Revitalizing Ransom

June 13, 2005, Doug Davis, The Daily News Journal

Murfreesboro residents C.B. Arnette, left, and Dr. Robert Miles who attended the old Ransom School as youngsters, stand in front of the former home of Eliza and Belle Ransom on North Academy Street (photo by Jolie Simpkins)

Historic group plans to revive former private school on Academy

A historic preservation group is hoping to restore an 1800s brick home on North Academy Street – the Eliza Ransom Private School – and fill it with classrooms of children once again.

Two sisters, Eliza and Belle Ransom, taught children ages 6 to 12 various subjects at their home between 1907 and 1930, according to the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of the Eliza Ransom Private School. Eliza was the main teacher but Belle assisted.

And several local residents are planning to transform it from a boarded-up to one that can again provide a measure of education.

Few of those who attended the school are still alive, but two Murfreesboro residents who did attend remain friends today. Local historian C.B. Arnette and retired Memphis physician Dr. Robert Miles stopped by the old school on Friday where their formal education began.

“It’s probably the oldest brick home residence in Murfreesboro,” said 87-year-old Arnette. “I went there when I was six years old, through the first and second grades. Miss Belle taught me arithmetic. Dr. Miles (now 86) went there at the same time I did.”

Miles recalled attending the school from the time he was 5 until he was 7 or 8. He walked to school from the Jordan Hotel on East Main Street (ed. present day Bank of America), which his father managed and his grandfather owned.

Discipline Turned Poetic

Miss Eliza’s form of discipline left an indelible impression on her students. Miles got a taste of it after getting into a fight with another student.

“He claimed I had a neck hold on him (choking him). I didn’t; I had a head lock,” he said of the 1920s altercation. “Miss Eliza believed the other student.”

Miles was forced to stay after school and pay the price for his misdeed.

“I had to memorize the poem ‘Tennessee,’ and I think there were three or four parts to it,” he said. “I had to stay after school several weeks for that infraction.”

Arnette remembered being late for school – and its consequences.

“When we were a little tardy in the morning we would come by the windows (of the school) and all the students could see you walk by.” he said. “We would come in by the pot bellied stove and all the students would stand up and sing ‘A diller a dollar a 10 o’clock scholar. We used to come in at 10 o’clock, but now you come in noon.’ That was an embarrassment.”

Miss Eliza never administered corporal punishment, Arnette said, but instead used the same punishment for being late and for misbehaving.

“You had to stay after school and memorize poetry,” Arnette said. “The only poetry I ever learned was right there,” he continued, chuckling.

Old-fashioned Operations

When Miles and Arnette attended the school there were restrooms – outdoor – for the students.

“It was a two-holer and they used a cane break to screen the who outhouse,” he said.

The canes are still there but the rooms behind the half moons are long gone.

The Ransoms had indoor plumbing but it was reserved for the teachers, Arnette said. The home also had a cistern in the backyard that was used to catch water from gutters on the house.

“It had 20 buckets above the ground and each of them would hold two cups of water,” Arnette explained. “The buckets would go down into the water by crank, bring the water up and empty it into a receptacle. The ladies liked it because the water was soft. They used it for washing their hair and other purposes. The residence also had well water.”

“There were three fireplaces in the house and a pot bellied stove,” he said. “They also had a flat-top stove to cook with which was powered by coal.”

Tuition was #8-a-month. Arnette’s father operated a meat market and paid for his son’s tuition with meat from the market.

Teachers Challenged Students

James Cason, a retired chemistry professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was born in Murfreesboro. He attended Ransom School as a child and was a few years ahead of Arnette and Miles. Cason recounted some of his experiences in Miss Eliza’s School in the book, ‘Things Remembered’.

“This was a very small school with 15-20 students divided into three or four grades,” Cason recalled in the book. “Miss Eliza presided over the main room, which contained all the students all the time except those in the reading class, taught by Miss Belle, which also included spelling and pronunciation (diacritical marks).”

students learned quickly how to use the dictionary in Miss Belle’s class and how to pronounce and correctly use the words.

Cason said Miss Eliza introduced competition in the room to encourage students to learn through a game called trapping. Students were seated on a bench at the front of the class by drawing straws, with the student with the longest straw being placed ‘at the head of the class.’ That student would be asked a question in arithmetic, spelling, grammar, history or geography based on what was learned the previous week in any field. According to Cason’s description, the student at the head of the class could maintain his position by continuing to answer questions correctly and was given a gold star to be pasted in his book if he maintained his position for a week. Others in line would also have the opportunity to answer questions. If the head of the class answered the question incorrectly, the next person in line could trap the first person by answering the question correctly and assume the head of the class position.

