|Meta Chestnutt, c. 1888|
The next day, September 6, 1889, W. J. Erwin, a former U. S. marshal who had served in Texas, accompanied by his young daughter, Grace, picked up a load of lumber in Oklahoma City. Then, they picked up their new school teacher recently arrived by train from North Carolina. Grace and “Miss Meta,” as they came to call her, climbed onto the lumber stacked on the wagon and rode the many hours to Silver City, Chickasaw Nation, a trip that included a crossing of the Canadian River swollen to its banks by recent rains. It was no doubt during that trip that Meta discovered what the lumber was for. Mr. Erwin would build on the side of his house another lean-to. This one would be Meta’s living quarters not for one night, but for the next seven years. Little did she realize that during those years, when dry spells came, for weeks on end she would eat nothing except corn meal moistened with a bit of milk.
Two days after she arrived in Silver City, on her twenty-sixth birthday Meta Chestnutt began teaching. The tiny community had prepared for her as best they could. Fifty years later, in 1939, Meta described that first schoolhouse they had waiting for her. It was built, she said,
by a few cowmen and some of the “nesters” down near Silver City cemetery. It was a frame building 24 by 36 feet, with a log rolled up to the door for a step. Rough cottonwood lumber was nailed up for seats and desks. Three twelve-inch boards four feet long were nailed together for a blackboard and painted black. Pieces of chalk were chipped from a large lump and served as crayons with which to “cipher.”
|W. J. and Annie Erwin and children. Meta Chestnutt, back right.|
Meta began the first morning of school by announcing, “The first thing we will learn today is the ‘Golden Rule.’ We will memorize it and then we will begin to learn how to live it.” At that point, she had only seven students. Before the first school year was over, there were thirty-seven students. This was the beginning of thirty years of teaching and school administration. Through it all, the conviction that sustained her was that she had come to Indian Territory by the will of God; that her work was not merely educational, but missional and redemptive. In 1895, she wrote that her goal was “to fix firmly the standard of King Immanuel.” And, the mission was not hers alone. This was church work. “Our battle,” she continued, “has been a fierce one all along the line, and our burden a heavy one, but the Lord has blessed us in all our fiery trials. Our little band has grown from two to fifty or sixty. Some zealous brethren belong to our band now. It is a glorious sight to see whole families coming to service, one in Christ Jesus. At our regular Lord’s day service our attendance sometimes runs to seventy-five, and our Bible readings on Lord’s day night are well attended. "
About four or five times a year, the congregation would get to hear the sermons of visiting preachers like R. W. Officer, J. H. Hardin, Volney Johnson, and D. T. Broadus. When preachers were not available, every Sunday Meta would “teach the Bible” and “spread the Lord’s table.” In time, the church of Christ that met in the schoolhouse would grow to well over one hundred in attendance.
Over three decades, Meta taught, and impacted the families of, some 2500 students. In short, Meta Chestnutt was one of the most successful bio-vocational missionaries in the history Stone-Campbell Movement.