At first, the few settlers at what is now the city, availed themselves of the Mission School. Who first started any other school is so much in doubt and dispute that it will be passed by as unsettled. It is by some of the old residents confidently asserted that the first school, other than the Mission School, was taught by Sophia Page, daughter of Dea. Page, near where stands the Morton House. Her married name is Bacon. A school by Reedís Lake was started in the winter of 1834, by two young girls, Euphemia Davis, daughter of Ezekiel Davis, and Sophia Reed, daughter of Lewis Reed. This school, for the families immediately around d there, was in the upper part of a log house; and was maintained by those girls for the most of a year. This Miss Davis is now the wife of Dr. Jewett, a missionary in India, among the Telegoos. Sophia Reed, as the wife of Dixon Davis, died November, 1863, leaving a large family.

The next year a school house was built (probably the first in the Valley), and a young man named Francis Prescott, taught during the winter. This Mr. Prescott came out as a carpenter and land-looker; while here, married a lady who was assisting Mr. Slater in the Mission School; returned to New York, where he studied theology, and became a Baptist preacher. In 1854, he returned to Grand Rapids as pastor of the Baptist Church, which post he very acceptably filled for several years. He afterwards went to Laphamville--now Rockford-where he died of apoplexy, January 7th, 1864, aged fifty years. He was a man of most sterling qualities, of good ability, and very useful preacher.

Attention was very early given to higher education, and for many years the high schools eclipsed the others. The first High School was started by Mr. Henry Seymour (see biographical article). A charter for a academy was procured and his school became the Academy. Mr. Seymour was succeeded for about two years, by Addison Ballard. Mr. Ballard resigned to enter the ministry. In the fall of 1846, Mr. Ballard was succeeded in the Academy by Franklin Everett. Mr. Ballard was a man of fine culture, a gentleman and scholar. He is at present a popular Doctor of Divinity; has been professor in colleges the greater part of the time. Mr. Everett was at first assisted by his wife and Thomas Cumming (afterwards acting Governor of Nebraska). Mr. Everett and his wife kept up the school twenty-six years. There has been no other academic school which has had any permanency. The reason is, the Union School had an academic character, and being nearly free, rendered private schools nearly impossible. Of the temporary schools, those of Mrs. Janes and Mr. Cock are spoken of in the sketch of Grand Rapids in 1846. That was particularly the time of private schools, the Union School not having been started, and the common schools slighted. A few years later a charter for a college at Grand Rapids was obtained, and under the charter an academic school was started with the Rev. Mr. Taylor as principal, with an able corps of assistants. The school lasted but two or three years. A few years after, the Rev. Mr. Staples opened a female seminary which he maintained for a few years with much credit to him-self. He gave it up for the ministry.

In 1848, a movement was started to organize a union school. A Mr. Marsh, a man of great ability, was teaching one of the district schools. The result of the movement begun by him was, that the two districts cast of the river were united, and a stone building three stories high, capable of accommodating 300 scholars, was erected in 1849, and opened in November. It was a plain building, just west of the present central school-house.

The school was opened under the charge of a Mr. Johnson from Western New York, assisted by Miss Hollister (now Mrs. Wm. M. Ferry, of Grand Haven); Miss Webster (now Mrs. John Ball, of Grand Rapids); Miss Hinsdill (now Mrs. Jones, of Denver), and Miss White (now Mrs. Whipple, of Grand Rapids).

Mr. Johnson, though an able, and otherwise successful teacher, failed to satisfy himself at Grand Rapids, and left at the end of the first term. He was succeeded by the Rev. J. Ballard, who had charge for three years. He was succeeded by Professor Edward W. Cheesbro, who was in charge several years. He was a man exceedingly devoted to his work. He was stricken down in his school room; and with intellect wasted to nothing, died in about two years, January 31st, 1862, aged 43. The inscription on his monument in Oak Hill Cemetery, most justly characterizes him. This monument is the tribute of his pupils:

"His was a teacherís heart,

With zeal that never tired;

And thousand souls beat higher,

By his single soul inspired."

Prof. Danforth, with Prof Strong as academic teachers, succeeded Cheesbro. Upon the retirement of Prof. Danforth, Prof. Strong succeeded to the superintendence with Prof Daniels as chief of the academic department. They have since changed places.

In the meantime, the school has been growing. The stone building was found to be insufficient, and ward school-houses were built for the younger scholars.

In 1853, a union school was established on the west side, and the Rev. J. Ballard was placed in charge.

By special act, the whole city was made one school district, under the control of a Board of Education. The Union School on the West side became one of the secondary schools.

