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The First Schools In Bay City (1916)
History essay written by Cornelia M. Richardson.

Added Jan. 2009.

Michigan Historical Commission, Bulletin No. 9, 1917
Written by Pupils of Michigan Schools
In the Local History Contest for 1916-17
Note: The following is a history essay written by Cornelia M. Richardson, who was awarded first place in the student class of over 15 years of age. Other Bay County students that received and honorable mention were Angeline Givisdale, of Auburn and Gussie Klepper, of Bay City.


By Cornelia M. Richard.

Years ago when the great western territory so long the home of wild animals began to be opened to civilization, the village of Bay City sprang up on the east bank of the Saginaw river. For several years it consisted of about four house, a hotel, a dock, and a warehouse. But people moving to the West saw the great wealth in the forests around the village and settled here and built homes. Then great lumber mills arose, and Bay City flourished and prospered. About this time people saw the need of a school where their children might receive an education, and so, plans were speedily drawn up for the erection of a school-house.

The first school on the land now covered by Bay City (then called, Lower Saginaw), was held in a little log shanty on a farm in Hampton township owned by Captain Wilson. It was near the river on what is now Twenty-third street, but in 1840 or about that time Bay City did not extend to Twenty-third street, so the first school in the village of Bay City was situated on the banks of the Saginaw river at the foot of what is now Washington avenue. The Gustin, Cook, and Buckley buildings are thought to cover the spot where this little school stood.

Unlike the schools of today, this little school of long ago was nothing more than a clapboard cabin with two or three very small windows that let the light into one small and, I imagine, rather dingy room. There were no pictures on the walls nor were there any handsomely varnished seats placed in neat rows; instead, the walls were rough pine boards, and the desks consisted of one hard bench built all around the room a short distance out from the walls. The pupils, about twelve in number, sat on this bench with their faces toward the wall. As paper was very scarce they had to write on slates. What a noise there must have been when the pupils were doing their “spellin” and “rithmetic”!

The school grounds were nothing more than a clearing around the school where the trees had been cut down. The stumps were still standing, but the pupils did not mind that. All they wanted was a place where they could play in the fresh air at recess.

To Miss Trombley, a young lady of the village, belongs the honor of being the first teacher. After teaching a few years she went west, and not long afterwards news was received that she had been killed by the Indians.

At the time of this school Wenona, now West Bay City, boasted several houses, and several of the pupils from there had to cross the river to attend. In those days Saginaw river was much wider than now, and no bridge had been built across it. The pupils of Wenona had to cross the river on rafts and later in rowboats. On windy days it was almost impossible to cross the river, so the attendance of the pupils could not be perfect.

Mr. Gano was the next teacher after Miss Trombley. While he was teacher, the Pitt Mill was erected very near the school house, by which time also the number of pupils had increased so much that the building was taxed to its capacity. For these two reasons it was deemed advisable to move the school to another part of the city. The little school house became a woodshed in connection with the mill and it is thought that later on it was burned.

When Bay City celebrated home-coming week1 a few years ago the citizens were given a treat that few others have had. The little school house of Bay City of long ago was reproduced in the great parade. The pioneers said that a more perfect reproduction could not have been made, for the school was exactly like the old one, even to a large three-cornered piece that had been torn out of one side of the building.

On Third street between Washington and Adams there was a large building owned by Mr. Dodge, one part of which was occupied by a bakery shop and the other by a bowling alley. It was in this bowling alley that the second school in Bay City was located. In this building the pupils had desks; but they were of every kind, sort, and description, for each pupil furnished his or her own desk. There were no stores where one could buy desks, so father was compelled to chop a tree down, take the lumber to the mill where it was sawed into boards, and then make the desk himself. In this school Mr. Gana and Mrs. Ferris were the two teachers whom the pioneers seem to remember.

There was no yard around the bowling alley, so at recess the pupils went down to the river to play. Here they spent many happy hours floating on rafts; or when no raft was available, poling around the river on logs. Some even ventured out on the logs as far as the middle ground of the river. This was very dangerous, for the river was very deep, but no one thought of danger when having so much fun.

James Birney was one of the youngest pupils who attended school in the bowling alley. He lived quite a distance from the school, near what is now Belinda street. One day in winter when James was on his way home from school a snowstorm came up and little James lost his way. Men were sent out to find him. After quite a search he was found in a snowbank almost dead. He was so cold that the tears were frozen solid on his cheeks.

Another experience of the school children was in early spring. When the ice frozen on the river in winter it was very solid, though not very thick; in early spring, even though the ice was thick, it was like rubber. Sometimes a person would sink right down in a spot that looked perfectly solid. One day in early spring a crowd of young school children went skating on the river. For some reason or other they all gathered in a bunch in the middle of the ice. A man standing on the shore saw the ice begin to sink, and knowing that the children would all be drowned if they stayed there he called to them to scatter. The children scattered immediately and no one was drowned.

