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Schools 1878

The Public Schools.

The germ of the free public school system of Iowa, which now ranks second to none in the United States, was planted by the first settlers. They had migrated to the "The Beautiful Land" from other and older States, where the common school system had been tested by many years' experience, bringing with them some knowledge of its advantages, which they determined should be enjoyed by the children of the land of their adoption. The system thus planted was expanded and improved in the broad fields of the West, until now it is justly considered one of the most complete, comprehensive and liberal in the country.

Nor is this to be wondered at when it is remembered humble log school houses were built almost as soon as the log cabin of the earliest settlers were occupied by their brave builders. In the lead mining regions of the State, the first to be occupied by the white race, the hardy pioneers provided the means for the education of their children even before they had comfortable dwellings for their families. School teachers were among the first immigrants to Iowa. Wherever a little settlement was made, the school house was the first united public act of the settlers; and the rude, primitive structures of the early time only disappeared when the communities had increased in population and wealth, and were able to replace them with more commodious and comfortable buildings. Perhaps in no single instance has the magnificent progress of the State of Iowa been more marked and rapid than in her common school system and in her school houses, which, long since, superseded the log cabins of the first settlers. Today, the school houses which everywhere dot the broad and fertile prairies of Iowa are unsurpassed by those of any other State in the great Union. More especially is this true in all her cities and villages, where liberal and lavish appropriations have been voted, by a generous people, for the erection of large, commodious and elegant buildings, furnished with all the modern improvements, and costing from $10,000 to $60,000 each. The people of the State have expended more than $10,000,000 for the erection of public school buildings.


The first house erected in Iowa was a log cabin at Dubuque, built by James L. Langworthy and a few other miners, in the Autumn of 1833. When it was completed, George Cabbage was employed as teacher during the Winter of 1833-4, and thirty-five pupils attended his school. Barrett Whittemore taught the second term with Twenty-five pupils in attendance. Mrs. Caroline Dexter commenced teaching in Dubuque in March, 1836. She was the first female teacher there, and probably the first in Iowa. In 1839, Thomas H. Benton, Jr., afterward for ten years Superintendent of Public Instruction, opened an English and classical school in Dubuque. The first tax for the support of schools at Dubuque was levied in 1840.


Among the first buildings erected at Burlington was a commodious log school house in 1834, in which Mr. Johnson Pierson taught the first school in the Winter of 1834-5.

Muscatine County.

The first school in Muscatine County was taught by George Bumgardner, in the Spring of 1837, and in 1839, a log school house was erected in Muscatine, which served for a long time for school house, church and public hall.


The first school in Davenport was taught in 1838.


In Fairfield, Miss Clarissa Sawyer, James F. Chambers and Mrs. Reed taught school in 1839.

Iowa City.

When the site of Iowa City was selected as the capital of the Territory of Iowa, in May, 1839, it was a perfect wilderness. The first sale of lots took place August 18, 1839, and before January 1, 1840, about twenty families had settled within the limits of the town; and during the same year, Mr. Jesse Berry opened a school in a small frame building he had erected, on what is now College street.

Monroe County.

The first settlement in Monroe County was made in 1843, by Mr. John R. Gray, about two miles from the present site of Eddyville; and in the Summer of 1844, a log school house was built by Gray, William V. Beedle, C. Renfro, Joseph McMullen and Willoughby Randolph, and the first school was opened by Miss Urania Adams. The building was occupied for school purposes for nearly ten years. About a year after the first cabin was built at Oskaloosa, a log school house was built, in which school was opened by Samuel W. Caldwell in 1844.

Fort Des Moines.

At Fort Des Moines, now the capital of the State, the first school was taught by Lewis Whitten, Clerk of the District Court in the Winter of 1846-7, in one of the rooms on "Coon Row," built for barracks.

Pottawattamie County.

The first school in Pottawattomie (sic) County was opened by George Green, a Mormon, at Council Point, prior to 1849; and until about 1854, nearly, if not quite, all the teachers in that vicinity were Mormons.


The first school in Decorah was taught in 1853, by T. W. Burdick, then a young man of seventeen.


In Osceola, the first school was opened by Mr. D. W. Scoville.

Fort Dodge.

The first school at Fort Dodge was taught in 1855, by Cyrus C. Carpenter, since Governor of the State.

Crawford County.

In Crawford County, the first school house was built in Mason's Grove, in 1856, and Morris McHenry first occupied it as teacher.

During the first twenty years of the history of Iowa, the log school house prevailed, and in 1861, there were 893 of these primitive structures in use for school purposes in the State. Since that time they have been gradually disappearing. In 1865, there were 796; in 1870, 336, and in 1875, 121.

