A high wood fence that separated the boys’ and girls’ playgrounds at Seminary School in the late 1880’s has been removed; now it’s much easier to slip a Valentine to a fella’s sweetheart. The coy blonde above is seven-year-old Sonia Anderson, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Anderson, and the young Romeo is Mark Allen Lillpop, son of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Lillpop, all of Rockport.
Pushed Aside by Progress
From The Evansville Sunday Courier and Press , February 10, 1957
By Paul Dewig
(Handwritten notes on the article indicate Paul Dewig attended Seminary School from 1916 to 1922, and that Miss Lillie Peckenpaugh was his teacher. Ed.)
ROCKPORT—“King William was King James’ son …”
As part of an old time game, a girl lies buried beneath heaps of autumn leaves that cover the ground around the giant oak tree. Expectant school-girlish faces encircle her and peer through the fallen foliage searching for a first sign of movement.
From behind a high wooden fence other sounds, louder and coarser, testify to activity in another area of the school grounds.
Suddenly, without warning, the girl under the oak tree jumps screaming from the ground and clutches after on and another of the onlookers, who have burst from the surrounding circle and dodge excitedly to keep from being caught.
Clang-a-lang, a-lang, a-lang!!
The clapper on the wooden handled brass bell issues a brash warning; recess is over; classes must be resumed inside.
Slowly, little groups begin straggling back to the classroom.
Their school is a two-story red brick structure called Seminary. It faces a dirt street by the same name.
There are several persons living here who attended the first grade in the early 1880’s. The 1885 first grade class has five surviving graduates.
One of the oldest residents of Rockport who attended the first grade at Seminary School in 1875, Mrs. Ary Biedenkopf, is 90.
The reminiscences of these oldsters are the earliest histories of the school that can be left for posterity when it is abandoned at the end of this school year.
One aspect of the school’s history involved the corner water bucket.
In this era before the drinking fountain, water, for consumption at the school, was drawn from a cistern in back of the school building.
Each classroom had a water bucket and two cups. At particular times during the day a youngster, generally a lad who has been exceptionally bright in class, was given the task of distributing water to the other pupils.
One cup was designated as “boys’” and another for “girls’.”
On one occasion the water boy switched the cups and forced the girls to use the boys’ cup. This brought panic to the classroom and disrupted the entire day’s lesson. Were the boys so unsanitary?
One rawboned, self-proclaimed man, age 8, thought to impress his classmates with his ability to “chaw tobacca.” For several days he carried a huge plug of his father’s best stock and made an impressive show of chompin’ it when the teacher wasn’t looking.
Either someone squealed or the teacher spied him in the act. She stormed out of the school building, across the playground and turned his pockets inside out to get the plug from him.
On the following day, the same boy, eager for revenge, brought a mouse to school well concealed in one of his trouser pockets.
He began chewing as if he had a mouth-size bite of tobacco and again the teacher caught him, but this time he put up a fight.
They rolled in the playground mud, down the side of an embankment to the bottom of a drainage ditch.
Here the teacher came out on top and reached into the lad’s pocket for the tobacco plug.
All that is remembered after this is a blood-curdling scream, a blur of running teacher and several days missing boy. No one knows what became of the mouse.
Although the playground was separated in the middle by a high wooden fence, one side for boys and one side for girls, there was always a knothole or crack through which the boys and girls could pass Valentines and notes.
These Nineteenth-Century youngsters didn’t have swings, jungle gyms, teeter-totters or the multitude of other playground equipment which is popular today.
Their recreation at recess time consisted of baseball, marbles, mumble-peg, tops, Jackstones and just general romping on the boys’ side of the fence.
The girls sought more lady-like pastimes like “Sail the Dutchman,” “Here Come Three Dukes A-riding,” “Go in and Out the Window,” “Froggie in the Meadow,” and “Crack the Whip.”
These are games in which the girls sang and performed antics described by the words.
For a real rouser, springtime brought violets and this meant “rooster fights” with the blossoms. By knotting the stems together near the flower, one girl would yank one stem while her opponent yanked the other. The girl who ended up without a blossom was said to have “lost her head.”
Winter, too, had its advantages with sled riding on the slope in back of the school and snowball fights on the “rough” side of the fence.
Mrs. Bess Ehrman, member of the 1885 first grade class, believes this winter sport is most outstanding in her memory of school days. For good reason, too.
