Kentucky’s moonlight schools

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 15, 2014

Some would consider her the founder of Adult Literacy Education in the United States. Cora Wilson Stewart (1875-1958) was an elementary school teacher and county school superintendent in eastern Kentucky’s Rowan County who, in the fall of 1911, decided to open the classrooms in her district to adult pupils.

When the Moonlight Schools opened on September 5, 1911, adults were taught at night in the one-room schools in which children were taught by day. They were called “moonlight schools” because classes were held on nights when the moon cast enough light for students to see the footpaths and wagon trails they often followed for miles to reach the school. Teachers volunteered their time to teach at these schools.

Moonlight School, KentuckyOriginal caption reads: “‘Gladys Thompson’s Moonlight School'”; adults and a few children sitting or standing in a room with a potbellied stove, pictures of horses and Abraham Lincoln are hanging on the wall”.

“It was expected that the response would be slow, but more than 1,200 men and women from 18 to 86 years of age were enrolled the first evening,” said Stewart of the initial 50 schools in the program. “They came trooping over the hills and out of the hollows, some to add to the meager education received in the inadequate schools of their childhood, some to receive their first lessons in reading and writing.

“Among them were not alone illiterate farmers and their illiterate wives, sons, and daughters, but also illiterate merchants or storekeepers, illiterate ministers, and illiterate lumbermen. Mothers, bent with age, came that they might learn to read letters from absent sons and daughters, and that they might learn for the first time to write them.”

Stewart later called this first night “the brightest moonlit night the world has ever seen.”

Stewart was convinced that adults should not use the same materials as children to learn to read, so she developed for adult students The Rowan County Messenger, a newspaper with short sentences and lots of word repetition. In teaching writing, she concentrated first on teaching adults to write their own names, believing that this was a vital way of developing what we would today call self-esteem.

In 1912 the enrollment reached nearly 1,600 and the movement had spread to 8 or 10 other counties. Of these 1,600, “300 entered the school utterly unable to read and write at all, 300 were from those who had learned in September, 1911, and 1,000 were men and women of meager education.”

In 1914-15, it was estimated that 40,000 Kentucky adults had learned to read and write in moonlight schools. A Carrollton, KY woman wrote Stewart in 1914: “I wish to thank you for the Moonlight Schools. I have been going six nights and have learned to read and write. I am forty-three years old and have written my first letter to my mother, the next to you . . . Yours, Amanda McKinney.”

In 1915 Stewart published the Country Life Reader: First Book and the next year she published the Country Life Reader: Second Book. Both books featured functional materials from adult’s daily lives:

“This is dirty and ugly. The house needs paint. The porch is falling down. A lazy, shiftless family lives here.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know it from the house. Lazy, shiftless people live in dirty, ugly homes.”
From Country Life Readers by Cora Wilson Stewart (1915)

“Dear Friends,” she wrote on the last page of the first reader. “This little book was written especially for the dear boys and girls of the moonlight schools, not the youngest, perhaps, but the finest school children on earth . . . The preparation of this book has been truly a labor of love. If you have received any benefit from it, the author is fully repaid. “Yours sincerely, Cora Wilson Stewart”

Alabama and Mississippi adopted Stewart’s idea, and by 1916, adults in 18 states had been enrolled.

Cora Wilson StewartCora Wilson Stewart was born in Farmers, KY and attended Morehead Normal School (later Morehead State University) and the University of Kentucky. Stewart began teaching in 1895 at age 20. During World War I she was concerned with Selective Service findings that some 700,000 men were totally illiterate, so she developed The Soldier’s First Book to teach military recruits to read. She was the first woman president of the Kentucky Education Association and in 1926, she was named director of the National Illiteracy Crusade.

From 1929-1933 she was named chairperson of President Hoover’s Commission on Illiteracy. She was active in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs as well. Stewart was also a delegate to the 1920 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, and was nominated for President of the United States.

Stewart’s private life was not as successful as her public one. She spent her last years in a home for the elderly in Tryon, NC, alone, with only enough resources to live. She had been married three times — twice to the same man. Her only child had died in infancy. Glaucoma had left her blind.

She died in December 1958 at age 83.

