Beloit Schools and Teachers
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Beloit Schools and Teachers

Published in History of Rock County, vol.1 (1908)
By Horace White


     Early Beloit had two school districts. No. 1 was for the east side of the river, and No. 2 for the west. The beginnings of our schools life on the east side are well described in the following paper, prepared in 1897 by Beloit's distinguished townsman, now of New York city, Horace White:

     "The first application made by this infant community to the legislative power for any purpose whatever was a petition for a charter for a seminary of learning. On the 11th of November, 1837, Major Charles Johnson and Cyrus Eames started to Burlington, Iowa, the then seat of the territorial government of the country now embraced in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, to obtain such a charter. In a dug-out they paddled down Rock river to the Mississippi, taking with them for provisions a supply of smoked suckers and cornbread, and then went by steamer to Burlington. They were successful and returned to Beloit with their charter on December 5 of the same year. It is needless to say that Beloit Seminary did not spring into immediate activity. Divers and sundry schools, both public and private, preceded it. According to the best information obtainable, the first school of any kind in Beloit was opened in the kitchen of Caleb Blodgett's house in the year 1838, the teacher being John Burroughs, of Orange county, New York. In the following year a school house was built by private subscription at the northeast corner of School and Prospect streets, and here the first public school was opened, under the charge of Hazen Cheney, who taught during the years 1839-40. He was followed by Hiram Hersey, Alfred Walker, Henry Brown and Samuel Clary in succession. In 1843 or 1844 a school was started in the basement of the Congregational church. This building had been erected in 1842, mainly by my father's efforts. As the Rev. Lucien D. Mears said, 'It was built with unpaid doctor's bills,' which means that some people hereabout could not pay for Dr. White's services with money, but could pay with stone, timber, sand, lime, and the labor of their hands and teams. That Dr. White was eventually paid by the other members of the congregation there can be no doubt, since these men were not in the habit of getting anything of value for nothing, least of all their church privileges, the most valuable of all things to them. One of the early services held in this church was my father's funeral. He died of consumption, December 23, 1843. The hardships of a country doctor's life in a thinly settled region, where he was compelled to drive long distances by day and night in a rigorous climate, with little protection against the cold, cut him off at the age of thirty-three. He was a native of Bethlehem, N. H., a graduate of the medical department of Dartmouth College, a man of intellectual power and heroic mould. He shrank from no duties, and I am sure that no man ever performed greater services and sacrifices for Beloit than he.

     "The school in the basement of this church, situated at the northwest corner of Broad and Prospect streets, was opened under the auspices of the Rev. Lewis H. Loss. This was the Beloit Seminary for which Johnson and Eames obtained the charter in 1837. I was one of Mr. Loss's pupils.

     "My earliest recollections of school days, however, are not these. They cluster about an infant school on Race street (now 439 St. Paul avenue) kept by Miss Jane Moore, my mother's sister. She was 'Aunt Jane Moore' to all the young people in the town. From this I was transferred to the public school before mentioned, and in due time to the tutelage of Mr. Loss. The latter had for an assistant Mr. D. Carley. Mr. Loss was succeeded in 1846 by Sereno T. Merrill.

     "Before the college proper began there were various teachers here, both male and female, whose names deserve respectful mention, although I do not remember exactly where all of them taught, viz.: Sarah T. Crane, Frances Burchard, Emeline Fisher, Philomela Atwood, Eliza Field, M. F. Cutting, Alexander Stone, Daniel Pinkham, Leonard Humphrey, Mrs. Saxby, Mrs. Dearborn, Mrs. Carr, Cornelia Bradley, Miss Adaline Merrill, Jonathan Moore, Ackland Jones and Horatio C. Burchard. The last named has since been a member of congress and director of the mint of the United States. Miss Bradley became the wife of Judge Hopkins, of Madison, Wis., and Miss Merrill the wife of Dr. Browne, of Hartford, Conn. After the death of Mary Kimball Merrill, the able principal of the young ladies' department of Beloit Seminary, Miss Jane Blodgett (now Mrs. S. T. Merrill) and Miss Clarinda Hall had charge of a young ladies' school on Broad street, in a building which was afterward moved to State street and became the book store of Wright & Merrill; Miss Chapin (afterwards wife of Professor Porter) taught in this school in 1853.

