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updated: 10/5/2012 9:40 AM

Arlington Hts. stories: The Gospel, Geometry and Mr. McGuffey

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  • The McGuffey Reader was just the tonic for small town school districts like Arlington Heights, in the mid-19th century.

    The McGuffey Reader was just the tonic for small town school districts like Arlington Heights, in the mid-19th century.

By Gerry Souter
Special to the Daily Herald

Around the time of the Civil War, many of the farmers who tilled the prairie in and around the whistle stop named Dunton didn't want their kids to go to school. The children were home-schooled from the German Bible or English tracts whenever their chores permitted. The only other book in the farmhouse was the latest seed catalog, or still later, the Sears & Roebuck Catalog. When these volumes were almost read to pieces, they became toilet paper in the privy out back.

Before the war and even before the railroad, in 1849 the community chipped in and a 16-foot square frame building was constructed at the corner of Miner and Evergreen (today) streets.

A bench ran around the inside walls and the teacher, Miss Sarah Thornton, had a desk and a chair. A potbelly stove heated the room. Facing Miss Thornton, seated along the hardwood bench was the first class of 10 students, male and female from teenage to fourth grade, each with his or her own slate and stick of chalk. Paper was precious and both sides of every sheet were used.

At the start of the war in 1860, the village met its quota of young men, fathers and farmers who joined Union forces fighting the Rebels in the South, and the Sioux Indians in the North who had begun raiding settlements in Minnesota. Education for women often stopped at learning domestic skills and the children were needed to fill in for the absent men.

Two critical factors helped keep education growing in the village.

Religion was a part of everyday life and in the late 1880s, roughly 500 persons of school age -- under 21 -- lived in the village and about half of them attended the Lutheran School sponsored by St. Peter's Church.

These Lutheran families accounted for most of Dunton's German population. Still, if any youngster wanted to progress beyond eighth grade, he or she had to board the train for Chicago each day, or take the buggy to Maine Township.

@$ID/NormalParagraphStyle: Gerry and Janet Souter, Arlington Heights, Illinois -- A Brief History, History Press, 2009

William Holmes McGuffey provided the other important educational push. He was brought up with a strong desire to preach the Gospel and to educate children. In 1814, at age 14, he became a "freelance" teacher, moving about the country teaching in one-room schools, committing many books and the Bible to his photographic memory.

A friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" suggested he develop a series of primary readers. Where virtually no textbooks existed, his books taught not only facts in story form but moral guidelines and patriotism.

From the first set of four readers written in 1836-1837, to the last fifth and sixth written in 1840, a broad sweep of subjects from simple English to excerpts from John Milton, Lord Byron and the famed orator, Daniel Webster, were available to teachers. By 1920, 122 million copies had been sold.


The combination of church teachings and inspirational readers provided by McGuffey went a long way in opening the door to education for many bright minds in rural villages like Arlington Heights.

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