In 1792, according to tradition, a North Carolina Revolutionary War veteran named Andrew Kennedy settled with his family on a parcel of land along Little River near Maryville in Blount County. Sometime after his arrival in Tennessee, probably in 1794, Kennedy and Henry McCulloch joined with some neighbors to construct a small log schoolhouse in a clearing less than a mile from the Kennedy home. No definitive explanation can now be given for the decision to locate the schoolhouse at the somewhat unusual site more than a half-mile from Little River. Presumably its proximity to the refreshing spring which flows nearby and perhaps its central position in relation to the original builders’ homes were factors in the selection of the site. The school’s first teacher was Henry McCulloch, but beyond this nothing is really known of the history of the building until the arrival of the colorful character with whose name it is now inseparably linked.
Born in 1793, and thus hardly older than the little schoolhouse, Sam Houston was one of nine children of a moderately prosperous militia officer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Reverses in the family’s fortunes around 1807 brought the recently widowed Elizabeth Houston and her youngsters to seek a new start in Blount County, where they settled on a farm some miles from Maryville. Young Sam, however, could not for long be kept tied to family concerns. Restless and romantic, he tried farm work, school, and storekeeping in quick succession and found none of them to his liking. His spirit of adventure led him to seek out the companionship of the nearby Cherokees, with whom he lived at intervals for several years. His purchases of trinkets and supplies from local merchants eventually put him in debt and forced him to seek employment. That he chose teaching was typical of his brazen self-confidence, for his own formal education hardly totaled six months. He did have a bright mind, however, and a taste for literature.
At the age of eighteen, Sam left his Indian friends and began conducting classes in the log schoolhouse of Andrew Kennedy and Henry McCulloch. Since his family’s homestead was nearly fifteen miles away he undoubtedly took quarters somewhere in the school neighborhood. Local tradition says that Sam boarded in his pupils’ homes until his mother moved to the area to care for him while he taught. Though initially he had some difficulty recruiting students, he soon had a surfeit of them. Among his pupils were all nine children of Andrew Kennedy and, according to tradition, even some men of age forty or fifty. In order to more quickly repay his creditors, Houston set the tuition rate at eight dollars per year, well above the standard six-dollar fee. As hard currency was difficult to obtain, he allowed one-third to be paid in corn, one-third in cotton cloth, and the remainder in cash.
Houston did not envision teaching as a permanent career, however, and as soon as he had earned enough to cover his debts, he closed the school and returned to a local academy for more schooling of his own. An unsuccessful bout with geometry ended that endeavor and in March 1813 he enlisted in the U.S. Army to begin the first chapter of a long, successful, and dramatic career in politics and war. But his experience in the little schoolhouse did not leave him unaffected, for he retained a lifelong commitment to popular education as well as some fond memories of his teaching days. Years later, when asked which of the prominent positions he had held had given him the greatest satisfaction, he replied: “When a young man in Tennessee, I kept a county school. . . . I experienced a higher feeling of dignity and self-satisfaction than from any office or honor which I have since held.” (1)