     "Mr. Humphrey was the son of the first rector of the Episcopal church in Beloit, and succeeded his father in that capacity. Miss Fisher, a woman of great energy and executive talent, became the housekeeper of the Fifth Avenue hotel in New York. All, so far as I know, whether rich or poor, high or humble, were honest, eager men and women, doing good and not evil in their day and generation. Happy shall we be if the same can be said of us when our fleeting hour is past."        Horace White, 1897.

     Among the very earliest of the teachers above named were Stone and Pinkham, who taught on Race street, and Mrs. Atwood and Mr. Cutting, whose names occasioned the first recorded Beloit joke: "Why is wood-chopping like our public school teachers? Because they are Cutting Atwood." Let us hope that this explanation was wholly exoteric and had no esoteric meaning. Miss Adaline Merrill was the sister of Sereno T. Merrill, and with Cornelia Bradley taught in the Beloit Seminary in the old stone church, and later in the Middle College building, to which that school was moved in the fall of 1848. Miss Bradley was my teacher in 1851 at the old School street school house, and I remember her as being both kind and efficient. Mr. Leonard Humphrey's school was held in a one-story brick building, which he had built, twenty by thirty feet, on the ground facing north on Public avenue, now number 534, and was called "the aristocratic school." In 1844 that edifice was bought by St. Paul's Episcopal church and used as its first church building.

     The earliest school on the west side of the river was taught by Miss Foot in one room of a frame house, northwest corner of Third street and Roosevelt avenue, in 1848. The next school was kept in a small house on Fourth street about where the fire station is now, and was taught by Harriet Burchard and later by Sarah Burchard. Later (1852) a school was taught by Rev. Mr. Millet and wife in a little old plastered house on Merrill street on the hill; and next was a school in the house of John Saxby, on Railroad street, a little north of St. Lawrence avenue. Then the stone house was built on Bluff street (now number 631), in which Mr. S. L. James was one of the early instructors. In the winter and spring of 1854 James W. Strong taught there, and later B. C. Rogers and wife. Other teachers were Mr. and Mrs. William Dustin and Miss Higby. That stone house had two large rooms and a small recitation room, but became crowded, and there about forty boys were provided with a store room in the old Cogswell building on the north side of East Grade avenue (now about number 220), and were taught by George Himes, a singer in the Baptist choir.

     Another of those temporary public school rooms was in the upper part of the old Mansion house (now Thompson's building). Then came the new public school buildings on each side of the river.

     In October, 1849, S. R. Humphrey, town superintendent of schools, published a notice informing the voters of Beloit that he had annulled the former arrangement of two school districts, and had combined them into one, to be called "Union District No. 1, Beloit," comprising sections 22, 27, 34 and 36, and that part of sections 23, 26 and 35, situated west of Rock river. October 23, John M. Keep was duly elected director of the district, S. E. Barker, treasurer, and S. Drake, clerk. One week later, however, as citizens of the west side had petitioned for a separate school, the district instructed the town superintendent, I. W. Thayer, to organize for them School District No. 2, including sections 22 and 27, and all those parts of sections 23, 26 and 35, situated west of Rock river. Union School District No. 1 then appointed T. L. Wright clerk, S. T. Merrill and H. Hobart as a finance and building committee, and March 10, 1851, engaged Herman Belden (or Belding) to excavate the cellar for a new brick school house at nine cents per cubic yard. The site chosen was in the city park, about in line with the south side of Public avenue, and four or five rods east of College avenue. Gates & Company built the stone basement walls at nine dollars per cord and, with Stephen Downer, laid up the three story red brick walls at $1.80 per yard. October 29, 1851, the later board of Union District No. 1 were complimented for having erected a school building with only one-half as much debt for borrowed money as they had been authorized to incur. The whole cost was $4,312.71. The old school building on School street had been sold to L. G. Fisher and Hazen Cheney for $355.00. The tax of 1850 provided $1,1860.00 and that of 1851 $1,274.71, and they had borrowed $1,460.50 at 10 per cent interest from Milton Harvey of Colebrook, N. H.

