By Ray Carlson

The Prescott Free Academy was built in 1876 to make the town “the educational . . . centre of the Territory.”  The building was not only “the handsomest structure in the Territory” but also the “strongest brick building . . . possible to make.”  Surprisingly, there was “not even a crack in the plastering, showing the foundation to be solid.”  Built on Gurley Street two blocks east of the Courthouse Square, it formed the first impression visitors had of the town.

Moses Sherman, who at age 23 had completed less than two years as the Prescott teacher, was promoted to Principal and hired his sister, Lucy, 25, as a second teacher.  Moses was to teach the three upper grades while Lucy taught the three lower ones.

The original school had to close for two months while a foundation was laid and a new two-story brick structure was constructed.  The timing was fortunate, since the first US World’s Fair was planned that summer in Philadelphia to celebrate the country's Centennial.  The newspaper employed Sherman as a correspondent to visit the Fair and write articles about what he observed.  In addition, he decided to visit the National Teachers’ Conference and spend two weeks “visiting the best schools in different cities and in observing how the finest teachers in our land conduct their schools.”   He also purchased a new printer for the newspaper and visited friends who decided to pay for the casting of a 500-pound school bell at a well-known foundry in Baltimore.  The friends arranged to have the bell shipped to Prescott for free so it could be hung in the Academy.

Sherman ended his trip by visiting his family in New York, allowing Lucy to accompany him to Prescott.  Unfortunately, they decided to go by ship to Panama, cross that country, and sail to San Francisco.   Eight hundred miles from New York and 400 miles from land, the captain was conducting a Sunday worship service when there was “an explosion that shook every timber in the vessel.”  Sherman described this event in a letter, along with the stress for the passengers and the subsequent delays. The Shermans were a month late getting to Prescott, but their stage was greeted by cheering students anxious for school to begin.

The dedication of the new school was held October 30, 1876, a week after classes began.  Pride in the new building inspired spontaneous speeches on the importance of education.  A judge and the newspaper editor both called for educated women being given the right to vote. 

The costs of this impressive new building were staggering, leading to both an extra school tax and issuance of a bond for $7200.  The bond was the first of its kind in Arizona and required authorization by the legislature.  To generate additional income, the previous school, just three years old, was auctioned. William Buffum, a merchant and school trustee, paid $475 for the older structure.  The new school bell was added to the Academy in December and first used on New Year's Eve.

Building a major new school seemed to heighten the importance of learning. A Library Association was created to develop a public reading room. By January 1877 that Association raised $875 and used $500 of those funds to purchase the former school from Buffum.  They had the old school moved to Cortez Street.  It became a site for educational programs and debates as well as a library.  The Association rented an office in the new school to avoid restricting reading space in the one room school.  

At the end of 1877, when the Trustees realized they had to expand to add a third division, they reluctantly decided to evict the Library Association.  They delayed as long as possible to continue receiving the rent. Hiring a third teacher was made easier, though, by the development of other schools in nearby communities. Those schools served as testing grounds for applicants who liked the idea of moving to Prescott’s school.  The Principal and Trustees chose Anna Kethro, who had been teaching in Williamson and Chino Valleys. However, they had to wonder how soon additional expansion would be required.

 The article’s content and quotations are 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.