Muscatine County, Iowa

Recollections of
Persons and Events Connected With Our Schools In Early Times

Published in the Muscatine Saturday Mail, November 26, 1898. Written by J. P. Walton.
No. 94.

Transcribed by Greta Thompson, July 16, 2013

In our last we promised to say something about the schools of our city previous to 1865. The public schools were being developed, they had just become free schools, in fact, no tuition as collected after that time, The teachers salaries and the running expenses were raised then as now by taxation. In 1865 there were between 600 and 700 pupils with sixteen or seventeen teachers. There are now, during the fall term about 2,300, in the winter term it will reach 2,800, with fifty-seven teachers. The public schools have gained such a hold on the people that no private school in the city exists, save the two parochial schools of the Catholic churches with about 150 pupils, and a Normal school taught by Prof. Leverich of from 30 to 50 pupils—in all less than 200 go elsewhere. The question, how did this come? we will answer by saying that those school fathers, as we will call them, who organized and conducted our schools through their earlier days are undoubtedly the parents of this generous school system. In looking over the names of these directors we find the imprint of New England deeply stamped on all of them either by inheritance or by their associations. In district No. 2 the three first directors were probably not natives of the New England states, but before they commenced to run the school it went into the hands of Mr. G. B. Denison, who although a native of New York was said to be a lineal descendant of that old Massachusetts magistrate, Daniel Dennison. Mr. Denison was thoroughly familiar with the free school system of New England which at that time extended over all the Northern states; he was a man of personality and magnetism that would almost always influence any one he associated with to believe that his was the correct way. It was so with this school; the directors were good men, they were willing to let Mr. Denison “run the machine,” for they thought he knew how. Results have proven that they made no serious mistake. School matters went along quite smoothly until a man of equal personality was elected on the school board, Rev. A. B. Robbins, then the trouble began. In our extracts from the old school records in a former contribution we have reviewed their differences quite fully.

After Mr. Dennison left school No. 2, he was elected county superintendent and served some three or four years. He then went into the school book business as traveling book agent; his duty was to visit all the school houses in this territory and talk school books and education, and to introduce and sell books. In the rural parts of Iowa he found things quite different from our city, the country was thinly settled although an abundance of school houses were built or in the expectation of being built. The land had largely been entered by speculators who did not improve it, they simply held it and paid the taxes on it, The settlers gave them all the taxes they wanted, they assessed the non-resident property up to its full value and build school houses, and supported the schools largely on the taxes. The lands were frequently sold for the taxes, there were always enough buyers, the profits were large and the title good if the proper proceedings were followed, which the school boards were careful should be done. Such was the condition of the school system that met Mr. Denison, who undoubtedly ressoned that if the land is going to be sold why not go in for some, and he did quite largely and very profitably.

These western people were not all the parties that practiced taxing non-residents, for while in New England some three years ago my attention was called to a tract of land for sale very cheap. I thought of buying it on a speculation, but on enquiring about the taxes I was informed that the assessment on land like that if it belonged to an non-resident would be double that of a resident. I found that the New England people had acquired the early western way of taxation.

Mr. Denison married Miss Margaret Lyons, a former teacher in district No. 1, and was a resident of this city at the time of his death. He left a wife and daughter, the latter is now Mrs. Edna Denison Blackwell. Both are residents of our city. – Mr. Denison was the most active and prominent school man in our city during the early days of our schools.

District No. 2 had in the person of Rev. A. B. Robbins a most excellent school man; he was a native of Massachusetts, came west shortly after leaving college, organized the present Congregational church, and was its minister for more than fifty years. For the short time he was president of the school board the schools inhaled a moral influence that remained for a long time. While Rev. Rob-bins was a very mild speaking man, he was in the estimation of many people a good deal of an autocrat. If things did not go his way in the church or in the school, he at once denounced them. I have often heard it remarked that he was the greatest leader in the city; he managed in some way to have the turbulent or unruly members leave the church without resorting to arbitrary measures. It was said that at one time there was not a democrat belonged to his church, Mr. Rob-bins being an outspoken republican; he was strongly opposed to slavery. I recollect hearing him preach a sermon recommending every one to read Mrs. Stowe’s book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The effect of this was he soon was known by the cognomen of “Uncle Tom,” and the church as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Mr. Robbins was always a school man, for many years was a trustee of the Congregational Church at Grinnell.

On May 15, 1854, four of the board of directors of No. 2 resigned; they were Rev. Robbins, F. Thurston, J. Butler, and Jos. Bridgman. Franklin Thurston was a man of considerable prominence, for many years a bookkeeper for Gen. J. G. Gordon. He married Miss Margaret Reece of our town and raised two daughters, one married Mr. E. H. Dolsen of the firm of Thurston & Dolsen, the other married John D. Hopkinson, and after his death she married Louis Maxson.

Jacob Butler was a lawyer of prominence and, in his time, one of our most public spirited citizens. He was a little hasty and impulsive but a good thinker; he accumulated considerable property and thought our city not large enough, so he went to Chicago, where he was unfortunate and lost most of his wealth.

Joseph Bridgman was the fourth school director to resign; he was a mer-chant; as I have written him up in a former contribution, I will only say that he was secretary for that year, and that when he commenced the writing was very plain, but as the unrest in the district began to develop the secretary undoubtedly began to get nervous—the writing shows it—the minutes of the last few meetings he recorded can hardly be read. For my part as a reader of them I was glad when S. G. Stein was elected secretary. If I recollect aright, all of these four old mem-bers were attendants at Mr. Robbin’s church. I think the other two remaining members, Alfred Purcell and J. P. Freeman, were not regular attendants at any church. Mr. Purcell was an outspoken man, always willing to advocate his convictions; he was a sitting whig and loved to discuss politics. He married a daughter of “Uncle William Parvin,” an old “moss-backed” democrat, who was so incensed at the marriage of his daughter to a whig he would not stay in town on the day of the wedding, he went a hunting. The same conditions existed when the other director, J. P. Freeman, another outspoken abolitionist, married another daughter, “Uncle Billy” he went a hunting again.

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