Quintessential America

The Priority of an American Education

How Barrington’s Earliest Teachers and Learners helped the Founding Fathers Invent America





Thomas Jefferson was 83 and doubted he’d live through the summer of 1826. But he hoped at least to reach that July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; writers, like Jefferson, always hang on, hoping people remember their work. If Jefferson was going to die, could he pick a more cosmic symbol than July 4th? He reached the morning on that Fourth in 1862, and passed into history.

The United States was being handed over to the next generation of a painfully young nation that would arrive in Barrington within the decade. The first adult generation in Barrington all had been alive when Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Ben Franklin were inventing America.

The immigrant sons and daughters of Barrington Center were Americans only a generation removed from the Founders. They were learning what being Americans meant, but first, following the new nation’s federal priority for education, Barrington Center needed a school and a teaching system to shape a new country. How would a new nation invent good citizens?

The Inventors

Garrett Landwer was an inventor, too, though he didn’t know that as he strode across the grassy, prairie field that August morning in 1847 and headed for the unknown. He paced dutifully, manfully down the road from his 70-acre family farm that eventually would be marked as the corner of Hillside and Division Streets.

He was 10 that summer, and only one human twig of an immigrant tree that was spreading across Northern Illinois. He had endured a rotation of local homes used for school lessons for three years. But today would be different. Today he was going to a real school.

Lester D. Castle awaited at the door of the one-room log building for Landwer and perhaps a dozen other children. He would be their teacher.

It is August 1847 and public education—the true mark and legacy of American democracy—had finally come to Barrington. In quick order over the next few years, schools grew in Barrington like morels in a moist forest.

The formulation laws that allowed Illinois to exist inside the Northwest Territory—the Land Ordinance of 1785—made that possible. Eventually federal law applied direction and structure.

“The Section 16 Rule” allowed each incorporated 6-square-mile township to set aside one platted section as the property for local education. The land could be sold, bartered, or used in collateralized, interest-bearing loans. The first bank of what became Barrington wasn’t a bank at all, but the “Cash Book of School District 4.” The large, brown bound ledger neatly tracked who had borrowed and who had paid.

All the proceeds would go to funding education. That resource allowed Barrington to build two public schools even before it was incorporated as a village.

Every August today, thousands of Barrington students reassemble at a squadron of bright, modern schools and re-launch their annual pilgrimage for knowledge. Barrington’s schools are admired, for good reason. But on that day in 1847, Landwer and Castle were the Founding Fathers in a small Midwestern settlement.

Pioneer learners

Barrington in the 1840s constituted what social and educational reformers in the East called “the barbarous West.” Based only on modern conceptions of schooling, they had a point.

American public education was designed to produce the basic highly moral, dedicated, nation-building “good citizen.” But the educational fuel was not designed to produce many students remotely similar to the Founding Fathers.

Though Americans now chafe at the concept of elitism, the Founding Fathers were products of elite classical knowledge. In fact, the Founding Fathers were mostly aristocrats and had the diverse education to sustain that position in life.

After graduating from Harvard, John Adams became a grammar school teacher before he took his turn at the presidency. “I would rather,” he said, “sit in school and consider which of my pupils will turn out be a hero, and which a rake, which a philosopher and which a parasite, than to have an income of a thousand pounds a year.”

Landwer would have learned about Washington from “McGuffey Reader,” a primary-grade reading textbook that Landwer likely encountered. That introduction included the totally concocted “I cannot tell a lie cherry tree” fable.

The fib caused Washington’s February 22 birthday to be celebrated with cherry dishes on Barrington’s frontier dinner tables, with the cherry often claimed to be the president’s favorite. No fact supports that.

The work product

Even after the Colonial Era, Americans had mixed feelings about common public education as a high-falutin’ imitation of European upper crust. But that was not true in Barrington which embraced “common” schooling as the birthright of all children.

As for the tools and outcomes of that education, Barrington prospered, citizens flourished, and reinvestment in the common good was unequivocal. That template has endured.

But what did the students actually learn in 1847?

When Landwer and his classmates had access to books, they read McGuffey, Webster’s speller, Webster’s equally famous basic reader, or the Bible. Most pioneer kids could acquire a Bible.

If you mastered those four volumes, you would become a competent citizen.

What Landwer also learned from age 10—third grade was the first year of school, until the eighth—was a massive body of repeatable dogma and behavioral prescriptions for a good life. Schoolbooks all were dominated by themes of regularity, industry, and obedience.

By age 13, they would graduate and be able to report all forms of arithmetic, reading, grammar, history, rhetoric, and geography. Students would stand for hours before the class and recite the lessons from memory. They would graduate into life—until high school was invented—by answering a battery of test questions that included: “Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications;” “A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?;” and “What are elementary sounds? How classified?”

You could be spanked with a wide leather strap regularly if your behavior lapsed, although there were rules against hitting the face. School started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4.

Students attended school for about 132 days (the standard year these days is 180) depending on when they were needed to help their families harvest crops. Attendance was just 59 percent.

At the beginning, teacher Castle was typical. He was male, civic-minded, and moderately educated. For one generation, males dominated teaching. But male teachers were paid $75 per school year and females were paid $46. School boards—always all-male because women had not been granted suffrage—decided it was fine to pay women the cheaper price. By the turn of the century, 80 percent of all public school teachers were female.

The Barrington school produced competent, motivated, loyal citizens prepared to be good farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. And to be parents of the next generation.

But the Founding Fathers—except for Washington—routinely could read, write, and think in ancient Greek, Latin, and often French.

As for Barrington, frontier frugality always moderated civic ambitions in those days. Pioneers detested taxation.

By the time the Cash Book was swelling with repaid loans, town folks built a new modern school, shut down the first log-cabin temple of knowledge, and sold it for $222.27.

The new owner turned it into a saloon.

To Learn More

Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.

If you enjoyed this article on Barrington in the early years, pick up a copy of QB’s recent, comprehensive history issue that covers the past 150 years. Produced for the 2015 Sesquicentennial, Quintessential Barrington’s Special Edition is available at the Barrington Village Hall during regular business hours ($10 per copy).

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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