A Violation of the Trust
Bonham Daily Favorite, February 14, 1993
Despite the state mandated system of public education in Texas, the mid point of the nineteenth century saw little productive effort at building and maintaining a first class educational program. While a wide range of schools was evident at this point, most were rural schools of varying size enrollments with limited funds, marginally prepared teachers, and less than adequate facilities. However, in the larger communities and towns considerably more effort was expended in the name of quality education through the support and financing of private institutions.
Some schools received the backing of different religious denominations, some thrived because of the influence of a gifted educator, and some were successful through the backing of influential organizations. Among the most effective of the latter was the Masonic Lodge of Texas. In fact, Masonic Lodges in both Bonham and Honey Grove at the mid point of the century established first class educational institutions. The Honey Grove Masonic Institute had both male and female departments. While at the outset the Bonham Institute was planned for both sexes, the focus of that programs became female education.
Constantine Lodge #13 was organized at Fort Warren in 1840 when that village was the county seat of Fannin County. After the removal of the county government to Bonham in 1843, the Lodge followed in 1844. Minutes of the Lodge show that education was always a concern to the membership. In 1851 part of the Lodge building was first rented for a school .
Seemingly a number of private schools opened and closed in Bonham during the first half of the 1850's, several of them renting space in the Lodge Hall. Perhaps as a response to this unstable situation, Constantine Lodge in late 1854 passed a resolution to join in with an effort of local citizens for the establishment of "Bonham Male and Female Institute" which was to be under the direction of the Lodge.
Two days later, at a meeting of the Lodge membership, the name of the planned institution was changed to "Bonham Masonic Female Institute." The reason for the change is unclear. It has been suggested that those families who were able to afford the costs were more likely to send the sons to some of the better established schools in other communities. During this time period a number of young Bonham men were educated at McKenzie College in Clarksville.
Constantine Lodge attempted to obtain funding from the Grand Lodge of Texas in 1855 but were turned down. The refusal failed to slow planning for the Bonham facility and in February, 1855 an appropriation of $100 to assist in the building program was voted and a building committee appointed. The committee members were S.D. Rainey, Samuel A. Roberts, A.E. Pace, John W. Fraley, and Calvin J. Fuller. The committee was also given the authority to add to the committee composition, select a suitable site for the school, approve the plans and materials for construction. At the next meeting of the Lodge the plans for the building were presented and approved by the membership and any alterations made by the committee were also authorized.
Newspaper ads calling for construction bids were published in March 1855. Dimensions for the structure were described as 60 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 26 feet high. The building was designed to be two stories and either frame or brick construction was acceptable.
Construction must have begun soon after the publication of the bids for at the April 1855 meeting of the Lodge, a three man committee was appointed to obtain the services of a teacher or teachers for the Bonham Masonic Female Institute.
In May plans were made for the laying of the cornerstone and on June 7, 155 the ceremony was held at the building site on the corner of Tenth and Center Streets, the site now occupied by Bailey Inglish Elementary School. Lodge minutes show that 51 members were present and the procession was joined by Mrs. Howell's School and Mr. Biggerstaff's School, The Temple of Honor and Good Samaritans.
Financial difficulties developed soon after the cornerstone ceremony and in January 1856 Constantine Lodge again asked the Grand Lodge to lend $1000 for the completion of the school. No records show that the request was honored. Other loans were obtained and plans were instituted to consecrate the Institution on "Monday the 7th day of April next" and the ladies of the town were invited to hold a supper and fair in the "Female Institute."
The dedication was delayed until June 24th and another committee was appointed to secure other loans. Committee reports indicate that loans were not secured but additional stock in the school was sold raising some additional monies. No other mention of the school in found in the Lodge minutes for more than a year, however some entries indicate that the Lodge was renting space on a lower floor to a "male school" indicating that some construction progress had been made.
On March 1, 1856 an announcement in The Northern Standard newspaper announces the Bonham Masonic Female Institute with L.E. Brownell as principal, Miss Miranda Ross and Mrs. C.M. Johnson, teachers.
It seems unlikely that the school would have opened at that time of the year. More likely the formal opening would have been the autumn. This is borne out by another advertisement in The Northern Standard, in 1857, announcing the opening of "the third session" on October 5, 1857. Brownell is still listed as principal but Cilas Pistor and Joaquin Cuadros were named teachers.
The Lodge records for the next several years are not too revealing as to the operation of the school. But we can infer from the available records that the Lodge continued to operate the same system it had earlier, that of a lease arrangement with the principal and faculty. This was obviously the system employed with B.F. Fuller in operation of the male school on the lower floor of the building. Nowhere do the Lodge records indicate that teacher's salaries were paid by the Lodge. Payments for faculty were forthcoming only from the tuition and fees collected by the administration.
Lodge members did arrange for the payment of tuition for the orphan children of deceased Master Masons and it is from these payments that we can determine some of the personnel at the school prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. A Mrs. C.A. Curtis received payment in 1860.
Another advertisement lists as principal Solomon Sias in 1860. His name also appears in the same position for 1863, 1864, and 1865. A Brother O.W. Keeler and Brother E.H. Adams received tuition payments in 1865 and 1866.
These last payments are strongly indicative that unlike many private schools, Bonham Masonic Female Institute did not close its doors during the wars. Some other sources have indicated that Sias and his family returned to their home in the north at the outbreak of hostilities, but these records of the Lodge seem to belie that statement.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas