Wheelock Academy

Bishinik January 1979, page 8 & 9

Wheelock, Symbol of Belief, Dedication and Hard Work

By Len Green

Today it stands alone, forlorn and crumbling.

For more than 120 years it existed as Wheelock Seminary (later Academy) and its remnants stand today near the spot where it was born back in September of 1832 as a Presbyterian mission.  The academy and the historic rock church building nearby are symbols of a belief in education, dedication beyond that of ordinary persons and the hard work of several generations.

The story of Wheelock must start with the two persons most responsible for its creation, the Rev. Alfred E. Wright, missionary to the Choctaws from the American Board of Missionaries, and his wife, Harriet Bunce Wright.  Alfred Wright was born March 1, 1788 in Columbia, Conn. He graduated from Williams College in 1812 and from Andover Seminary in 1814. He was ordained as a minister Dec. 17, 1819 in Charleston, N. C. In 1820, he accepted an assignment as a missionary to the Choctaws and was assigned to a Presbyterian mission in Goshen, Miss., where he remained until August 1, 1823.

On that date, he was assigned to found a mission and school in the Choctaw community of Mayhew, Miss. He returned to what was then spoken of as civilization in 1825 to marry Harriet Bunce and bring her back with him to the Choctaws. Born Sept. 19, 1779 to Capt. Jared and Lydia (Prettyplace) Bunce, Harriet was only ten months old when her mother died, and she was cared for and educated by her sisters. Harriet Bunce Wright was a teacher of unusual ability and tenacity. Thus the story of Wheelock belongs as much to her as it does to her minister-doctor husband.

In the early part of 1832, Alfred and Harriet Wright chose to join a group of Choctaws, who were making their way from Mississippi to their new home in the west on their own, led by Thomas LeFlore, who had succeeded his cousin Greenwood LeFlore as chief of Okla Falaya District. As there was much illness along the trail, it proved slow going and the party did not arrive at Eagle (now Eagletown, Ok.) until Sept. 14, 1832, where they stopped at Bethebara Mission, which was located on the west bank of the Mountain Fork River in what is now McCurtain County, and under the direction of the Rev. Loring S. Williams. Rev. Wright was never a strong man or a well man. He suffered from a chronic heart condition, malaria (then called intermittent fever or chills) and bursitis. He was too ill to go on, and remained with Rev. Williams at Bethebara, while his family continued on westward along the Little Rock-Fort Towson Military Trace.

After crossing Little River (which the Choctaws called Boklusa or “Black River”), the group stopped for an overnight encampment on a little rise just south of the Military Trace and less than a mile from the river. Harriet Bunce Wright, teacher Anna Burnham who had joined Wright at Mayhew in 1822, and others of the party were quite taken with the site as it stood above flood level and contained a spring of clear, coot water and a small stream. The following morning, when the Thomas LeFlore party moved on westward, Mrs. Wright and her group remained behind, and began building a small log house, the first building at what would become Wheelock.

After a slow recovery, the Rev. Alfred Wright was able to rejoin his family in late November of 1832, and conducted his first church service at the new site December 9, 1932. Until a small log church could be built, worship was held outdoors under a large oak tree, with the congregation sitting on logs, pulled up into rows, and Rev. Wright System using an upended 100-gallon barrel as a pulpit. The Rev. Wright decided to name his new mission and school Wheelock, honoring Eleazor Wheelock, a noted Presbyterian and first president of Dartmouth College who had befriended Wright on several occasions.

Almost simultaneously, the group constructed a small log church building and a larger log building to house the family. To this structure, at Mrs. Wright’s urging, a large room was added to serve as a school room where she and Miss Burnham could begin conducting school. From 1832 until 1839, Wheelock was operated as a “day school,” meaning that the students lived at home and commuted each day to and from the school for classwork.

Choctaw families living in the area were somewhat scattered, and many families lived too far from the school for it to be practical for their children to attend daily classes. Also, in bad weather, going to and from school on horseback or in horse drawn hacks became practically impossible. By 1838, it had become obvious to Harriet Bunce Wright that the “day school” plan was not reaching enough young Choctaws who needed and desired education. She prevailed upon her husband to help her found a “boarding school.” As he was the only person in the area knowing anything about medicine, the Rev. Wright was generally away from the mission treating the ill or preaching sermons. Thus, the brunt of operating the school fell upon Harriet and Anna Burnham.

Thus the first dormitory building, also of log construction, was built in 1839. The response was so great that during the next three years the dormitory building was enlarged and a classroom building constructed. Each young Choctaw attending the school paid for a part of his or her education by helping with the work of running the school, cleaning, helping to cook, chopping and gathering wood for the fireplaces and other menial tasks. A portion of each day was spent in the classrooms where the youngsters were taught the English language, arithmetic, reading, writing and the Bible.

