The Little General & the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

 The Little General & the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

Moonlight Schoolhouse

Allan and Colleague in front of the original Moonlight Schoolhouse

In 1992 I was invited to give a keynote speech at the annual meeting of Adult Literacy & Basic Educators in Lexington, Kentucky. I asked the organizers if they had ever heard of the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, which I had read about in Wanda Daukza Cook’s 1977 history of U.S. adult literacy (see References below)? They not only knew about it but, very kindly, drove me to nearby Morehead and we visited the original Little Brushy Moonlight School Museum. The schoolhouse had been moved from Rowan County to this Morehead museum site. The (rather poor) photos of the original learners that you see here are ones I took with my camera from the framed pictures hanging on the walls (better photos can be seen in Honeycutt Baldwins’s excellent book listed in the References). Little Brushy is a small country school house with worn wooden benches and a potbellied stove. It is not an exaggeration to say this little schoolhouse—the Little Brushy Schoolhouse—was the site of a movement that swept the U.S. and profoundly influenced the delivery and public perception of adult literacy throughout America and Canada (Quigley, 2006 ).  Like the Bristol School movement and the Port Royal Experiment seen earlier, here is the story of a courageous adult educator and the historic movement she created.

The Little General                                                                          

Cora Wilson Stewart

Cora Wilson Stewart

Rowan County was considered the poorest county in Kentucky in 1911. Nevertheless,  Stewart started a movement with virtually no help from sponsors, with no literacy models to draw on, and no support from her (all-male) administrative K-12 schooling colleagues.

She opened the doors of the Little Brushy school house in 1911 hoping some adults might show up to learn to read and write. She had been told by her school board colleagues that: “Elderly folks were too self-conscious and embarrassed to go to night school” (Taylor, 1973, p. 23). Despite their skepticism, she had a simple, compelling, idea. When the moon was shining bright, adults (and their children) were “signaled” to come to the empty rural schoolhouses. And they did come. She was amazed to find that a full 1,200 took up her “moonlight invitation” that first year.

As she wrote: “They came trooping over the hills and out of the hollows, some to add to the meager education received in the inadequate schools of their childhood, some to receive their first lessons in reading and writing” (cited in Honeycutt Baldwin, 2006). Stewart  described those who came as,  “Not only illiterate farmers and their illiterate wives, sons, and daughters, but also illiterate merchants or storekeepers, illiterate ministers, and illiterate lumbermen. Mothers, bent with age, came that they might learn to read letters from absent sons and daughters, and that they might learn for the first time to write them” (Cited in Honeycutt Baldwin). Far from being “too embarrassed to attend,” a total of 1,600 came to the moonlight schools during the second year as  25 counties created Moonlight Schools. But her idea did not stop at the Kentucky borders.

Alabama School room

Inside Little Brushy School House

Over the next five years, Alabama established “Adult Schools,” South Carolina created “Lay-By Schools,” “Community Schools” appeared in North Carolina, “Schools for Grown-Ups” were established in Georgia—all by 1917. The adult school model reached  north as far as Washington State and Minnesota; as well as down to New Mexico, by 1915. Meanwhile, Oklahoma began offering Normal School credit for the new volunteer and part-time Moonlight adult educators.

Impact on Canada

Canada had started adult literacy classes even earlier. The Kingston YMCA had begun classes in, “reading, spelling, writing and grammar” as early as 1859 (Ross, 1951, p. 26). Well before there was a unified Canada. These, “Were perhaps among the earliest experiments in adult education in this country” (Ross, p. 26). While one can’t draw a straight line between the Moonlight Schools and Canada’s YMCA or later Canadian landmark schools, it is apparent that the Kentucky model and public attitudes of “social uplift” associated with the Moonlight Schools were a mirror image of one another on both sides of the border. But why did she do it?

Why Did  She Dedicate Her Life To Adult Literacy?  

Two Learners & their Bible

Two Learners and their Bible

Known fondly in her family as “the Little General” (Estes, 1988, p. 115), Stewart was editor of the local newspaper, so the evening’s literacy lessons appeared regularly in the local Rowan County Messenger. She was also a school superintendent and, at one point, was principal of two schools. But why, then, turn to adult education?

By her own account, three incidents led her to adult literacy. A mother asked her for help to write to a daughter who had recently moved to Chicago. A middle-aged man “with tears in his eyes,” (Mandrell, n.d., p. 14) begged to be helped to learn to read and write so he could feel “whole.” And, an aspiring local musician asked for help so he might pursue his dreams as a musician. Years ahead of her time, Stewart also welcomed Aboriginal and African American adults into the literacy movement. The doors were open to all.

She was not a missionary. Rather, Stewart was living in the era of “Progressivism” where “social uplift” and the “Social Gospel” were admirable civic attributes. She saw a compelling need  in her community and chose to commit her life to helping adults through literacy.

