Shofner founded girls' school

Published 8:36 am Wednesday, February 25, 2004

By By LYDIA GRIMES Feature Reporter
I was recently lucky enough to obtain a small book which was printed in 1919 called "The Story of the Downing Industrial School." This was a little book written by Rev. J.M. Shofner about his life and the founding of what would become the Downing-Shofner School in East Brewton.
The remnants of the school have just about disappeared over the years and now there is little to tell where there was once a very nice school for girls. There is still a pool on the side of the bluff where I am told the girls once swam or bathed.
J.M. Shofner was born in Rehoboth, Ala. June 3, 1868 to Martin Shofner and Willie Jane Glover. He had one brother, William Albert, and two sisters, Annie Jane and Ella Kate. His mother died when he was only five years old and the family moved to Georgiana. His father was a mechanic and a good one, according to his son, but times were hard on the family. Even though Shofner entered school at age seven, he was soon pulled out to help out on the farm.
The family moved from Georgiana to Pineville and then to the country about 20 miles north of Evergreen. It was at this location that he grew into young manhood. At the age of 17 he was 'converted to a religious life' and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church South. At the age of 18, he went out on his own and bought a farm, but soon felt called to preach. He wanted to attend school and borrowed the money to do so.
This was the beginning of a long association with education. Although there were many times that he had to borrow and put himself in debt, he continued to get his schooling and in 1887, he applied for admission to the Alabama Conference and was appointed. He started his first preaching circuit as he had his schooling -- he walked Evergreen and then down to Castleberry. His territory covered four churches in Alabama and six in Florida.
In 1888, he was married to Eliza Jane Mixon of Commerce and after three years he was transferred to several places, and it was while he was in Tallassee that he conceived the idea of a school. He saw the need for education for both boys and girls, but girls he saw as being the most disadvantaged. He believed that if a girl was educated, she would later see that her own children were also educated.
Thus came into being his idea of a school for girls of limited means. His idea was to have a school where the girls were educated, but also where they worked to defray the expense of their education. He even thought of the idea of a truck farm, a dairy and a cannery which would supply the school with the necessary food items.
In 1904 he was transferred to Brewton and put his ideas into practice. Donations came in and the site of Old Fort Crawford was bought but it was 1906 before the school was organized and incorporated with the name of the Downing Educational Society. It was called the Downing Industrial School in honor of Mr. Elisha Downing who had been extremely liberal with his donations. The first building erected was named the Esther Home in honor of Esther Downing, whose contribution of $1,000 made it possible.
The school opened Sept. 24, 1906 with nine girl students, three teachers and a matron.
I will continue this next week. It is so interesting to read this little book that was written with Shofner's own words.

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