PIONEER Kentuckians were often unlettered, according to the standards of formal education, but they respected learning. Wherever stockades were erected, cabins within them were set apart as schools in which the more literate members of the community taught the "three R's," often from memory.
In 1775, before the first church and the first court of justice were established, the first school was opened in the fort at Harrodsburg. The teacher, Mrs. William Coomes, taught the beginners to read and write from paddle-shaped pine shingles inscribed with the alphabet, and from Bible texts. At McAfee's Station, near Harrodsburg, there was a school in 1777. John McKinney taught at Lexington "between fights" with wildcats and Indians. At Boonesboro, at Logan's Station -- wherever a cluster of cabins appeared -- schools were established, presided over by teachers who sometimes knew little more than their pupils. With low pay, often in tobacco -- which was legal tender -- bear bacon, buffalo steak, or jerked venison, these pioneer teachers eked out a precarious existence.
The schoolhouse was a cheerless log hut, lighted through oiled paper stretched over an opening that served for a window. Books were few, but there was always the Bible, supplemented by hand-written texts.
Numerous private schools were established between 1780 and 1800. At Lexington, John Filson, Kentucky's first historian, conducted a private academy until his death in 1788; Elijah Craig, a pioneer Baptist minister, established a school for his congregation at Georgetown; and Salem Academy at Bardstown, under John Priestly, became one of the leading schools in the State. Schools at this time were primarily for boys, who were taught arithmetic, surveying, geometry, bookkeeping, a smattering of English grammar, and a little Latin -- if they were destined for the law or medicine. The private schools opened by the French immigrants offered languages, music, deportment, and "fancy" dancing.