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Settlement Schools of Appalachia

In the late 19th century, college-educated young women of the Bluegrass, influenced by the progressive movement, established several community schools in isolated areas of Eastern Kentucky. This KET production looks at the early history, growth, and contemporary roles of these Appalachian community institutions.

Grade Levels: 6-12
Resource Types: Video

Settlement Schools of Appalachia

Settlement Schools of Appalachia, a 60-minute KET documentary, is the story of settlement schools in Appalachia, particularly Eastern Kentucky, from their modest beginnings in the early 1900s up to the present. Archival photos, journal entries, and traditional music are combined with comments by historians and interviews with school alumni.

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The Appalachian Settlement Schools

They began almost a century ago, born of a convergence of influences including national social reform, growing ranks of idealistic young college-educated women who wanted to teach others, civic-minded women’s organizations, and an expressed desire from mountain people for an education for their children.

They were Appalachia’s settlement schools, progressive both in their approach to curriculum and in the way they chose to interact with the communities they served. Many had their beginnings in the very early 1900s, their founders modeling them on the urban social settlements in America’s larger cities, like Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, and to a lesser degree on the industrial schools more prevalent in the South. They de-emphasized grades, putting much more importance on character development, like many other progressive institutions of the time. Their curricula evolved over time; and as enrollment grew, they developed programs for primary grades through high school.

Among the excellent examples of the settlement schools are two still operating in Eastern Kentucky: Hindman Settlement School, established in 1902 in Knott County, and Pine Mountain Settlement School, founded in 1913 in Harlan County. Other well-known settlement schools in Kentucky included two in Knott County—Caney Creek School (now Alice Lloyd College), which started in 1916 and operated under the masterful hand of Alice Lloyd until late 1960, and Lotts Creek Community School, which opened in 1933. In Bell County, the Henderson Settlement School and Redbird Mission School opened in the 1920s. And in Letcher County, Stuart Robinson School began at Blackey in 1913 and was followed by Kingdom Come School in 1924.

The schools were started, staffed, and managed almost entirely by “fotched-on” young women who came from the Bluegrass region of Kentucky and from New England. “Fotched-on” was the term local people used to describe these women who had been “fetched” from outside the area to come and teach.

Under the leadership and influence of women like Katherine Pettit, May Stone, Ethel de Long Zande, and Elizabeth Watts, these schools not only provided an education for students, which was their basic purpose, but also became community centers for geographically isolated settlements. They built extensive campuses, including dormitories for boarding many of their students, grew much of their own food, and made practically all of their own furniture. Within a few decades after opening, settlement schools were involved in growing crops; establishing and running health clinics; making, promoting, and selling local arts and crafts; running cooperative stores; and collecting local music and stories.

One of the guiding concepts behind the schools was a belief in the importance of educating the whole child. Class schedules and work programs reflected the schools’ dual emphasis on a core academic curriculum and on extending learning well beyond the classroom walls. Time was set aside for teaching such skills as sewing, cooking, weaving, agriculture, furniture making, and forestry.

The pursuit of Christian ideals also figured prominently in the operation of the schools. Although Hindman Settlement School and Pine Mountain Settlement School were nondenominational—unlike the scores of mission schools that appeared throughout Appalachia at the same time—they did hold Sunday School classes, teach religious and temperance songs, sing grace at mealtime, and set aside devotional time for students. Discipline usually took the form of encouraging proper behavior and responsibility, with every effort made to keep the students in school.

Historians and scholars agree that the settlement schools and the services they provided were strong influences on the people and culture of their communities, though some disagree on whether that influence was entirely for the best. But among alumni, there seems to be no debate. Loyal and vocal supporters, they speak of their times at the settlement schools as some of the best and most important of their lives.

—Harry Hinkle

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A Representative List of Appalachian Settlement Schools

  • John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC
  • Hinton Rural Life Center, Hayesville, NC
  • Jackson Area Ministries Resource and Training Center, Jackson, OH
  • Red Bird Mission, Beverly, KY
  • Sunset Gap Community Center, Newport, TN
  • Buckhorn Children’s Center, Buckhorn, KY
  • Annville Institute, Annville, KY
  • Bethel Mennonite Center, Rowdy, KY
  • Hazel Green Academy, Hazel Green, KY
  • Henderson Settlement School, Frakes, KY
  • Oneida Baptist Institute, Oneida, KY
  • Pine Mountain Settlement School, Bledsoe, KY
  • Riverside Christian Training School, Lost Creek, KY
  • Frontier Nursing Service, Hyden, KY
  • Kingdom Come Settlement School, Line Fork, KY
  • Stuart Robinson School, Letcher, KY
  • Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, KY
  • Caney Creek School (now Alice Lloyd College), Pippa Passes, KY
  • Lotts Creek Community School, Cordia, KY

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The Role of Women in the Development of the Settlement Schools

To tell the story of settlement schools in Appalachia is to tell the story of the young women who journeyed from Central Kentucky and New England to establish the schools and to teach the children.

