William Erwin Halbrook (1878–1974)

William Erwin Halbrook was a prominent educator and education reformer in Arkansas during the first half of the twentieth century. Halbrook promoted high school education and led reform efforts to modernize schools in his native Ozarks region and was later important in combating adult illiteracy in the state. The Arkansas Education Association (AEA) considered Halbrook among the “Giants in Arkansas Education.” His career is representative of the early-twentieth-century education reformers who crusaded to bring progress and efficiency to the state’s public school system.

William E. Halbrook was born on March 14, 1878, to Urijah Halbrook and Sarah Elizabeth (Woolverton) Halbrook in rural Van Buren County; he had five younger brothers. His father was a poor hill farmer, and Halbrook grew up working on the family farm. His mother supplemented the education that he received during the short terms at the local one-room school with extra instruction, motivating him to dedicate his life to education.

As a young man, Halbrook was a rural school teacher for a brief time before he went on to continue his education at the Clinton Male and Female Academy in Van Buren County. Thereafter, he won a scholarship to attend Peabody Normal School in Nashville, Tennessee. Upon completing his course of study at Peabody Normal, Halbrook returned to Van Buren County to become principal at the Clinton Public School in 1903. Halbrook soon took the lead in establishing a high school at Choctaw (Van Buren County), and he became principal there when it opened. In 1904, Halbrook joined the Farmers Education and Cooperative Union (Farmers Union) and served as Van Buren County’s delegate to its state convention. In 1906, he was an Arkansas delegate to the Farmers Union’s national convention. As chairman of the Farmers Union’s education committee in 1907, Halbrook was active in lobbying for the establishment of a teachers’ college and agricultural high schools in Arkansas.

On June 7, 1906, Halbrook married Minnie Lodusky Dickson from Brinkley (Monroe County). They had four children. After his first wife died in 1943, Halbrook married Odell Holbrook Dunsworth of Conway County.

From 1917 to 1925, Halbrook served as the State Agent of Rural Schools in Arkansas for the General Education Board, a philanthropic organization established by John D. Rockefeller and Frederick T. Gates in 1902. He focused his attention on promoting educational development in the Ozarks region (excluding Washington and Benton counties), where he conducted surveys of school conditions and attempted to encourage “public-spirited” citizens to embrace reform. In 1925, Halbrook became county superintendent of schools in Boone County and launched a major school consolidation campaign in 1927 to reorganize the county’s school districts. In that year, there were seventy-four school districts in the county, and that number fell to thirty-two by 1930. Despite spirited opposition from some locals, Halbrook deemed school consolidation necessary to provide every child access to a high school. During Halbrook’s eight-year tenure in Boone County, he oversaw the organization of eight large consolidated districts with high school centers: Alpena, Bergman, Hopewell, Lead Hill, Olivey, Omaha, Crooked Creek, and Ridgeway.

After the state dissolved the county board of education system in 1933, Halbrook was employed by the Adult Education Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and was soon promoted to state supervisor of adult education, a position he held for eight years until the program was discontinued during World War II. Halbrook spent the remainder of his career in teaching and principal positions at a number of schools in the state before retiring at age seventy-five. Halbrook died on March 1, 1974, just before his ninety-sixth birthday.

For additional information:
Bishop, Sherry. “A Look at School Consolidation in Boone County, Ark.” Boone County Historian 2.3 (1979): 2–16.

Boone County Historical and Railroad Society, Inc. History of Boone County, Arkansas. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1998.

Halbrook, William Erwin. A School Man of the Ozarks: Being an Autobiography of William Erwin Halbrook. Van Buren, AR: The Press-Argus, 1959.

———. “Review of My Membership in the Farmers Union.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 15 (Autumn 1956): 202–208.

Stinnett, T. M., and Clara B. Kennan. All This and Tomorrow Too: The Evolving and Continuing History of the Arkansas Education Association—A Century and Beyond. Little Rock: Arkansas Education Association, 1969.

Blake Perkins
Missouri State University

Last Updated: 09/15/2014

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