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August 29, 2012
Rambling Thoughts on Church History
Back to School
by James B. Allen

It’s back-to-school time, and I am intrigued with all the back-to-school “essentials” we always see advertised in the media about this time of year. They include pencils, crayons, highlighters, sharpies, scissors, Elmer’s glue, looseleaf paper, various binders and folders, various bags and cases, colored pencils, construction paper, erasers, hand sanitizers, pens, computers and various peripherals, pocket calculators, desks and chairs for studying at home, dry erase markers, external hard drives, pens, cell phones, scientific calculators, and post-it notes.

Parents and students are also regaled with clothes such as jeans, various colored pants, shirts, athletic wear, tee shirts (including “character” shirts depicting comic book, TV, and other characters), and much more — all among the “must haves” for kids headed back to school.

In the midst of all this, I thought it might be fun to go back 160 years or more and take a brief look at what school was like for LDS youngsters in Utah’s pioneer days. What a contrast between the “essentials” of today and those of our pioneer forbears!

If you could take such a journey back in time you would, of course, see all kinds of differences between “then” and “now.” You would also find a wide variety of educational experiences: some children learning in one-room log school houses with dirt floors, others huddled together in tents or wickiups, and some sitting beneath a bowery that doubled for a church and school. You might find still others going to school in the home of a friend, relative, or some other local resident.

Ada Arvill Burke Earl wrote of her early schooling in Farmington:

The first school we attended was in the home of Apostle Amasa Lyman and his wife Paulina was the teacher. We started school at a very early age and I remember carrying bread and a jug of milk for our lunch and Mrs. Lyman would give us dishes and spoons to eat our bread and milk in. She taught us the alphabet by having us sing it.... We sat on benches around the walls of the room.... We studied from McGuffey’s and Wilson Readers.

Getting a good education was one of the Church’s fundamental values and many, if not most, church members felt a strong commitment to learning all they could and, especially, to educating their children. One such parent was Marin Kristin Nielson, an immigrant from Denmark who settled with her husband in Sanpete County.

As she was trying to learn English, she kept looking at a framed motto on the wall of the home they were staying in. She asked the lady of the home what it said. “Why, that is the motto of our Church,” the lady replied. “The Glory of God is Intelligence.... We must show to the world that we are learned people.”

As soon as she had learned enough English, Marin begin teaching her children in her own home school.

Utah’s first school opened just three months after the pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley. The teacher, Mary Jane Dilworth, was only sixteen years old when Brigham Young asked her to open a school. She did so only three weeks after she arrived in the valley. She conducted her school in a tent, located just inside the newly constructed fort. Her nine students sat on logs and her desk was a camp table. Her first day’s lesson was taught from the Book of Psalms.

As winter came, Mary Jane moved her school into a small log house just completed as part of the fort. Its roof was piled high with dirt and its floor was hardened clay. There was one small window in the house, and since there was no glass available it was covered with thin oiled cloth. Benches and crude desks were provided by breaking up a wagon box, and the room was heated by a fireplace.

It did not take the pioneers long to begin building schoolhouses in each ward, even before they built chapels. Schoolhouses often served also as meetinghouses, community centers, and theaters. In the early year,s many were simply one-room log or adobe buildings. In the wintertime they were heated by open fireplaces or, more often, cast-iron wood-burning stoves.

Pioneer children did not often enjoy the most comfortable of classrooms. Lighting was poor, coming for the most part only from small windows.

The furniture, which was sparse, also left much to be desired. Sometimes students sat on homemade stools, while others sat on the floor or even on the ground, if their school was held in a hut or tent. Some schools had planks fastened to each of the four walls, and others used backless slabs set in the center of the room. Sometimes, however, these makeshift benches were set up high enough to accommodate adults, so that when the children used them for school their feet were left dangling in the air.

The tools for learning varied from school to school, though in the early days most were scarce. In some cases students used charcoal or chalk to write on slates, though others were fortunate enough to have paper and ink so they could write with quill pens (the best of which were made from goose feathers, though in pioneer Utah they probably resorted to whatever large bird feathers they could gather).

Some schools struggled along for a while with few books and no maps. As late as 1874, the territorial superintendent of schools found that only half the children in one school had books and the teacher still had no charts or other visual aids to help her.

One teacher in the Salt Lake City First Ward, Susan Eliza Savage Angell, may have been typical of many in dealing with the fact that she had precious few teaching materials available. She wrote the numerals (including Roman numerals) and letters of the alphabet on strips of cardboard that she handed around the room so the children could copy them on their slates. Some of the cardboard strips contained thought-promoting mottos for more advanced students to copy and think about, such as, “Many birds of many kinds, many men of many minds.”

