|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 7 (1989)|
Ursula Smith Beach is currently recognized as a teacher, author,
editor, and county historian. Born in 1900 and educated in Clarksville
and Nashville, she received her baccalaureate degree from Southwestern
Presbyterian College shortly after World War I and her master's
degree from Austin Peay State University in 1956. Her teaching
career spanned thirty years, the earlier part in Louisiana, Alabama,
and West Virginia, the later part in Clarksville public schools
as well as at Austin Peay.
Miss Ursula, as she is called by all who know her, achieved celebrity
status with publication of her book Along the Warioto in
1964, a history of Montgomery County, Tennessee. Her monograph
entitled "Rebecca Sevier, Child of the Frontier" was
published in 1984. She has served as editor for the Montgomery
County News and has contributed a weekly article for the past
sixteen years. Her numerous articles have appeared in the Clarksville
Leaf Chronicle, The Tennessee Conservationist, and
The Tennessee Historical Quarterly, as well as in other
Honors have come to Miss Ursula from outside her home town, too.
She has been appointed to the honorary staffs of the governors
of Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In 1980 she was named State
Woman of the Year by the Tennessee Press and Authors Club. She
is regarded as a contributor unsurpassed in research, evaluation,
and understanding of the history of Clarksville-Montgomery County.
Ursula Smith Beach is the product of a unique turn-of-the-century
environment in the South. She was born into an aspiring middle
class family. Her family could not initially claim the prestige
and social status of the area's landed gentry, nor could they
easily co-opt the traditions plantation owners had perpetuated,
except for one: the personal code of honor. Early family influence
was important in insuring successful absorption of this code,
but schooling had become recognized as an effective ally. Miss
Ursula's educational foundation, therefore, rested on an implicit
contract between her home with its early family instruction and
resources and those emphasized by Miss Sallie Howard, a tuition
school teacher who had begun her career in 1857. In significant
ways this combination might be difficult to duplicate today.
Miss Ursula tells some intriguing stories of her early life in
Clarksville. The pre-school years contributed in important imagination.
Her father, Edwin T. Smith, along with his four brothers, worked
for his father in the Clarksville Planing Mill. The grandfather
was in partnership with E.M. Clark, and Ursula's father was in
charge of the mill until 1909. From the time she was old enough
to join her mother in the buggy to call for her father at the
end of his day's work, Ursula was invited to play with the remnants
from the milling machines. She gathered the papery curls and geometric
pieces of wooden scraps along with heavy and blunt-edged colored
glass bits, used in transom windows, for construction games she
played at home. She also learned to model shapes with some of
the putty used in glazing windows.
Ursula learned self-discipline in those first years. Her father
told her of a young boy's experience in a prairie fire and how
his safe escape had depended on obeying the adult commands he
had received. He emphasized the importance of obeying immediately
and without question. She was spanked only twice in her life and
both times occurred before she was six. One spanking was given
when she was five and had slapped her baby sister for saying "ticky,
ticky" when Ursula had instructed her to say "chicky,
chicky." The second time occurred when she stepped between
her napping father and the open fireplace. When she accidentally
touched his foot and he awoke, he demanded to know how she dared
to be between him and the fire when she had been expressly forbidden
to take such a safety risk. She responded, impishly, "I'll
do it again if you want me to," and suffered the consequences.
Ursula was early taught to respect the standards her parents had
set for their children. Her mother spoke gently to her three young
ones, and they could quickly recognize their errors when she looked
disappointed. Ursula learned appropriate behavior through the
desire to avoid hurting or disappointing her parents, therefore,
rather than by admonition. She was expected to be present in adult
company but not to be obtrusive until she could join in on their
level. She learned to avoid discourtesy through the desire for
The Smith parents instilled responsibility early in their children,
too. Each Sunday evening they were given thirty-five cents as
the week's allowance. They could spend the money any way they
chose, but they were expected to have a nickel left for the church
collection plate on the following Sunday morning. Thus, each time
they made a decision to spend some of their money, they had to
consider it in terms of having five cents left for Sunday morning.
In simple ways Ursula Smith learned that her parents valued honesty
and unselfishness. The children were encouraged to make gifts
for others on special days, within their own limits of ability.