Sources: Statistics of Land-grant Colleges and Universities, by United States Office of Education, Office of Education, United States Govt. Print. Off., 1913
Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight Schools, by Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin, University Press of Kentucky, 2006

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Time for Kris Kringling

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 12, 2014

For Pennsylvania Dutch children Christmas started yesterday, the beginning of ‘chriskringling’ (or ‘Kris Kringling,’) the two-week period culminating in Christmas. It’s a hybrid of trick or treating, mischief night, and Christmas caroling.

Tradition dictates that after dressing in costumes, the children sneak up to a neighbor’s house armed with noise makers of every shape and size. When all are positioned, a signal is given and a clatter sure to wake the dead booms out. The targets of the attack, usually aunts and uncles, invite the perpetrators in, where the identity of the children is guessed, and everyone enjoys hot cider and all sorts of sweet treats.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Santa figure, Pelze Nichol, or Pelznickel, which Americans tend to pronounce “pelsnickle,” eventually became re-worked to “belsnickle.” And so, as this Christmas tradition permeated south and into the Shenandoah Valley region, Kris Kringling and Belsnickling have become synonymous. Mrs. Annabelle Vance, a former Hardy County (WV) Folk Festival Belle, for example, says that “at Christmas time, she enjoys Kris Kringling, or Belsnickling, to provide gifts to the children of her community.”

Dr. Edwin Fogel says in Twelvetide “The Pennsylvania German belsnickel is derived from St. Nicholas, who lived in Asia Minor in the 4th century. He has many names in German including St. Nicles, Niclas, Neckels and Klas; his Dutch form is Santa Claus and the Pennsylvania name is Belznickel or ‘Niklas clothed in furs.’

“In the Shenandoah Valley the Belsnickel and Santa Claus are distinctly different. One is a mythical figure who is supposed to arrive after the children are in bed, and the other actually arrives while the children are still up. The belsnickel is a reality, not something to be believed in on a basis of faith and hearsay, as is Santa Claus.”

Knecht RupertThis duality harks directly from the Black Forest of Germany, where the annual visit of Santa Claus is preceded by that of Knecht Rupert, who goes around the village in a frightful disguise, visiting every house, and terrifying the naughty children by his acquaintance with their various misdemeanors.

related post: “The Belsnickle: definitely NOT Santa Claus”

Glenville Democrat and Pathfinder, July 19, 2007 (Hardy County, WV)

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‘The Death of Floyd Collins’ documentary now in production

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 11, 2014

courtesy of Kentucky Studio

courtesy of Kentucky Studio

Please welcome guest author Michael Crisp. Crisp is the director of “The Death of Floyd Collins,” a documentary film that revisits the tragic tale of the famous cave explorer Floyd Collins. In 1925 Collins became the center of a national media circus after becoming trapped for two weeks in a cave in western Kentucky. Crisp’s previous documentary film directing credits include “A Cut Above: The Legend of Larry Roberts,” “When Happy Met Froggie,” “Legendary: When Baseball Came to the Bluegrass,” and “The Very Worst Thing,” which won the Storyteller Award at the 2010 Redemptive Film Festival in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


The Death of Floyd Collins is a project very close to my heart. As a Kentuckian, I’m often attracted to projects that tell compelling stories about Kentucky people, and Floyd’s epic journey, as well as the sad fate that befell him, definitely fits into this category. In the early part of the 20th century, the tourism industry was rapidly growing, especially in Kentucky, where thousands of tourists flocked annually to behold the wonders of Mammoth Cave. By the 1920s, a handful of men were combing the lands near Mammoth Cave in the hopes of finding other caves that they could turn into popular tourist attractions as well.

By 1925, Floyd Collins believed he had found such a cave, and in late January, he began his descent alone into a small, underground tunnel that the media would later call “Sand Cave”. After burrowing approximately 100 feet deep into the cave, Floyd’s leg became stuck by a rock that had dislodged from the wall after he was attempting to return to the surface.

A day passed before it was discovered that he was missing, and after his friends and family found him, they soon found out that the rock pinning his leg would make rescuing him nearly impossible. As word spread of his predicament, the media was dispatched to Sand Cave to cover the story. A young newspaper reporter named William “Skeets” Miller entered the cave on multiple occasions, and was able to converse at length with Floyd as rescuers continued to work around the clock to free the helpless man. The Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper published Miller’s daily conversations with Floyd, which led to a global interest in the story.