Books were often at a premium. Some students felt lucky if they owned or had access to more than one book, and especially fortunate if they had a McGuffey’s reader, a speller, and an arithmetic book. In Palmyra, the teacher, Silas Hillman, owned the only grammar book in town, and had to teach from it orally. Hillman used the New Testament and The Book of Mormon to teach reading.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were the mainstay of American education in the second half of the nineteenth century, and were among the main books used by teachers in Utah (when they could afford them). They were begun in 1836 by William McGuffey. The books developed by him and, later, his brother Alexander eventually covered six different reading levels.

McGuffey was concerned not just with education but, equally important to him, a Christian education. His various readers always carried religious, moral, and ethical lessons. In the foreword of his 1836 edition he wrote: “The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions.” This certainly fit well with the objects of LDS teachers in early Utah.

Though teachers had few resources, they were often innovative with what they had. Ogden’s first school teacher, for example, Charilla Abbot, began by finding a chicken feather to make her own quill pen. Then in order to teach the alphabet, she and her students collected letters from scraps of papers and old books and pasted them on paddles. They also made letters on both sides of their hands with charcoal from the fireplace. “In this way,” she said, “the children learned to read and write.”

In the early days of colonization, school facilities often were very primitive, but the fact that the pioneers held school at all suggests their commitment to education. In Parowan, for example, Elder George A. Smith of the Council of the Twelve opened a grammar school on February 15, 1851. This was only five weeks after the arrival of families called to open the Iron County Mission. It was an evening school, held in Elder Smith’s wickiup — a makeshift shelter composed of three wagons, a few wooden slabs, and some brush.

The five children in attendance shared one grammar book, learned by the light of a campfire, and shivered in the cold. However, according to Elder Smith, they seemed eager to learn. As he wrote in his journal, “My scholars assembled round the camp fire, freezing one side and roasting the other, listened earnestly to my lecture on English Grammar.”*

On the other hand, within a few years some schools were well equipped, staffed with excellent teachers, and offered the best in educational opportunities. Among these were a handful of family schools founded by men such as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. One reason for the concern of these two, especially, was the fact that because of plural marriage they each had numerous school-age children. These private schools were built mainly for families, but they were also open to others.

Brigham Young’s private school, built in 1853 and enlarged in 1860, was a fine-looking building. Students entered through the eight-foot-square vestibule where they were probably tantalized by the bell rope hanging from the ceiling but just out of their reach. Above the vestibule was a high octagonal bell tower. The main room, which was square with about an eight-foot ceiling, had two oblong, vertical windows on each side and in front that provided plenty of light.

The room was heated by a large, round cast-iron stove. The desks were sturdy, well-built, and painted green — much different from the rough-sawn, unpainted desks in some other schools. They also had drop lids covering spacious compartments for storing books and other belongings. Available teaching tools included not only slates and pencils but also wall charts, something few other early schools could afford.

The school day at Brigham Young’s school began at 8:45 a.m., when students were summoned by the ringing of the bell. At 9:00 it rang again, indicating that school was in session. On Friday afternoon, regular class work was suspended and the students found themselves giving orations, participating in spelling bees, playing the organ, singing, and reading the school paper. However, such a school experience was clearly the exception in pioneer days.

The number of students attending school in those early days and the amount of schooling each student completed distressingly low. The statistics are incomplete, but those that are available suggest why, in the 1860s, the territorial superintendent of schools was disappointed. In 1860, for example, Davis County was the home of 1,020 children age six to eighteen, but only 35 percent were enrolled in school and only 24 percent attended on a daily basis. Eight years later the picture had improved, but still only 56.5 percent of the eligible students were enrolled and 40.5 percent attended regularly. The territorial average was 56.5 percent enrolled but only 39 percent attending regularly.

The reasons were many. Some families simply could not afford the tuition so their children attended for only a short time, if at all. Some attended only sporadically because they were needed to work on the family farm or elsewhere to help keep the family solvent. In many cases this cut schooling short at a very early age. At age ten, for example, Michael Peter Monk went to work, thus ending his formal education.

In 1857 Margaret Simmons, age nine, arrived in Utah from London with her parents. Anxious to go to school but having no money, she spun yarn and knitted socks for the teacher in order to pay her tuition. However, her formal schooling lasted only six weeks, after which she went to work earning $1.50 to $2.00 a week. She gave it all to her mother, who had six children to raise.

Alma Platt Spilsburg ended his schooling at age twelve, after his parents were called by Church leaders to settle in Grafton (near St. George) to take part in the “cotton mission.” Alma had no choice but to help them with their work.

Lucy Smith, of Smithfield, often arose extra early in the morning to help with various family chores then trudge off to school. In the wintertime, having no warm shoes, she wrapped her feet in rags to protect them from the snow and cold. She was able to stay in school until she was sixteen. Such stories were frequent in pioneer Utah.

Despite such problems, some young Saints with an overwhelming desire for learning somehow made special arrangements to get as much schooling as possible. One example was Joseph Openshaw of Salt Lake City, who went, sporadically, to various ward schools and also to a private school conducted by two women in their home. Later he and his brother George took turns attending Karl G. Maeser’s school, each going every other day. They needed money to pay for tuition and other school expenses, so the two of them held a single daily job. Joseph worked one day while George attended school, and on the next day they traded.

