Given some of the nicknames students invent, the 19th century Springfield schoolmaster “Porcupine Head” got off relatively unscathed.
But as professor W.H. Weir teaches us in “The Early Education of Springfield,” the making of the nickname isn’t just tied to the historical constant of schoolboy pranks. It’s connected with the educational technology of the era and reminds of how a knife we still use today got its name.
The years before the Civil War “were the days of quill pens, with teachers as maker and mender,” Weir writes in a story published in two February 1900 articles in the Springfield Daily Press.
“A good pen knife, of proper edge and temper, was therefore an essential in the equipment of the (school) master, and his skill and speed in the art of pen cutting counted for much in his qualifications,” Weir notes.
“While making his rounds of inspections and correction, (this) teacher was wont to fix the damaged quills passed up to him,” Weir continues, a service no doubt appreciated, even by the occasional pupil who might have purposely broken a pen.
With the stage set, Weir turns his attention to the kind of odd schoolmaster Johnny Depp might portray.
“One teacher had an eccentric fashion of thrusting the finished (pens) into his hair, till in his measured beat he would come again to the pupil’s seat,” Weir writes. “Hence by the time his round was made (and his hair was filled with pens), his locks more and more resembled the fretful porcupine.”
Documents that share the first education file box at the Heritage Center of Clark County touch on other details of early education here.
“During the first half of the 19th century, the education of the children was a private matter,” writes James E. Frankart in “The Educational Rise of Springfield …. Men and women from the East would arrive in Springfield and rent the basement of a church, build or buy a house and advertise for pupils.”
“One of the most popular schools,” Weir notes, was one Samuel Smith established about 1813 and operated for 13 years in the New Light Meeting House.
“An Englishman by birth,” Weir explained, “he enjoyed the telling of marvelous tales.
“Smith’s fondness for ardent spirits, which he was at no pains to repress, is responsible in part for the character of these stories,” Weir says. Alas “his serious manner of telling led his younger hearers to accept (the spirited embellishments) as veritable facts.”
A frontier tolerance for liquor may not have been the only reason parents sent their children for Smith’s sodden instruction as long as they did.
“The demand for teachers was often in excess of the supply,” Weir reports, “and public-spirited men were at times much at a loss of how to keep the schools supplied with competent teachers.”
“Mrs. Ann Warder brought from Eastern Pennsylvania into her own family a well-qualified instructor, and inviting a few children from family friends, opened a school in her homestead, then on East High Street, opposite Christ (Episcopal) Church.
“In her later home on East Main Street, at the intersection of the Big four Railroad tracks, Mrs. Warder conducted a school of more advanced grade, among whose teaching corps may be named Miss Marston and Mr. Lewis.”
Miss Ella Way took up teaching on the Vicory Farm at the east edge of town, her school accessible by a log bridge. On West Washington Street, not far from where the National Biscuit Company later would do business, sat the schoolroom of Mr. James Wilson and the Rev. Mr. Pingree, once a pastor of the Universalist Church housed in that same building.
But “no teacher of the early days in Springfield will be longer or more lovingly remembered than is Eunice Strong.” Weir recalls. “Of sturdy New England stock, full of right convictions, broad in mind and large of spirit, she impressed herself up on the religious, educational and social life of her day.”
It seems likely, however, that certain male suitors might have looked more lovingly the instructor in the little school house Weir writes was nestled in the small woods that even later surrounded the home of E.W. Ross on East High Street.
Presiding over that school, Weir writes, was “a woman of accomplishments to which were added unusual charms of personal beauty, and declared by ones to to be the most beautiful woman of her time. Local history should not fail then to place on its roll the name of Miss Minerva Aldrich.”
Students may have as fondly remembered Judge Torbert, who lived on land that by 1900 was “covered by Mr. Bushnell’s handsome building” on Main Street, which later was Wren’s Department store and now has been returned to the Bushnell name.
“Mrs. Torbert kept school for little children, whose fatigue in quest of knowledge was slept off on a settee in her back parlor, and whose hunger was appeased with ginger cookies from her pantry.”
But “if fires kept burning on the altar of education in any one locality can sanctify,” Weir intones, “then the corner of High Street and Fountain Avenue … out to be regarded as holy ground.
“Probably as early as 1836, a two-story frame stood here and on its second floor Mr. Elliott and his sister, Miss Elliott, kept school for youth of both sexes.”
The respected Miss Strong took their place, followed by “Misses Merrill and Kenney with their school for girls.”
“In 1841, Rev. Mr. Presbury, rector of the Episcopal Church, brought his select school for girls, which he had previously conducted at his own home to this classic corner,” Weir writes.
Eventually, “this fame building gave place to a plain brick of three stories, known to the last generation as the Baltimore Grocery Reaching the third floor by a stairway from High Street, one was ushered into a large, well lighted room well adapted to the school uses of that time.”
“Here it is said, Rev. William McGookin, a Presbyterian minister, held a school for boys and young men, which though removed from place to place, he carried on till the infirmities of age obliged him to retire.”
Weir gave his presentation of early schooling in two parts, as will we. Next week’s installment will show that, like the Civil War, some of the nation’s educational controversies are now celebrating their 150th anniversaries.