     January 12, 1852, James W. Strong began teaching in that brick school house, associated with Mrs. Emmeline Fisher and Mrs. Carey. The house was thirty-six by fifty-four feet on the ground, and three stories high, with a basement. The corkscrew stairway from story to story for the girls was on the south side of the house and that for boys, on the north side. The three rooms were seated with wooden benches, seat and desk together, each accommodating two scholars, boys on the north side, girls on the south; each floor had a main room and one recitation room at the west side, connected with it by large folding doors. "The house is warmed," says a Beloit journal of 1852, "by an ample furnace in the basement. The first and second departments are now opened, the latter under C. Childs, Esq., principal, and Mrs. Augusta R. Childs, with I. W. Atherton, Esq., and Miss Octavia A. Mills as teachers. This school compromises that portion of the village which is on the east side of the river and contains about three hundred scholars."

     In 1855 William C. Dustin was principal of No. 1, with his wife as assistant; S. G. Colby, director; S. Hinman, clerk; J. P. Houston, treasurer; A. J. Battin, superintendent of schools. In that year our old citizen, C. C. Keeler, Esq., then a boy of nineteen, came to Beloit and applied to Mr. Battin for a teacher's certificate. While with considerable anxiety he was waiting to be examined for it, Mr. B. asked him if he had ever taught before. "Yes," replied young Keeler, "in Vermont." "Oh, well," said Battin, "if you were good enough to teach in Vermont you are good enough for Wisconsin," and wrote out his certificate without any further questioning. Young Mr. Keeler then taught a winter school three months, in the Rubles district, four miles west of Beloit, which was inhabited by a race of giants from Pennsylvania. But there were very peaceable young giants and gave no trouble whatsoever to Miss Lucy Ann Brown, who taught that school in the summer of 1853, when she was only seventeen years old. A later principal of No. 1 was James H. Blodgett (afterwards principal of the high school at Rockford, Ill., and now connected with the United States Census Department at Washington, D. C.). He was assisted in the third room by Miss Nancy Brown, of Framingham, Mass., and her sister, Mary C. Brown (now Mrs. J. H. Blodgett), was principal of the second room.

     During those early '50s Beloit had also in the old Beloit House, which had been moved to the southeast corner of Public avenue and State street, a female seminary, conducted by Rev. S. Beane and wife. Some of the teachers there were Almira D. White, Miss Cunningham (now Mrs. Edward H. Hobart), Miss Anderson and Miss Mary Davenport (Mrs. J. W. Strong), who afterwards became the very able assistant of Mr. Tewskbury, principal of our east side high school in those days.

     That No. 2 school house of cut stone, built around 1855, a few rods north of where the Parker school now stands, was a commodious and imposing structure of two stories and basement and faced east with a bell tower at the east end. There were four rooms in the basement, in one of which taught Miss Mary Murray, Miss Mandana H. Bennett, Miss Gertrude Spencer and others, and on each of the other floors was a large school room with two recitation rooms. When B. C. Rogers was superintendent he hired, for the sake of economy, a Methodist minister, Rev. Mr. Cooley, and his wife, both of whom were deficient in scholarship. One Friday evening, in the middle of the winter term, Mr. and Mrs. Cooley reported to the superintendent that they could not take the scholars any farther, and the next Monday morning their places were occupied by Alexander Kerr and Mrs. Kerr, with her sister, Miss Mary Brown (Mrs. Moses Hinman). Mr. Kerr, first principal of our city high school in 1868, was called later to be Professor of Greek at Wisconsin University, and is still connected with that institution as Professor Emeritus.

     Other prominent teachers of No. 2 were George L. Montague (later first lieutenant Company G, Sixth Wisconsin Infantry) with Miss Maria A. Perry, assistant, and Charles W. Buckley, afterwards a member of congress from Alabama.

     The history of our present city school system, inaugurated about forty years ago, is presented in the following paper by our esteemed clerk of the school board, Dr. Ernest C. Helm.