Iowa Territory Was created July 3, 1838. January 1, 1839, the Territorial Legislature passed an act providing that "there shall be established a common school, or schools in each of the counties in this Territory, which shall be open and free for every class of white citizens between the ages of five and twenty-one years." The second section of the act provided that "the County Board shall, from time to time, form such districts in their respective counties whenever a petition may be presented for the purpose by a majority of the voters resident within such contemplated district." These districts were governed by boards of trustees, usually of three persons; each district was required to maintain school at least three months in every year; and later, laws were enacted providing for county school taxes for the payment of teachers, and that whatever additional sum might be required should be assessed upon the parents sending, in proportion to the length of time sent.

When Iowa Territory became a State, in 1846, with a population of 100,000, and with 20,000 scholars within its limits, about four hundred school districts had been organized. In 1850, there were 1,200, and in 1857, the number had increased to 3,265.

In March, 1858, upon the recommendation of Hon. M. L. Fisher, then Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Seventh General Assembly enacted that "each civil township is declared a school district," and provided that these should be divided into sub-districts. This law went into force March 20, 1858, and reduced the number of school districts from about 3,500 to less than 900.

This change of school organization resulted in a very material reduction of the expenditures for the compensation of District Secretaries and Treasurers. An effort was made for several years, from 1867 to 1872, to abolish the sub-district system. Mr. Kissell, Superintendent, recommended, in his report of January 1, 1872, and Governor Merrill forcibly endorsed his views in his annual message. But the Legislature of that year provided for the formation of independent districts from the sub-districts of district townships.

The system of graded schools was inaugurated in 1849; and new schools, in which more than one teacher is employed, are universally graded.

The first official mention of Teachers' Institutes in the educational records of Iowa occurs in the annual report of Hon. Thomas H. Benton, Jr., made December 2, 1850, who said, "An institution of this character was organized a few years ago, composed of the teachers of the mineral regions of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. An association of teachers has, also, been formed in the county of Henry, and an effort was made in October last to organize a regular institute in the county of Jones." At that time-although the beneficial influence of these institutes was admitted, it was urged that the expenses of attending them was greater than teachers with limited compensation were able to bear. To obviate this objection, Mr. Benton recommended that "the sum of $150 should be appropriated annually for three years, to be drawn in installments of $50 each by the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and expended for these institutions." He proposed that three institutes should be held annually at points to be designated by the Superintendent.

No legislation in this direction, however, was had until March, 1858, when an act was passed authorizing the holding of teachers' institutes for periods not less than six working days, whenever not less than thirty teachers should desire. The Superintendent was authorized to expend not exceeding $100 for any one institute, to be paid out by the County Superintendent as the institute might direct for teachers and lecturers, and one thousand dollars was appropriated to defray the expenses of these institutes.

December 6, 1858, Mr. Fisher reported to the Board of Education that institutes had been appointed in twenty counties within the preceding six months, and more would have been, but the appropriation had been exhausted.

The Board of Education at its first session, commencing December 6, 1858, enacted a code of school laws which retained the existing provisions for teachers' institutes.

In March, 1860, the General Assembly amended the act of the Board by appropriating "a sum not exceeding fifty dollars annually for one such institute, held as provided by law in each county."

In 1865, Mr. Faville reported that "the provision made by the State for the benefit of teachers' institutes has never been so fully appreciated, both by the people and the teachers, as during the last two years."

By act approved March 19, 1874, Normal Institutes were established in each county, to be held annually by the County Superintendent. This was regarded as a very decided step in advance by Mr. Abernethy, and in 1876 the Sixteenth General Assembly established the first permanent State Normal School at Cedar Falls, Black Hawk County, appropriating the building and property of the Soldiers' Orphans' Home at that place for that purpose. This school is now "in the full tide of successful experiment."

The public school system of Iowa is admirably organized, and if the various officers who are entrusted with the educational interests of the commonwealth are faithful and competent, should and will constantly improve.