In a significant way Ursula took on one responsibility her parents
had not directly encouraged. When she was four her eleven-year-old
sister died, and she overheard her mother wonder whether her husband
would ever be able to accept this loss. Ursula determined inwardly
that she would take Gladys's place in her papa's mind, and through
the subsequent years she tried to please her father and bring
The Smith family apparently was struggling economically during
these years, but Ursula recalls early buggy trips to see special
places of interest in the surrounding area. She also enjoyed her
mother's story-reading from Little Folks, a monthly magazine
the Smiths received. Each issue contained a story which featured
a young girl, and young Ursula thoroughly identified with the
independent yet responsible protagonist.
When she reached the age of seven, Ursula was ready for school.
Her parents judged the early school environment a crucial one.
Howell School, a public facility for the first six years of instruction,
had been built in Clarksville in 1879, but the Smiths preferred
the tuition school for Ursula because of its special advantages.
She would be instructed in a private home with a small number
of children of various ages. The environment would reflect the
protection of home, yet she would be exposed to more than reading,
spelling, and arithmetic with Miss Sallie Howard. The standards
encouraged by the Smiths at home would be reinforced in the tuition
school with individual attention. In contrast to Howell School's
student/teacher ratio of twenty-five to one, Miss Howard limited
her group to ten students. She charged five dollars per month
per child, a considerable but justified expense for the Smith
family at the time.
Whereas a considerable number of tuition schools had existed in
Clarksville throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century,
by 1907 only a handful of these schools remained. Thus, the number
of students who experienced this unique introduction to formal
education was small. Probably no more than fifty students attended
tuition schools the year young Ursula entered, about ten percent
of the total number of students attending grades 1-7 in Clarksville
at that time. If Miss Howard's was typical of tuition schools,
the tuitioners concentrated on reading, spelling, and arithmetic.
They received some instruction in cursive writing but none in
printing. They needed a slate, a pencil box, pencils, and lined
paper for their daily lessons. At this time, incidentally, all
students, whether in tuition or public school, had to purchase
their own textbooks.
On Ursula's first day, Mrs. Smith told Miss Howard, "Teach
her to read if you teach her nothing else." The teacher lifted
the young girl onto a table, facing her toward a large wall placard
and told Ursula to study the three words on it until she was convinced
she would always recognize them. Ursula dutifully and silently
obeyed. The words were "ox, box, and fox." When she
went home that first day she was convinced she could read and
told her parents so. She recalls to this day the great sense of
achievement she had when she made the announcement.
The Smiths were both interested in their daughter's progress,
and it was an important event when Ursula was able to read a paragraph
to her father form the daily newspaper. Thereafter Ursula read
at home daily and soon began to explore the public library. Eventually
she read four books a week during the summer and then systematically
embarked on a reading program which included every book in the
Each day at Miss Howard's began at 8:30 a.m. Students were encouraged
to bring a small snack which was eaten at 10:00. The day's work
ended at noon. The teaching system was ungraded, and students
progressed at their own pace. Lessons were assigned to begin each
day's study and Miss Howard reviewed and judged each child's slate
as it was completed. She pointed out any errors on the slate and
made suggestions, and the child eventually brought the corrected
lesson to her for a second review. When the lesson was accurately
represented on the slate, Miss Howard then instructed that it
be copied on paper. She inspected it again on paper and if all
was correct, she wrote in large letters "O.K." Thus,
at each day's end Ursula took home a perfect paper to show her
parents, and she developed confidence and pride in each learned
Miss Howard provided equally important supplemental instruction.
Once Ursula was able to write words, she received an unexpected
lesson in courtesy. Miss Howard had instructed her to write a
letter on her slate to a relative and to write what she knew.
She produced the following:
Dear Ant Anna,When Miss Howard inspected Ursula's work, she picked up her sponge and, with a grand gesture, wiped the slate totally clean, saying "Do not be personal." Then she calmly instructed Ursula that the spelling of "aunt' was "a-u-n-t." Ursula knew she had overstepped important bounds and dutifully wrote a second more appropriate letter for her teacher.
I go to school. My teacher is Miss Sallie Howard. She wears a black dress. She is tall. She wears a wig. It is red. It is parted in the middle.
