cut out "courtin'" and put in full time teaching,

One hour's conversation with Mr. Pullback changed the "spirit of my dream" and brought me again to the realization of the fact that: "Life is not all one grant sweet song."   After declining an invitation to stay for dinner, I mounted my faithful steed and started for home, a sadder and wiser applicant for a school.

A few days after my visit to the Goose Pond School Community,  I met a friend, Mr. James Prego, who had taught the Smoky Hollow School the preceding year. He was grooming him elf to run for a county office and would gladly recommend me for the place.

There were no improved roads leading to this community at that time and the school was practically inaccessible during the rainy seasons. In fact, the Smoky Hollow School was a very uninviting field for an inexperienced teacher. However I was elected and the school was opened for a six months session about the first of October, with all classes from the first to eighth grade represented.

The organization and classification was on of the most difficult problems of a life time. The furniture consisted of long benches made without adjustments to pupils from seven to twenty years of age. Twelve inch boards were attached to the long benches by means of strap hinges. During the writing periods the boards were raised on the hinges and a prop-stick extending from the floor was used to hold the board in position for writing.

The equipment consisted of a very limited supply of blackboard which was constructed of three pieces of one by twelve framed and painted black. When the school opened on that October morning, the children, their dogs, and about half of the patrons were present. The children brought in every variety of readers, spellers, and arithmetic; a dinner bucket filled with large biscuits, smokehouse cured ham, and a wide-mouthed quinine bottle filled with home-made molasses, and a bottle of milk.

Figuratively speaking, I had my first real spell of headache, earache, and toothache when we began the classification. The patrons were sold on the "Three R" course of study, and protested vigorously the organization of classes in grammar, geography, and physiology. They wanted all of the time given to reading, writing, arithmetic, and spelling. Moreover, they claimed that the exhibits of skeletons, vital organs, etc., as seen on the pages of the texts on physiology were shameful and not suitable for mixed classes. So after limiting the content of our course of study to writing, reading, arithmetic, spelling and English grammar, I found that I had thirty-five classes.

That was not as bad as you might think for the teacher heard a class or two before school hours and one after school. Then, too, it was common for the teacher to hear three classes at a time – two arithmetic classes at the board, while a spelling or reading class was in progress.

When the noon hour finally came, the procedure and technique were not materially different from what I had been used to in my school days. The children and the dogs belonging to the family gathered around the dinner bucket. Each child took on of those large biscuits, bored a hold in the middle of the top crust with his forefinger, and filled the hold with home-made molasses from the aforementioned quinine bottle. (Quinine content from these bottles was used in treatment for chills.)

The dog rendered good service in the settlement of Texas as a faithful protection of domestic animals against thieves, and predatory animals. Then, too, he was useful in catching wild life for food. The faithful dog was usually provided for at home and at school.

It was a very eventful day, to say the least of it. During the course of the day one boy pushed another off the end of the long bench into the aisle. Anther boy "gypped" his friend's half plug of tobacco and would not return it. Sometimes fights took place immediately after school.

In going a mile and a half to my boarding place, I was forced to go through a large pasture in which a hundred four and five year old steers were kept, or go a long way around. I was warned that these steers were equipped with long horns of the old type and were really dangerous. However, I had had quite a bit to do with cattle and didn't fear them at first.

About the second week of school as I was making my way through the pasture one morning, I saw several of these long-horned bovines, bowing their necks, and starting slowly but surely for me. I never knew until that day how fast I could run, or how quickly I could scale a stave and ridered fence. Sometimes the long way around is better than the short way through.

At the close of this, my first year, I resigned to accept the job of principal of my home-town school.

Neither relatives nor friends attracted us to Arlington in 1908, for we had no such connections here.

I had passed through the town on the T. & P. Railroad many times on my way to and from my home in Ferris, Texas. On these trips from Hamilton and Vernon to Ferris, I became favorably impressed with the physiography and topography of the location. Here in the feather edge of the Cross Timbers, fourteen miles from Fort Worth and twenty miles from Dallas, set among majestic oak trees with the nucleus of the town that was to be – Arlington. To the south and east lie the rich black lands suitable for all standard Texas crops. The Trinity slope to the North is made up of the sandy loam adaptable to another variety of crops. Then, too, the Carlisle Military Academy was located here. The Northern Texas Traction Company offered hourly service between Dallas, Fort Worth, and intermediate points.

Moreover, we found a hospitable, industrious, and homogeneous citizenship which was able to make its contribution in the utilization of the natural resources of the Great Arlington Country.

In 1908 there were no hard surfaced streets and few of the roads in this trade territory were graded.

Seventy-five feet of concrete side-walk in front of the Walter B. Taylor residence on North Center Street was the sum total of the sidewalks in Arlington thirty-three years ago.

This situation made some of the roads impassable in the rainy season for all vehicles.

The community had two automobiles of the oldest model type owned by Doctors Davis and Cravens in 1908, and according to information given by Mr. J. M. Houston, 2600 licenses for automobiles and trucks have been sold during the first four months of 1941.

I must desist lest I become too meticulous in this introduction.

