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Rochester Teacher

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
School teaching has never been the best paying avocation, but the terms of employment have definitely improved over the last century.

When the Haskell County community of Marcy made the decision in 1906 to relocate three miles to be on the right of way of the new Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad, A.B. Carothers donated the land for the new tracks and 160 acres for the town site.

In appreciation, the railroad gave him first choice on what the new town should be called. He thought Carothers, Texas had a nice ring to it, but a check with postal authorities determined that name had already been taken in Texas. Not being able to honor the Haskell County land owner, the railroad opted to call the new town Rochester, after Rochester, N.Y.

His altruistic spirit not dampened, Carothers paid for construction of a one-room school house. Classes began in the fall with nine grades and one teacher.

According to Marguerite Gauntt and Modelle Ballard's 1976 history of Rochester, "When the Rails Were Laid," these were the teacher's conditions of employment:
  1. You will not marry during the term of your contract.
  2. You are not to keep company with men.
  3. You must be home between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 a.m., unless attending a school function.
  4. You may not loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
  5. You may not travel beyond the city limits, unless you have permission of the chairman of the [school] board.
  6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man, unless he is your father or brother.
  7. You may not smoke cigarettes.
  8. You may not dress in bright colors.
  9. You may under no circumstances dye your hair.
  10. You must wear at least two petticoats.
  11. Your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.
  12. To keep the school room neat and clean, you must: sweep the floor once a day; scrub the floor once a week with hot soapy water; clean the blackboards once a day; start the fire at 7 a.m. so the room will be warm by 8 a.m.

Rochester's first teacher managed to abide by the school board's strict rules, but something else would seriously impact her enthusiasm for teaching on the South Plains.

In the predawn hours of July 2, 1907, Kate Slotton Finley, the town's young school teacher, lay sound asleep, readily abiding by her school board-imposed curfew, when her landlady woke her up. A bad storm was coming, she said. They needed to head for the storm cellar.

Either too sleepy or too confidant, the teacher opted to stay in bed. Just about the time she got comfortably back to sleep, oblivious to the lightning flashes and the wildly turning public windmill in the middle of the town's main street, a tornado struck, tearing the roof off the boarding house. The rotating wind pulled Finley out of her bed, along with the heavy trunk containing most of her wardrobe.

If she thought for a second that she was having a dream about flying, she soon realized she was moving through the night sky for real, her screams drowned in the roar of the wind.

Accounts of the storm do not reveal whether Finley consulted with her higher power while swirling in the air, but the winds set her down on Rochester's muddy street. Regaining consciousness, she began to crawl for help, blood rushing from a cut on her forehead.

A local woman saw her and helped her to safety, finding her only injuries to be the cut and a dislocated thumb.

"I could see the church [across the street from her boarding house] swaying to and fro," the teacher later recalled in describing her brief ride on the wind. "I saw my trunk up in the air. I hit the ground flat, my bed sheet wrapped around me, and wringing wet."

The violent summer storm marked the end of Finley's teaching career in Rochester. The tornado had demolished her school and destroyed or damaged 13 other structures in town, including the Methodist Church. Besides, as the authors of the community history reported, Finley's close call left her "too nervous to teach."

Rochester today

Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, December 2005
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
June 29, 2006 column
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