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Life in Emmitsburg in the mid 1800's

Reflections on Some Early Schools

[Originally published in May 1908 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle]

The contribution to the Chronicles of Emmitsburg about the taverns and hotels was so interesting and attracted so much attention that a representative of 'The Chronicle, remembering the promise made by Mr.________, that he would tell the people about school life in the old days, again interviewed him.

"About the old-time schools of Emmitsburg, the first school I remember of attending was taught by Mrs. Reed, a widow lady, in a house that stood on the present site of Helman's store. I was packed off to school when I was about five years old, with a small yellow book called an English Primer. The seat, a rough bench was much too high for my short legs and my feet hung some distance above the floor. The school was a sort of a go-as-you please affair, and I did not receive much attention from the mistress, who, by the way, was a very good-natured lady. Yet, as it is the school boys' want to go ahead, I made rapid progress and soon learned to throw paper wads and pinch the boys that sat next to me."

"What made up the curriculum of an ordinary school in those days?" asked the reporter.

"Well, I learned by heart the names of all the animals with which the pages of my book were illustrated, and afterwards mastered the alphabet. While I attended this particular school I never got out of the English Primer and as you can imagine from the fact that I knew the old thing by heart from cover to cover, I got very tired of it. Some years afterwards I went to the first public school started in this town. The building was a long, low brick schoolhouse standing on the present site of St. Euphemia's School. Robert Crooks was the first teacher. He was a man of ability and a fine scholar also a very strict disciplinarian. Under him "the boys simply had to study and know their lessons."

"Did Mr. Crooks have an assistant?"

"Yes," laughed the old gentleman, "he had a persuasive assistant, in the shape of a birch rod which stood in the corner in full view. The very sight of it, not to say anything of its application to the back of a lazy or careless boy, helped his mental processes wonderfully. That was the only sort of physical culture we had in the schools in the olden times. It was not elegant but very effective. I have witnessed many a flogging, but, strange to say, never received one. I believe, it has been my luck never to get all I deserved."

"Did your school experience end under Mr. Crooks?" was the next inquiry.

"Other well-liked and successful teachers of, the old public school were Mr. John Walter, a graduate of Mount St. Mary's College, and a Mr. Tearce, who came to Emmitsburg with the Gutherie family from Pennsylvania. Mr. Tearte's assistant was Squire Knouff, well known in this community for many years. Mr. Tearce was my of deal of a man and a teacher, bright and pleasing in mind and manner, of strong robust body, somewhat of a slender build and a genuine athlete, he joined in all our outdoor games, and many a time in playing corner-ball I had his broad back for a target. With all this comradeship with his pupils, inside of the schoolroom he was master and commanded the respect and love of his scholars.

"The curriculum of the school was somewhat limited: Grammar, geography, algebra, and history were taught, but most of the boys thought that when they were masters of the three 'Rs' they were ready to graduate.

"In the Summer when the public schools were closed we had, what were then called, 'subscription schools.' I attended one that was held in a brick house on Broad alley. This building is still standing in good condition and and is now occupied as a dwelling, by John Ellis. It was called the 'Potter Kiln School' because the house had been built for a potter's shop. In the rear stood an immense potter's kiln that had been unused for many years. It was a representative of one of the extinct industries of Emmitsburg: The darkness inside this kiln and the many small openings made it a fine place for boys to play hide-and-seek.

"Darius Thomas was one of the first who taught this school; he removed West in the early days and became one of the principal educators in the then new State of Iowa. When I attended the school the teacher was Isaac E. Pierson, the well-known lawyer of the town. He laid down the law to the boys and made them 'toe the mark.' He did not believe in whipping but inflicted cruel and unusual punishment by making a boy stand up before the school with a girl's sunbonnet on his head ; a terrible penalty, far more dreadful to the boys than the rod.

"Friday afternoons were set apart for speech making and many a time as a small boy I mounted the rostrum and told the audience with wild gestures that 'My name is Norval, on the Crampian Hills, &c.'

"One of the best schools was kept in a brick house, torn down in 1870, which stood on what is now the cemetery of the Lutheran Church. The teachers were usually graduates of Pennsylvania College, Gettysburg. Many of our older pupils will remember Professors McLean, Gerhart, Barrick, McAttee and others. It was established long before the public schools were started and was considered a sort of finishing school. I closed my school days there under Professor Gerhart, who, I have been told, is yet living at an advanced age in Virginia."

In answer to the query "How do the new schools compare with the old ones," Mr. --answered: "The old times have passed, the old timers are passing 'one by one; the schools like almost everything else have changed for the better. When I look at the books in use now and compare them with those we used to use, I have to conclude the world has moved and is constantly moving, at least so far as the schools are concerned, in the right direction."

Read other stories in this series of first hand accounts of
life in Emmitsburg in the 1800's

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