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Pi Beta Phi Settlement School

The Pi Beta Phi Settlement School in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is one of the best extant examples of the early twentieth-century settlement school movement. The school’s origins date to 1910, when Pi Beta Phi, the first women’s fraternity, which was founded at Monmouth College, Illinois, in 1867, chose to create a national service project. They solicited advice from the U.S. Bureau of Education, focused their attention on Appalachia, and searched for a community that would benefit from the establishment of an educational outreach program. While most early settlement schools in Appalachia and Tennessee were sponsored by religious organizations, the situation in Gatlinburg was different from the start. According to early teacher Henrietta McCutchan Huff, the college-educated women formed a partnership with the local community, who agreed to put up the money to purchase a centrally located tract of land along the town’s primary road only after determining that there was no church affiliation. The first teacher was Martha Hill of Nashville, and classes took place beginning in March 1912 in an abandoned church-school building near the meeting of Baskins Creek and the Little Pigeon River. By 1914, Pi Beta Phi had built the school a modern six-room schoolhouse, whose inaugural session had seventy-five pupils enrolled.

The settlement school teachers and administrators began almost immediately to launch community programs. They introduced manual training in woodcrafts and weaving for students. Following the national trend encouraged by the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, there was also an emphasis on home and agricultural demonstration work, with boarding students soon engaged in garden and farm training. The school also encouraged the production of handcrafted objects such as baskets, coverlets, and quilts produced by local makers. A cottage industry that grew out of the manual arts production and community outreach would be marketed nationally under the name Arrowcraft (named after the Pi Beta Phi symbol, the arrow) beginning in the mid-1920s. In 1928, in a partnership between Sevier County and the school, an industrial high school was built on the campus with federal funding from the Smith-Hughes Act.

Because of the extreme isolation and poverty of the students and their families, the Pi Phi women realized almost from the beginning that lack of healthcare was a major problem. In 1919-20, they recruited a Columbia University-trained, New York City settlement house nurse, Phyllis Higinbotham, and opened a clinic in a four-room farm house on the school property. Higinbotham, the first trained nurse in the county, traveled in a five-to-six-mile radius of the school teaching midwifery skills along with the necessity of home sanitation and good dietary practices. The school’s Jennie Nicol Health Clinic, named after one of the founding members of Pi Beta Phi, who had died soon after obtaining her medical degree, was the first “hospital” in Gatlinburg. By 1926, it was considered a model project for rural public health in Tennessee. Higinbotham moved on to become the first state supervisor of public health nurses. A new stone building, constructed on the parkway in 1948, continued to function as a community health center until 1965.

In 1943, Sevier County began the first steps toward taking academic control of the school (which had been providing the only free public education for grades one through twelve in Gatlinburg since 1912), leasing both elementary and high-school buildings and agreeing to pay utilities and teachers for a twenty-five-year period. On the advice of educational consultants hired that same year, Pi Beta Phi leaders turned to the University of Tennessee for assistance in establishing a summer craft program at the college level, which met immediate success and led the way to a new direction for the school. University of Tennessee design teacher Marian Heard, who was instrumental in the success of the summer programs, was also involved in the first Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild Fair held on the school grounds in 1948. In 1964, the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity voted to found a year-round arts and crafts center with the name Arrowmont and invited Heard to become its director. In 1965, the Sevier County School system absorbed both the elementary and high-school programs.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010