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Rise of the Normal School


In a Sept. 16, 1886 headline, the Clarion Democrat announced to the county the fulfillment of an idea that had its antecedents several decades earlier. The pattern of events leading to this announcement began when Rev. Robert W. Orr, county superintendent of schools, called a two-day teachers institute to train teachers for the schools of the county. It met at the Clarion Academy in December 1855. This pattern of teacher training was to prevail in the county for many years.

Chapel, Founders Hall


Meanwhile another act in the dramatic struggle for an adequate program of teacher training was occurring in Harrisburg. After many years of proposals and deliberation as to whether there should be private or state control of teacher training the issue was resolved in favor of private control through the passage of the Normal School Act of 1857.

The first direct mention of a normal school for Clarion came in January 1858 at a teacher's institute at Callensburg. The Honorable R. Laughlin proposed a resolution to call "... a county convention of teachers, directors, friends and enemies of the common School system to take into consideration the necessity and utility of establishing a county normal school." This was the apparent fountain-head of the normal school movement within Clarion County which came to fruition in April 1887.

In the meantime Carrier Seminary began operation and offered a "normal" program as early as 1871. In 1872 professional and businessmen of Clarion, including leading stockholders in the Seminary, started a movement to secure a state normal school for the county. Although, this attempt was abortive, it was a significant step in the development of the normal school in Clarion. In 1873 Senator David McClay of Clarion County introduced a bill in the State Legislature calling for the creation of a new normal school district. The Act of May 8, 1874, (Public Law 120) achieved this end.

"The eighth normal school district of this commonwealth, as provided by section one of the Act of May 20th, 1857, be and the same is hereby divided; and from this date, the said eighth normal school district shall consist of the counties of Centre, Clinton, Clearfield, Elk, Potter, and Cameron, and the counties of Jefferson, Clarion, Forest, Warren, and McKean shall constitute the thirteenth district," stated the Act.

The same year the trustees petitioned the Clarion Common Pleas Court to change the name from the Carrier Seminary of Western Pennsylvania to the Carrier State Normal School.

Just when it appeared that a normal school was near at hand the idea received a double barreled broadside. State Superintendent James P. Wickersham visited Clarion in 1874 to consider the matter only to decide negatively. The M.E. Conference upon learning that it would lose control should the transition occur, also vetoed the proposal.

A.J. Davis elected superintendent

A.J. Davis
Professor Aaron J. Davis, who was a key figure in founding the normal school, was elected Clarion County Superintendent of Schools the following year. Professor Davis was undoubtedly the most prominent educator in the county during the nineteenth century, if not in the history of the county. Born June 21, 1847, in Madison Township he attended the public schools until he was fifteen. After a year at Clarion Collegiate Institute in Rimersburg, he left school to work on a farm and in February 1864 enlisted in the Union Army. He saw Civil War service on a gunboat in Eastern Virginia and Eastern North Carolina and with General Grant at St. Petersburg and Richmond before being discharged in July 1865.

Upon his return home A.J. Davis resumed his studies at the Clarion Collegiate Institute. He then taught in the public schools of the county, and eventually completed his education at Edinboro State Normal School. In 1869, at the age of 22, he was elected principal of the West Freedom Academy in Clarion County. While principal he organized a National Guard Company and eventually rose in rank to major.

Davis was elected principal of his alma mater, Clarion Collegiate Institute, in 1874. He was elected county superintendent of schools the following year and subsequently re-elected in 1878 and 1881. In the fall of 1880 a note appeared in the Chicago Educational Weekly referring to the efficiency and skill associated with his superintendency. His ability probably led to his later appointment with the Department of Public Instruction.

A.J. Davis was a staunch advocate of the normal school as a teacher training institution. Realizing that the steps taken by State Superintendent Wickersham and the Erie Conference prevented immediate action, Davis, in his words, "... kept constantly in mind the revival of the plan [for a normal school] but kept my own counsel." In 1878 Professor Rosswell G. Yingling, a local teacher and later high school principal, met with Davis at the Jones House, a Clarion hotel, to discuss establishing a normal school at Warren, Brookville or Clarion. After some deliberation the professors concluded Clarion would be the best site for two reasons; (1) the possibility of procuring the excellent facilities of the already faltering Carrier Seminary and (2) the fact that Clarion was their own county. The first of a series of summer normal sessions conducted at the Seminary with Davis and/or one of his cohorts in charge began in 1879.

During the year 1882 Davis negotiated with Colonel Francis W. Parker, an educator of national renown from Quincy, Massachusetts, to come to Clarion the following summer as an advisor in establishing a normal school. In the Quincy schools Parker incorporated the ideas of Frobel, Herbart, and Pestalozzi making the city a mecca for educators. Parker also gained fame as supervisor of the Boston schools and as principal of the Cook County Normal School in Illinois.

Davis in Harrisburg

However, before he could come to Clarion, Davis was offered a staff position with the Department of Public Instruction in Harrisburg. Davis accepted the position, giving ill health and the rigor of his winter journeys about the county as the reasons. To some it may have seemed that he was forsaking his plans for a normal school to pursue a brighter star. But on the contrary, since he probably accepted the appointment to be in a better position to influence a favorable reaction to plans for the normal school.