All this time Bay City had been growing rapidly. It was not long before one teacher was not enough to teach all the pupils. Besides this the bowling alley was small for a school. Accordingly, the city bought a piece of land on Adams street between Fourth and Fifty streets. A three-room building was erected here. It had one room on the second floor for the upper grades and two rooms on the first floor for the lower grades. This building is now the back wing of the Salvation Army Citadel.

Three teachers were needed to conduct this school. The upper-grade teach was also the principal of the school. There were several teachers, but as little can be found about them I can give only their names: Mrs. Gano, Mr. Bacon, Miss Lovell and Miss Braddock (who were sub-teachers under Mr. Bacon), Revernd Root (The Presbyterian minister), Mr. Heisordt, Mr. Dunham, Miss Julia Cummings, Miss Cornelia Chillson, and Miss Ellen Chamberlain.

Up to September 1865 the schools of Bay City were under the control of school district No. 2 of the township of Hampton. At this time the citizens of Bay City formed the “school district of Bay City." Plans were made and in a short time an addition was built to the school on Adams street. The building now comprises the whole of the Salvation Army Citadel. This school was used for many years; but it was not the only school in the city, for several ward schools were soon erected.

Perhaps from the description of the schools one might think that the pupils were rough and ignorant. This idea is wrong, for all the pupils were the children of well-educated people. It might be well to give here the names of some of the first pupils; of course the list is not entirely correct, for many of the pupils have long been forgotten. Among the first were: Margaret Campbell, Joshua Pierce, Cordelia Pierce, John and Kat Defo, Esther Rogers, and Richard Olmstead; later on , Cornelia Moots, then Cornelia Chillson and her sister Caroline, Mrs. Faxon attended. I put these last two names in for I am glad to claim Mrs. Moots as my grandmother and Mrs. Faxon as my great-aunt.

Soon after Bay City began to increase in size, people saw what a beautiful place the west bank of the Saginaw river was, and consequently many move over and settled in what was called the village of Wenona. As it is now West Bay City, I thought something should be said of its first schools.

In 1860 a landowner in Wenona donated a lot to the village for a school site. A neat little house was erected and pupils from all over Bangor township assembleb there for instruction. For several years after it had been abandoned as a school house it was used as the polling place of elections for Bangor.

In 1868 a new brick school house was erected on the Bay City and Midland Plank road, about one-half mile from the river. This building was capable of holding three hundred and sixty pupils. Mr. Cummings was the first principal of the new school. He was known as a very accomplished teacher. In one of the old histories of Bay County there was found a funny story about him which would be the best description anyone could give of him. As the story goes, Mr. Cummings was having a hard time to make his pupils behave one winter day. At last, just about in despair, he promised them a sleighride as soon as possible if they would behave. All was quiet immediately, and for several weeks afterward. At last the snow became just right.

The pupils were told to meet at the school at a certain time and of course everyone was there promptly. A few minutes later the teacher drove up with a large bob-sled drawn by a mule. It is said the pupils had a delightful ride even though going at the surprising rate of a mile an hour.

Not long after this a central high school was erected, and then time to time more schools were added until now West Bay City has eight very good buildings.

The prophecy of the explorer De Tocqueville has certainly been fulfilled in every respect; he said, “In a few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen, the sons of civilization will break the silence of the Saginaw, the banks will be imprisoned by quays; its current which now flows on unnoticed and tranquil through a names waste will be stemmed by the prows of vessels. We were perhaps the last travelers allowed to see the primitive grandeur of this solitude.”

Thus all things change. The new grows out of the old. The process by which this is done contains the lessons of history, and the period between the first school and the present day in Bay City schools is a field of study than which few others have more to teach us.

Related Pages & Notes

Bay City 1867

{Bay County Schools}
Moots, Cornelia (Chillson)
BC School Histories 1940
People Referenced
Bacon, Carlos
Birney, James
Braddock, Miss
Campbell, Margaret
Chamberlain, Ellen
Chillson, Caroline
_aka: Mrs. Faxon
Chillson, Cornelia
aka: Mrs. Wm Moots
Cummings, Julia
Cummings, Mr.
Defo, John
Defo, Kat
De Tocqueville
Ferris, Mrs.
Givisdale, Angeline
Klepper, Gussie
Lovell, Miss
Olmstead, Richard
Pierce, Cordelia
Pierce, Joshua
Richardson, Cornelia M. (subject)
Rogers, Esther
Root, Rev.
Salvation Army Citadel
Trombley, Miss
Wilson, Capt.
Subjects Referenced
Bangor Twp.
Bay City, MI
Hampton Twp. Bay Co.
Hampton Twp., Saginaw Co.
Lower Saginaw, MI
Pitt Mill
Saginaw River, MI
Wenona, MI
West Bay City, MI
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.