Volume 2


Printed by the Clio Press Iowa City, Iowa 1918
Copyright 1918 by Clarence Ray Aurner

Transcribed by Sharon Elijah, June 21, 2013

pgs 112-121

Schools cost money,--much money. That there might always be some money for this purpose, a plan was made more than one hundred and thirty years ago (in 1785) to set apart certain public land which could be used only for the support of free schools. This land should be given to each state and when it had been sold, only the interest on the money could be spent to pay for schools. In another place (Chapter IV) the surveyed or geographical townships have been described. The law of 1785 said that in each of these townships section sixteen should be kept for the use of the public schools. That meant that 640 acres of land in each of these townships would be sold, and all the money would be held thereafter, and put at interest.

Not until the Territory of Iowa had become a State was it allowed to sell the school lands; but they could be rented, and the money from the rent could be used to pay the cost of schools. This would not be a very large sum, of course, for in the new country very few men would rent such land; they could get farms of their own. It was important that there should be school laws from the beginning; and at no time has Iowa been without a law by which the school lands should be cared for either by the county or the State. For many years, however, the free school in which all could be taught without paying fees was unknown. Indeed, many believed that it was not right to raise money by taxes to educate all alike. Some men are now living who can remember when there were no free schools.

When Iowa became a separate territory in 1838, and the counties had been set off; and when the officers had been elected in each one, or a county had been joined to some other for a time until it had an election of its own, the school lands had to have some attention. And as the townships were surveyed, the county officers took care of the sixteenth section in each one. Very often even today men will speak of the school section or of the school land in the township where they live. The man who lives on the school section either bought his land from the State or from some man who had bought it many years before when the State first offered the school section for sale. In territorial days the county officers rented the land or appointed someone to watch over it if there was anything that could be carried away, or could be damaged. There are several interesting records to show how this was done.

If a settler went upon the school land to carry away anything, he might be fined or sent to jail; but the man who was appointed to guard it might be allowed to use what firewood he needed, or to take such timber as he would want to build a house or stable. In some places he could only have the fallen trees; he could not cut the standing timber. Again, he might be told to sell the wood from the land. In Des Moines County, for example, in April, 1840, the county board of commissioners asked a man to sell the rails which had been made on the sixteenth section in township seventy-one north, range three west (See pp. 42, 44, or a map of Iowa which shows the townships and ranges on the margin). The money received from the sale of these rails would be put into the county treasury and be used only for the support of schools in the township. In the same county, in 1843, some man was charged with trespassing on the school section in another township. Perhaps he had taken timber from it. He was arrested and was about to be tried before the court but was let go if he would pay the costs of all the trouble he had caused.

In Scott County a Mr. Nathan Newby was appointed to superintend the school section in Davenport Township. He was to have for his pay as much of the fallen timber as he might need for his private use; but he was forbidden to cut any “green or standing timber”. Perhaps the most interesting and curious arrangement is the one found among the old records of Dubuque County. A good many know that in that part of Iowa the lead mines have been of great value since the time of Julien Dubuque, who worked them in the days when Spain owned all this land west of the Mississippi River. It was in 1844 that section sixteen in township eighty-nine north, range two east (See diagram, p. 42), was rented to a Mr. Stewart. He was to give in rent to the trustees of the township (such officers were in every civil township) one-tenth of the first twenty thousand pounds of ore which he took out of the mine; one-ninth of the next ten thousand pounds; one-eighth of the next ten thousand; one-seventh of the next ten thousand and one-sixth of all the rest. In another township the renter was to give one-sixth of the first twenty thousand pounds; one-fifth of the next thirty thousand pounds, and one-fourth of the remainder. All the ore which came into the hands of the trustees would be sold, of course, and the money would be used for the public schools.

Only a small part of all the school sections in Iowa was timbered land; and only in Dubuque County would one expect to find sections with lead mines opened upon them. No doubt very many would have been coal land had they not been sold before the coal mines were well known. No harm could be done to such lands on the open prairie, but men often settled upon these sections and commenced to make improvements before they had any right to the land. That is, they took a claim upon the school section, as anyone might if he expected to pay for it when it came into market. Should he be unwilling to pay the price which had been put upon it he would have to move off in order that some other settler might have it. To be sure, the house or barn or fences which he had built must be paid for by the buyer.

School land, of course, cost no more than any other near it; for the price of $1.25 an acre was all the settler had to pay. Besides he had a long time to pay for it at that price. All the money which came from the sale of school lands after Iowa became a state (they were not sold before) was put into the hands of a county officer called the school fund commissioner. From 1847 until 1857 there was such an officer in every county which had its own officers. He sold all the lands offered in his county and loaned the money to those who wished to borrow it. At that time the rate of interest was ten per cent whether one bought the land on time or borrowed money from the school fund commissioner. A small amount of money then brought a good income for the use of the public schools. People said that there would be enough after all the land was sold to carry on schools without any tax at all. How mistaken they were we shall come to know when the whole story of the school lands and school money is told.

As the interest from the lands which had been sold or from the loaned money came into the hands of the school fund commissioner in those days, he was required to distribute it among the townships of his county. The share which each one should receive was decided by the number of persons between five and twenty-one years of age in the township. For that reason a great many townships received only a small sum; not enough to keep up a school for even a very short term unless the persons who wanted it were willing to pay for it by subscribing money to add to the fund.

Besides the land in the sixteenth section in each township, there was another large gift from the United States to each state for the purpose of making improvements, such as building canals, railroads, and perhaps public buildings. But in Iowa it was decided to ask Congress for permission to use all of this gift of 500,000 acres also for the public schools. Of course, the national government did not object to the State's doing as it wished with what had been given to it. It was to be sold in the same way as the other school lands and the money put at interest. Nor was that all the gifts from the United States to the states for the benefit of the schools; for when public land within a state was sold by the agents for the government, five per cent of the entire amount of the sales was given to it to be put in to the school fund already mentioned. Many thousands of dollars were thus received from the treasury of the United States and loaned by the officers of Iowa. But, unfortunately, a good many thousands of dollars of the school money were lost through bad loans and bad management. It is a long story which did not end until after many experiments had been tried. The General Assembly of Iowa made many laws for the management of the fund for the common schools before it found a way to prevent the losses and the expensive ways of handling it.

Along with the land for the public or common schools there was a separate gift of two townships of land, that is about 46,000 acres, for a school called in the law of the United States a “seminary of learning”, when the Territory of Iowa should become a state. That amount of land came into the hands of the board of trustees who were first appointed in 1847 to establish a State University. Just as the sixteenth section and the 500,000 acres were sold to make a school fund for the common schools, so the two townships were sold to make a fund for the State University. These funds were kept entirely separate, and in each instance brought in interest as soon as any of the land had been turned into money.

These public funds, however, do not show all the ways in which money was set aside for schools. Very early in the history of Iowa leaders of some churches came as missionaries and they had to be supported by people who were willing to help in the older states. In that way schools were begun at Dubuque, Davenport, Burlington, and other towns. These were the first parochial schools in Iowa.

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