Toward the end of the 19th century, a new emphasis on the education of women emerged in America. Many women’s colleges were established during this era, especially in the Northeast, and began producing classes of well-trained young women. Energized by the Progressive Movement and anxious to make a contribution, these graduates still found themselves limited by societal notions of the proper roles of women. Many of them turned to social reform and teaching as “acceptable” ways to use their college educations. And some of them focused their attentions on the desperate need for teachers in Appalachia.

Lexington and the Bluegrass region were supportive of the reform movement. With the encouragement and financial support of the wealthy and influential Breckinridge family, who were at the forefront of the Progressive Movement in Kentucky, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, many young, affluent women in the area showed themselves willing to give of themselves for the good of the reform movement. Believing they could make a difference in people’s lives, they were eager to share their knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm with the people of the mountains.

The leaders among the independent, strong-willed women who built and ran the settlement schools in Eastern Kentucky were Katherine Pettit, May Stone, Ethel de Long Zande, Elizabeth Watts, and Alice Lloyd. Pettit, who had attended Sayre Female Institute in Lexington, and Stone, a former Wellesley College student, both left well-to-do Bluegrass families to establish Hindman Settlement School in 1902 after running summer camps there for several years. The energetic Pettit later began Pine Mountain School in 1913 after local residents requested a school in that area. Stone remained at Hindman as principal until 1936.

Ethel de Long Zande, originally from New Jersey, was a Smith College graduate who went to Hindman Settlement School to teach in 1901 and stayed there until leaving to help Pettit found Pine Mountain. She would later become the Pine Mountain Settlement School administrator.

Massachusetts native Elizabeth Watts, strongly influenced by her Abbot Academy teachers to become part of the social reform movement, came to Hindman in 1909 for a planned one-year stay. She remained there for 47 years as a teacher and later as a school director.

The list of women leaders is not complete without Alice Spencer Geddes Lloyd, also from New England, legendary in her vision and determination to provide higher education opportunities in Eastern Kentucky. Lloyd founded Caney Creek School, which became Caney Junior College (officially chartered in 1922). The school was renamed Alice Lloyd College shortly after her death in 1962.

These middle- and upper-class women could have led genteel lives in more comfortable surroundings than they found in the mountains. Instead, they dedicated their lives to education—in an environment many in their social circles would have found uninviting.

Starting out with idealistic notions of “educating the masses,” they sometimes found culture shock and discouragement as they tackled the realities of illiteracy and unhealthy living conditions. Public education had so far failed the region, and these women were challenged to bring the people of Eastern Kentucky into the 20th century, while at the same time preserving all that was good in the culture of the area. They met the challenge and were able to generate a trust between themselves and their students. In return, local residents revered these women for their devotion to a cause and to a people.

—Jennifer Minton and Harry Hinkle

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Settlement Schools and the Culture of the Mountains

At the same time settlement schools were taking root in Appalachia, America was embarking on an urban folk revival. With the formation of the first state folklore societies in 1912 and 1913, the ballads of the Appalachian region began reverberating beyond the hills, and local handicrafts began sparking a keen interest among collectors in the Northeast. The settlement institutions soon found themselves serving as headquarters for ballad collectors, as creative centers for traditional mountain crafts, and as focal points for folklorists.

“That’s one of the good things the settlement schools did, is that they took the knowledge of the people and sort of got it together in one place,” says folk singer Jean Ritchie, who serves on the board of directors at Hindman Settlement School. “They collected the songs from different people up and down the hollers and they made little books out of them. Instead of trying to force outside music on the people, they made collections of the local songs.

“[T]hey taught them the different patterns of weaving that they learned from the different women and they got that all together, so that in that way they were sort of a clearinghouse for everybody’s knowledge that lived around and didn’t really force outside ideas on us as much as some people have thought.”

One noted critic of the influence of settlement schools on mountain culture is David E. Whisnant, author of All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Whisnant laments the selective collection and promotion practiced by “outside” folklorists who defined only certain aspects of the mountain arts as culturally “significant,” deeming the rest unworthy of publication, publicity, preservation, or sale.

For example, Whisnant says, the settlement school leaders found that the traditional Scottish and English popular ballads and dulcimers were “good”; banjos and the newer music and feud songs that could be heard at the railheads and the county seats were not.

Economics also came into play, especially with the intricate mountain handicrafts like willow and split baskets, dolls, split-bottomed chairs, woven pieces, coverlets, and quilts. Hindman Settlement School’s “Fireside Industries” program was created to honor and preserve local traditions and craft—and to offer manual skills to children and their parents that would be of use personally, domestically, and economically, all while generating income for the school. Whether economic motivations and the preferences of potential customers reshaped the design of traditional handicraft is a topic ripe for exploration.

Some observers have also expressed concern that many of the handicrafts instructors came to the settlement schools from urban areas far from the Appalachian mountains and, in essence, contaminated the mountain arts. But Fern Hall Hayes, a graduate of Pine Mountain Settlement School, says her experience was deeply enriched by the different perspectives which allowed her to see the unique qualities and values of her own mountain traditions.

“It was like the world came to Pine Mountain and we met the world right here,” Hayes says. “It was amazing. We had people from England, from Denmark. It didn’t bother me and didn’t cause me to look down on what I had and what I did. Mine was just as important as theirs.”