The public’s fascination with the story reached its peak when approximately 50,000 people came to Sand Cave nine days after Floyd had become trapped. Nicknamed “Carnival Sunday”, the large crowd featured families who had arrived with a morbid curiosity about Floyd’s fate, as well as food and beverage vendors, preachers, and other onlookers.

As word spread of his predicament, the media was dispatched to Sand Cave to cover the story. Newsreel still courtesy the author.

As word spread of his predicament, the media was dispatched to Sand Cave to cover the story. Newsreel still courtesy the author.

During the first week of the ordeal, would-be rescuers were able to bring Floyd food and water, but a cave-in that occurred a week after his entrapment prevented them from providing him with any further provisions. Knowing that Floyd’s time was running out, the Kentucky National Guard was sent to Sand Cave. After some hesitation, they decided to dig a vertical shaft of their own in an effort to reach Floyd.

By the time they reached Floyd, which was eighteen days after he had first entered the cave, he was dead. Although public interest in Floyd had now waned, his story had not yet come to an end. In fact, it was just beginning.

Floyd Collins represented the adventurous spirit of 1920s Americana. He was a man who dreamed of fame and fortune, and sought to find them within the subterranean tunnels of America’s heartland. Unfortunately, he became a cautionary tale for those who dared to risk everything in the hopes of attaining these earthly goals.

As with our previous films, The Death of Floyd Collins combines archival footage, rare photographs, recreations and interviews with people who are close to the story. One of our interviews is with Floyd’s niece, Mildred Collins, who as a baby was present at Sand Cave during the attempted rescue. “I remember the song that came out on the radio after the tragedy,” says Mildred Collins. “It was called The Death of Floyd Collins, and we had a record of it that we‘d play on our record player. One day my daddy (Andy Lee Collins, who was one of Floyd‘s brothers) came home and caught us listening to it, and he took it off the record player and broke it. He didn‘t like us listening to that song because it brought back bad memories.”

The baby is Mildred Collins, who is being held by her father, Floyd's brother Andy Lee Collins. Newsreel still courtesy the author.

The baby is Mildred Collins, who is being held by her father, Floyd’s brother Andy Lee Collins. Newsreel still courtesy the author.

Although a great deal of our film was shot in Cave City, which is where Floyd’s entrapment occurred, we chose to film our recreations on a privately-owned, wooded farm in Johnson County, Kentucky. The farm, which was located just outside of Paintsville, Kentucky, featured several sandstone caves, including one that bore an uncanny resemblance to the real Sand Cave.

There were several challenges we faced in making the film, but perhaps the most challenging aspects occurred during our recreations. First off, there wasn’t electrical power available at the farm, so one of our producers, Wade Smith, provided a generator for the shoot that was able to power the cameras and the lights. Also, the location was fairly remote, and required crossing a stream that was about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep. Wade assembled a crew and was able to build a sturdy bridge so our actors and crew members were able to cross the creek and reach the shooting location safely.

Due to the remote location, food and beverages weren’t readily available, but Paintsville native (and actor) Ronnie Lee Blair was able to secure food and beverages from the local McDonald’s in Paintsville, which provided all of our on-set catering.

Our film will be released this coming February, however we are in need of completion funds to complete the project. These funds will assist us in distributing the film, screening it theatrically, and placing it in various film festivals throughout the country.

green screen

By contributing to this project—HERE—, you will help us with our goal of bringing Floyd’s incredible story to a wider audience, allowing others the opportunity to learn about this amazing man and the many things he accomplished in his lifetime.

Our funding goal is $25,000, which will assist us in distributing the film, screening it theatrically, and placing it in various film festivals throughout the country. We are accepting donations of all sizes, many of which include exciting perks, such as theatrical premiere movie tickets, collectors edition DVDs, listings in the film’s credits, and much more.

Whether or not you are able to donate to this campaign, we would still like to personally ask you to assist us in getting the word out about our film. Please visit (and “like”) our Facebook page, and encourage others to do so as well. Also be sure to use the Indiegogo share tools as well in order to help us continue to promote this film project.