In 1842, the Choctaw National School System adopted Wheelock into its school system, assigning it as Wheelock Seminary, an exclusive school for Choctaw girls. A companion academy for boys was established first at Clear Creek, south and west of Wheelock, but later moved to a spot on the Military Trace about two miles west of Wheelock and renamed Norwalk Academy.

In 1845, Rev. Wright began work on what will probably be his most lasting and best known memorial. The Wheelock Rock Church, which stands today as the oldest church building in Oklahoma still in use. Stone was quarried from the banks of Little River (Boklusa), and dragged by oxen drays to the building site. The walls were made 20 inches thick, which helped to keep the church a bit warmer in winter and a bit cooler in summer. The floor and belfry were of cypress wood and the building was roofed with “shakes” chopped from oak trees and “cured” in the sun.

The building was financed by freewill donations and done by volunteer labor. The church building was completed and Rev. Wright delivered his first sermon in his new church in the late spring or early summer of 1846. Wright’s slogan (and probably his philosophy of life) “Jehovah Jireh” (which means “the Lord will provide”) was carved into the gable of the church where it may still be seen.

Through the years, Wright’s “intermittent fever,” bursitis and heart condition had steadily worsened, yet he still continued to ride out whenever he was needed to minister to the sick. Rev. Wright died March 31, 1853, and as was his wish, his body was buried within sight of the beloved church that he had created in the heart of the wilderness. Harriet Bunce Wright tried to carry on with her teaching chores, but after the 1854 school year her health was failing so rapidly that she went east to live with relatives. She died Oct. 3, 1863 in Madison, Fla., and was buried there.

Following the death of the Rev. Alfred Wright, the American Board of Missionaries sent the Rev. John Edwards, another Presbyterian minister, to serve as superintendent of Wheelock. John Libby, who had made the journey west an with the Wrights as a young seminarian but who had returned east to further his education in the late 1830s, returned to Wheelock with Rev. Edwards as an assistant. In 1857, Mary J. Semple (who would later become the wife of the Rev. Ebenezer Hotchkin) joined the staff. She was to be a career educator, spending 40 years among the Choctaws teaching first at Wheelock and later at Spencer Academy. Accompanying her west was Mary Lovell.

By the late 1850s, Wheelock was probably the largest and best known seminary for training young Choctaw girls in the entire Choctaw Nation. In 1861, the Choctaw Nation voted to join the Confederate States of America. Whereupon, the Rev. John Edwards was ordered by the American Board of Missionaries to leave Wheelock and return to the north. John Libby, who had married a Choctaw woman, chose to remain behind. He continued to maintain the buildings and tried to keep Wheelock “together” during the bitter War Between the States. Libby and his Choctaw wife, who was a graduate of Wheelock Seminary herself, continued to operate a day school at the site off and on until all of the buildings, save the famous rock church, were destroyed by fire in 1869.

In 1882, the Choctaw Council created a Choctaw National School Board, and one of the first ../../databasepix/Bell/targets set by the board was to rebuild Wheelock and operate it as a boarding school for girls. In late 1882, plans were approved for construction of Pushmataha Hall (popularly known today as the “main” or “dormitory” building), and construction was completed in 1884. Two years later, Wilson Hall (the classroom building) was completed.

After the death of his wife in California in 1881, the Rev. John Edwards had returned to the Choctaw Notion, and had accepted a position on the teaching staff of the academy near Boggy Depot. With the re-opening of Wheelock in 1884, Rev. Edwards was asked by the Choctaw Nation School Board to return to Wheelock as superintendent. He married a Wheelock teacher, Constance Hunter, and remained as mentor at the school until the end of the 1886-87 school year.

At that time, because of failing health, Rev. Edwards requested that a new superintendent be assigned. Chosen was the Rev. William C. Robe. Teachers were Velma Hunter (a sister of Constance Hunter Edwards), Mary Lane, Jessie Thompson and Anna Hunter.

When William C. Robe elected to retire in 1890, his son, J. C. Robe was chosen by the Choctaw Board of Education to follow his father as superintendent of Wheelock. From 1890 until 1910, Wheelock Seminary was operated as a “contract school” by the American Board. As a contract school, this meant that the school was operated from Choctaw Tribal funds but that superintendents and teachers were furnished by the American Board of Missionaries (now almost exclusively Presbyterian).

Superintendents serving the school during this period included:

1890-92- J. C. Robe.

1893-94- Dr. C. H. Ellis.