Beloit City School District

     Chapter 76, Laws of 1868, State of Wisconsin, is entitled, "An act to consolidate Union School District No. 1 in the City of Beloit, joint with the towns of Beloit and Turtle and Union School District No. 2, joint with the Town of Beloit and for the formation of the 'Beloit City School District.'"

     The above entitled act was passed by the legislature of Wisconsin early in 1868 and was published March 19, 1868. The boundaries are the entire City of Beloit, Wis., and four square miles in the towns of Beloit and Turtle adjacent thereto. Since that date the Beloit city school district has been acting under this special charter and the arrangements, though so old, have thus far worked very smoothly and satisfactorily.

     The only duties of the Union School District No. 1 and 2 are rigidly prescribed by the special charter and are:

     1. For the purpose of erecting, keeping in repair and insuring all school buildings (except high school) within the limits of said district.

     2. For payment of debts now or hereafter contracted and the interest thereon.

     3. For the purchase of school sites, election of officers and taking the annual school census.

     On the first Monday in July is held the annual meeting of each district, at which each elects one member of their district board for three years, thus making each district board consist of three members.

     The boards of No. 1 and No. 2 meet on the first Monday in August, with the mayor and city clerk. The mayor presides and votes only in case of a tie; the city clerk keeps the record. This meeting is for the purpose of electing a city superintendent of schools, who also is the president of the board; and this is the only meeting where the mayor or city clerk are officially present. The Beloit city school board, comprising the members of district No. 1 and 2, and the superintendent is at all times a distinct body, entirely independent of the common council, or board of public works, and all except the superintendent are elected directly by the electors.

     The Beloit city school board has general management and supervision of all the public schools within its district. It has entire charge of the high school, of the entire teaching and janitor force and of the truant officer. It levies taxes, purchases supplies and exercises all the powers conferred upon district school boards that are not explicitly reserved for districts No. 1 and No. 2.

     No part of the general charter has been adopted by the district, therefore the entire management of the public schools of Beloit, including the erection, maintenance of high school, employment of teachers, curriculum (subject to state supervision) and taxation (subject to state limitations), is under control of the Beloit city school board. After the publication of the before mentioned law, on March 19, 1868, the two districts promptly met on the 27th of March, 1868, and elected L. W. Davis superintendent and J. C. Converse clerk pro tem. The members present were: L. N. Davis, superintendent; J. C. Converse, T. L. Wright, Sr., J. A. Chapman, F. F. Cox and Joseph Britton, absent, A. P. Waterman. Their first act was the appointment of one member from each district, to secure options for the new high school site, and to secure a map of the territory of Beloit city school district. The selection of a high school site caused much discussion, as each side of the river wanted the high school. So great was the public feeling regarding the site for the high school that the special charter explicitly provided how it should be selected. The west side was finally victorious and the present high school site was selected. It is on a hill overlooking Rock river and is one of the most beautiful school grounds in the state.

     As the school board had been unable to agree on a site two referees where chosen. They were O. J. Dearborn, of Janesville, and Rev. Roswell Park, of Chicago. They, on August 27, 1868, wisely decided on the present site.

     Names of members of Beloit city school board in the order of their appointment. Many have served a number of terms, but their names will appear only once: T. L. Wright, Sr., J. C. Converse, J. A. Chapman, A. P. Waterman, F. F. Cox, Joseph Brittan, William Alexander, R. H. Mills, George H. Stocking, S. T. Merrill, Fayette Royce, H. P. Strong, S. J. Todd, T. C. Chamberlin, W. H. Aldrich, C. P. Whitford, B. C. Rogers, G. A. Houston, J. H. French, M. S. Hinman, R. J. Burdge, T. B. Bailey, E. K. Felt, J. B. Peet, W. T. Hall, A. N. Bort, R. D. Salisbury, C. B. Salmon, B. M. Malone, Samuel Bell, L. H. Parker, R. J. Dowd, A. J. Gaston, G. L. Cole, James Croft, T. L. Wright, Jr., E. C. Helm, J. A. Cunningham, W. H. Grinell, L. F. Bennett, C. A. Smith, E. J. Adams, L. E. Cunningham, S. Florey, O. T. Thompson.