Another significant aspect to Ursula's tuition school experience
emphasized responsibility beyond her own performance and behavior.
Her sister Agnes entered the same schoolroom two years after Ursula
had begun. Agnes apparently rebelled against the reputation of
her older sibling by taking a more relaxed attitude toward learning.
She found opportunities to cut out and play with paper dolls in
the space under her desk top but she was always eventually caught
by Miss Howard. Ursula would then receive an instruction to take
Agnes's paper dolls away from her and to see that she got busy
with her lesson.
Another practice which Agnes indulged in was to tear off tiny
pieces of paper, roll them up tightly and then stuff them up her
nose. Miss Howard's practical attention would become involved
when Agnes's nose would begin to bleed; then she would instruct
Ursula to take her to the bathroom and clean her up.
The ultimate extra-curricular responsibility for Ursula occurred
when Miss Howard delayed giving Agnes permission to visit the
bathroom and an accident resulted. Ursula was of course then instructed
to remedy the situation and bring Agnes back to the classroom.
The other children would tease Ursula about this, and she would
feel devastated. These kinds of responsibilities were unique,
aside from the problems they caused for Ursula. As the older sister,
she was expected to resolve the problems Agnes created and then
to see Agnes embarked on studying again before she could resume
her own lesson. In a graded classroom setting she would never
have had similar responsibilities.
Another kind of independence was encouraged by the Smith parents
in this period when Ursula and Agnes were invited during summers
to spend one week each with two aunts in New Providence, a community
then located a short distance beyond the Clarksville city limits.
The girls were expected to be courteous guests but to contribute
as they could to the household chores. The Smith parents telephoned
daily and came to visit by buggy on Sunday afternoon during these
weeks. Ursula recalls entertaining herself with making leaf and
clover chains as her mother had showed her to do, and instructing
Agnes in creating them, too. Ursula recalls taking books with
her for these visits, and in her free time she especially enjoyed
climbing up into a large dogwood tree for private reading sessions.
When she was ten, Ursula's parents decided she was ready to transfer
to the public school environment. Howell School consisted of three
floors. Students began on the first floor and were promoted to
the floors above as they completed the required grades. Now the
teacher/student ratio was very different, yet Miss Ursula recalls
that she experienced no difficulty in being at the top of her
class in each of her grades there. She is convinced that she had
been given a thorough grounding in the basics by Miss Howard.
Indeed, when she entered Howell School she had tested as superior
in reading and in mathematics.
While Ursula apparently did very well in fourth grade, she recalls
meeting an outstanding teacher in the fifth grade, Miss Carrie
Boyd, who was successful in inspiring her students to excel. Ursula
wrote a play about squirrels and nuts which was imaginative and
lively, according to the teacher's comments. Ursula also was exposed
to extensive study in English grammar. Miss Boyd first taught
her class the grammatical parts of speech. Then students learned
to put the words from a sentence into the columns according to
grammar, gender and number. Once the students mastered this, they
began sentence diagramming. To this day when Miss Ursula lies
awake at night, she diagrams sentences in her mind.
Homework was assigned regularly, but it consisted usually of fifteen
problems or so, and Ursula did not find them demanding. However,
occasionally she had a project which she had to create at home,
and her parents emphasized the importance of producing a good
job. She made a contour map of the United States which gave her
a feeling of pride. She recalls carrying it to school, "hoping
not to fall down and break up the nation or have an earthquake."
In another instance (perhaps a formative one for the future Montgomery
County historian), Ursula was given a homework assignment to write
about the history of Clarksville. When her father learned this,
he said she must do it well or not at all. He showed her a copy
of Picturesque Clarksville: Past and Present, an 1887 publication
by W.P. Titus, which contained photos and facts about the city's
development. Ursula wanted to please both father and teacher,
and this experience apparently was a critical one for her: she
became an achiever from this point in her education.
There seem to have been few discipline problems in Howell School.
One which Ursula experienced (she is reluctant to admit) was called
"loitering in the lobby." A student earned demerits
if he or she spent too much time in visiting the restrooms, and
the punishment was to stay ten minutes after school.
