By Ray Carlson

In March 1871, the Weekly Arizona Miner noted: “Rev. Mr. (Alexander) Gilmore, Chaplain at Fort Whipple, is about to commence instructing the youth of Prescott, some encouragement having already been given him for the carrying out of the laudable object.”  During Prescott’s first five years, at least eight people opened private schools in homes, but none of these schools lasted more than six months.  Sam Rogers built a school and taught for eighteen months, but Rogers, as a father of six, could not survive financially on the fees parents paid. Gilmore in contrast had no family and had housing and financial support from the Army.

Earlier, Governor Safford had convinced the legislature to pass laws establishing a tax-funded public school system.   As part of that legislation, County Probate Judge Henry Fleury was made County Superintendent of Schools, and in May school trustees were elected.

By June, the trustees had $308 from donations and fees.  Since taxes would soon be collected, they expressed optimism that a public school could be “kept running pretty steadily.”  The Miner added: “Our school is getting along learnedly.  Mr. Gilmore is doing his duty well.”  A few weeks later, however, the paper complained that the school “house, or, rather, cabin, is, in every respect, unsuitable.”  Rev. Gilmore, teaching in the “unsuitable” Rogers schoolhouse, completed his first term in August. A new term started in October, but since a tax collection system had not been set up, the paper encouraged contributions for scholarships for students whose parents could not afford fees.

By January 1872, when it was time for Gilmore’s third term to start, the trustees decided they had enough money from taxes to lease the schoolhouse and improve it and begin operating without fees.  The repaired school opened as a free public school in February.

Two months later, the trustees declared they only had enough funds to continue until June, and in June, the trustees announced they were unsure about reopening.  “A suitable building for a new school is needed here, and one such ought to be procured.” The school closed at that point, and it would be more than a year before a new school could be opened.  Meanwhile, by August the trustees had $205 saved toward a new schoolhouse. 

Six months went by before Henry Bigelow wrote a letter to the editor for the trustees explaining that the county had only received $917 in school funds for all of 1872 and that amount had been exhausted by June.  In addition, Governor Safford, as the Territorial Superintendent of Schools, had suggested finding “competent female teachers.”  The trustees identified a young woman teaching in San Francisco whose sister was married to a captain at Fort Whipple.  This teacher, Annie Kelly, accepted an offer to teach in Prescott. Reopening the school was postponed until she could arrive.

In April 1873, the city agreed to donate 12 lots making up a half block on Gurley, 850 feet east of the Plaza. The trustees allocated $1700 and contracted with W. Z. Wilson to build a solid-frame, one-room, 25-foot by 30-foot schoolhouse.

Annie Kelly arrived in September and opened the newly built school in October, sixteen months after Rev. Gilmore’s school had closed.  Thirty-seven students enrolled, up from 24 when fees were expected.  Twelve came from Fort Whipple.  The paper reported positive comments about Miss Kelly but noted she said she had “a few scholars whose parents ought to tone them down a little.” The number of students increased on a regular basis.

In April, 1874, it was announced that Miss Kelly was marrying First Lieutenant William Rice, a quartermaster.  After the ceremony, General Crook reassigned Rice to Fort Apache, forcing the new Mrs. Rice to resign as teacher after only six months.  Recognizing that hiring unmarried female teachers did not necessarily bring stability, the trustees began searching for any teacher with experience and/or credentials likely to make a longer commitment.  A young man named Moses Sherman applied.  He was only 21, but he had graduated from the Normal School in Oswego, NY and had limited teaching experience in New York and Wisconsin.  Mr. Sherman arrived that fall and finally added stability to the Prescott school.

This is the third of a continuing series by Ray Carlson about early attempts to establish a public school system for Prescott.  Contents of this article came from the Weekly Arizona Miner.

 “Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.