Schools of Mercer County, Illinois

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Some Schools in Mercer County

School days, school days,
Good old Golden Rule days,
Reading and writing and 'rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hickory stick

Furnished one room schoolhouse at the Essley Noble Museum in Aledo
Photo by Barbara Essley Baker

From the Aledo Weekly Record, November 1, 1859:
Mr. Editor: - I here propose giving you a detached account of the proceedings of the Eliza Township Teachers' Institute, which held its first session for the coming winter at the Boruff School House, on Saturday, October 15th, 1859, and knowing you to be a friend to the cause of Education, hope you will give it an Insertion in the columns of your paper. According to previous arrangement, the teachers convened at ten o'clock A.M., and proceeded to elect a President and Secretary. On motion, Michael Shires Esq., was elected President, and Thomas J. Swisher Secretary for the day. The President, on taking his seat, in a brief but very appropriate speech, set forth the object of the meeting. He was followed in a lengthy speech by A. F. Waterman, Esq. teacher at the Boruff School House... (other speakers were Thomas J. and A. B. Swisher, teacher at Centre School)."

At 1 p.m. "All were now invited to partake of the contents of a large basket of refreshments, gratuitously prepared by Jesse Bogart, Esq., to whom we return our thanks for his kindness. To these, they appeared to do ample justice, teachers in particular.

"AFTERNOON SESSION. At one o'clock P.M., the meeting was called to order by the President. A class in Orthography (spelling) was first formed, and A. F. Waterman appointed leader - time limited to half an hour. The questions were all of a practical character, and well calculated to awaken an interest in a branch so much neglected. After this a class was formed in Reading, and A. B. Swisher appointed leader, and another half hour was profitably spent in this pleasant and instructive exercise. The next exercise was a class in Mental Arithmetic, with Thos. J. Swisher as leader, and the readiness with which the questions were answered, showed that this branch had not been neglected. After this followed a class in Written Arithmetic, with A. B. Swisher as leader. An hour was devoted to this branch, and the illustrations were quite thorough and very instructive. Next in order came a class in Grammar, led by A. F. Waterman, and another hour was spent in propounding questions, and the forming and analyzing of sentences. A general discussion followed, in which all the teachers joined. The last exercise of the day was a class in Geography, led by Thos. J. Swisher. The questioning continued half an hour, but owing to a lack of interest in the class, it was discovered but little proficiency had been made in this branch since the closing session of last winter. On motion, the house was now declared open to the reception of resolutions, the following was offered by A. F. Waterman:

"Resolved, That the association now known as the Eliza Township Teachers' Institute, be hereafter hailed and entitled the Associated Teachers' Institute.

"On motion of Thos. J. Swisher, the resolution was laid on the table till the next session. A lengthy and elaborate discussion was then opened by A. F. Waterman, on the general interests of Education.

"On motion of A. B. Swisher, the Institute adjourned to meet at the Glancy School House, on Saturday, November 5th, at ten o'clock A.M. Michael Shires, President, Thos. J. Swisher, Secretary"

We find it rather curious that of the names mentioned in this article, none are found in the 1860 census in Mercer County except Jesse Bogart. Jesse was apparently a local farmer who simply provided the refreshments for the Institute. We did not find them in Rock Island County either. Did these teachers live elsewhere and just come in for the winter season of teaching? Since the census was taken in June and July this is quite likely. There is a reference to a fine book at the bottom of the page, telling much of the history of one room schools. The concensus there seems to be that teachers were not often rehired and were not often hired from local people as it was felt too much familiarity with the students was bad for discipline. It is interesting as well that female teachers were dismissed immediately upon marriage or "other immoral acts." There is an Utke Shires living with the Boruff family in 1860, age 23, laborer. Whether this is the same person as Michael Shires or a relative, we do not know. The Swishers are not found, though A. B. Swisher apparently lived in the County later for some time (see Swisher page). A. F. Waterman is not found in the 1860 census, but he too lived there at some time, serving for two years as town clerk of New Boston. There is an Amos Waterman who married Hester Willits on 9/17/1860 in Mercer County who appears to be the same person as A. T. Waterman, mentioned in Perryton Township as a former teacher and current lawyer. ( See "Waterman" on the Miscellaneous Families Page). (History of Mercer County, 1882).

Several things can be gleaned from this article. The Association apparently met monthly and only during the winter school session. Their first session was October, school likely starting then so young people could participate in harvest in September. The comments about little interest in spelling and geography are interesting. Apparently reading, grammar and arithmetic were the popular subjects. In addition to these subjects, the curriculum must have included penmanship and the history of the United States, according to state legislation. At this time, public school education extended through grade 8. There were some common school pupils engaged in advanced studies. The one-room school could offer individualized courses corresponding to high school curriculum, but most high schools were private acadamies.