When Ursula was promoted to grade six, she moved to the top floor
of Howell School where the space was divided into a study hall
and two classrooms. Spelling and math were done in the study hall;
English, history, science, and art were studied in one of the
classrooms with a special teacher. Ursula recalls that a "grown-up
atmosphere" existed on the third floor. Periodically a student
near the piano would be designated to play a march. This was the
only signal to students that a new period was to begin. They all
lined up and marched in time with the music to the new study area.
Howell School had only one male teacher during Ursula's years
there. Professor O'Neil taught math and therefore presided throughout
the day in the study hall. Each morning he would carry a large
bottle up and down the rows of desks and fill each of the inkwells.
He was strict and challenged students to excel in math, but he
conveniently allowed a lapse in rules when the jonquils began
to bloom each spring. Students would bring in flowers, put them
in the inkwells where they would absorb ink by capillary action,
and at the day's end students would leave with lovely green flowers.
Not a word would be spoken by teacher or student; the conspiracy
was a silent one. Ursula came to recognize that order and decorum
were necessary to a good learning environment; she also enjoyed
the periodic "freedom" from rules.
Ursula's ability to remember what she studied was exceptional.
She learned all the bones of the human body under her science
teacher, Miss Agnes Nicolassen, in the seventh grade, and she
can still recall every one of them at age 88. She also received
comprehensive instruction in English composition and rhetoric
as well as an introduction to Bullfinch's Fables and Myths.
Her assessment of each phrase of her early schooling is that she
was thoroughly instructed in each subject and that the next phase
directly built upon that foundation.
At home during Ursula's elementary years of schooling, the Smith
family provided an enriched setting, though the family was not
considered to have had exceptional advantages for the period.
Important reference books were available. Ursula read in the fifteen
volumes of Stoddard Lectures about every country in the
world. She learned about nudity by studying the Greek statues.
She read of historical events in the twenty-volume series of novels
by E.P. Roe. A volume entitled Poems and Stories Every Child
Should Know answered her questions of what, where, why, and
when. Her parents read with her the four Gospels and the book
of Acts in the family Bible; then she was on her own. There were
other favorites, such as The Little Colonel, Anne of
Green Gables, Stepping Stones to Literature, books
by Kipling, Mary Mapes Dodge, Jack London, Bret Harte, and other
adventure story writers.
The Smiths also had a collection of Perry Penny pictures. Each
of these featured a reproduction of a famous art work or an outstanding
author. Throughout the Smith home there were alabaster art projects
which had been obtained from a local man who ordered them, packed
in cork, by the barrel from Italy. Music was part of the daily
environment, too; the Smiths had a piano, phonograph, and mandolin.
Finally, an additional enrichment source existed outside home and school. Clarksville boasted an 800-seat opera house, built in the 1870s by John S. Elder. Clarksville residents, including the Smiths, took full advantage of its programs. Prominent speakers of the day, such as Booker T. Washington and many others, appeared on its stage; the traveling circus, concert programs, and amateur play groups all came through town on the Louisville-Memphis route. Chautauqua programs were scheduled, also, for a week every summer, and Ursula remembers attending
them, particularly between 1911 and 1915. Morning activities were
participating events, and once, for the edification of an audience,
with other Girl Scouts, Ursula demonstrated on "injured"
boys that they knew how to provide emergency treatment for broken
bones. Afternoon programs were planned for children, and evening
programs were for adults.
By 1917 the Clarksville opera house had burned down and the Chautauqua
had ended; public schools had proliferated throughout the city,
and the tuition school as an institution had disappeared by the
1930s. Ursula Smith Beach thus lived through a period unique in
Clarksville's history in which she developed a code of honor,
forthright honesty, self-discipline, a sense of responsibility,
an intellectual curiosity, and a standard of excellence -- all
of which epitomize her today. She undoubtedly possesses unique
traits in intelligence and memory capacity, but the early and
formative influences that came from family, school, and community
environment have played a crucial part in producing the adult
This essay is based on interviews conducted at Miss Ursula's antebellum
home during the late fall and early winter of 1986-7. A videotape
documentary on Ursula Smith Beach's life is being prepared by
the writer and a colleague at Austin Peay State University with
funding provided by a variety of Clarksville community organizations.
This web page is maintained by
Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075