Friday, August 13, 2010

School Days in Tyrrell County

Carrie Virginia Jones was born on August 29, 1896, at Gum Neck Landing, a remote settlement in Tyrrell County, North Carolina. Gum Neck Landing is on the Alligator River that flows between Tyrrell and Dare Counties, North Carolina. She was the daughter of Edd and Mary "Mate" Langley Jones.

Gum Neck is in the bottom left corner of this map.

Carrie was about eight years old when she started to school at the local Mons Swamp School in 1904. She attended only three years. For many farm people at that time, education for girls was a luxury. The primary educational objective for most girls was to be able to read the Bible. Carrie was able to achieve this objective and was an active student of the scripture throughout her life.

Carrie's walk to school each day provides a snapshot of her world. "She lived with her parents at the back of the fields, abutting Buck Ridge Swamp. Emerging from her home at the back of field each morning, no doubt nicely dressed, she walked along a well trodden path along the fields past her Uncle Claude's house. At the cross road to Jo Reek* she probably met up with other children, such as Ashby Jones who was only four months younger. About here she might have seen a mule and cart carrying some older children, the Basnights, who lived on Buck Ridge, up a long planked pathway, too far to walk normally.

"The school children proceeded on foot in small groups along the dirt road, low, water-edged and often muddy, first over the ancient little creek, then over the newer big canal where people now frequently fished. Some of the children may have dawdled at the blacksmith's to watch him working. These children risked their parents' reprimand but fire held a natural fascination for children. The blacksmith was Bart Cooper and he shoed horses and mules and made farming tools. The down road blacksmith was located on the big canal, in that swampy stretch between Claude Jones and Josh Swindell. [There was also a blacksmith, Julian Sawyer, at the Fork of the Road near the Post office.]

"Proceeding down the road through a swampy stretch they came to Swindell Corner. Near the corner itself lived Joshua and Harriet Swindell whose four children, Dora, George, Alice and Lillie were all about Carrie's age. Across the road lived Dave Ireland, whose only daughter Inez was about six years older than Carrie.

"Not far from Swindell Corner was the 'Company Store' which was owned by Dave Ireland, Josh Swindell, Ludford Tarkenton and Uncle Claude Jones, all of who were relatively well off. For a while this store was run by Gilbert and Reda Tarkenton.

"The children would continue on the main road parallel to the canal, past the new Point Graveyard on the right, coming up to the Free Will Baptist church on the left. On the right a bridge led to Fred S. Pinner's Store which at that time also contained the 'Mon Swamp Post Office and a barbershop. There was also a shed containing hardware supplies and things like kerosene for lamps.' The very few children with that rarest of commodities—hard cash, might have been tempted to buy some sweets at the store. However, by far the majority had no money at all, and dutifully continued straight down the road past the church and bridge along the canal through the heavily wooded Mon Swamp.

"Between the Free Will Church and the school was a noteworthy well. 'On the way to school we'd stop at a man's well to get water. We always had to scare the ducks away first to get to it though. … It was in the front yard of an elderly black man and his wife. This well has such good cold water that it became a popular place to stop and drink. The old people were glad to have people drink from their well. Like most wells, it had a wood frame around it and the water bucket was a rope.' [This elderly couple appears to be …Caroline Armstrong and her new husband Sharpe Chatman. Caroline had long ties to Gum Neck whereas her husband came from away. By 1930 this house appears to be occupied by Carolina Armstrong's granddaughter Ruth Cooper Balls and her husband Charlie Balls.]

"Emerging from that dark stretch of road, Mons Swamp School could be seen on the left, a little back from the road. From the opposite direction other children were also arriving at the school, mostly on foot but those living some distance away, such as beyond Stephen's Ridge on the Grapevine road, came by horse and cart. In addition, some children came through a short-cut. This was a long lane from Georgia Road through the Paul Jones Thicket to the school."

Mons Swamp School

"The school was one room with a door, a blackboard, and a stove to keep us halfway warm in winter. There were sixty or seventy children in school and the grades were from the first to about the eighth. The school literally had no outhouse. The boys went in the woods on one side and the girls on the other.

"Another ex-pupil described the Lower Road School as '… a one-room school house with one teacher. Many pupils walked two miles to school and carried their lunch of collards, sweet potatoes, biscuits, fried meat, preserves, and home-made cookies in a tin dinner bucket. Everyone drank from the same dipper in a bucket filled from a well outside. The only seats in the school building were wooden planks placed across blocks of wood.'