Soon after arriving in Harrisburg Davis found Dr. Higbee, state superintendent, strongly adverse to the creation of a new normal school. Davis was again thwarted but not dissuaded. "The failure only served to make... him more determined than ever to accomplish ... his aim."

While Davis was working behind the scenes in Harrisburg, Prof. Yingling, at the behest of Davis, was preparing academically and professionally for his role in the proposed venture. In the fall of 1882 he left the county for two years to attend the Lebanon Normal University in Ohio. While there he met C.M. Thomas who was to become a vigorous partner in the venture.

Yingling and Thomas returned to Clarion County in 1884 to be available should the opportunity for definitive action arise. The professors both became school principals, Yingling in Clarion and Thomas at New Bethlehem.

Yingling, noting that Carrier Seminary seemed to be virtually defunct, negotiated with Rev. Edwards, its principal, to use the buildings to conduct a special normal term in the spring of 1885. Assured of a site, Yingling and Thomas began campaigning to attract potential students. In a speech delivered during the observance of the Normal's 25th anniversary, Prof. Yingling vividly recalled his activities during the winter and his feelings as the spring normal session drew near.

"Having secured the Seminary as stated before, Professor Thomas and I spent the holiday vacation in preparation for the coming experiment," said Yingling. "Among other things arranged was the getting up of a circular to be sent to prospective students in the county. In this we declared some big things. The remainder of the winter on Saturdays and holidays, I spent in traveling from town to town distributing circulars and talking up our proposed Normal Term. Prof. C. F. McNutt, then County Superintendent of Clarion County, was secured to conduct for us a teachers' training class. It was necessary also that the building be prepared for our proposed effort or undertaking, for the roof was leaky, residence hall rooms, many of them, unfit for habitation, soot lying in heaps on the floor; bedsteads had to be roped together, mattresses rotted out by the constant leaking from above had to be replaced by straw ticks, in short, a general renovation was necessary in order to hope for success in so important an experiment. The day to begin our work was set for early April. Opening day finally came, and here, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to bow reverently to that day. For three years the thought and effort of each hour had been for strength and ability to make that opening term a success, for on that, as we thought, rested the success or failure of our enterprise.

Conditions in the Seminary and the sentiment in the town and community were such that had the effort been a failure, the establishment of a Normal School in the Thirteenth District would undoubtedly have been elsewhere and possibly by others. The day was a cold, dreary, rainy one, as an April day could well have been and the roads almost impassible. The Board of Trustees, the Faculty, the Reception Committee, etc., all were vested in Prof. Thomas and myself, and we spread ourselves as well we could and performed all these duties as best we knew how. Fortunately the term proved a success. We had an enrollment of 54 students in the spring term and in the fall term we had an attendance of 85 students. I feel warranted in saying that there never was a little school more closely knit together in sympathy and good fellow feeling than was this. All seemed imbued with the one common idea of making the school a success, and all seemed to co-operate to this end. At the close of this effort, each of us returned to his respective field of school work."

Turning point for normal schools

While Yingling was preparing for his grand opening, events in Harrisburg suddenly took a turn in favor of the normal school exponents. In The Beginning of the Clarion Normal School Davis describes the events enabling the project to emerge.

"Higbee's term was due to expire in April 1885. Governor Pattison was a democrat and Higbee was a Republican. It was hardly to be expected according to the previous practice of political custom that the Governor would go outside his own party for an officer of such importance when many democratic educators in the state were eager for the place. Higbee dared make no movement to secure another position lest it might be interpreted that he did not desire a reappointment and he could not well go to the Governor to ask whether or not the latter intended to reappoint him. The situation became so embarrassing that Higbee's health was visibly affected by the worry. So, without consulting with any one, I sought an interview with the Governor and frankly told him how Higbee was situated and suggested that it would be a kindness to let the Doctor know what the Governor purposed doing in the matter of the appointment even if his decision was adverse to the present incumbent. To my surprise, the Governor without hesitation, told me he thought that office ought not to have any political aspect and that he intended to reappoint Doctor Higbee, but he requested me not to mention the matter, as the Democratic Senators might seriously embarrass the Governor if made acquainted with his intentions. I promised not to divulge the matter so as to be reported to members of the Senate, but asked permission to tell Higbee, which request the Governor readily granted.

"When I returned to the departmental offices, Doctor Higbee had just returned from a trip outside the city and seemed much worried and even sick, so I thought to relieve his anxiety I would make known to him the Governor's purpose. The announcement had the expected effect, after I convinced him that the matter had been discussed with the Governor in such a way that the latter knew that I had gone to him entirely on my own initiative.

"Reassured on this point, Doctor Higbee then asked me what he could do for me for the interest I had taken on his behalf. I replied that if he wanted to do me a favor he might grant me the normal school at Clarion on which my heart was set.

