A proper telling of the history of Dickson County Schools cannot be told without mentioning the life of Robert “Bob” Corlew Sr. “Professor” Corlew became the superintendent of Dickson County Schools in the early 1900s. He transformed the county school system from a group of ancient one room school houses to the big modern schools that we know today. For this and many other reasons, local historians refer to Robert Corlew Sr. as the “Father of Public Education in Dickson County.”
Robert Corlew Sr. was born on his father‘s farm just east of Charlotte, near the center of Dickson County. He was one of 11 children. Corlew’s ancestors came to America around the time of the American Revolution. They first settled in Virginia, before later moving into East Tennessee, and then going further west into Middle Tennessee. According to the 1850 census, the Corlew family lived in Montgomery County, but just a few years later they moved south into Dickson County near Charlotte at the time of the Civil War.
Robert’s grandfather was John Eubank, one of the legendary figures in Dickson County history. John was a farmer who also served in Dickson County government for more than 30 years. He was a State Representative from Dickson County in the Tennessee General Assembly in the 1830s, 40s and again during the Civil War years in the early 1860s.
John Eubank seemed to be present at the most historic times in the county’s history. In 1830 he survived the tornado that ripped through Charlotte damaging the Dickson County Courthouse. In 1843 it was the representative from Dickson County, John Eubank, who proposed Charlotte become the permanent Tennessee state capitol. Charlotte lost by only a few votes to Nashville. He was also there to cast a vote for secession from the union, authorizing Tennessee to leave the United States and join the Confederate States of America.
In the decades following the Civil War, the Corlew family did the best they could. All of the Corlew children were taught by their mother to read and write. While Robert was still quite young he began to read some of the more difficult books that he found lying around the house. While he had very little formal education in his early years, Robert showed a natural talent when it came to learning. From an early age, he recognized the value of a good education.
Robert was a very smart young man and when the time came, he was admitted to the Dickson Normal College. He graduated with a degree in education and was certified to teach in Tennessee’s public schools. After graduation, he attended law school for two years. After law school, he returned to Dickson and took on the job of Superintendent of Schools in Dickson County in 1907, a position that he had held briefly a few years earlier.
Education had been important to the people of Dickson since the beginning. On October 9, 1867, just a few years after the Civil War ended, a local Nashville newspaper mentioned the first school being built in what would become the town of Dickson. The first schools in town were small, with one teacher and just a few students. They were simple one room buildings where teachers taught the basics.
Most schools in the south quit meeting during the Civil War, and after it ended there was not a lot of funding for public education. Most parents opted to send their children to private schools instead. Private schools were reasonably priced and the public schools were seen as inferior, and oftentimes even mocked as “schools for the poor.” But around the turn of the century the state of Tennessee began passing laws that provided more tax dollars for education, and the perception of public schools began to change.
By 1907, most of the public school children were attending classes held at the Dickson Normal College. But reports in the local newspaper painted a picture of overcrowding and a lack of space for the town's elementary school children. All across the state, communities were building new modern schools with things like cafeterias, auditoriums, and gymnasiums. But in Dickson, a growing town, there was no actual public school building. People began putting pressure on local officials to establish a large public school for all of the children of Dickson to attend.
After intense public debate, on August 1, 1908 the people voted to spend $3,000 (almost $100,000 in today's money) on a new school. Under Robert Corlew’s leadership, education in Dickson was entering a new age. Planning for the new school began immediately.