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 Iowa History

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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




The history of Iowa's schools begins with the history of her very first settlements.  From the beginning we find the pioneers wanting and getting schools.  The first schools were begun even before Iowa had been opened to the white people for settling.


Mr. Berryman Jennings was the first person to teach a school in what is now Iowa.  During the months of October, November, and December of 1830 he taught school at the "head of the rapids" in Lee County.  Dr. Isaac Galland furnished the room, fuel, furniture, and board for Mr. Jennings.  Dr. Galland's children and the children of a few neighbors attended the school.

Mr. Jennings, in a letter, said:  "This schoolroom was like all other buildings in that new country, a log cabin built of round logs or poles, notched close and mudded for comfort, logs cut out for doors and windows, and also for fireplaces.  The jamb back of the fireplaces was of packed dry dirt, the chimney topped out with sticks and mud.  This cabin, like all others of that day, was covered with wide clapboards.  This was to economize time and save nails, which were scarce and far between.  There were no stoves in those days and the fireplace was used for cooking as well as comfort."

Soon after Mr. Jennings started his school another was opened at Keokuk.  Mr. J. K. Robinson was the teacher.  He taught from December 1830 until the following spring.

Mrs. Rebecca Palmer was the first woman teacher in Iowa.  She began teaching at Fort Madison in September 1834.


The early schools had practically no equipment.  There were no such desks, blackboards, or maps as we have today.  The seats were usually long benches made of planks or split logs.  For desks they fastened planks to the wall.  The blackboard, if they had one, consisted of a plank or two fastened to the wall and painted black.  Erasers were made of sheepskin with the wool side out.

The pupils had no regular textbooks but brought whatever they had at home.  Their parents, in some cases, had brought books from the East.  Some pupils brought Bibles, others almanacs.  The few books which the teacher might have made up the school library.

There were no taxes to support the schools.  Parents paid according to the number of children they had in school.  The teacher received little pay and "boarded 'round" among the families of the pupils.  The schools were far apart and pupils often had to go several miles.  Schools only lasted a few months each year.

The subjects taught were reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, and geography.  Spelling was considered very important.  To be able to "spell down the room" was a real honor.  In writing, the boys and girls used pens that had been made of goose quills.  The children's mother made the ink at home from maple bark and copperas.  The teacher would write a sentence on a sheet of paper.  Then the pupils would practice their writing by copying the teacher's sentence.

"Singing Schools" were very popular.  When someone who could sing moved into a neighborhood, that person became the leader of the singing school.  The people of the settlement would gather at the school or at home in the evening and sing.  Sometimes the young people would start a "lyceum."  This was a society where young men debated or gave orations, and the young women "recited"; that is, gave readings.  The singing schools and lyceums meant much to the young people.  They had no other places for entertainment.  Besides, they learned much at such meetings.


As more settlers came to Iowa the people began to talk of better schools.  Some people even began to think of starting colleges, or institutes and academies, as they were called.  An academy at Denmark, in Lee County, and one at Mt. Pleasant were the first to be started.  The latter later became Iowa Wesleyan University.

Grinnell College, which was opened at Davenport as "Iowa College" in 1846, is usually spoken of as Iowa's first college.  It was stated by the "Iowa Band of 1843."  This "band" was made up of a group of young men from New England who had bound themselves together to do missionary work in the new territory.  In 1859 Iowa College was moved to Grinnell.  Its name now is Grinnell College.

Daniel Coe, an Eastern man who never saw Iowa, gave money and land for a Presbyterian college at Cedar Rapids.  The institution bears his name and is now called Coe College.

Other early church schools that were started in the new state were Cornell College at Mt. Vernon, Central College at Pella, and Drake University at Oskaloosa.  Drake was later moved to Des Moines.

A number of other church schools were later started.  So many, in fact, that Iowa became a leader for colleges west of the Mississippi.  The early people were determined to have right at home, for their boys and girls, schools of the kind that they had known in the states from which they came.


When Iowa became a separate territory, the United States Congress set aside two townships of land or about 46,000 acres.  This land was to be used by Iowa when it became a state for the purpose of starting a "seminary of learning."

In 1847, a year after Iowa became a state, the two townships of land were put in charge of a board of trustees.  The board was to start a State University.  The land was sold to start a fund but the university was not begun until 1855.  It was located at Iowa City, then the capital.  In that year a president and several teachers were employed and a small building was rented.  When the state capital was moved to Des Moines in 1857, the university was moved into the old capital building, which still stands on the campus of our university.

Congress also gave Iowa, some years later, more than 200,000 acres of land to be used for an agricultural and mechanical college.  The college was located at Ames in 1868 and is now called Iowa State College.

When the state orphanage at Cedar Falls was closed, the General Assembly decided to use the buildings for a state normal school.  Young men and women were to be trained at this school for teaching.  The Iowa State Normal School was opened in 1876.  It is now the Iowa State Teachers College.

One of the widely known educational leaders of Iowa rendered his best service to the state through the State Teachers College.  Dr. Homer H. Seerley became its president in 1886 when the institution was young and small.  He continued as president for forty-two years.  When he retired the Iowa State Teachers College was one of the foremost teacher-training institutions of our nation.


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