Chapter 3

Jonathan Fairbanks Shapes the Public Schools

Jonathan Fairbanks

A former school teacher by the name of Jonathan Fairbanks arrived in Springfield in November 1866. He and a partner opened a sawmill which prospered for nine years before it went broke. After the panic of 1873, as Fairbanks prepared to leave the city, he accepted the school superintendency for the next year. He stayed beyond the year and for the next 42 years. He was to lead the city's schools through some trying but rewarding times. (To place events in perspective see the Historical Timeline)

Fairbanks was easily distinguishable with his long beard, Prince Albert coat and stove pipe hat, as he made regular visits to the classrooms of the district. (More about Jonathan Fairbanks.)

There were many problems during the formative, early years that Fairbanks headed the district but he was noted for working as many out in private as possible and not taking them to the Board of Education as his predecessor had.

During his tenure he worked for better facilities, materials and working conditions for teachers. He also was considered a friend by the city's black population for insisting on the same facilities and materials for black students as for white.

By 1875 the courses at Central, unlike Uncle Joe Rountree's first school, expanded in the grades to reading, spelling, arithmetic (including mental arithmetic,) geography, writing, language and grammar, and United States history. In 1879 the board approved the replacement of McGuffey's Readers for the Appleton Readers as the terms included free books for poor children. A representative from McGuffey's sought reimbursement for a breach in the contract and to be reinstated. Appleton provided a $5,000 bond to indemnify the district from all legal problems.

At this time the high school courses were higher arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, surveying and navigation; Roman, English, medieval, Grecian, German and universal history; English, civics, physiology, natural philosophy, botany, geology, astronomy, zoology, mental philosophy and ethics; political economy, bookkeeping, inductive logic, Latin, German, French and Greek. This impressive list of high school subjects was taught by the superintendent, the high school principal, and one teacher!

School discipline, too, was modernized at Central School. In February,1873, the board ruled that every teacher must keep a record of each "whipping" she gave. In December of the same year, the board resolved "the discontinuance of all barbarous and unusual methods of punishment, and if the superintendent and teachers are unable to maintain discipline without resort of such means, the pupils offending should be suspended."

A young man selected as principal in 1876 had a vital effect on the school system. R. L. Goode had a progressive attitude. He also wanted to be a lawyer and used teaching as a stepping stone. Fairbanks said he was a splendid teacher.

Under a new constitutional provision limiting school levies to 40 cents on $100 valuation the next year, salaries decreased. Fairbanks resigned. Goode became superintendent. By fall, Fairbanks returned and Goode was ready to practice law. Professor Goode adorned the legal profession" for many years and later served as a board of education member.

Following Attorney Goode came another aspiring lawyer. Already distinguished for his wit and cleverness at Drury College, J. Turner White, age 25, joined Central faculty as principal in the fall of 1879. White taught a class of 80, of which 60 were girls.

Berry SchoolEven in the late 1870s, few boys finished high school. The sentiment apparently was that it was all right for girls, but if a boy amounted to anything, he would be at work by the time he was that age. Boys who were forced to stay in school resented it. The entire high school was in one room. Professor White taught about 12 classes. They included history, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and others. Fairbanks taught the rest of the high school classes. White taught two years before he married Miss Mary Jones from the class of 1880. Central High School lost a second principal to the law, and W. L. Attkisson came in for the ensuing six years. (A Berry School class is shown at right.)

Payson, Denton and Scribners Penmanship books became part of the curriculum in 1881. (Rules and Regulations in 1881) The teacher's instructions were to give a main normal drill of eight lessons and two lessons of plain penmanship in each room daily. So important was penmanship that the board hired a full time writing teacher the next year. Mr. Havemanns began to teach German without compensation in 1884. In 1887 a teacher's committee recommended the gradual adoption of the Standard School Readers published by the Standard School Book Co. of St. Louis, Missouri. The next year the board agreed on Smiths' Physiologies for the new high school course but turned down drawing as it was "not desirable."

City limits extended to adjoining districts in 1874. This further crowded Central school. As the 1880 decade began, the white school numbered 1803. Central was crowded! Board members began talking about building a new school. By 1882, they could wait no longer. A four-mill levy to finance a new ward school passed easily.