"The building was about 30 feet long. Inside, it 'was equipped with long benches placed down each side of the building with an aisle in the middle. The teacher stood at the back on an elevated platform. There was a long bench in front of the platform used as a recitation bench. The seats had no desks for use by pupils … a long shelf was built along either side of the building for use by the pupils when needed. A pail of drinking water was placed in front of the building with one dipper for use by the children when thirsty. Reading, writing and arithmetic were the principal subjects taught. … In the early days paper was very scarce and used sparingly. In connection with the study of arithmetic a slate was used. This slate was about 15 or 18 inches by 10 inches in size and bound by a wood frame. Special pencils for marking on the slate were used, known as slate pencils. Arithmetic problems were solved by the pupils on these slates. When the problems assigned had been solved by the pupils, the teacher would walk by, look at the work, and make any corrections necessary. When the slate had been filled with figures it was wiped clean with a damp cloth and the student started over again. In many instances students wouldn't bother to use a cloth, but would spit on the slate and erase the numbers with his hand or sleeve. The teacher would usually divide the group into classes and those classes were called to the front at regular intervals for instructions. Playgrounds were very limited. Usually the forest came very near the rear and sides of the building leaving a very limited playground in front. On the last day of school they'd give out boxes of candy.

"In charge of administering the Mons Swamp School was the School Committee which about this time consisted of three prominent local men, viz Josh Swindell, Henry E. Cohoon and Paul Jones, each of whom was associated with a store in Gum Neck."

School Teachers at Mons Swamp School

"Carrie's first school teacher, in 1904, in fact the only teacher in the Mons Swamp School, was a local man, Cleaton Armstrong. … He was described as being of medium height and build, and having light-colored hair and blue eyes …. He was also religious, influenced no doubt by his young friend, the local pastor John Lupton, then 23, who also did some teaching at this school.

"By 1910 Cleaton had moved with his parents to Pitt County where he was studying at the Free Will Baptist Theological Seminary in Ayden. By September 1918 he was a minister in nearby Stantonsburg, Wilson County. He died shortly thereafter, possibly in the influenza epidemic of 1918, leaving a young widow and a small boy who carried his name.

"The next teacher in this one-teacher school was Miss Eva Harris who came from a prominent educated family in Hyde County. In fact, her uncle, Dr. A.G. Harris of Fairfield [Hyde Co.] treated the sick of Kilkenny and Gum Neck for many years, including during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Eva married in 1906 to Clifford Harris, a farmer from Pantego, Beaufort County.

"After Eva Harris, the next teacher was sixty four-year-old Lewis Swindell. Mr. Swindell was in marked contrast to the previous two teachers, both in terms of age and experience. For one thing he was a distinguished Civil War veteran who had been wounded and a prisoner of war.

"After the war Lewis Swindell returned to his native Fairfield where, about 1880, he established a private school, Swindell Academy, in the yard of his home on the north shore of Lake Mattamuskeet. He taught there for a number of years, certainly as late as 1896, and also ran a farm.

"What brought a man of his experience and years to teach in Gum Neck for a year or two about 1906 is unclear. In any case his home farm was a short boat to Fairfield, and school terms were relatively short, allowing him time to juggle a short-term commitment to Gum Neck community.

"The evidence suggests he was accompanied by at least one of his family, namely his daughter Reda Swindell. She married a local man, Gilbert Tarkenton, in 1907 and later also taught on the Mons Swamp School. …

"… Another teacher in Gum Neck between 1910 and 1917 was Miss Annie Jones from Dare County. She used to come to Uncle Claude's house, where there was an organ, every Saturday to teach music to Lennie for 25 cents. Lennie was also a good singer in her youth. Music was not really a part of Carrie's life apart from Aunt Kizzie who taught herself to play the accordion.

"Carrie's brother Lonzo started first grade in the fall of 1914. His first grade teacher Esther M. Jones made him prefix his birth name with an "A" the proper way. He spelled it Alonza the rest of his life, but people still called him Lonzo.

"By about 1920 the original schoolhouse had been abandoned in favor of a new two-classroom Down Road School built nearby at the northeast corner where the main road intersects Grapevine Road. By 1940 all that remained of the original one-room Mons Swamp School was its collapsed roof on the ground. In winter it could just be seen from the road."

*I have not been able to learn the location of Jo Reek or whether it was a community or perhaps a creek. Please let me know if you know more about it.

[This story was taken from Life on the Alligator River: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Woman by Roy T. Sawyer, 2007. According to his profile at, "Roy T. Sawyer was born in Virginia, where his father was an administrator at Langley Air Force Base. As a child, he often visited his grandmother in Gum Neck, North Carolina, where he became familiar with the Dismal Swamps, which are among the world's most biologically diverse temperate wetlands. He discovered leeches when he was six years old, and has been interested in them ever since." Mr. Sawyer is a zoologist and has written several books about leeches and the American wetlands. He established the world's first leech farm in South Wales.]


  1. Surfing around and found this fabulous story.
    Having spent a little time in the community of Gum Neck, this paints a beautiful picture of Eastern NC in that era.
    George Haislip

  2. My father Claude Scott attended that school from 1916 to 1922.