Tri-City Ledger -

By Russell Brown
Guest Writer 

The history of Florida's education system

 

November 22, 2018



The history of early organized education in Florida is one of none, followed by failed and sporadic efforts by state and local officials until just before the twentieth century. The first real effort came with the post-Civil War Constitution commonly remembered as the “carpet bagger Constitution”. In 1885 a new Constitution used much of its predecessor’s language, adding separate but equal schools for black students and establishing new institutes of higher learning for the training of teachers. Through such foundations the beginning of educational development in the state began. However, it was almost 1900 before the state board of education even developed required guidelines for schools in all counties. There are some interesting stories surrounding the later era of better schools in our region during the early twentieth century. Here is one.

In 1842 the county of Santa Rosa was established on the eastern side of the Escambia River, and the largest bay-side town of Floridatown was made county seat. Almost immediately afterward, a major outbreak of yellow fever forced officials to move the government. They chose the fast growing river town of Milton. Among the officials to abandon their homes and resettle near the new county seat was Jesse Carter Allen, the first elected sheriff of the new county. Like most settlers of the era, Sheriff Allen was a farmer. He found suitable new land north of Milton and began clearing his farm. He joined others interested in the area like Ben Jernigan who started a saw-mill nearby and his partner, businessman Billy Mitchell. John Botts came; his desire to settle land here lead him to ride for two weeks by horseback to Tallahassee in order to file the claim on his homestead. Another early settler was Will Harrison; he would be one of the area’s first Republicans at the birth of the party, and have much to do with the political and social development of the new county. The Mitchell and Jernigan families would settle and introduce the early style of broad grazing by sheep and cattle. Other loggers and farmers who came here were the West, Ware, Wiggins, Manning, Wolfe, and Campbells. The close knit community that grew around these families became known as Allentown.

During the early years of public education in Florida, communities were responsible for local education. Teachers were usually given room and board, and school houses were paid for by interested parents. By 1900 this system lead to having many one-room schools located very near to one another. In the county of Santa Rosa, there were eighty-four schools. By 1912 the Allentown community had three small schools; one adjacent to the notorious quagmire of a muddy road today called highway 87.

By 1900 Florida counties were demanding that the state establish a school tax system in order to help local schools. The result was a new program setting aside millage of each tax dollar from a county that would be directed to that county’s schools, along with the design of Special School Tax Districts chosen by local voters for development of community schools. By 1910 Santa Rosa’s School Superintendent John Diamond was regularly visiting communities, encouraging them to vote and create their own tax districts. In 1921 Allentown was ready. That year a mass meeting was held at the Hammock Pond School. Pro and con speeches for a new school were accompanied with dinner on the grounds and a new form of entertainment - a silent movie. In early 1922, continual rains creating muddy paths around schools swayed local sentiment toward the effort. Mr. King, one of the main supporters, gathered the needed signatures to request a vote while riding by horse across the district.

That year a vote was made and the special district was established; three Trustees to oversee the district were elected and building bonds needed to raise money for construction were issued. A school site was picked near the center of the community, well away from the mud of highway 87, and a building was soon designed. Unfortunately, estimates from builders quickly showed that funds were far less than needed. The citizens of Allentown considered the problem for a while and decided in the spirit of their forefathers, “We can do it ourselves”.

The two-story school was constructed largely with volunteer “day labor”. Local farmers used their mule teams the lift heavy beams and materials for the upper floor. A second bond sale was quickly organized to raise funds for the completion of the school, but still there was not enough money to purchase brick. Again local volunteers were up to the task. Clay was taken from a small local site used by an Italian immigrant of the 1880s for his small fine pottery business. With equipment powered by farm tractors, brick were pressed on site. Supervised by Mr. Murphy, a brick maker from Walton County, about 250,000 brick were stacked and fired with crossties taken from an abandoned logging railway in the community. The finished brick were then transported by mule and wagon to the school for its completion. The entire process had moved very quickly thanks to the efforts of the community. The new Allentown school opened as the Santa Rosa Agricultural High School on September 3, 1923.

For almost one hundred years since, students have graduated from the Allentown school. The large school at the site today is simply called Central High, but somewhere in its structure lies the agricultural school built by a pioneer-minded community that had a simple answer for problems, “We can do it ourselves”.

Time to celebrate the harvest and enjoy the company of those who care for you, have a great Thanksgiving.

 
 

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