Thomas Conlon contracted to build a four-room school building on Center Street between Campbell Avenue and Main Street. The school (later to be named Bailey) became Springfield's first ward school. Grant Avenue at Mt. Vernon Street was the site for the new four- room ward school (later named Campbell) in 1884. The next three-room ward school (later named Phelps) was built at Kimbrough Avenue and Cherry Street in 1886 and was a two-story, red brick, six-room building. In 1900 a four-room addition made it one of Springfield's most modern schools.

North Springfield continued to grow. When the 1882 fall term opened, teachers divided their classes into half days so all could attend. The board rented extra classroom space in a church and even a skating rink. At the April, 1887 election, a $20,000 bond issue passed by a majority of 265 to 12. Three new schools, Weaver, Berry, and Waddill were ready when school opened in September of that year. North Springfield now had a public school system with four buildings and an enrollment rivaling that of Springfield. Both communities looked longingly over their common boundary and thought about consolidation.


Consolidation happened in the April 7, 1888 election by an overwhelming vote of 138 to 13 in North Springfield. By the merger, the Springfield Public School system doubled itself in size. School enumeration jumped from 3,994 to 6,421; enrollment from 2,805 to 4,356; the number of buildings from five to nine; the teaching staff from 27 to 38, including Fairbanks, who remained as superintendent, and W. T. Carrington who succeeded Attkisson as principal in 1887.

Oak Grove SchoolThe combined school system included Central (already known as Old Central) Bailey, Campbell, Phelps, and the Negro Lincoln school from the old Springfield system. From the North Springfield organization there were Rogers, Berry, Waddill and Weaver. (An Oak Grove School class is shown at right.)

Central continued to be overcrowded despite the addition of new ward schools every few years. The high school still met in one large upstairs Central room while the rest of the building housed an elementary school. Education was not compulsory in those days. That may explain why the class of 1889 had but 18 graduates. The high school enrollment was under 160. The popularity of a high school education was yet to be developed. This was shown in the spring election of 1891 when the voters turned down a bond issue of $50,000 for the erection of a new high school.

After consolidation of the two towns, the ward schools took the names of former eminent citizens. The first ward school became Phelps; second ward, Berry; third ward, Bailey; fourth ward, Campbell; sixth ward, Weaver; eighth ward, Waddill, and northside Central became Rogers School.

Central School on Jefferson hill was worn out and vastly overcrowded by the winter of 1890-91. The once celebrated school building bore marks from 20 years of little children's feet." Although high school was unpopular for boys, a few girls climbed the stairs to get a secondary education. As the 1890's wore on, the third floor high school became a kind of stepchild and the board knew it.


Senior High SchoolAt the April, 1891 election, the board submitted a $50,000 bond issue to build a high school. The voters turned it down. School board members John McGregor, Milton Bowerman, C. M. Eversol, W. C. Booth, Norris Fellows, Thomas Appleby and William S. Reed did not give up the idea of building a new high school. Far from it! Instead they planned and then instigated an investigation into the moral conditions" in the overcrowded Central School. Although the students were not aware of their own immoral actions, the school board's results were effective. The community was shocked at what they read in the papers. The next year, a $65,0000 bond passed by a vote of 2,598 to 777.

Two days after the election the school board purchased for $15,000 a site on the northeast corner of Center Street and Jefferson Avenue. Construction of the $85,000 high school building began immediately. The west end of today's Central High School is the original 1893 building. (Shown at right.)

About this time the Board also awarded a contract for a Second Ward colored school on South Main Avenue. Later this school was named Douglas in memory of the famous politician and orator Frederick Douglass.

A downturn or "Depression" in the economy of the early 1890's delayed the finish of the new high school until spring 1894. The fact that the facility was being built as school started caused students to enroll who would not otherwise attend. Twenty-three students graduated from old Central in 1893 while 45 students...first freshmen in the new high school...graduated in 1897. The graduation ceremony for the 49 graduates in 1894, the first year of the new building, was held at the Grand Opera House with parents receiving free tickets but relatives and friends charged 25 cents. (Senior High important to community.)

As the turn of the century neared, E. E. Dodd succeeded W. T. Carrington as principal in the fall of 1899. In 1893, Virginia Holland became the first woman elected to the Board of Education. There were serious doubts expressed as to her eligibility, however, and she was never seated.


As the Twentieth Century approached the schools saw a new ideal in education. Long the prerogative of the aristocracy, education was now to become a democracy available to all the people. The half-hearted efforts to admit the "common people into the same realms of learning where scholars walked" were no longer acceptable. Instead a clearer and more modern idea of education "to equip the pupil for whatever kind of life he may be going to live" was being heard in the land.