"During the next few months Davis was in Alaska under the auspices of the U. S. Bureau of Education and the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church organizing industrial and training schools for native children in Sitka. He returned in July 1885 and at once set about his plans for the normal school."

The next spring, Davis left his position in Harrisburg to assist Professors Yingling, Himes, and Thomas in operating a spring normal course. Enrollment was even better than the previous year, totaling 126. The old building was packed to overflowing, and for the first time in its twenty year history the management of the Seminary appealed to the town's people for rooms and accommodations.

Citizens meet

The time now seemed ripe to call a meeting of citizens to consider possibilities and plans for a normal school. The meeting was held in May 1886, but little enthusiasm was shown. When Davis explained that State Superintendent Higbee had agreed to further the cause, interest began to develop. After a full discussion Attorney J. T. Maffett and A. J. Davis were appointed to head a committee to formulate a comprehensive plan and draw up subscription papers to raise $40,000.

At a meeting on June 18 the committee reported $33,000 had been subscribed. The next stockholders meeting followed on August 18 with the committee reporting subscriptions totaling $37,000. Messrs. G. W. Arnold, David Lawson, Davis, W. W. Greenland and C. F. McNutt, were placed on a committee to negotiate with the Annual Conference of the M. E. Church soon to be in session at Brookville. Messrs. Yingling, A. W. Corbett, Sr., and S. S. Wilson comprised a second committee to examine the property and prepare plans for new buildings either on the Seminary grounds or elsewhere should the negotiations fail. According to reports in the Clarion Democrat subscriptions totaled $38,000 by August 26. The $40,000 goal was reached September 9.

The next day the negotiating committee met with representatives of the M. E. Conference at Brookville, After much deliberation Professor Davis and Dr. Flood, a chief negotiator for The Conference, secluded themselves for further discussion and finally agreed on a price of $25,000. Through this transaction the Clarion State Normal School Association received the property by paying off the $21,500 debt against Carrier and paying $3,500 to the Erie M. E. Conference.

Stockholders ratify purchase on Sept. 11

On September 11 the stockholders ratified the purchase and on the 18th elected the following trustees for the stockholders: Nathan Myers, Hon. James Campell, John B. Patrick, B. J. Reid, A. W. Corbett, Sr., Porter Haskell, M. Arnold, W. A. Hindman, Hon. James T. Maffett, C. A. Rankin, A. J. Davis, and David Lawson. Messrs. Myers and Lawson had been members of the first Carrier Seminary Board of Trustees. At this meeting George W. Arnold, also one of the original Seminary trustees and its treasurer, was elected treasurer of the new institution.  

Work began on two new dormitories September 20 with Archie Thompson, general contractor, supervising a work crew consisting of 30 to 40 local citizens. The buildings were necessary to satisfy the requirements for student housing facilities set forth in the Normal School Act of 1857. The initial intent was to use brick, but scarcity of brick in the locality coupled with the exorbitant railroad freight charges precluded the possibility of building this type of structure. Professor Egbert described the erection of the buildings during the twentieth anniversary observance.

"Wood was substituted for more substantial material and haste became the taskmaster," said Egbert. "We who note the condition of our dormitories today cannot but deplore the haste of twenty years ago. When did haste not produce waste?"

The most formidable problem confronting the fledgling institution was the curse of the Seminary, money. While little difficulty was encountered in obtaining $40,000 in subscriptions it was another matter to collect the money. The subscriptions were honored only after great effort on the part of R. G. Yingling.

Since the purchase of the facilities proved to be more costly than anticipated, the Hon. Mr. Brinker, local representative to the State Legislature, introduced a special bill appropriating $25,000 to the school.

An examining committee consisting of State Superintendent Higbee, Grier C. Orr, Hon. John M. Greer, Hon. J. H. Osmer, Prof, H. S. Jones, Professor M. O. Campbell, and Clarion County Superintendent C. F. McNutt came to Clarion Feb. 15, 1887 and upon inspection approved the site and facilities. Examining committee report

At a meeting of the stockholders the committee's report was read and Superintendent Higbee announced his appointments as trustees to serve in behalf of the Commonwealth-R. G. Yingling, David Bowman, W. W. Barr, W. W. Greenland, John F. Brown and J. Lloyd Shellenberger-thus completing the eighteen-man board.

Normal School opens April 12, 1887

Clarion State Normal School, the successor to Carrier Seminary, opened its doors on the old Seminary grounds April 12, 1887. The stockholders had gone in debt to complete the building program prior to the visit of the examining committee and were depending on the special appropriation of $25,000 from the Commonwealth for survival. When invitations were sent to many notables requesting the presence during the state examination, the name of an important member of the Legislative Appropriation Committee was inadvertently omitted. According to Principal Davis this Legislator purposely used his power to withhold the bill, purely out of spite. It was only after much maneuvering by Principal Davis, Representative Brinker and Capt. Haskell, a Representative from Philadelphia, that the bill was reported out of committee on the last day that they met during that session. The bill was passed as was one for the regular annual appropriation of $10,000 granted all State Normal Schools.

At last the Clarion Democrat headline, "The State Normal Assured," could be uttered with confidence.