The History of Mercer County, 1882 says that the first school house in Eliza Township was built on top of the bluff, a short distance from where D. F. Noble now lives (1882). A date is not given in the history for the building but it was pre-1845. The school house is not shown in the 1875 plat map but D. F. Noble is shown owning land in Section 23. The school house was built of logs and the first two teachers were Mary Ann Delabar and Emily Cawkins. The school was kept up for many years by subscription, until the legislature in 1845 and 1865 passed laws authorizing such townships as desired to levy a tax for the maintenance of schools. An example of subscription and how it was collected is found in the estate of Isaac Willits. Simeon P. Smith, teacher, signed a voucher in 1846 stating that Mr. Willits owed 3 dollars and 56 and 1/4 cents for tuition of children during the year 1842-3. This was tuition for Isaac's grandson, Milton Willits and possibly other orphan grandchildren. Isaac had signed an agreement to provide schooling for his orphan grandson, Milton, and his estate papers include the bill for Simeon Smith for teacher Warren Shedd, and charges to the store of Drury and Willits for school supplies. When Wells Willits advertised his store in 1854, the list of available items included "Asst School books; Do. Note letter & Foolscap Paper;...Steel Pens; Slates; Wood Pencils...Blank Books."

Eliza Township accepted the tax system and was divided into six school districts: Center, Boruff, Glancy, White Eagle, Eliza Creek, and Winter Creek. As the 1865 law stated, the township was divided into districts establishing free schools for at least 6 months each year, with directors who could levy an annual property tax of the district for free schools to teach students over 6 and under 21. Later, the school treasurer, A. B. Swisher made an accounting for the year 1880: Amount levied for 1881, $1600; state funds received, $364.62, and interest received from town fund, $161.65, for a total of $2,126.27.

The History of Mercer County, 1882 states that the first school in New Boston Township was also held in a log cabin on the bluff and was presided over by George W. Julian in 1834 or 1835. It is curious why both schools were on the bluff as that was not a central location. Possibly it was to have access to a close source of firewood. The township was eventually divided into eight districts. In the 1880 census there were 517 school children in New Boston Township, according to the History.

Although a little more recent than the history we have followed there is a web site with history of New Boston High School and also asking for information contribution.

A slightly different school history is found under Perryton Township in the History of Mercer County, 1882 and contributed by Amanda Frazier. She states that the first school in Mercer County was held in a small log cabin erected on the claim of Erastus Dennison, about two miles east of the town of New Boston near the present home of Mr. C. Rader (see New Boston 1875 plat map, SE/4 Section 28). The teacher was Abram Miller, summer of 1833 (see Miller Web Site on this family). The enrollment was only about a dozen pupils. The next year the first regular school house was erected on the bluff about three miles east of New Boston on the farm of William Willits (this was probably in Keithsburg Township). Abram Miller or Joshua Willits taught here in the winter of 1834-35 and, coinciding with the history in the paragraph above, in 1836 George W. Julian taught here.

The first county school commissioner appointed by the county commissioners' court, on April 13, 1835, was John Long, son of Andrew and Jemima Santee Long. In the enabling act of 1818 Congress provided that section sixteen of each township be set aside for school purposes. In accordance, the school commissioner was also agent for school lands. These lands were to be sold for the support of the school system. This seems to have been the main thrust of the position for John Long, rather than looking after the operation of the schools. This remained the case for about 15 years.

A school board served as the board of examiners for teachers. More attention was paid to an even distribution of board members across the precincts than to educational qualifications. They were good honest farmers who could read, write, and cipher but knew little of geography and grammar. John Long served as school commissioner until December 5, 1835. Then William Nevius was appointed, serving until June 1840 when Ephraim Gilmore was appointed. In 1841 the office became elective and Gilmore was elected and served until 1846. Thomas Candor served one year, then Benjamin Ellett. Thereafter the elections were biennial. Tyler McWhorter served from 1849 to 1851. Many able educators were placed in charge of schools during his term of office. They included Simeon Smith, David Felton, Resin Kile and Harvey Senter. John Ramsey followed McWhorter and Norman Brown (brother-in-law of Sylvanus Atwater) after him.

An editorial in the New Boston Golden Age 3/28/1855 gives us a glimpse of attitudes about education of the time: "The wide difference in the manner of educating boys and girls, is the starting point of the dependent condition of woman. If a farmer, a mechanic, a lawyer, or any other man, be he ever so wealthy, has half a dozen sons, he is held in disgrace by all who know him, if he neglects to provide them with a good education and profession or trade, whereby they may gain a respectable living. A provident man is sure to do this, with a view to give his sons the means of sustaining themselves, even if their fortunes fail them. This shields them against the possibility of want, if they have health and steady habits. How different the course pursued with a family of daughters. They are not allowed to work if they have the misfortune of wealthy parents. Their youthful days are days of listless idleness. A superficial education - a taste for the latest novel, a graceful fingering of the keys of a piano whether they have any natural talent for music or not, a smattering of French - generally imperfect - and her education is finished. She does nothing useful, never has her mind directed to the realities of life, unless by some overwrought picture in a novel. Her life is aimless, and she helplessly folds her hands and waits for such events as life's changes shall bring upon her. If she marries, she knows little or nothing about directing a household... ."