1895 Graduating ClassHigh school leadership of the new century gradually became conscious of this new type of pupil. Board members, principals and teachers realized this new pupil had no intention of going on to college and felt no need for the traditional classical type of education. The student simply asked to be taught how to make a successful and everyday living for himself and his family. The new Springfield Senior High School was not equipped to meet the needs of this new kind of pupil. The result centered on most boys not bothering to attend to high school. A 1907 school record shows that of the 928 high school graduates, 648 were girls. In 35 years only 280 boys finished high school. (The graduating class of 1895 is shown at left with Superintendent Fairbanks.) (What commencements were like.)

Springfield's new high school principal, E. E. Dodd, was aware of the demand for a new type of education. At his recommendation manual training was added to the high school curriculum in 1905. Mechanical drawing came along five years later; business training courses followed.

Dodd added another course called "personality training" to the schools. The course was based on his day-by-day observation of what children needed. He watched their intelligence and capacities, but realized their inadequacies. His judgment was that this modern technical, business and trades education, even with the old classical education, was not enough. The students of the future needed a course in human relationships. They needed to learn how to "put themselves over" with their peers, to develop the social graces, and to make the fullest use of their more formal education. Dodd wrote his own textbook to meet the need. The friendly little book, "Fiber and Finish," served the public school students for four decades.

Problems that were present in society as the 19th Century ended were carried over into the schools, becoming more of a public concern. In September of 1892 a group of citizens urged the Board to teach physiology "with special emphasis given to the effects of alcoholic drinks, stimulants and narcotics generally on the human system." (Board of Education members during this period.)

Enrollment in the Springfield public schools increased rapidly. Old Central remained entirely an elementary school after the high school moved out in April, 1894. Miss Mary E. Kelly continued as principal until Old Central was sold in 1908. She went on to became principal of McDaniel School and later Bissett. She retired in 1933.

The city annexed the east Boulevard school district in 1900 and the old Boulevard School at Fremont Avenue and George Street was replaced by Tefft on the same site. Also that year additions were built at Phelps, Berry, and Weaver. As the old schools were enlarged, two new schools were built. Dedicated in 1905 were McGregor in the southwest part of the city at Fort Avenue and Phillips Street; and Robberson, in the northeast part of the city at Dale Street and Davis Avenue.

Opened the next year were Fairbanks School on North Broadway Avenue and Bowerman at North Grant Avenue and High Street. In 1908, McDaniel School on Florence Avenue and Boyd on the high school campus were added to bring the number of elementary public schools to 16. (Construction during this period.)

Jonathan Fairbanks was growing old. Generations of boys and girls who began school in first grade under Mrs. Boyd would graduate from high school under Fairbanks' friendly supervision. The superintendent paid weekly visits to every school. His long frock coat and tall silk hat made him a familiar and lovable figure in the memory of thousands of students and teachers. He would walk formally into the classrooms, even the first grade, carrying his tall hat. That silk hat and his long frock coat became a familiar, lovable, and lasting memory to thousands of students who remembered his greeting of "Good morning, scholars" and his pleasant little talk about education, character, or the virtues of life.

Although Fairbanks continued to visit schools throughout the district, W. W. Thomas became assistant superintendent in 1912 to lighten Fairbanks' duties. Fairbanks' long red hair had long since grown gray; his erect body was less free of movement. One principal, when she saw his buggy stopping in front of the school, sent one of the boys to tie his horse and help him from his buggy. These particular buggy rides to Springfield's public schools gradually decreased and ended with Fairbanks' death in 1917. W. W. Thomas became Superintendent upon the death of Jonathan Fairbanks.


Even as the long-time teachers continued to teach 40 and 50 years, there were young ones who came in with fresh, enthusiastic, and progressive modern ideas. One of the new teachers, Elizabeth Caduc, introduced in 1916 an "activity" program in the second grade at Phelps. In spite of her small room, screwed down desks, large enrollment, and little equipment she started the plan of letting children DO things, instead of just listening! It was possible to find her pupils busy with hammers and saws as well as with books. (Fairbanks on teachers.)

As teaching standards raised in the early twentieth century, new teachers with better training and a more professional attitude joined the Springfield Public School staff. Teaching as an occupation became a career for women instead of "something to do" until they could get married. Still if they got married, and most did, they did so with "a skill based on sound training and psychological understanding that teachers of an earlier generation learned by experience--if indeed they ever learned it."

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