As It Were: Early schools were learning experience

ED LENTZ
The Academy, one of Columbus' early schools, is depicted in an 1820 sketch.

Autumn is coming, but a new school year in central Ohio has arrived first.

Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, schools in many places have opened in new and interesting ways -- sometimes virtual and sometimes not.

But as school began once again, it followed in a tradition even older than Ohio itself.

Education was seen as an important part of everyday life as the Ohio Country north and west of the Ohio River passed into the hands of the newly formed United States in the wake of the American Revolution.

The Articles of Confederation preceded the writing of the Constitution and the formation of our government. The confederation had its problems and had little money to address them, but it did have a lot of new land in what is now Ohio. So it set up a system to give, sell or trade that land.

Central to that system was the belief by many of the founders of our country that education was critically important.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 set up a rectangular grid system of land allocation that began in what is now eastern Ohio and eventually would march across the country. That ordinance also specifically said that "a thirty-sixth of every township in the western territory should be reserved from sale for the maintenance of public schools within that township."

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 went further, declaring that "religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education should forever be encouraged." That idea was incorporated in the Constitution of 1802, which led to the creation of the state of Ohio in 1803. Education therefore was encouraged.

The problem, however, was that education was not well-funded. It would take a while for public education to be available to most Ohioans.

Meanwhile, people across the state built schools of their own.

In 1797, surveyor and frontiersman Lucas Sullivant had laid out the town of Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto River and what was then called Whetstone Creek, today known as the Olentangy River.

Situated on the flood plain west of the river, the little town faced many challenges. But while vigorously constructing roads, homes and a church, Sullivant and his friends also found time early on to build a school.

An early history recorded that in 1806, "Lucas Sullivant built a roundlog schoolhouse which was about fifteen or sixteen feet square with puncheon floor, rough slab benches supported at each end by a pair of hickory pins inserted into auger holes; battened doors with wooden hinges and latch raised from its notch with a string; a clapboard roof with weight poles, and a fireplace and stick chimney. ... This building was located about a square and a half north of the old courthouse west of Washington (now Sandusky) Street."

All of this land later was cleared to build state Route 315.

Joseph Sullivant, the son of Lucas Sullivant, remembered this early school as a "cabin with its slabs for seats polished by use, and big chimney with downward drafts, with fleas inside and hogs under the floor, no grammar, no geography, but a teacher who ruled with a rod."

In 1812, the Ohio General Assembly decided to move the state capital to a place closer to the center of the state.

After looking at many places, the assembly decided to create a new city on the "High Banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto." By 1813, a new state prison had been built on the site so prison labor could be used to help clear the forest, drain swampy lands and construct buildings.

In 1814, the first school in the new capital city of Columbus opened in a log Presbyterian church on Spring Street.

A later account recalled that "in Zion Chapel which was a hewed log house built in 1815 ... William T. Martin conducted a school in 1816-17. He taught the advanced scholars and his wife the younger ones. One of his pupils, Elijah Grover, speaks in the highest terms of Mr. Martin as a teacher and says he cannot recollect an instance of any chastisement in any form in this school during the time of his attendance."

Martin later went on to become mayor of Columbus and the author of the first history of Franklin County in 1857.

Other schools arose, but the most important early school was the Academy:

"In 1820, Lucas Sullivant and about twenty other citizens organized a school company and built what was known as the Columbus Academy, a single story two room structure near the site of the Second (now Central) Presbyterian Church on Third Street. Its furniture was of primitive style. ... This building stood away among the pawpaw bushes with but three other houses in the vicinity."

It was a rough but enthusiastic beginning for education in Columbus.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.