Proper education was not the only "danger" present at this time. In 1856, for want of a school in Rivoli Township, Mr. Wilshire Calkins vacated a bedroom in the southwest corner of their house, nine feet square and here pupils were taught in the summer of 1856 by Miss Olive Atwater, sister of Silvanus Atwater. One afternoon there were to be some rhetorical exercises in the shool, and Miss Atwater invited Mrs. Calkins to be present. Mrs. Calkins, thinking there was little room inside, stood on the outside and looked in. After standing some time with one foot on the ground and the other on the threshold she changed position. She felt something yield under the pressure of her foot but being very much interested in the exercises she stood for some seconds unthoughtfully rolling the object she felt with her foot back and forth. When at last she thought to look about she looked down and saw a very large rattlesnake stretched at full length beneath her feet, and apparently enjoying the novel petting of her feet. She did not continue the amusement however, and no reporter being present, her remarks cannot be given in this history (History of Mercer County, 1882).

When J. E. Harroun was elected school commissioner in 1857, the law had now given him full powers of superintendent and authority to visit each school annually. He had also had experience, teaching school at the Pryne schoolhouse in the winter of 1853. This was a great advantage as he would witness the everyday work of the teacher. The teacher's institutes (Eliza above) were organized during Mr. Harroun's term. The Reverend James Poage followed Mr. Harroun. He was a fluent speaker but not a practical teacher. Amos T. Waterman, a practicing attorney followed Mr. Poage. He had himself been an excellent teacher (perhaps he was the "A.F." Waterman referred to in the Eliza Teacher's Institute article). Mr. Waterman's teacher examinations were conducted with great care resulting in a new impetus toward a higher excellence in teaching. Washington Campbell served after Mr. Waterman.

And citizens got actively involved in looking after the schools. In 1859 Dudley Willits wrote a letter to the editor of the Aledo Weekly Record: "Friend Reed: - I think you did yourself injustice in reply to my criticism on yours of the 4th instant. Let us reason on the subject a moment. In turning again to your article we discover that your leading object was to inform the people that there was a number of competent female teachers that could be had to teach shool. You advise those in want to employ them, and add, apparently as a reason for such advice, that 'it is better to employ a competent female than an incompetent male &c.' I doubt not that nine out of ten of your readers took you at your word - supposedly meant what you said. But I was satisfied that you made the closing remark, not from your own standpoint, but in the view of those old fogies who think that a woman ought to be kept in 'subjection.' Hence after defending you in this light in a company of a number of your readers, I said to them, 'I will take James up on that. We will get a joke on him, and give him a chance to make known his real sentiments on the subject.' Under such circumstances what is more natural than that I should be somewhat prompt and pointed in my criticism.' But, why should I be offended with my brother, even though if we did differ heaven wide on this and other subjects? No, no! I trust in God that my life has not been spared over a half century to so little purpose. Yours truly, D. Willits, Oct. 23, 1859." "REMARKS (by editor James Reed) It may be our misfortune sometimes to over-rate the intelligence of our readers, but in the case referred to, we regarded the leading idea as so apparent, and the conclusion that a female with equal qualifcations was not just as good as a male teacher, so illogical, deduced from anything we had said, we were greatly surprised that we were misapphrehended. Had we supposed that our friend Dudley, was ever guilty of a joke, we should have answered him somewhat differently, but we would almost as soon have sorghum syrup apple trees as a joke from him. We will assure him, however, that we were far from being offended at his criticism." (Unfortunately the earlier article is not available.)

In 1861 the total of school funds appropriated for Mercer County was $6736.70. Of this total, New Boston Township received $689.25 and Eliza Township received $408.45 (Aledo Weekly Record 5/19/1861).

At the election held November 7, 1865, Sylvanus Atwater was elected as commissioner for a term of four years, the term having just been extended. Sylvanus Atwater had been a teacher before he served three years service in the 27th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He was one of a long line of Civil War veterans elected to public office. He promptly began a heroic and unpopular treatment of all school matters. He introduced a strict and searching system of examination of teachers, such that a large number of ill-qualified teachers were either driven from the schools or induced to return to school themselves to improve their education, and their places were filled by a higher and better grade of teachers. He was the first to attempt the task of expurgating antiquated textbooks from the system and introduced a system of books graded in such a way that teachers could separate their students by proficiency. Sometimes when the district schools refused to buy the books, he furnished them from his own funds. He secured a blackboard in every school, sometimes painting them himself. Mr. Atwater was extremely unpopular for weeding out cheap and incompetent teachers and for the extra expense generated for books, but he did more to place the schools on a higher plane of excellence than any person who had preceded him in office. Despite his four year struggle, much remained to be done.