Like everything else, early Utah’s teachers were a varied lot. Their ages ran the gamut, and, at least in the 1860s, there were more male than female teachers. Some were well-educated professionals while, in the early years, others were hardly trained at all. A normal department for training teachers was added to the University of Deseret in 1869.

Some teachers lived at home, but some came from out of town and boarded, often at the homes of students. They sometimes taught their classes in the homes where they stayed. But wherever they lived or taught, their income was meager. Usually they were responsible for collecting their own pay, which often consisted of produce rather than cash (and sometimes the produce was not forthcoming). Even when they were paid in cash, their incomes were barely adequate because tuition was so small. The teachers’ work was hard and frequently went unthanked because the people of their communities were preoccupied with other things and seemingly apathetic to the problems of financing good education.

The curriculum of Utah’s early schools varied, usually according to the teacher’s main concerns and interests. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were foundation topics. But when it came to the texts for reading some school children may not have seen much difference between school and Sunday School The Bible, The Book of Mormon, and sometimes the Doctrine and Covenants, were often used as texts.

In contrast to modern practice, the line between church and state was thin. As public school became more prominent there was probably less LDS doctrine taught, but even as late as 1873 the territorial superintendent of schools, Robert L. Campbell, wrote something that would be political and professional suicide for a modern-day administrator:

Our lot has been cast in lands favored with the Bible. We have been taught from our infancy that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” and shall our common schools be the first place to ignore that sentiment...?

Are we not apt to be narrow in our educational ideas, and to give undue weight to intellectual culture.... Any educational system that fails to give due prominence to religious and moral training is defective....

The common school code of Utah does not require nor AUTHORIZE educators to inculcate RELIGIOUS TENETS, but all teachers are advised to open their schools by prayer, and to inculcate the “fear of God,” and morality, both by precept and example.

While in the early years there was no prescribed curriculum, eventually the Territory of Utah developed suggestions for what should be taught. They included spelling, reading, writing, geography, grammar, arithmetic, bookkeeping, mathematics, astronomy, history, languages, music, and art. It was many years, however, before all these topics were offered to most students.

Meanwhile, what was actually taught usually depended on the interests of the teacher. These often included the practical skills needed to make a living and otherwise get along in the pioneer economy. In 1862, a Salt Lake City teacher advertised that his curriculum would include land surveying, perspective drawing, and fortification. In a special school in Ephraim, a Mrs. Otterstrom taught girls to embroider, braid straw hats, and make straw trimmings and ornaments. In Salt Lake City, a Sister T. D. Brown taught sewing and needlework.

The determination of some young people to learn, despite their poverty, was illustrated in Cedar City by Ann Jan Wilden. Sewing was included in her school’s curriculum and she wanted desperately to learn. She asked her mother for some quilting pieces, but her mother had none. However, Ann found some old rags and obtained a few pieces of cloth from other girls at school. She then asked her mother for a needle to take to school. Her mother refused, for this was her only needle but, desperate to learn, Ann took it anyway then promptly lost it. She took the punishment meted out at home, but later her mother secured enough needles for both of them. There was another problem, however: they had no thread. So, resourcefully, Ann went to the barn, obtained some horse hairs, and sewed with them. Ultimately she became an expert at quilt making.

Some pioneer children might have been surprised if asked what grade they were in, for in their schools there was no such distinction. Going to school usually meant learning with children of different ages, and sometimes even with adults. Schoolrooms of that day might seem strange to today’s students, but they represented the practical realities of the time.

In Springville, the oldest children of Jacob Holtz went to school with their father’s new wife. In 1857, an average of seventy students, ranging in age from four to twenty-five, attended the Twelfth Ward School in Salt Lake City. In Minersville in the 1860s, Mary Elizabeth Lightner Rollins had young students as well as married men in her school. Instead of keeping track of students according to age, teachers often did it according to the reader they were studying.

In summary, the nature and quality of Utah’s pioneer schools varied according to the abilities and needs of the people. Much of what students learned was directed toward the practical needs of a pioneering economy. This meant reading, writing, arithmetic, and various practical skills.

However, this did not mean that Utah was a cultural backwash. Many teachers, some of whom were unusually well educated, worked hard to instill in their students the love of learning and of cultural arts. Their valiant effort helped lay the foundation for what one prominent Utah historian described as “the flowering of learning and education in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.”

Note: This column is based on, and in some cases copied verbatim from, my article “Everyday Life in Utah’s Elementary Schools, 1847-1870,” in Nearly Everything Imaginable: The Everyday Life of Utah’s Mormon Pioneers, ed. Ronald W. Walker and Doris R. Dant (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1999), 358-85. The sources for any direct quotes may be found in that article.


Copyright © 2019 by James B. Allen Printed from NauvooTimes.com