Jane and William Coomes were among the first immigrants to Kentucky, leaving Charles County, Maryland in the spring and arriving at Fort Harrod in September, 1775. Mrs. Coomes was perhaps more educated than was common for women at that time, for it wasn’t long before she started a school.
Jane Coomes taught beginners the alphabet which was inscribed on paddle-shaped pine shingles. These paddles were equally useful to impart knowledge or inflict punishment. In this “blab school”, students studied aloud, their swaying bodies keeping time to the tune of the ABCs. Dilworth’s speller and the New Testament were the sole textbooks. When the children could read, they studied the Bible and hymnbooks. They learned to write and solve number problems from copies set them by the teacher. Charcoal and smooth boards took the place of paper and pencil, and the juice of oak balls was used for ink.
A replica of Fort Harrod, built in the 1920s, includes the schoolhouse: the first school in Kentucky.
The little school at Fort Harrod was built of round logs with no chinking between them. It had a dirt floor, a slab door hung on deer thongs, and only one window. According to one authority, this window was covered with doe skin; another has it greased paper. A mammoth fireplace along the entire east wall had an opening at the south end through which sections of logs could be hauled in and fitted over andirons. The seats, without backs, were made of puncheons set on peg legs. A dunce stool stood in the corner; a rod for chastising nearby.
Postcard in the collection of the Harrodsburg Historical Society shows the interior of the school at Fort Harrod. This is a replica built in the 1920s.
A page from Comly's Spelling and Reading Book, 1853. This is a later publication than Jane Coomes' pupils would have had access to.
Jane Coomes was not only the first teacher in Kentucky, but is given credit, also, for being the first person to manufacture salt in Kentucky. She did this with the aid of some small boys while camping for several weeks at Drennon Springs on the Kentucky River near the present site of Frankfort. The Coomes family remained in the fort for nine years, during which William Coomes took an honorable part in the defense of the station through the siege of 1776-77. He cleared land and helped with the provisioning of the fort. One of the sons was in the famous battle of Blue Licks. The family relocated to Nelson County in 1784.
As the first school teacher in Kentucky, Jane Coomes was honored by the Kentucky chapter of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae in a 1935 ceremony. A memorial tablet near the replica of the first log schoolhouse in Harrodsburg was unveiled by a descendant of Jane’s, Miss Nora Coomes of Bardstown, Kentucky.
Source: Well-Spring in the Wilderness, p. 12-14. Delta Kappa Gamma Project Pioneer Women Teachers Kentucky. Edited by representatives of Alpha, Beta, and Zeta Chapters. Louisville, Ky.: Gibbs Inman Co., 1955.