Mr. Atwater was followed by Frederick Livingston, a college graduate, but greatly lacking in administrative ability. Public funds were mismanaged and although made good by bondsmen it was not a good term of office for the school system and many poor teachers made their way back into the system. During Livingston's administration, women became eligible for school offices and in 1873 Miss Amanda Frazier (who wrote the sketch about the schools above) was one of eleven women elected to the office of school superintendent in the state of Illinois. She served for nine years (two elected terms and one fill-in appointment.) She was a college graduate and had never sought a teaching position, offers coming to her instead. She again installed a system of severe examination of teachers and extended the Teacher's Institutes to entire summer sessions. Her term of office further advanced the county toward a higher standard of education and instruction.

Aledo Weekly Record September 2, 1874: "Notice Teachers. Public examination will be held at THE PUBLIC SCHOOL HOUSE IN VIOLA on Tuesday and Wednesday September 1 & 2 and also on September 8 & 9, beginning promptly at Nine o'clock A.M. at which hour teachers are requested to be on hand. AMANDA E. FRAZIER , Co. Supt of Schools, August 26, 1874."

By 1882 the school system of Mercer County had expanded from a small pioneer log cabin with a bare foot teacher to four brick and 115 frame buildings with 5,382 pupils enrolled, and with 71 male and 161 female teachers.

Many of the Mercer County teachers went on to other positions of honor. George Julian became a member of congress. He was prominent in aiding the cause of women's suffrage. Harvey Senter became a clerk of the circuit court, member of the state board of equalization and state senator. Warren Shed was a colonel during the Civil War commanding the 30th regiment. (An interesting aside - it was a genealogical puzzle for awhile as to why so many Mercer County families had children named Warren Shed until we discovered that he had been a very popular teacher.) George Graham became a member of the legislature. Professor Joseph McChesney became assistant state geologist and was twice appointed, under Abraham Lincoln, as consul to Glasgow, Scotland, and afterward professor of natural sciences at Chicago University. The information about McChesney came from the 1882 History of Mercer County. We have heard from (July 2009) Dr. Nicholas M. Keegan, Durham, UK who is writing a history of US consular Representation in the UK who advises us that he has official UK and US publications which state quite clearly that McChesney was appointed consul in Newcastle upon Tyne, England in 1862, being then replaced in 1869, so the 1882 History appears to be incorrect in mentioning Scotland. The History also mentions that Joseph McChesney was an early teacher in Millersburg. We could not confirm this in the census but did find a couple of McChesney families in 1850: Nathan McChesney, age 62, born Ireland in Green Township and in New Boston Township: #303 James T. S. McChesney, 33, cooper, born Pa; Rebecca M., 33, born Ireland; John T., 7, Il; Nathan M, 4, Il; Ruth C, 1, Il. James T. S. McChesney married Rebecca Clark Oct 14, 1841 in Mercer County. No way to tell if they were related to Joseph and they were all gone by 1870.

The History of Mercer County, 1882 names many more fine teachers of Mercer County. We will include those of New Boston and Eliza Townships in their family histories.

From The Union Pictorial Primer (NY & Chicago: Ivison, Blakeman & Company, 1866)

We have obtained a book Legacy of One-Room Schools, by Myrna Grove, available from Masthof Bookstore, It is a photo-illustrated book about 19th century and early 20th century education. The text describes how laws organized school districts, how teachers were recruited, how lessons were taught, what classroom furnishings were used, what discipline was used, what games were played, and how consolidation of schools brought about changes. This book is a wonderful trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to have attended a one room school. It is also excellent to show today's young people how things were "in the good old days" (don't they just hate that?). A particularly poignant photo of an 1896 class shows only one child out of 17 with any kind of shoes on his/her feet. This is hard for young people who have to have the latest designer tennis shoes to grasp.

Lois Retherford sent us an interesting link to Illinois High School Glory Days. On the left hand side you will find links to many Illinois High Schools including Aledo Military Academy (Roosevelt Military Academy); Alexis High School; Cable Public School; Joy High School; Keithsburg High School; New Boston H. S.; Seaton High School; Viola High School; and Winola High School. If you have any old photos of Mercer County schools they would love to have them.

There is an interesting Web Site of One Room Schoolhouses in the United States.

Another interesting item - though slightly later than our time period is a One Room Schoolhouse Project which includes an "Examination for Common-School Diplomas" for Rural Schools in 1918. Your Web Master, with a master's degree didn't feel she could have passed it!