Editor’s note: Paul Ray Blankenship passed away Sept. 30, 2010 after a long illness. He was a retired teacher and college professor, who wrote several books about the history of Oceana and surrounding areas. As a tribute to his achievements, his columns will continue in this newspaper. The following excerpt is reprinted, with his permission, from “From Cabins To Coal Mines, 1799-1999, Volume I.”
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The first school in present Wyoming County offering the rudiments of a formal education was established in the barn of John Jr. and Jennie Albert Cooke in 1820, about two decades after the first settlement.
Wyoming County’s first school was located near the western limits of the town of Oceana, just beyond the Oceana Square shopping center, that having been the site of John and Jennie Albert Cook’s farm.
The first teacher was a new arrival from Tazewell County, Virginia, by the name of William Brooks. William Brooks (31 Mar 1795-5 Aug 1866) was the son of Richard and Margaret Clancy Brooks and the grandson of William Brooks (1752-1841) and Nancy Locke Brooks (1749-1844). William Brooks’ grandfather served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War while his father had been a soldier in the War of 1812.
William Brooks’ school was a subscription school, one to which parents “subscribed” a fee to have their children taught. With little money, most of the parents probably paid with freshly harvested produce, or canned products, or some other commodity. A family, or several families, provided the teacher with room. John and Jennie Cooke probably provided the living quarters for Brooks.
William Brooks used the threshing floor of the barn as his school room. And, according to the article “Wyoming County History: Local Schools Had Humble Start,” the first school was equipped with furniture which consisted of: “...split pole benches, a rough table for a desk, and a writing board which was hung upon wooden pegs on the wall. A greased paper window kept out the cold but let in meager light, and when the weather was not cold, the door was left open.”
With a few books which he brought with him, William Brooks taught his students to read, write, spell and do simple arithmetic. During the two- or three-month session, Brooks drilled his pupils in writing and figures with little but quill pens and a few slate boards. It seems probable that Brooks may have improvised his lessons to correlate with the materials and supplies readily at hand. It is easy, for example, to imagine that students may have used such items as horseshoe nails, readily available in the barn to practice their numbers by scratching out the figures on the dirt floor in some corner of the barn. Or perhaps they used some homemade charcoal to practice their ABCs on an old puncheon board lying around the barn. Brooks likely taught a little history and geography by telling stories meant to entertain as well as teach. Most assuredly, he was a good spinner of stories and tales.
Without doubt, one of Brooks’ principal means of imparting knowledge was the use of “the daily recitation,” in which each student recited what he had learned, or retained, or studied.
Most likely the students who attended that first school and perhaps subsequent sessions were mostly from the families of Wiliam and Catherine Stewart Cooke, and Thomas and Ellen Riggins Cooke, and, of course, John and Jennie Albert Cooke, all living in close proximity to the school. Most likely James “Squire Jim” Cooke (1813-1879) and William Newton Cooke (1814-1862), sons of William and Catherine Cooke, attended Brooks’ first school, or a subsequent school, for both learned to read and write. James Cooke served several terms as the Wyoming County Clerk. William Newton Cooke, who died as a Union soldier in the Civil War, kept a journal-diary during the 1840s with neat, legible penmanship. The journal, a valuable source of family genealogical information, is extant today and in the possession of a direct descendant.
Thomas Cooke Jr. (1814-1888), son of Thomas and Ellen Cooke, also learned to read and write as he helped take the 1850 census. So he very likely was a student of Brooks as well.
In July of 1823, William Brooks married Nellie Cooke (1806-1886), eldest daughter of John and Jennie Albert Cooke, and to them were born 13 children: Isaac Quinn Brooks (1824-1904), who married Rebecca Cooke; Dorcus Brooks (1826-18??), who married Thomas C. Bailey; William Randolph Brooks (1829-1870), who married Nancy McClure; Malinda C. Brooks (1831-1916), who married Russell Cooke, Charles Kincaid, and Britton Allen; Jane A. Brooks (1833-19??), who married Rev. Isaac Bailey; Nancy M. Brooks (1835-18??); Margaret Brooks (1837-189?), who married Thomas G. Cooke; James M. Brooks (1839-189?), who married Eveline Cooke; Andrew J. Brooks (1841-1894), who married Juliet Cooke; Fanny Belle Brooks (1842-19??), who married Peter Green Farmer; Eleanor Brooks (1843-1922), who married Ballard P. Cooke; Jesse Booker Brooks (1848-19??), who married Caroline Lemon; Franklin P. Brooks (1850-19??), who married Emmazetta Farmer.
After his marriage to Nellie Cooke, William Brooks established his home on Crany Fork, northeast of Oceana, where he farmed and helped educate the children of the Crany community.
In 1850 when Wyoming County was organized, William Brooks was selected as a member of the first Board of Education, which consisted of five members, the others being Joseph McDonald, Eli Lusk, John S. Mullins, and John Howerton. Brooks became president and superintendent of the new board and was charged, under Virginia law, with the task of establishing and supervising the county’s school system.
One of Brooks’ first acts as superintendent of schools was to obtain money from the Literary Fund for the construction of a school at Crany on his own farm. He also hired Richard Brooks, his 74-year-old father, as the teacher of the school. A letter written by Richard Brooks, August 8, 1850, provided a capsule view of his task as teacher:
“My business is school teaching, and that in the neighborhood of the county seat, which will be about twelve dollars a month. My burden is heavy as the children are young and undisciplined, and the parents unchristian, although mostly Baptists.”
Richard Brooks, William and Nellie Cooke Brooks, were buried in the family cemetery at Crany, though their graves were not marked. Other members of the Brooks family were buried there also.
Many descendants of William Brooks, the first teacher, became teachers in Wyoming and other counties. Perhaps too numerous to provide an extensive list, but his descendants who took up teaching as a profession included William Powell Brooks (1890-1965), long-time teacher and principal at Oceana Grade School and Albany Carroll Brooks (1895-1979), sons of James Reed and Catherine Acord Brooks; Wayne C. Rollins (1903-1984), son of James E. and Fanny Brooks Rollins, who taught nearly 40 years while also serving as a Baptist preacher; Helen Brooks Cook (1917-1990), who taught more than 30 years at Oceana Grade School; Hollis Brooks; Raymond Brooks (1903-1978); Holroyd Brooks; Onnie S. Brooks; Okey Johnston Brooks (1880-1954), son of Leander and Sarah Bailey Brooks, and his sons, Onnie E. Brooks (1903-1946), and Romeo F. Brooks (1905-1996), who served as superintendent of schools of Cabell County, WV; Ira Cook Jr., teacher and principal at Oceana High School and principal of the Wyoming County Vocational School; Judy Dalton Morgan, who taught more than 30 years at Oceana High School.
Others who served as teachers in the Oceana area prior to the Civil War included Dr. Isaac Bailey (1800-1869/70), Thomas Bailey; Johannis P. Hoback (1836-1863), a native of Floyd County, Va., who married Mary Martha Cooke, the daughter of Squire James and Emily Shannon Cooke, and Amos W. Reed, born in 1838 and a native of Rock District, in Mercer County, (W)Va., who taught school at Crany and boarded with the family of Chloe Mandeville. Reed left teaching to join the Confederate Army, Co. C., 45th Battalion, and did not return to Wyoming County.