"The public schools are supported by funds arising from several sources. The sixteenth section of every Congressional Township was set apart by the General Government for school purposes, being one-thirty-sixth part of all the lands of the State. The minimum price of these lands was fixed at one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre. Congress also made an additional donation to the State of five hundred thousand acres, and an appropriation of five per cent, on all the sales of public lands to the school fund. The State gives to this fund the proceeds of the sales of all lands which escheat to it; the proceeds of all fines for the violation of the liquor and criminal laws. The money derived from these sources constitutes the permanent school fund of the State, which cannot be diverted to any other purpose. The penalties collected by the courts for fines and forfeitures go to the school fund in the counties where collected. The proceeds of the sale of lands and the five per cent, fund go into the State Treasury, and the State distributes these proceeds to the several counties according to their request, and the counties loan the money to individuals for long terms at eight per cent, interest, on security of land valued at three times the amount of the loan, exclusive of all buildings and improvements thereon. The interest on these loans is paid into the State Treasury, and becomes the available school fund of the State. The counties are responsible to the State for all money so loaned, and the State is likewise responsible to the school fund for all moneys transferred to the counties. The interest on these loans is apportioned by the State Auditor semi-annually to the several counties of the State, in proportion to the number of persons between the ages of five and twenty-one years. The counties also levy an annual tax for school purposes, which is apportioned to the several district townships in the same way. A district tax is also-levied for the same purpose. The money arising from these several sources constitutes the support of the public schools, and is sufficient to enable every sub-district in the State to afford from six to nine months' school each year."

The taxes levied for the support of schools are self-imposed. Under the admirable school laws of the State, no taxes can be legally assessed or collected for the erection of school houses until they have been ordered by the election of the district at a school meeting legally called. The school houses of Iowa are the pride of the State and an honor to the people. If they have been sometimes built at a prodigal expense, the tax payers have no one to blame but themselves. The teachers' and contingent funds are determined by the Board of Directors under certain legal restrictions. These boards are elected annually, except in the independent districts, in which the board may be entirely changed every three years. The only exception to this mode of levying taxes for support of schools is the county school tax, which is determined by the County Board of Supervisors. The tax is from one to three mills on the dollar; usually, however, but one. Mr. Abernethy, who was Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1872 to 1877, said in one of his reports:

There is but little opposition to the levy of taxes for the support of schools, and there should be still less if the funds were always properly guarded and judiciously expended. However much our people disagree upon other subjects, they are practically united upon this. The opposition of wealth has long since ceased to exist, and our wealthy men are usually the most liberal in their views and the most active friends of popular education. They are often found upon our school boards, and usually make the best of school officers. It is not uncommon for Board of Directors, especially in the larger towns and cities, to be composed wholly of men who represent the enterprise, wealth and business of their cities.

At the close of 1877, there were 1,086 township districts, 3,138 independent districts and 7,015 sub-districts. There were 9,948 ungraded and 476 graded schools, with an average annual session of seven months and five days. There were 7,348 male teachers employed, whose average compensation was $34.88 per month, and 12,518 female teachers, with an average compensation of $28.69 per month.

The number of persons between the ages 5 and 21 years, in 1877, was 567,859; number enrolled in public schools, 421,163; total average attendance, 251,372; average cost of tuition per month, $1.62. There are 9,279 frame, 671 brick, 257 stone and 89 log school houses, making a grand total of 10,296, valued at $9,044,973. The public school libraries number 17,329 volumes. Ninety-nine teachers' institutes were held during 1877. Teachers' salaries amounted to $2,953,645. There was expended for school houses, grounds, libraries and apparatus, $1,106,788, and for fuel and other contingencies, $1,136,995, making the grand total of $5,197,428 expended by the generous people of Iowa for the support of their magnificent public schools in a single year. The amount of the permanent school fund, at the close of 1877, was $3,462,000. Annual interest, $276,960.

In 1857, there were 3,265 independent districts, 2,708 ungraded schools, and 1,572 male and 1,424 female teachers. Teachers' salaries amounted to $198,142, and the total expenditures for schools was only $364,515. Six hundred and twenty-three volumes were the extent of the public school libraries twenty years ago, and there were only 1,686 school houses, valued at $571,064.

In twenty years, teachers' salaries have increased from $198,142, in 1857, to $2,953,645 in 1877. Total school expenditures, from $364,515 to $5,197,428.

The significance of such facts as these is unmistakable. Such lavish expenditures can only be accounted for by the liberality and public spirit of the people, all of whom manifest their love of popular education and their faith in the public schools by the annual dedication to their support of more than one per cent, of their entire taxable property; this, too, uninterruptedly through a series of years, commencing in the midst of a war which taxed their energies and resources to the extreme, and continuing through years of general depression in business-years of moderate yield of produce, of discouragingly low prices, and even amid the scanty surroundings and privations of pioneer life. Few human enterprises have a grander significance or give evidence of a more noble purpose than the generous contributions from the scanty resources of the pioneer for the purposes of public education.

[Iowa State Schools, 1878; submitted by cddd]

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