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Vandalia's first schools were by subscription

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Fayette County History

By Linda Hanabarger

The first school in Vandalia was taught by a Mr. Jackson in a little log shed in 1819. This tidbit of historical data, from the History of Fayette County, Illinois, published in 1878, sets the scene for this article.

Teacher Jackson died before finishing his term, and was succeeded by Dr. VanFleck.
In 1822, both Dr. VanFleck, who taught in a small frame house, and Russell Botsford taught in what were called subscription schools in Vandalia. Mrs. Sarah Morse is also listed as a teacher in 1822, and she probably kept a girls’ school.
A subscription school was just what it sounds like – a teacher would advertise for students and when enough were signed up to pay for expenses, classes would be held.
B. Ward Thompson, son of an early settler, widow Elizabeth Thompson, was one of VanFleck’s night school students. The teacher also held day classes.
William Lee, whose father, Lemuel, built the first water mill on the Kaskaskia River, recalled that he and other young men paid a teacher to give them classes at night after chores were done.
Further proof that early Vandalia had a school building comes from an entry in the county commissioner records from November 1822. In these records, William Johnson was allowed $15 by the county commissioners for “fixing the school house at Vandalia…to accommodate the County Commissioner’s Court.”
Civil documents provide evidence that places the schoolhouse on the Public Square, the current site of the Vandalia Statehouse.
According to the Vandalia City Council minute book, on Sept. 24, 1839, proceeds from “the sale of the frame house, sold to doctors Edmonson and Berry, be appropriated to the purpose of repairing the fence enclosing the public square, and planting trees within the same and clearing the rubbish off the square.”
Approved at the same session: “On application of the trustees of the township school, or their agent, this board, will give up one of the rooms in the statehouse suitable to accommodate such school as may be established for the use and occupancy of said school.”
A list of teachers, published in the 1878 history, includes: Jeremiah Abbott, 1839; Miss Elizabeth Hunt, the Rev. Stewart and the Hon. Joseph T. Eccles, 1830; Miss McClay, 1831-1835; Mr. and Mrs. Evans, 1835; Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carruthers, 1836-1839; and William H. Stoddard, D.D.M., and his daughter, Lucy, 1839-1841.
From 1840-1852, Vandalia teachers were Rev. Kellum, Mr. Lathrop, the Hon. E. Southworth, Mrs. Marie E. Slade, Albert G. Burr, Dr. Johnson, Mr. Pearce, Augustin B. West  and Greenup Bird.
B.F. Shipley, county superintendent of schools at the time the history was being prepared, was called on to write the chapter on "Common Schools" for the book. He wrote: “The early settlers seemed to regard a man who was moderately acquainted with the subjects of arithmetic, reading and spelling as a prodigy in the matter of scholastic attainments.”
He also stated that the early mode of teaching was called the "pouring-in" process, with the idea that the more facts and generalities a pupil knew, the better it would aid him in developing reasoning powers.
Although the history book makes no specific mention of it, a ladies school was also being held in Vandalia in the early 1830s. In a September 1833 letter, Levi Gorley encouraged his wife, Martha I.B. Gorley, living in Vandalia, to take advantage of the education opportunities available to her in Vandalia.
In the letter, posted from Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., her husband, a third sergeant in Capt. Peter Warren’s company, Odd Battalion of Mountain Volunteers, told her “to attend to your learning as much as possible and gain all the information you can, as this will be the last year you will have an opportunity to attend anything of the kind."
He writes further: “I am anxious in your improvement in learning, and I hope the golden moments afforded you for improvement may not be thoughtlessly thrown away.”
Robert Blackwell, editor of The Illinois Intelligencer newspaper, stated his view in a Jan. 30, 1830, editorial: “Every neighborhood should educate its children. Education is the most important branch of civil and parental institution, and should embrace moral as well as literary instruction.”
Free schools were still more than 20 years away.