“The nice thing about the settlement schools,” adds Appalachian humorist Loyal Jones, “was that I think they tried not to do a lot of damage to people’s sense of identity. They didn’t, like some schools, just try to transform mountain people into something else.”

—Judy Flavell

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Current Roles of Settlement Schools

Through the years, settlement schools have continued to educate the people of Eastern Kentucky, stressing not only academics, but also the arts and the importance of the Appalachian heritage. These schools faced financial hardship with the development of roads and the building of public schools in the 1920s and ’30s, diminishing the role of settlement schools. Some of them closed during this period, but others managed to stay afloat, thanks to the determination of school leaders who saw the value of keeping these unique institutions alive.

Settlement schools have developed many special programs over the years, and they continue to evolve to meet present-day needs. One outstanding example can be found at the Hindman Settlement School, where Lois Combs Weinberg, daughter of former Kentucky Governor Bert Combs, founded a tutorial program for people with dyslexia. The only program of its kind in Kentucky east of Louisville, it served more than 1,400 students in its first five years. Hindman is also home to an adult learning center which focuses on adult literacy, including preparing adults for the GED test.

Pine Mountain Settlement School has become well known for its environmental education program, which serves elementary students from the local area as well as other parts of the state. The school also runs an elderhostel program, drawing participants from as far away as California and Canada.

These types of services are vital to the people of Eastern Kentucky, just as the original programs of the settlement schools were in their heyday. But to keep these programs thriving, the schools have also had to evolve new forms of financial support. Hindman, like many of the schools, receives most of its operating revenue from an endowment fund, while other allocations come from individuals. With the donated money, Hindman has established library services, teacher services, a writers’ workshop, and arts programs that promote Appalachian culture.

The alumni of Stuart Robinson School, now the site of Calvary College in Letcher, KY, remain loyal to the school by providing financial support for the school’s upkeep and rebuilding program and by attending reunions and Christmas parties on the campus.

—Jennifer Minton

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Alumni Organizations

Hindman Settlement School
Forks of Troublesome Creek
P.O. Box 844
Hindman, KY 41822
(859) 785-5475

Pine Mountain Settlement School
36 Highway 510
Bledsoe, KY 40810
(859) 558-3571


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Suggested Readings

General Works on Appalachian History

Ison, Florence Castle. Caney Girl. New York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1994.

Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands and Mountaineers: The Modernization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

Shapiro, Henry D. Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Slone, Verna Mae. What My Heart Wants To Tell. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1979.

Rennie’s Way. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Whisnant, David. All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Miles, Emma Bell. The Spirit of the Mountains. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975.

Wolfe, Margaret Ripley. Daughters of Canaan: A Saga of Southern Women. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Specific Works Relating to Settlement Schools in Appalachia

Cobb, Anne. Kinfolks: Kentucky Mountain Rhymes. 1922.

England, Rhonda. Voices from the History of Teaching: Katherine Pettit, May Stone and Elizabeth Watts at Hindman Settlement School 1899-1956. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky.

Forderhase, Nancy. “The Clear Call of Thoroughbred Women: The Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Crusade for Education Reform, 1903-1909.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. Frankfort, KY, 1985.

—“Eve Returns to the Garden.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. Frankfort, KY, 1987.

Furman, Lucy. The Quare Women. 1932.

Green, James S. III. Progressives in the Kentucky Mountains: The Formative Years of the Pine Mountain Settlement School, 1913-1930. Ph.D. Dissertation. Ohio State University, 1982.

Ritchie, Jean. Singing Family of the Cumberlands. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Rogers, Mary (foreword). The Pine Mountain Story, 1913-1980. Viper, KY: Graphic Arts Press, 1980.

Searles, David P. A College for Appalachia: Alice Lloyd on Caney Creek. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

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Music Used in the Program

From Cookin’ on a Dull Simmer
—Bob and Susie Hutchison, Kitty Paw Records:

  • “Sandy River Belle” (traditional)
  • “Boys of Wexford” (traditional)
  • “Rock the Cradle” (traditional)
  • “Spotted Pony” (traditional)
  • “Ode to Joy” (Beethoven)
  • “Simple Gifts” (Shaker hymn)

Other Special Musical Arrangements
by Bob and Susie Hutchison:

  • “Cold Frosty Morning” (traditional)
  • “Darling Nellie Gray” (B.R. Hanby)
  • “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine” (traditional)
  • “Goin’ to Boston” (Jean Ritchie)
  • “West Fork Girls” (traditional)
  • “Cluck Old Hen” (traditional)

Additional Music
from the Berea College Appalachian Center Sound Archive:

“In the Pines”—performed by Delle Norton
“Flopped Eared Mule”—performed by Walter McNew
“John Brown’s Dream”—performed by Charlie Osborne
“Cripple Creek”—performed by Morgan and Lee Sexton
“Hook and Line”—performed by Morgan and Lee Sexton
“Barbara Allen”—performed by Jean Ritchie
“Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies”—performed by Jean Ritchie

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