With a brief statement of the present status of the school, gathered from the Annual Report for 1876, this article will be closed:


School No. rooms Cost Seats

Central Lyon St. 21 $85,000. 600
Union Turner St 21 $65,000 600
Primary Bridge (1 5 $25,000 300
Primary Division(2 5 $16,000 270
Primary Fountain(3 9 $38,000 450
Primary Wealthy(4 6 $27,000 350
Primary Grandville


2 $10,000 120
Primary Turner (6 5 $ 6,000 230
Primary Ionia St (7 8 $26,000 370
Primary Jefferson 8 7 $18,000 370
Primary Center (9 4 $ 9,000 200
Spring St 4 $ 4,000 200
Cold Brook Leonard St. 2 $ 6,000 150
Leonard St. 2 $ 5,000 150

Whole number of teachers, with the superintendent, 89; salaries to two teachers, $2,500; one teacher, $1,800; one teacher, $1,500; two teachers, $1,200; three teachers, $1,000; one teacher, $800; one teachers, $700; two teachers, $600. The other salaries are graded from $520 to $360 per year; aggregating $44,579. Expense and outlay for schools and school-houses during the year, $107,687.58. Value of school property, $340,000. Number of children from five to twenty, $8,900. Bonded debt, 63,000. Library, 8,557 volumes.

The range of instruction is that of the best academies-fitting students for college or the counting-house. Latin, Greek, German and French are in the regular or special courses of the school. Beginning feebly in 1849, it has attained its present high condition by successive steps-each an advance. At first it had a slight hold on the confidence of the people, and had to make its way against the overshadowing influence of the private schools, and the opposition of tax-payers; in addition to the unwillingness of the people to submit to the strictness of rules, so indispensable in large concentrated schools. Now the Union School is the school of the city, and the people are proud of it, as their noblest institution. Its influence is over-shadowing; the people freely sustain it; and for making it a free school in all its departments, are willing to submit to severe taxation. The turning point in public sentiment in regard to the Union School, was during the time it was under the administration of Professor Cheesbro. He was not, in the common acceptation of the term, a great man. But for whole souled devotion to his business, administrative talent, and the qualities that go to make up a good teacher, he had few equals. A man of the purest character, devoted to his business, untiring in labor, he wore out what was the finest constitution; killing himself, in fact, body and mind, by his exhausting labors. He rests in Oak Hill cemetery. No history of Grand Rapids would be complete, that did not recognize Prof. Cheebro as one of the great powers instrumental in its development. His field was mind, and the effect of his life will be on future generations. Though short his life, it answered lifeís greet end. His expressive epitaph, given above, tells but the simple truth. It is no poetic fancy.


Sometime (the particular date not preserved) in the year 1856, four men, the Hon. John Ball, James McKee, Wm. G. Henry and A. O. Currier, chanced to meet in Mr. Ballís office and were talking on scientific subject when Mr. Ball suggested the formation of a Lyceum of Natural History. Acting on the suggestion, a meeting was called and a society formed, under the name of "Lyceum of Natural History." The active members of which were A.O. Currier, John Ball, James McKee, Dr. Charles Shepard, Dr. Parker, Prof. F. Everett, Wright L. Coffinberry, Dr. DeCamp, and Wm. G. Henry.

The meetings were kept up with a good degree of interest until the breaking out of the war, when it apparently ceased to exist.

At the commencement of its operation, the society contemplated having a museum and library. Prof. Everett had a cabinet of minerals, geological specimens, and fossils, which he used in his academy, also an extensive botanical collection. These (without donating) he placed in the societyís room. At the re-organization, they were given. Mr. Currier and Dr. DeCamp in a similar way placed their collections. Others contributed, and soon the society had a respectable little museum. When the lyceum seemed to die, the contributors generally resumed possession of what was theirs.

In the meantime, a boy, J. Wickwire Smith, had rallied around him a number of youths in the Union School, and for several years they kept up a society called the Kent Institute. Of that band young Smith was the presiding genius. He infused his soul into the others, and their society was a brilliant youthful success.

In December, 1867, young Smith finding his health failing, and watching the slow progress of consumption, portending death, and knowing that his society would die with him, proposed to the members of the old Lyceum of Natural History, that the two societies should be combined. This was effected January 12th, 1868. Smith lived but a few months after the union had been accomplished.

And here we will pause to pay a merited tribute to one of the noblest youths that ever lived. Although he died at the age of 19, he has left an impress behind him which never will be obliterated. With talents of the highest order, a character of angelic purity, and an enthusiasm for Nature which knew no limit, he had the rare faculty of transfusing his spirit into others. Wherever he went, his greatness was recognized at once. Yet he was a bashful, modest youth, simple, child like, and loving. He went to Florida in the vain hope of improved health. There he rallied around him a similar circle, who recognized his genius. He sunk and died. When his agonized father asked where he chose to be buried, he said: "Bury me where there are the most butterflies." In his last days he wrote to the Kent Scientific Institute never forget J. Wickwire Smith; for, young as he was, he is real father of that institution.

Briefly, it may be further stated, that an alliance was soon formed between the Society and the Board of Education, and it has maintained an active existence.

It has an extensive museum, and is known among the cultivators of natural science in other parts of the world. It promises to be one of the institutions of the West.

Transcriber: Barb Jones
Created: 2 June 2010