But her struggles were many…

Some of Her Accomplishments; Some of Her Struggles

Rather than use the Bible as the singular classroom reader, Stewart personally wrote the widely-used Country Life Readers for rural schools. She wrote The Prisoner’s First Book—among the first materials in corrections literacy history. In 1914, she was named to the Kentucky Illiteracy Commission in 1914—a commission she herself had proposed and later became its chairperson. At the outset of World War I, it was discovered to the nation’s dismay that, “Of all men tested for the draft, 25 percent were near-illiterate, that is, unable to read a newspaper intelligently or write an intelligent letter (Daukza Cook, p.11). In fact, some men had been imprisoned for “cowardice” only to learn they could not read the posters saying there was a war. Stewart was later asked to be an advisor to the U.S. army and wrote The Soldier’s First Book so the vast numbers of WW I soldiers with low literacy might have a chance to read letters from home and write a reply. She was named Chair of the Illiteracy Commission of the National Education Association in 1919. In 1923, she was elected Chair of the World Illiteracy Commission and “presided over conferences in Edinburgh, Geneva, Toronto, San Francisco and Denver” (Taylor, p. 25). No literacy leader in North America had ever risen to this level before.  Then, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge named Stewart director of his National Illiteracy Crusade—the first national campaign in U.S. history. She was also appointed director of the new National Illiteracy Commission for the U.S.

Throughout this meteoric rise, she advocated the model she had launched at  Little Brushy school house, incredibly, just fifteen years earlier.

The Life and Death of A Forgotten Heroine

Cora Wilson Stewart’s personal life was far from easy. She gave birth to one child who died in less than a year. Her first husband was a schoolteacher and a chronic alcoholic, “who verbally and physically abused” her (Estes, p. 117). Local court records show that Cora had to flee her home on several occasions and take refuge with friends in Morehead. According to Estes: “His violence and threats grew in intensity and frequency until, in March 1910, he drew a pistol and aimed it at her, but the gun misfired. Shortly thereafter, Wilson was granted a divorce” (p. 117).

But, despite her Herculean efforts, in 1920, a bill before the Kentucky legislature for $75,000 to continue her work was defeated. Fifty-seven of the 120 all-male county superintendents in Kentucky did not give their support. Some attacked Stewart calling the Moonlight Schools  “a fad and a failure” (cited in Estes, p. 251). Others called her efforts “Quixotic” (cited in Estes, p. 251). Undaunted, she continued her work but, in December, 1958, she died in relative obscurity at age 83 in a North Carolina nursing home.

As her biographer, Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin concluded: “Despite remarkable successes, her crusade was marginalized by professional educators whose faith in university training led then to disavow the voluntary effort and won only sporadic government backing” (p. 193, 2006).

 The Relevance Today?

Like Rev. Richardson and William Smith before her—not to mention the thousands of unsung literacy and basic educators since—we can see how the compassion and strength of a single individual can change countless lives and whole communities—if not an entire nation. We can see how our field was built by some of the most courageous educators in history—a history at least as old as K-12 system in Canada. And, we can see how spurious the myth is that adults with low literacy “won’t come forward” or “can’t learn.”

As noted in earlier blogs this year, we can also see that the issues of adult low literacy need far more than another campaign, another program, or a another promised “quick fix.”  Part-time, contract-based and volunteer adult educators teaching in rented facilities have become the norm in countless Canadian and U.S. communities. With historically high levels of inadequate literacy skills  (Quigley, 2017), we need to ask if our history of heroic sacrifice may have proven to be our field’s greatest weakness as much as our greatest strength? We need to ask if the federal government’s century-old “sporadic government backing” will ever lead to the “sunny ways” of a national literacy policy and a truly permanent infrastructure for our growing numbers of adult learners (Quigley, 2017)?

Next month we see adult citizenship, EAL, and the fight for social justice.

Next month we turn to the world of English as an Additional Language (EAL) and focus  on Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams, and the famous Hull House movement. Next month is a story of how sacrifice changed into social reform and a fight of wider public awareness.

Stay Tuned

SOURCES                                                                                                                                         Beder, H. (1991). Adult literacy education: Issues for policy and practice. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Daukza Cook, W. (1977). Adult literacy education in the United States. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Estes, F. (1988). Cora Wilson Stewart and the moonlight schools Kentucky, 1911-1920. A case study in the rhetorical uses of literacy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Honeycutt Baldwin, Y. (2006). Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight School. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Mandrell, L. (n.d.). Eradicating illiteracy. Morehead, KY: County Chamber of Commerce.

Quigley, B.A. (2006) Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, B. A.  (2017).  Will Anything Be Different in the 21st Century?  How 107 Million Adults and the Field of Adult Literacy Became so Marginalized.  PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 39-54.

Taylor, A. P. (1973). Cora Wilson Stewart: Adult education, and educational odyssey. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Morehead State University, KY.

Verner, C. (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools. Washington, DC: Adult Education Associates of the U.S.A. (Original work published, 1812).


  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • ­­Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium this.

Make a difference,

 Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team




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