     The school superintendents, in order of election, were: L. N. Davis, 1868; Rufus King, 1868-1869; J. C. Converse, 1869; William Alexander, 1869; T. L. Wright, Sr., 1870-1874, 1875-1880; Fayette Royce, 1874-1875, 1883-1886; T. C. Chamberlin, 1880-1881; B. M. Malone, 1881-1883; R. D. Salisbury, 1886-1887, T. A. Smith, 1887-1890; W. S. Axtell, 1890-1891; C. W. Merriman, 1891-1898; F. E. Converse, 1898 to date.

     Principals of high school in order of appointment: Alexander Kerr, 1868-1870; T. D. Christie, 1871-1872; Charles F. Eastman, 1872-1874; C. Paine, 1874-1875; W. H. Beach, 1875-1884; U. W. Lawton, 1884-1885; C. W. Merriman, 1885-1887; C. A. Hutchins, 1887-1889; W. S. Axtell, 1889-1891; A. F. Rote, 1891-1896; C. H. Gordon, 1896-1897; F. E. Converse, 1897-1902; W. H. Partridge, 1902-1903; J. C. Pierson, 1903 to date.

     The first four superintendents were little more than presidents of the board and only served two years altogether. T. L. Wright, Sr., was the first president elected under the special charter to serve the district for any considerable length of time. In two periods he served eight years. Dr. C. W. Merriman was superintendent seven years, and Superintendent F. E. Converse is now in his eleventh year of consecutive service.

     Professor Alexander Kerr, who was our first high school principal, went in 1870 to the chair of Greek in the Wisconsin State University and is now entitled to a life pension from the Carnegie foundation fund for his more than twenty-five years' work (over thirty-five years) as an instructor in that university.

     The first class to graduate was in 1870 and consisted of twelve girls and eight boys. There were seventeen teachers. School census gave about 1,600 children of school age in the district, and the total cost was about $18,000 a year. The high school (not including the present year -- when the class numbers about fifty) as graduated 676. Of this number about three-fourths were girls -- 521 girls and 175 boys. Had there been a manual training school it is certain that the proportion of boys would have been far greater. In 1890 the board appointed City Marshal C. F. North as truant officer and bought a few tools for training in carpentry. This manual training department amounted to nothing owing to lack of funds, and the truant officer's duties were merely nominal. Public kindergartens were started in 1892 and by 1896 were so crowded as to require double sessions. The present system of naming the school buildings after prominent deceased citizens of Beloit was adopted in 1865. In 1896 the University of Wisconsin placed the Beloit high school on its accredited list. In 1896 the department of drawing was formed and an efficient teacher selected to teach the rudiments in all the schools. Two years later music was placed on the same basis. Beloit early established a system of fire drills which without disorder can empty any school building in from one to two minutes. All doors open out. The High and Wright schools have outside iron fire escapes, and in the fire drills pupils are sometimes sent out of one entrance and at other times out of other or all entrances. Free text books were provided for all the grade schools in 1899. Prior to that the average annual cost to the grade scholars for text books had been $2 per year, while since that date the annual cost to the district has been 44 cents per scholar. No free text books are furnished the high school pupils nor in the kindergartens. In 1903, in accordance with the new state law, W. C. Cowles was appointed truant officer, and he is still serving satisfactorily in that capacity. The effect of that law has been to increase the percentage of attendance. The present superintendent, F. E. Converse, has been in charge of the schools eleven years, and during that time there has been a very large increase in the number of scholars, and the efficiency of the public schools has increased very markedly. The board early adopted the plan of giving a large measure of control into the hands of the superintendent, holding him responsible for the efficiency of the teaching force and for the general condition of the schools. To this and to the unswervering loyalty of the people of Beloit to their schools, a faith, loyalty and generosity that is unbounded, can be attributed the high position that is now held by Beloit in public education. Our public kindergartens were among the first, if not the first, to be in separate buildings. We now have five separate kindergarten buildings; four of them were especially constructed for kindergarten purposes and they are models of this kind. There is one new ten-room grade building, and four eight-room grade buildings, two of which are new, and two four-room buildings.