The crew on location in Paintsville, KY

The crew on location in Paintsville, KY


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Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln In American Culture

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 10, 2014

steven wilsonPlease welcome guest author Steven Wilson, Assistant Director and Curator of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. Mr. Wilson has been with the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum for nearly twenty years, and is responsible for the development of fifteen temporary and traveling exhibits. He moved to Tennessee in 1977 and considers the Appalachian region his home. A novelist, five of Mr. Wilson’s works have been published by Kensington Books. He is currently at work on The Heretic.


Abraham Lincoln is claimed by at least four states, several families, one to two religions, and anyone else who finds Lincoln worthy of emulation. Lincoln would have been amused at his popularity considering his contemporary enemies and even some of his friends labeled him the “original gorilla,” the “Illinois ape,” or a “baboon.”

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.


Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln in American Culture is an exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum that captures and interprets the material culture of an icon. Commercial, honorary, and commemorative artifacts illustrate the impact of Lincoln on American society. Some pieces, such as the Chia Pet Lincoln, or women’s stocking bearing the image of the 16th president, or Lincoln ashtrays, are tokens. Lincoln medallions, medals, pins, and ribbons were created to honor Lincoln. Posters or counter cards from a few of the many Lincoln movies, television programs, or stage plays, represent attempts to resurrect what many Americans remembered as a remarkable man guiding the nation in the midst of a great war.

Here is something that should be regarded about artifacts. Call them things if you wish, or objects, or relics. Without interpretation and analysis these items are useless, and the museums that hold them, warehouses. Perhaps this view is too harsh, and unfair to those scholars and curators who are diligent in their care and interpretation of the material culture surrounding a theme, a nation, or an individual.

Consider this. Humanity has to be linked to any artifact to give it value. In craftsmanship, creation, pedigree, or circumstance. The 1867 children’s block set “Parlor Monuments to the Illustrious Dead” commemorates Abraham Lincoln. It is one of three complete sets in the world. Two years after the president’s assassination children are encouraged to commemorate Abraham Lincoln with carefully stacked blocks in the parlor of the family home.

Lincoln ceramic and gifts

Although Lincoln is reduced to the status of a souvenir in some cases, or the subject of fine art, he is forever emblazoned in the nation’s consciousness. No rhetoric is as powerful as the fact that the 16th President is an American icon, or more importantly, an international champion of humanity.

This exhibit not only interprets the historical Lincoln, it presents the legendary Lincoln—a figure molded from the collective memories of Americans. Call it the creation of a folk hero, a self-perpetuating myth built on a number of salient points. Lincoln was a kindly man. Lincoln was humble. Lincoln was honest and fair. He freed the slaves. He bound the nation together. Partially true, but then isn’t some truth the basis for all myths?

Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln in American Culture uses artifacts from three centuries to tell two stories. That of Lincoln, of course, but also that of the American societies who have embraced Lincoln in their own way for their own purpose. America during World War II enlists Lincoln’s aid to defeat the Axis Powers. The first decade of the 21st Century sees Lincoln fighting vampires, and to a lesser degree, zombies. Forty years before these fantastic battles we see a seated, gentle Lincoln, reading to a group of adoring children in a poster distributed to schools across the country. This time the foe is illiteracy, and the victory one of education.

Let’s stretch the two stories identified above to three. In the third Lincoln is interpreted as a citizen of 19th Century America.

It’s true that the souvenirs in the exhibit far outnumber the inspirational Lincoln posters, plaques, or medallions. But they both support an important theme of the exhibit—Abraham Lincoln is a timeless ingredient in the development of the nation. How else do you explain 16,000 books about Lincoln, or thousands of articles? Can one historical figure possibly be that interesting, or have that much of an impact on America? Abraham Lincoln was, as were his contemporaries, a product of the American experience.

His father, as a child, traveled along the Wilderness Road, within sight of the White Cliffs of Virginia, under the gaze of the brooding Pinnacle Rock, and over the Cumberland Gap, into the fertile lands of Kentucky. In 1809, amid the gentle hills of Hardin County, Abraham Lincoln was born. In 1816, “partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of land,” Thomas Lincoln took his family to Indiana. He was a portion of the great national migration that changed the face of the nation. From 1810 to 1820 the population of Indiana grew from 24,529 inhabitants to 147,178. Abraham Lincoln matured on the frontier, but a frontier that drew sustenance from its more established sisters.

