When he was 19 years old, in 1821, a young teacher named Benjamin Labaree left a small town in New Jersey, made his way to New York City and took passage on a ship bound for Washington, N.C.
His first impression of the North Carolina coast could have been better.
“I should not like to teach in that town,” he later wrote, remembering Washington– or, as we call it now, “Little Washington.”
“Everything looked so untidy and neglected,” he continued. “Dead animals were to be seen in the travelled streets.”
He did not stay in Little Washington for very long.
Instead, he said: “I soon mounted the stage for Newbern, but I will only say of the country between the Tar and Neuse [Rivers] that it was low, wet and unthrifty and I thought our New England farms were much to be preferred.”
From Little Washington to Trenton
Labaree had grown up on a farm in Charleston, New Hampshire. For four years, though, when he was barely out of school himself, he taught at schools in villages in New Jersey and North Carolina. He wanted to see more of the world, and he hoped to gain wisdom that would help him to figure out his future path in life.
When young Labaree sailed to Little Washington, he was in search of a teaching job in or near New Bern, 35 miles to the south.
A friend in New Jersey had an uncle in New Bern, and the friend believed that her uncle would help Labaree find a teaching job. When they met, the uncle did direct the young teacher to a likely position in a nearby village called Trenton, 15 miles west of New Bern.
Labaree chronicled his teaching experiences and local life and customs in Trenton in a memoir that he wrote in 1879, at the end of a long career as a missionary and teacher on the Tennessee Frontier.
“I am requested [to write this memoir] by my son Rev. Benjamin Labaree, for the benefit of his children, who … have had very little opportunity to become acquainted with their grandfather. In complying with this request which I very cheerfully do, I shall not confine myself strictly to the subject, but shall use a free pen, and relate such facts and incidents, as I may hope will be useful to the dear children.”
“A Sluggish River, called the Trent, and a Millpond”
My wife and I were really in New Haven, Conn. to meet our niece and nephew’s beautiful new baby girl, not to do research on 19th-century village life in eastern N.C.
But we stayed in New Haven for 5 days and, in the fleeting moments when I wasn’t doting on my grandniece, I did find a little time to explore the city’s libraries and manuscript collections in search of new insights into eastern N.C.’s past.
Though nearly 80 years old when he wrote his memoir, Labaree vividly recalled the village of Trenton.
“There were perhaps twenty dwelling or more to be seen for the whites and some for the blacks, though the latter were for the most part out of sight,” he recalled.
He described Trenton further: “No church, no schoolhouse, no public buildings of any kind except a Court House[,] a Jail and a Hotel. The village was situated quite low between a sluggish River, called The Trent, and a mill pond.”
I grew up 40 miles east of Trenton and I easily recognized the town from his description. Though Trenton is the seat of Jones County, the millpond and river (both lovely) remain the town’s most notable landmarks.
While larger than in 1821, the town is still quite small. I don’t think it has ever had more than one or two stoplights.
“A Teacher from the North in pursuit of a School”
Labaree’s account is the story of the birth of what may have been Trenton’s first school. As happened in so many eastern N.C. towns, the school’s history began with the arrival of a teacher from New England.
I stopped at the public House and made known that I was a teacher from the North in pursuit of a school. Many thought they needed a school. A number of people were glad to see a teacher, and would willingly send, one, two or three scholars, but alas alas they had no schoolhouse! But says one there is an old house out in the field or common, unoccupied, we can prepare a room in that house in a short time and at little expense, that will answer very well for a time.
As carpenters got to work, Labaree and a villager rode into the countryside to encourage the neighborhood’s planters to enroll their children in the school.
Very soon our schoolroom was finished, and our school began. It was very much like other schools; boys and girls are very much the same everywhere, good, bad & indifferent, only the children were more backward than those of the same age at the North generally.
“A Boy… Who Really Knew but Little”
By winter, the townspeople had built a new school that was easer to heat and not so dark, having windows, unlike the old house in the field.
Our school was pretty well established and scholars came in from a greater distance and found board in the village. I kept a subscription school, they had no public funds, but the parents of each scholar paid so much a term for his instruction. Tuition was low and the number of students not very large, so my wages were small, but they did very well for a boy not 20 years old and who really knew but little.
Of course the school did not enroll girls and did not enroll any children of color, of either sex, free or slave.
Young Labaree was the only teacher and taught all the children in a single room, small boys and older youths together.
When he came down with “ague and fever” that winter, he continued teaching. The illness lingered for months. At times, he had spells in which he shook uncontrollably and had to lie down on a school bench.
After an hour or so, he would rise and teach again. At those moments, he had older students teach the younger students.
It was gratifying to observe the order that prevailed, and the sympathy which was thus exhibited for their sick teacher during these attacks. I shall never forget the girls and boys of my school, the little village of Trenton, N.C.
Labarre stayed in Trenton long enough to see the building of a more ambitious school building, one that combined an academy and a church that also seems to have been the village’s first.
They went to work, raised money by subscription, and put up the building in time for me to occupy it with my school a few months before I left the South for my northern home.
“A Spirit of Benevolence and Good Will”
Writing nearly 60 years later, Labarre was philosophical about the school’s beginnings:
As we like to pick up all the items of good we have done, or have caused to be done in the world, perhaps I may put down that building as in part the result of my own exertions…. It proved to be a very pleasant school-room, high, spacious, well-ventilated, well lighted and well seated; far, far superior to any room I had before occupied in Trenton; in it I spent many pleasant hours, with a pleasant & flourishing school.
To me the most interesting part of Labarre’s journal (at least the part on his school in Trenton) came at the end.
As Labarre finished the story of his sojourn in Trenton, he reflected on the nature of a teacher’s calling and what teaching meant for the young people, the community and the teacher.
He thought teaching was an especially apt profession for a young person, as he was in 1821 and ‘22, still growing into maturity and figuring out their life’s purpose.
He spoke about the good that teachers do in educating and shaping the character of the young.
He discussed the benefit that, in his eyes, the schoolteachers from New England brought remote southern communities such as Trenton, by introducing new ideas and new perspectives on the world.
But then he wrote something that I don’t know if I have heard before, and his words have stayed with me.
At the very end of his journal’s account of his teaching days in Trenton, Labarre considered how teaching makes the teacher himself or herself into a better person. He thought this quality made the profession especially suitable for a young person setting out in life:
I know of no occupation better fitted to develop the character than teaching school. It cultivates self-command and self-respect, it leads us to discriminate between the characters of children; it inspires us with a spirit of benevolence and good will, it holds us directly responsible for our conduct day by day, and thus compels us to move with care and caution. While the teacher is imparting good instruction and is trying to improve the character of children, his own character is improving in some respects, much more rapidly than any one of them. He is not only growing in knowledge, but growing also in character….
The elder Benjamin Labarre was a wise man, his words as true now as they were two centuries ago.
Next time– Labaree and the slave conspiracy of 1821