Sawney Webb was born in a North Carolina farmhouse on November 11, 1842. His father, Alexander Webb, died when he was six years old, leaving most of his rearing to his mother. She taught Sawney the value of hard work and what it meant to be a gentleman. His older sister, “Suny,” was his first teacher. His daily lessons began with a Bible reading and prayer, practices he followed as a schoolmaster.
Webb’s formal education included instruction in Latin and Greek at the Bingham School in Oaks, North Carolina, and he attended the University of North Carolina for several months before entering the Confederate army as a private. During the Civil War, he survived a disabling wound in his shoulder, accepted two temporary discharges, and endured hardship, battles, and imprisonment. At war’s end, Captain Sawney Webb returned home on a boxcar. For the next five years, he juggled duties as schoolteacher, family breadwinner, and provider for the education of his younger brother, John. Webb also earned his A.B. degree from the University of North Carolina.
The changes brought about by North Carolina’s Reconstruction government convinced Webb to seek independence and change in Tennessee. In 1870 he established a school in Culleoka. That same year, he married Emma Clary, a self-reliant and determined woman, whose encouragement and support contributed to the success of the school. In 1873 he was joined in his life’s work by his brother John, an imminent scholar, who had graduated first in his class at the University of North Carolina.
When Vanderbilt University was founded in 1875, Webb School’s “oldest and best boys” enrolled in the new university. At the end of the school year, Webb graduates were the only Vanderbilt students who took honors in the university’s first examinations.
A decade later, in 1886, the town of Culleoka incorporated, making the sale of liquor legal within the city limits. This was too much for Webb, an ardent prohibitionist. Sawney and his boys packed up and headed to Bell Buckle, a village thirty-five miles west on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. On six acres of beech forest, about one-third of a mile from the depot, Webb dug a well and built a bigger and better schoolhouse than that in Culleoka. Leading citizens of Bell Buckle supported the move by raising $12,000 for the new school.
At Bell Buckle Webb, usually attired in a frock coat, continued to enhance his school’s reputation for furnishing America’s most outstanding universities with well-prepared students who were also gentlemen. His rules were few and simple: “Don’t be a sneak. Don’t do things on the sly. Don’t be a me too.” (1) He did not tolerate profanity, gambling, or smoking cigarettes, and was a terror to the unruly. Such boys were promptly shipped home.
By 1908 Sawney’s failing health forced him to take a leave of absence from the school. In his absence, his son Will ran the school. The following spring Webb returned with his old boyish spirit and the revival of his strength. In 1912 the state legislature chose him to fill out the unexpired U.S. Senate term of Robert L. Taylor. Once again, he turned his school over to his son Will, and headed to Washington.
After serving five weeks, Webb returned home to worry about his boys, enjoy his family, and attend the Bell Buckle Methodist Church, where he was a devoted member. He also made speeches at various schools and accepted honorary doctorates at Erskine College and the University of North Carolina. During World War I, he served on Bedford County’s draft exemption board.
In December 1926, Sawney Webb died at home at the age of eighty-four. Memorial services were held in several locations, including Nashville. Admirers published countless eulogies to the “South’s greatest teacher of boys.” Old Sawney would be remembered because the school he ran in the backwoods of Tennessee was the finest preparatory school in the South and, in the opinion of Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University, one of the nation’s finest preparatory schools. Indeed, during Webb’s first fifty years, it produced more Rhodes scholars than any other secondary school in the country.
Laurence McMillin, The Schoolmaker: Sawney Webb and the Bell Buckle Story (1971)