Museum marketing oct 2014 047

As a boy, Lincoln recounted in an autobiography, he “had an axe put into his hands at once.” The two were inseparable, like Thor and his hammer, King Arthur and Excalibur. It was the young, scrawny Lincoln however who split more rails at any given time than a dozen men. As a product of the frontier he was expected to clear land, farm, and raise crops. Lincoln grew to despise physical labor. He was drawn to machines. Devices fascinated Lincoln. During his days on the circuit he would slip away from other lawyers just to examine farm machinery. He became an inventor and was awarded a United States Patent for a bellows-like device to lift boats off of shallow river shoals in western rivers. A facsimile of a 19th Lincoln invention proves it was an impractical device. A painting on a 1930’s issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine cover shows Lincoln and a hand carved model of his invention.

If the president had an opportunity to wander around the exhibit, strangely reminiscent of his management still, he would be fascinated by the items that filled the gallery, and by the process that manufactured them. But that is to be expected. The nation that produced Lincoln is the nation that was built on machines.

Consider this.

Many of the items in the exhibit are paper products—posters, counter cards, photographs, and ephemera. During Lincoln’s time high speed printing presses increased the production of books, papers, and other items. This to meet the demands of an increasingly educated middle class. Even Lincoln read Dime Novels, when he tired of Shakespeare, but they came to him, as well as printed materials to millions of Americans, by train. Webs of railroads crisscrossed the nation, linking America as it had never been joined before. Lincoln was the most successful corporate attorney in Illinois, specializing in railroads. The railroads that carried the nation’s commerce were the railroads that Lincoln’s army relied on during the war. Machines that like others, so fascinated the 16th President that he became a champion of the Monitor ironclad, and the Spencer repeating rifle.

The real memory and true accomplishments of Lincoln remain today because they represent the greatness of one individual in a time of great turmoil. No matter how commonplace or silly the artifacts associated with Abraham Lincoln are, or how they are viewed by today’s Americans, they were created, and exist, because Lincoln is embedded forever in the national memory.

Lincoln advertising and art, from the exhibit.

Lincoln advertising and art, from the exhibit.



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We didn’t trim a tree at home; we didn’t have any trimming

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 9, 2014

“I don’t think I was ever any more excited than on that last day at school before Christmas when Miss Dumire asked three of us girls to untrim the tree. She gave each of us a box and said, ‘Try to put the same amount in each box.’ So we were careful, helping each other as the teacher wanted. Then she said for us to be sure to put some of each kind of trimming in each one. Those soft, heavy icicles and the ropes of tinsel. The glass balls and the red candles clipped to the tree limbs.

When we finished, we set the boxes on top of the teacher’s desk, tied shut. Then at recess she called the three of us aside and asked if we would each take a box home with us so that it would get used over Christmas. Said she would get some new and different trimming for next year. She probably knew, and maybe I even had told her, that we didn’t trim a tree at home, that we didn’t have any trimming.”

“You probably asked for it,” Blanche chided.

“No, no indeed! I never would have done that; but I’m sure she could tell that I was one excited girl over the tree trimming. It was the prettiest stuff I had ever seen. It’s still about the prettiest thing I can think of.”

The reminiscence of this truly bright spot in Mamma’s life now brightened far more than the corner of her little home with the low ceiling and the unlevel floor. This was what home should be for her children and her man. As she opened the shoebox, the eager kids were almost uncontrollable with excitement over the dazzling tree ornaments for their very own tree; she struggled to keep them from spilling the ornaments all onto the floor.

“Now, kids, just you wait; wait till I take it all out here so we can see what we have. Then we’ll trim the tree.”

The kids, watching from perches on the chairs, were fascinated. Ruth and Foster and Franklin oohed and aahed at the sparkling rope and the red balls. Then they all approached the bare, green, beautiful tree, and for a moment it was quiet.


source: “Sugarlands,” A family memoir by Foster Mullenax, McClain Printing Co, Parsons WV, 1980

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