     There are in 1908 eighty teachers. The school census shows 4,400 children of school age in the district, and the total expenses are about $70,000. F. E. Converse is supervisor of schools and J. C. Pierson is principal of the high school. The present board are: L. F. Bennett, L. E. Cunningham, O. T. Thompson, A. N. Bort, C. A. Smith, E. C. Helm, clerk. A. N. Bort has served continuously on the board for twenty-four years and most of that time was clerk of the board.

     The high school building is too small and is greatly overcrowded. January 1, 1909, the fine new $130,000 high school addition will be completed, when Beloit will have an unusually fine high school building, thoroughly equipped in all departments, including gymnasium, manual training and domestic science. The total value of the school property of the district, including the high school building in process of construction, exceeds $400,000.

     It would be unjust to close this article without words of appreciation for the large list of members of the board who have for forty years served the district well and faithfully, efficiently and incessantly for public education in Beloit. The school board and the teachers alike would have accomplished little had not they always had the loving, hearty co-operation of the electors and taxpayers of Beloit; and to these loyal citizens is given the credit for the magnificent system of public schools of which Beloit is justly proud.

Secretary Beloit City School Board

     Among the principals of our city high school, the fifth in line, William H. Beach, who served from 1875 to 1884, became principal of the high school at Madison, Wis., and superintendent of schools for that city, 1884 to 1891; in the latter year he was made head of the department of history and civics at the high school in Milwaukee, Wis., and served as acting principal of the east side high school for several different periods. He is now living, retired from school life, on his farm in New York. In regard to him, the G. A. R. post commander for Wisconsin, Colonel J. A. Watrous, when visiting the East Division high school, Milwaukee, some seventeen years ago, told the pupils the following story, which one of them repeated to me:

     During the battle at Winchester, Va., under Sheridan, September 19, 1864, General Averill, commanding the cavalry, was very anxious to capture two of the enemy's guns, which were so placed as to do us much damage. He called for volunteers for that hazardous service, and at once enough men offered themselves and a young lieutenant. At first the general said, "You can't do it, boys." He let them go, however, with orders to dismount, leave a few men to guard the horses, and work their way up as near to the guns as possible before charging. They did so and then that little band, led by the young lieutenant, dashed across an intervening field and won the coveted prize. A reinforcement of cavalry promptly following secured what they had gained and covered their return to their horses and to the cheers of their comrades. "And that young lieutenant," said Watrous, "was your instructor, William H. Beach." The girls clapped their hands and the boys all shouted, Hurrah! Hurrah! Beach! Speech! But what his speech was, or whether he gave one, this pupil did not distinctly remember. If my remembrance is correct our Mr. Beach, though a capable speaker, was not much of a fighter - with his mouth.

     In 1839 the entire assessed valuation of Rock county was $21,972.45, and the county treasurer collected for the first year about $1,200. In 1907 the assessment of Beloit school district alone was $8,775,000, producing a revenue of over $150,000, of which about eighty thousand dollars was raised for school purposes.

     The growth during the last twenty-eight years has been especially remarkable. Between 1868 and 1879 the levy for school purposes averaged not quite $9,860 per year. In 1879 Principal W. H. Beach reported: "Scholars enrolled, 1,052; average attendance, 712; amount paid teachers, $9,270; received from outside scholars, $605; net cost per capita of enrolled teachers, $8.23; of those actually in attendance, $12.17." In 1880 (according to F. F. Livermore, "Daily News," April 7th, 1908) Beloit had three school buildings with seventeen teachers, pay roll $7,900 and total expenditures of about thirteen thousand dollars for sixteen hundred children of school age, with land and buildings valued at about one hundred thousand dollars. In December, 1907, we had thirteen buildings, eighty-one teachers, a pay roll of $46,720, the total concurrent expense being $65,505, besides $20,000 paid on bonds and interest for new buildings, and a school census of 4,383. (The census for July, 1908, gives us 4,432. Of this number, during 1907, 3,300 were enrolled and 2,700 in daily attendance.) We have established three commodious kindergartens in connection with the Parker, Hackett and Strong schools, and, with the Gaston and Merrill new buildings and the Noble high school building, now (1908) being completed, possess a city school property which is estimated to be worth about half a million dollars.