Long before any other town in this part of Texas and Oklahoma had a school, the Chickasaw had a school just across the Red River. Bloomfield Seminary, also known as Bloomfield Academy, was founder in 1852 and opened in 1856.
Bloomfield was located in Oklahoma, not far from the Red River, about 10 miles east of Colbert, way out in the woods, according to a recollection written by Julia Beeler Smith in the 1982 edition of Colbert 1845-1982. Mrs. Smith didn’t attend the school, but visited there several times. She said that in those days, the towns were few and far between and the only way to get to the school was by a winding road through the dense forest that bordered the Red River.
No one was responsible for maintaining roads, so buggies, wagons and two-seated hacks had to be built strong to cover ruts, tree stumps and roots in the road. This was especially true of the trail through the woods around Bloomfield. It was slow going for horses and often the driver had to get out and clean the mud from the wheels, Mrs. Smith said.
Not even a farmhouse nearby made it a lonely place for the girls, mostly Native American, who boarded there.
Mrs. Smith recalled that the teachers were mostly Methodist missionaries sent out by schools in the East. The school was discontinued for a while during the Civil War then reopened until it was destroyed by fire a second time in 1914. Mrs. Smith said there were four schools — or academies — on the site consisting of a large two-story facility and some outbuildings.
Bloomfield was founded and named by the Rev. John Harpole Carr, according to Chronicles of Oklahoma, December 1924. His daughter-in-law, Susan Jane Carr wrote that while he was living in his tent, a friend of his among the Chickasaws, Jackson Kemp, visited him. The former chief returned to his home and wanted to send him a message, but didn’t know where to send it. So Carr improvised Bloomfield from the profusion of flowers including wild roses that grew in abundance along the wilderness path.
Bloomfield, like all 13 boarding schools among the Choctaws and Chickasaws, was supported by funds from missionary boards in charge of the school and an annuity fund of the Chickasaws and Choctaws. Carr received $66.66 yearly per pupil. His salary was $600 a year and his teachers’ salaries were raised gradually from $100 the first year to $250 when the school closed. All books and other supplies were provided from the appropriation.
A carpenter by trade, Carr did all the cabinet work and cultivated a farm on which he raised wheat, corn and potatoes. In time, he had two orchards to provide peaches, plums and apples. With these farm products, he was able to complete the school.
His wife was matron of the school and Miss S.J. Johnson was teacher. In the mornings, the girls were taught English and the alphabet, spelling, reading, writing and arithmetic. And in later years history, botany and grammar. In the afternoon, they were taught sewing, housework and cooking.
At the end of each school year a public examination was held and many of the parents who attended came so far that they spent the night at the school before graduation. A dinner was served with as many as 300 dining that day alone.
Mrs. Smith recalled that on closing day, the girls marched onto a stage and were given oral exams. The room was filled with family and friends and the girls recited various rules from memory. She said while they learned a lot, it wasn’t always easy to put what they had learned to practical use in the home where another language might always be spoken. She said the closing day wasn’t known as “commencement” as we know today, but rather “zamination.”
Zamination always was a pleasant thing to remember. Those present at the closing exercises and annual reunion at Bloomfield thought of the evening’s enjoyment as a pleasure that might often be repeated. The main building was changed into an impromptu stage. Parents were seated in the yard facing the stage that was nicely decorated and brilliantly lighted. Even the little boys who came to see their sisters perform were well behaved.
Mrs. Smith attended several of the school’s closings at Bloomfield, but never was a student. The older women loved the reunions of sorts and would take their babies and proudly display them. A free barbecue lunch was served on a plank bench in the schoolyard and the children would play while the older people visited with each other.
Since there was no store within 10 miles, cool water was available from a barrel. There were no soft drinks in those days.
The first winter, 18 funerals were held among the people in the area, which Mrs. Carr said was an unusually high mortality rate. She explained the deaths as being because cabins were open and although the winters were short they were severe and many of the students didn’t have clothing that was warm enough. Carr was the only carpenter around so he made all the coffins from pine lumber he kept on hand, many times going to his shop to work in the middle of the night when someone passed away. He lined the coffins and covered the outside with black cloth. He conducted all the funerals even the service for his own little daughter.
Mrs. Carr said in that thinly settled neighborhood during the first winter it was the custom to bury in their cabins. They removed enough of the floor to dig a grave, then laid back the boards, deserted the house for a few weeks, then came back and lived on as before. The clay was hard and lumpy and decomposition was fast. One house was literally filled with graves, she said so that the last one had to be buried outside.
Bygimie Parker and her sisters attended the old Bloomfield Academy, according to her recollections in the Colbert history. She said except for a two week vacation at Christmas they stayed there nine months of the year.
She remembered vividly the Saturday, January 14, 1914, when the school burned. She said it was in the afternoon and everyone was supposed to be outside except for two or three who were sick. Her sister stayed behind with one of them. The two girls saw a Native American girl coming out of the attic, a place where they were not allowed to go. Very soon they smelled smoke and later found that the girl had taken all her cloths outside before she started the fire with old newspapers there.
The girl confessed when she was questioned and said she was mad because everyone went home for the holidays but she had no place to go and had stayed at the school.
Mrs. Parker said everyone worked hard to get furnishings, their clothes and other belonging out of the burning house. They were throwing things out the windows and sliding suitcases down the stairs. The girl was in her first year at the school and was glad to get to go home Mrs. Parker said.
When word got around that the school had burned, people living in the area drove up in wagons, buggies and a few motor cars and volunteered to take the students home with them. One family took a group home and gave them supper and bed for the night. The next morning they gave them breakfast then took them to the train station so they could go home.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.