1894-98- E. H. Wilson.

1898-1902- Frank Shortall.

1903-10- L. D. Schoonmaker.

From 1910 until 1932, Wheelock Academy was operated from tribal funds, administered through the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Superintendents during this period included:

1910-16- Eleanor Allen.

1916-20- Minta R. Foreman.

1920-21- Elsie E. Newton.

1921-22- Ivy Seaton.

1922-25- Zula Breed.

1925-27- Mary Morley.

1927-29- Orlando R. Wright.

1929-32- Minta R. Foreman.

In 1932, the United States government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, took over complete operation of Wheelock Academy. Minta R. Foreman remained as superintendent until she decided to retire at the end of the 1941-42 school year.

In July of 1942, Leila Kent Black was assigned as superintendent, serving in that capacity until the BIA decided Wheelock Academy was no longer needed and closed it in the spring of 1955.

Many McCurtain Countians and Choctaws from all across the old Choctaw Nation still recall with sadness those final graduation exercises in 1955, and the beauty of the school in its pastoral setting as tearful young Choctaw girls, gowned in white, said final goodbyes to the school they so loved.

At this juncture, control of the grounds and building were removed from the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and placed in the care and custody of the General Services Administration. The GSA, pleading shortages of funds, furnished only a single “caretaker,” who was allowed living quarters, a small salary and a miniature budget which allowed him to accomplish only the most pressing maintenance problems. For almost 20 years, the once beautiful buildings were allowed to decay and fall apart through lack of use and through lack of proper maintenance. If the caretaker asked GSA to repaint the buildings, they would send him a gallon or two of paint with instructions to “touch up” the worst spots. If he asked for major repairs, only minor efforts were expended. Several times during the period, interested Choctaws and former students tried from time to time to get something done about the deterioration being allowed at Wheelock. However, complaints made to the BIA were referred by that agency to the GSA, and there received the same treatment as did requests from the caretaker assigned to the historic school.

In the late 1960s, through the interest of such Choctaw families as the Kaniatobes, Victors, Dyers, Herndons and others, attention was generated to the deplorable situation that had developed at Wheelock. Len Green, managing editor of the McCurtain Gazette in Idabel, Ok., began a blistering editorial campaign and an effort to save Wheelock was launched by the Idabel Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded by T. L. Kimbro, manager. Instrumental in the “Save Wheelock” campaign was Carl Albert, McAlester, then 3rd District Congressman and later Speaker of the House, who also become interested in the institution after correspondence and conversations with Kimbro, Green and other interested persons.

Albert managed to get Wheelock Academy placed on the National Register of Historic Sites and applied pressure upon the General Services Administration to restore the buildings to the condition in which they were when the GSA “took over” in 1955. But, the General Services Administration got itself “off the hook” by the simple expedient of turning Wheelock Academy back over to the Choctaw Tribe.

Formed in 1972, the McCurtain County Historical Society launched efforts to get some type of reclamation programs started at Wheelock before this Treasure of Choctaw heritage is lost completely. Joining with the McCurtain County Historical Society in the effort were State Senator Jim E. Lane and Rep. Mike Murphy. They managed to qet state funding to help.

Through state funding, Wheelock Rock Church is being placed into top shape once again, with (at this writing)(1979) only a small amount of interior work left to be done.

A granite marker, commemorating Wheelock’s founder, the Rev. Alfred E. Wright, was installed adjacent to the church building and was dedicated in ceremonies held in September of 1976.

After his election as Principal Chief in 1975, the late C. David Gardner became interested in the preservation of Wheelock and commissioned a feasibility and engineering study in an effort to save Wheelock. This feasibility study indicated that there might be little hope of saving Pushmataha Hall, the oldest and best known of the buildings on the grounds of the old school. Present Principal Chief Hollis Roberts also had a study made of Wheelock. He is considering the possibility of salvaging the best of the materials from Pushmataha Hall, and reconstructing the original 1884 structure from the original plans, which are still available (with a few modifications, including such things as indoor plumbing).

At this writing, the Principal Chief is awaiting final word on federal financing for a “Choctaw Work Force” project, and Chief Roberts indicates that the initial project of this organization, if funded, will be restoration of Wheelock.

(Picture Caption)

PUSHMATAHA HALL at Wheelock Academy, near Millerton in McCurtain County, Ok., as it originally was built. In the late 1920s, the building was remodeled and an additional wing added, removing the sweeping front porch and the upstairs balcony. If you study this picture, and go take a look at the building now, crumbling to dust, you just might want to cry. Is there no way we can rebuild or reclaim the glory that once was Wheelock Academy?