At the time Pi Beta Phi established its settlement school in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in February 1912, few among the town’s residents possessed more than a fifth grade education, and most possessed considerably less. Local schools were simply too small, too geographically scattered, too poorly funded, and the teachers who staffed them too poorly educated in their own right to provide students with anything beyond the “Three R’s” (reading, writing, and arithmetic). And yet, the problem was infinitely more profound; for with a few notable exceptions, Gatlinburg residents placed little or no value on formal education, and so were disinclined to expect more from those who taught their children.
Then again, they had little practical reason to do so. Most Gatlinburg residents were subsistence farmers, and as such had little use for formal education. Simply put, a boy whose life would be spent hoeing corn, plowing fields, and cutting firewood, and who wished to do well for himself and his family, need not devote his energy to a study of Greek and Roman political traditions to be successful. For that matter, a girl whose adult life would be spent mending clothing, canning vegetables, and caring for small children need not be conversant in French to excel in her duties. Disagreeable a notion as it may have been to the Pi Beta Phis, a mountain boy or girl could learn most everything he or she needed to know, whether it be the safest way to fell a tree or the simplest way to darn a sock, from members of his or her extended family. One might learn to count, write a few words, and struggle through a few lines of reading at the local schoolhouse, but these skills were by no means required of those destined to become productive members of Southern Appalachian society.
In the early days of the settlement school, the Settlement School Committee and members of the teaching staff struggled with this issue – that is, they disagreed with one another about the content of the school’s curriculum, with some arguing that courses should be designed around the Southern Appalachian lifestyle, and others arguing that it should. Principal Helen Chew, for example, wished to emphasize the practical, rather than the intellectual, arguing that advanced mathematics, world history, and other strictly “academic” courses were “too college preparatory” for Southern Appalachian students. Given the choice, she would have preferred devoting the settlement school’s limited energy and resources to agriculture and home economics classes, for these were the vocations most likely to be adopted by the majority of graduates. Settlement school pioneer Dr. May Lansfield Keller, however, insisted that a well-rounded curriculum, even one that included “impractical” courses such as literature and foreign languages, was critical to the intellectual development of all students, regardless of their economic background or vocational interests. “I wouldn’t make a plumber study the classics,” she once insisted, “but he’d enjoy life more if he did -- there’s more to life than pipes.”
In the end, the Settlement School Committee and Staff opted to steer as neutral a course as possible between the two extremes. Students were given a heavy dose of agricultural and home economics training, but were also provided with ample opportunity to study languages, history, mathematics, and other “less practical” subjects. Of course, as the settlement school staff would learn, developing a curriculum and then arousing enthusiasm among students and their parents for that curriculum were two different things. But the staff overcame local resistance, primarily by visiting students’ homes and inviting parents to attend adult education classes and school-sponsored social events.
Of all the programs instituted by the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School, none aroused more resistance than did vocational agriculture. Southern Appalachian farmers were, as a rule, hesitant to adopt any technique perceived as “book farming,” preferring instead to rely on traditional techniques shaped by generations of practical experience. Still, Pi Beta Phi insisted that if Gatlinburg boys intended to spend their lives farming (and most of them did), they should be the most well-trained, scientifically-minded farmers that they could be. Thus it was that in 1922, the Settlement School Committee requested and received federal agricultural education subsidies under the Smith-Hughes Act, allowing it to hire the school’s first, full-time vocational agriculture teacher, Chattanooga native and University of Tennessee graduate Otto J. Mattil (more commonly known as O. J. Mattil).