Godfrey College and High School (1880 - 1893): A Story of the School
By: J.N. Pearson, Frank Walker, Wynelle S. Dodd, & J.L. Shaddix
The school was founded in 1880 by Robert Gold Isbell and incorporated in 1884 by Robert G. Isbell, Elijah Blanton, Hugh W. Isbell, W.R. Atkins, and Andrew J. Ingle, Trustees. Robert G. Isbell was president.
Godfrey College and High School was built in a town then called Godfrey, later Motes, and named for the father of the founder, Godfrey J. Isbell, who had served in the Confederate Army as Private, Company E, 29th Regiment of Alabama. The school and town were located at the intersection of the Cheatham Road which connected Moulton and Tuscaloosa and the Houston-Columbus Highway five miles south of the present site of Double Springs, Winston County, Alabama. Neither road now exists.
Robert G. Isbell was born in Fayette County, Alabama, August 29, 1851, licensed as a minister at the age of nineteen, and joined the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church South at Tuscaloosa, November 20, 1872. He attended Vanderbilt University, School of Religion, now the Divinity School, in the academic year 1875-1876, the first class of that University.
Godfrey College sold stock and financed the college buildings and equipment, and students were charged tuition, although farm produce was often accepted for board in lieu of cash. A thriving little town developed, with post office, hotel, stores and shops, including a newspaper, The Godfrey Pen, copies of which no longer exist. The college accommodations consisted of a two-story frame building for classrooms and adjacent three-story dormitory. The school building proper was equipped with a theatrical stage, and the school commencements entertained the patrons and hundreds of visitors with plays, dialogue and debates. Masonic meetings were held here and officers installed.
Robert G. Isbell was an ordained Methodist minister, and the school was under the jurisdiction of the North Alabama Methodist Conference. In 1890 he was transferred from the North Alabama Conference to the East Columbia Conference, where he served Hargrove Church, Spokane, Washington, and Webb Street Church, Pendleton, Oregon. He returned to Godfrey in 1892, remaining until 1893.
Other professors included:
Hugh W. Isbell, brother of the president, ordained minister and member of the North Alabama Conference.
Edward Lamar Brown, Methodist Minister, North Alabama Conference 1891-1904, who in 1889 became Professor of Geology, Physiology, and Applied Chemistry at Southern University.
Francis Marion Street, B.A. from Hiwassee College, Hiwassee, Tennessee, and graduate student at Vanderbilt University 1882-1883.
Allen M. Weiler, M.A. from an undetermined college and Winston County Superintendent of Schools in 1891.
Elijah Blanton, also member of the North Alabama Methodist Conference.
James McCullar, later M.D. from Vanderbilt and practicing physician at Carbon Hill, Alabama.
Miss Kate Green
Miss Alice Robertson
Noah S. Reeve
A report card issued by Godfrey in the possession of Mrs. Theron Cannon of Berry, Alabama, daughter of the former student:
Motes, Alabama, April 1882
Report Card of Benjamin Elliott Jones at Godfrey College
Grade A, Report of B.E. Jones
Deportment: 8 ½
Proficiency 7 5/6
Application: 7 ¾
A letter from another student, Fannie Jones, in the possession of Mrs. Cannon:
October 9, 1883
Prof. Street is a fine teacher. He has 18 scholars in his school. Am well pleased with my boarding house. Mr. and Mrs. Griffith are as kind as they can be. I room upstairs with Myra, Miss Jane Pickens and Miss Lucy Cunningham. They have 17 boarders here and room for many more. Tell all the young people in Fayette to come to Godfrey.
Have Sabbath school every Sunday morning at Post 9 and prayer meeting at night.
The same student, Fannie Jones, wrote her brother, Benjamin Elliott Jones, May 24, 1885, mentioning her studies in physiology, algebra, and Latin.
A newspaper account of 1886 stated there were about 50 students in attendance.
On Thanksgiving Day 1885 the school dormitory burned and it was rebuilt. In 1888 or 1889 the school buildings and equipment were destroyed by fire. Although a good school continued at Godfrey for a number of following years at the Methodist Church, the college building were never replaced.
By 1891, the school was staffed as follows: N.S. Reeve, Principal; G.W. Blake; D.S. McCullar; James B. Boteler; N.N. McCullar; and S.P. Faught.
In 1893 Robert G. Isbell purchased the Farmers College at Millport, Alabama, in Lamar County, and most of Godfrey’s students left with him to attend Farmers College. The town of Motes gradually went out of existence.
Remaining today is a storm cellar carved out of solid rock dating from 1889 to the rear of the two-story home of D.S. McCullar. Only chimney rocks and bubbling springs remain of the Godfrey College campus.
Farmers College in Millport, also founded by Robert G. Isbell, became the first school of any note of that area and was later owned by the town and operated through the Board of Aldermen.
A.B. Moore in his History of Alabama wrote of Alabama’s educational system during this period: primary schools were taught three or four months in the year in rickety old buildings, log cabins, or old churches. (Not until the administration of Governor Comer in 1907, almost a generation after the founding of Godfrey, were high schools provided in all Alabama counties). Improvement of buildings or equipment was not permitted except by private subscriptions or contributions. The law forbade the use of any part of the public schools funds for building or equipment, and the constitution prohibited the legislature from granting the power of local taxation for any purpose not named in that instrument – and school buildings and equipment were not so mentioned. Schools were not graded, supervision was absent, and teachers lacked professional spirit and scholarship. The private schools and academies in existence before the Civil War had collapsed. Dr. Moore described the private and denomination high schools, academies, and "log colleges" which sprang up between 1880 and 1900 to fill this void, and more than one hundred were chartered by the legislature. He calls them an earnest effort among the people to provide the schools that could furnish such education as could be absorbed. They usually operated on a ten-months basis. The University and few other State and denominational colleges were considered beyond popular reach.
Dr. Moore, commenting on these private academies, high schools, and "log colleges," related that to the contemporary mind it seems that little good could have come out of the schools back there, but reminds us that many of the outstanding leaders of education in the state laid the foundations of their education in those old schools. "From a few seeds the old professors sowed, while living upon a modicum of the world’s goods, has grown a great harvest of education and social consciousness."
Following is a partial list of students of Godfrey from a copy of one of the original rolls and recollections of former students.
Avery, Jesse Thomas
Cowart, Bart J.
Griffith, Nora Lee
Hill, George Ann
Jones, Benjamin Elliott
Knight, Lou E.
McCullar, Lucy E.
McCullar, W. Andrew
Mitchell, Charles E.
Poe, Ann Eliza
Poe, Mary J.