Monday, August 4, 2008

A BIT OF BELL BUCKLE

The hot spots in Tennessee are, of course, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge (Dollywood!), and the Great Smokies National Park. However, during the tail end of a vacation with my daughter Stephanie and her husband Brad, of New Iberia, Louisiana, we veered over to Bell Buckle, TN, 50 miles southeast of Nashville. Bell Buckle is a tiny hamlet nestled in the hills of Tennessee Walking Horse country. We were on a mission to see Webb School, the famous prep school established in 1886 by schoolmaster Sauney Webb and attended by my godfather Markham Peacock in the early 1900’s. The visit to Bell Buckle enchanted all of us.

The main strip of Bell Buckle, circa 1857, is lined with antique and junk shops, arts and crafts stores, places filled with memorabilia, but the first stop was at a soda fountain in a store featuring cabinetry dating back to 1857 – in its original varnished condition – and a sight, I might add, that amazed my son-in-law Brad who specializes in furniture restoration and building. The store is owned by Nancy Phillips who told us that Bell Buckle was a former railroad town and also site of pure mineral waters that enlivened visitors to the area. Mrs. Phillips had been one of three business people who bought old buildings and restored them in 1971, setting the tone for restoration that would stop the destruction of all the old buildings. However, one building escaped restoration – perhaps the most important structure in the town at one time – the old railroad depot. This was the place where Markham had detrained from the Dixie Flyer coming from Memphis, TN. At 11 years of age, he had boarded the train after being brought by automobile from Shaw, Mississippi in deep Delta country. He attended Webb School at Bell Buckle when the school was still a cluster of primitive wooden buildings (including an outhouse) until his graduation at age 17 and he entered Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

Following the restoration of three businesses in 1971, artists began to flock to Bell Buckle and, today, over 100 artists, sculptors, furniture makers, potters, and writers display their art in the old town. If you want to know more about this charming town, consult the June, 2007 issue of “Southern Living,” which features information about the town’s most notable festival – the RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival that takes place in June every year.

However, Bell Buckle’s biggest boast is Webb School, a prep school that educated more Rhodes scholars than any other private school in the U.S. during its first fifty years of operation. The headmaster, Sauney Webb, insisted on classical education for boys – four years of Latin, two of Greek, history, English literature and composition, mathematics and physics. There were no modern language courses, no social studies, and no business courses. Mathematics included algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and the physics course was far beyond modern physics studies. Sauney’s major goal for education was to build character. He was a firm disciplinarian and his methodology was so effective that Princeton adopted his honor system. The school soon came to be known as “The Little Princeton.” Sauney Webb was intolerant of sloppy work, but he also provided freedom to learn. Boys would often attend classes outdoors and read Cicero under a beech tree. When their classes were over in the afternoons, they could study, play football, and walk through the countryside for hours. They were expected to be prepared but the learning was up to them. If students didn’t study and didn’t make the grade, no remedial courses were offered – they had to leave Webb School.

At the end of the short ride around the Webb School campus where class ratios are 7 – 1, I went into the small bookstore (book room) and purchased a copy of THE SCHOOLMAKER, SAUNEY WEBB AND THE BELL BUCKLE STORY and read it in one sitting. It was a fascinating study of an educator who believed in what we call “personal best” or excellence. In the case of my godfather, Markham became a Wordsworth scholar and Head of the Dept. of English and Foreign Languages at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He never stopped lauding “old Sauney” who trained lawyers, doctors, educators, editors, and a long list of professional people. Sauney Webb was interested in training young minds… “to develop those powers of the mind which tend to distinguish rather than reduce to a contemptible dead level.” One of his pithy quotations that impressed me, and must have impressed young men who may have disliked the discipline of the Webb School but came to consider time spent at the school the crucial years of their lives: “Character is an educated will.”
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