A few days after arriving in Arlington, Mr. Frank McKnight, President of the Board of Education, called a meeting of the board for a conference. The board at this time was composed as follows: Frank McKnight, President; J. I. Carter, Secretary; Webb Ditto, Assessor-Collector; D. C. Sibley, C. A. Hargertt (C. B. Berry was appointed to take the place when Hargett resigned), A. H. Smith, F. R. Wallace, Superintendent H. Tarpley made a report on the condition and needs of the schools.

In addition to the superintendent and principal, ten teachers were employed for the system. (The faculty is composed in 1941 of forty-two members.)

The children were housed in two buildings: one for white children and one for colored children.

None of the buildings were equipped with modern conveniences. The schools were characterized by poor housing, organization; poor equipment, poor moral and financial support.

The 1908-1909 session was partially supported by private subscription and partially by public funds.

The public school situation in Texas during the latter part of the last century and the first part of the present century was such as to produce great irregularity in attendance and consequently many pupils were greatly retarded. Many of them withdrew from the schools before they completed the course prescribed for the elementary schools.

Under these adverse conditions the matter of discipline was a daily, if not an hourly problem, and the paddle and the strap were very much in evidence every day.

The same method of government was employed in the homes, and in some cases, the new teacher became very popular with patrons because he "knocked out" two of the bullies on the first day of the school.

Sometimes that was the best way to begin the school.

The collusion of large boys against the school executives resulted sometimes in physical combats and truancy. This lack of cooperation of pupils began to disappear with the awakening of the general public in Texas about twenty-five years ago with reference to the values of education and was the beginning of a new era in the history of education in our state.

A new era in the history of the Arlington Public Schools began in September, 1922, when the high school moved into the new building on Cooper Street. The high school course of study was enriched and extended. Vocational Home Economics, Commercial Arts, Public School Music and four standard science courses became a part of our approved course of study.

The old South Side School building which had served for both the elementary and high school purposes, burned to the ground on June 10, 1933, and on the same sit a new two story building was dedicated in 1936.

It is complete in architecture, equipment, and landscaping. The profusion of trees, shrubs and flowers make this campus one of the beauty spots in Arlington.

The building program was climaxed during Superintendent Everitt's administration by improvements on the high school building, the erection of a modernly equipped gymnasium, cafeteria, a well equipped department for agriculture and shops.

The new Home Economics building was erected as a model of architecture and equipment for all schools which contemplate the erection of a Home Economics building.

The new North Side School, rechristened as the John A. Kooken Elementary School, is a model of the one story type school. It has a combination auditorium gymnasium and is completely equipped for cafeteria, library, etc.

The course of study has been enriched under the administration of the present Superintendent of Schools, Ben Everitt. Vocational Agriculture, Commercial Law, Solid Geometry, etc. have been added to our courses.

Superintendent Everitt has built up both a band and a drum-and-bugle corps that have successfully competed with the best schools in Texas.

Our Board of Education is composed of some of our best citizens. It is composed at present as follows: D. S. Hood, president; W. Fred Cox, secretary,; Hooker Vandergriff, Alfred Brown, Gilford Perkins, Frank A. Waltersdorf, and A. C. Cunningham.

The faculty of the Arlington schools for many years has been in the aggregate composed of teachers of exemplary character, special ability, and successful experience.

We wish to make acknowledgements of the long efficient services of the following: Mrs. R. P. Putman, nee Miss Mabel Duckett, Mrs. M. H. Cravens, Miss Betty Harbison, Mrs. Bucher nee Miss Kate Moore, Mrs. Bessie Bell McClanahan, Miss Bess Rankin and Mrs. Upsher Vincent, nee Miss Ella V. Day.

The first Parent-Teacher Association was organized in May, 1909, with Mrs. C. S. Taylor as President and Mrs. J. A. Kooken as Secretary.

These organizations are now functioning in a very efficient manner and are following closely the objectives of the national organization. At the present time Mrs. F. H. Wadley is President of the High School Parent-Teacher Association, Mrs. W. L. Hughes is President of the South Side School and Mrs. R. H. Alexander is President of the John A. Kooken Elementary School.

Last year the John A. Kooken School organized the first Dad's Club in the history of our schools with Tom Owens as President and Fletcher Robbins as Secretary.


I am dedicating these seven chapters of my memoirs to you because of our close friendly association through the years.

The chapters on the objectives of education as I see them and some of the high lights of the history of education in Texas, personal contributions made by teachers, trustees and citizens are not offered for publication, because they are too technical or too personal to interest the general public.

I want to express my appreciation of cards, letters and words of good wishes for a happy period of retirement and this reaction to my service has been a great source of satisfaction to me.

You are facing an uncertain economic situation in a dynamic social order which calls for courage, industry, sobriety, trust worthiness and all those traits of character which counts for strong manhood and pure noble womanhood. As I have seen it, the righteous life brings happiness and prosperity and the unrighteous life brings remorse, sorrow and failure. And now, finally I would urge you, "Whatsoever things are true; whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."


Arlington, Texas


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