Although many area residents may be familiar with the old schoolhouse on Linden Street that bears his name, most probably have no idea as to the leading role the late Gabe Meyer played in Pine Bluff’s public school system.
Meyer — born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1834 — might be described as an accidental Pine Bluff resident, but the city and its residents, especially youth, greatly benefited from his foresight, generosity and service.
Late historian James W. Leslie wrote in his 1974 book “Saracen’s Country” that Meyer arrived in Pine Bluff during the spring of 1856. A member of the Jewish faith, Meyer was a peddler and intended to be here only briefly before moving on to possibly better sales territories.
A flood, however, stranded Meyer in Pine Bluff. His plans changed during his extended stay, and he decided to remain and opened a mercantile business on the southeast corner of East Barraque and State streets.
Meyer quickly became an active, popular leader. Elected to the city’s first school board in 1868 along with Ira Barton, W.P. Grace, J.T.J. Havis, Samuel McAlmont and the Rev. R.W. Tremble, Meyer was so devoted to the panel’s success that he personally paid teacher salaries and other expenses as the school system struggled through its start.
“Some research refers to Gabriel Meyer as the father of the Pine Bluff School District,” PBSD Superintendent Linda Watson said Friday. “It was his dedication and service on the school board for more than 21 years that likely earned him that distinction.
“And in the 1860s, paying teacher salaries out of his own pocket was pretty remarkable,” she continued. “He seems like he was an interesting man and very passionate about education. Although I read he served the community in other leadership roles, education appeared to be his primary focus. I can understand why an elementary school was named in his honor.”
Meyer was also known as “Judge” and “Grandpa,” and for good reason. A city council member for 25 years, he was also a justice of the peace and regularly held court. Leslie wrote that abandoned children found living on the streets were frequently taken to Meyer’s court. Meyer would take the children to his home and feed them, making certain they received an opportunity of having a roof over their heads as well.
Meyer was a master investor and businessman who after less than 25 years here had amassed a collection of 21 plantations, including some of the state’s largest. He founded a second store at Rob Roy, and the two operations wound up doing the equivalent of nearly $4.5 million in annual business by today’s value.
When the school board met in 1921 to determine the name of the new facility being constructed on Linden Street, panelist Leo M. Andrews was said to have made an eloquent proposal that it be named “Gabe Meyer.” The board gave unanimous favor.
It’ll be up to the current or a future board on taking steps to ensure Meyer’s name will remain synonymous with the Pine Bluff School District.