“I was worried about going to private school and being teased about it, so i begged my parents to let me go to public school,” Miles said. “But that was a stupid thing to do. Eliza Ransom’s School was the best thing that happened to me.”

Miles said Eliza Ransom trained him to use the broad A sound, saying ‘pahth’ for example instead of the short A sound in ‘path’.

“I got teased by my uncle for using the broad A,” he said.

Both Arnette and Miles transferred to the old Crichlow Elementary School, and when they did, each of them was able to skip the third grade.

“I could have skipped two more grades and picked up without any problem,” Miles said. “When I got into the fourth and fifth grades I had hardly any problems at all. I hardly had to study.”

He credits that to the pupil-teacher ratio of the schools. The private school had one teacher to about ten students, and the ratio was about one to about 30 students in the public school, he recalled.

“Miss Eliza taught us a lot of things about the difference between good and bad, lying and telling the truth,” Miles said.

Getting ahead in school did hold some negative social consequences. Arnette, a retired antiques auctioneer and appraiser, said skipping a grade in public school hurt his confidence.

“Other kids could whip me in wrestling and other games because they were older,” he said. “(But) it turned out to be an advantage because it kept me humble, hopefully.”

Other prominent Rutherford County citizens – male and female – also began their education at the school, including retired Judge Whitney Steagall.

Restoration will be Costly

The home was used as a residence after the old school closed and is now boarded up in need of repairs. But several people think repairs and restoration of the old school is the thing to do.

“The Ransom School is not something that Murfreesboro should let go of,” said Susan Bragg, who’s father Julian Lytle attended the school. Lytle once had a clothing store on the Public Square in Murfreesboro.

Bragg is in the society that organized several years ago to renovate the school. Anonymous donors have contributed money towards the purchase and restoration of the home. Morris Parker, a La Vergne architect, donated his services to draw up plans for the homes’ restoration and refurbishing of three classrooms, a kitchen/break room area and bathroom in the home.

“We anticipate the project will cost $225,000,” said Arnette.

The brick exterior and interior will need to be cleaned and several bricks will need to be tucked back in the exterior walls and chimney around the house. Trim work including baseboards, molding and doors will be stripped and stained. The estimated cost of restoration includes shelves, bookcases, desks and tables for the school, and vinyl siding on exterior of two rooms in the back of the house. Work on the building’s roof may also be required.

The society holds nonprofit status, Arnette said.

Classes could return

Leslee Dodd Karl, a society volunteer, is working on obtaining a special use permit that will allow the home to be used for educational purposes in the Murfreesboro residential neighborhood.

“Discussions are afoot with Read to Succeed and other literacy groups (about using the facility),” said Karl, a board member of Read to Succeed, a local literacy initiative. “My dream is that Read to Succeed paid staff will be there and some of the other volunteer organizations will be there. There are a number of literacy and family literacy groups that are discussing the possibility of using Ransom School as a base of operations.

Laurel Best, director of the Linebaugh Library and another society member, foresees materials being placed in the restored school to enhance literacy of adults and children.

“Tutors could work with the students and have all the tools they would need right there,” Best said. “There are a higher percentage of people in that area (around the Ransom School) that don’t have a GED. It’s a proven fact that the literacy level of a parent does impact the child, so we want to break that cycle.”

Karl said the society hopes to obtain federal funding through U.s. Representative Bart Gordon’s office and local foundations.

“It’s such a wonderful project,” she said. “It will be able to save something from the past and to use it for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood.”

Kent Syler, chief of staff of the Murfreesboro Democrat’s office he has been contacted by the society.

“We think it is very interesting and worthy and will be doing our best to help them in the future,” Syler said.

Arnette and Miles agree that their old school should be restored, but the two longtime friends have different opinions on how the home should ultimately be used.

“I have mixed feelings. I think it ought to be restored, period,” said Miles. “I think we should make it a historical site, put up things inside and charge and small admission to see the artifacts.”

But Arnette had the architectural drawings in hand Friday to restore the historic home and build classrooms in it as part of a school for tutoring youth and adults. The society plans on moving ahead on the fund raising and other detail work that must be completed before the restoration can begin.

“This will really be an asset when we get it restored,” said Arnette.

And when it comes to fruition, Eliza Ransom’s school may one day live again to educate and discipline.

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