Mrs. Ehrman recalls that she and a girl friend were speeding downhill on a sled when she made a wrong turn. The sled and its two passengers plunged down a steep embankment and crashed into the drainage ditch. The impact broke Mrs. Ehrman’s leg and bruised her girl friend.
Arthur Durham, also of the class of ’85, has a remarkable memory for nicknames which originated at Seminary School when he was a youngster.
“There was Stuffy, Steam Engine, Muskrat-Mitt-a-Long-Tail, and, well, they used to call me Dynamite,” Durham admitted.
He couldn’t remember why most of the nicknames were given, but did remember the origin of Muskrat-Mitt-a-Long-Tail.” “John came to school one day and told us that he and his dad had ‘caught a muskrat-mitt-a-long-tail’ and from then on that was his name,” Durham explained.
“We had some fine teachers,” says John F. Wetzel, who attended the first grade in 1884. “They were strict though and it was common to hear them threaten to ‘lay the hickory’ on some student who was squirming or peering out a window.”
Around the inside of the rooms were placed hangers for the pupils’ coats. In rainy weather, the wet clothing emitted an odor which, those who remember say, was anything but pleasant.
The old potbellied stove was an item of rare value to the classroom during the cold weather. Students would fight to get seats near the warmer, but not too close.
Those who sat next to it would get the full heat treatment, while those furthest away rarely felt the heat.
Classwork was hampered a little on stormy days because there were no lights in any of the classrooms. When it was dark, well, it was just dark.
The one study, which has had the most lasting effect on the oldest graduates, is spelling. It was a daily lesson and a weekly contest.
Two classes would participate in these spelling matches. Students from the third grade would be lined up along one wall of a classroom and students from the fourth would line up against the opposite wall.
When a student missed a word he was “out of the game.” The class which had the most students remaining at the end of the contest was proclaimed a winner.
Fred Cockran, class of 1883, chuckled as he told about the slates the students used to write on. “Slates were pretty practical, I guess, you could use them over and over again so long as you didn’t drop and break ‘em.”
“Most of had a little sponge to wash them when they were filled, Cockran continued, “but sometimes we’d forget to bring them to school. There were a lot of times I had to spit on my slate to wipe it off with my shirt sleeve.”
He also tells of the little round ink wells which used to be located in a sunken hole on the corner of each desk.
If a girl with long hair happened to swoosh her locks across the desk of a boy behind her, she was likely to find the ends of her locks well sealed under the inkwell’s tight-fitting metal lid.
With a sheepish grin Cockran added, “besides giving their hair a good tug the ink turned it a dark blue color.”
Of course the old potbellied stove has long been replaced and drinking fountains installed to replace the water bucket. Time has made many changes and has pretty well kicked the stuffin’ from the once-sturdy masonry.
The history of the school goes back much earlier than the actual construction date.
In the early 1800’s it was a law in Indiana that fines from Justice of the Peace and Circuit courts be used to build and maintain a County Seminary.
In March, 1834, a brick building was constructed at the corner of what is now Fourth and Seminary Streets. It was built for $600 and was used until 1855.
In ’55 the lot on which the school stood was sold and divided into smaller residential sections. The brick school was never removed, but became part of a residence belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Thurman, who covered it with weatherboards and remodeled.
From 1855 through 1866 school was taught in small one-room schools in several sections of the city, but the citizens of the community were eager for something better, particularly a high school.
In 1867 Hosea Merithew, who operated a local brick yard and was recognized as a skilled builder, was contacted by the school trustees and given the job of building Seminary School. The school was built for $4,000 and became Rockport’s first high school.
Merithew was the grandfather of Miss Lillie Peckinpaugh who attended the Seminary School in 1885 and later taught at the school for almost 40 years.
(The tombstone of one of Hosea’s sons was found in 2004 behind the school corporation office. That is the location of the Olde Rockport Pioneer cemetery, just southwest of the Seminary School. Hosea Merithew and Miss Lillie are buried in the new cemetery—Sunset Hill. Ed.)
In 1873 Rockport purchased the Methodist College which was operating there under the name Rockport Collegiate Institute. By this purchase, the Seminary High School was moved to the college building and Seminary became the local grade center.
Increasing student enrollment around 1893 forced school officials to add a two-story addition to the original Seminary building. With these two rooms, the fifth and sixth grades which were being taught at the College High, moved to Seminary.
There are over 200 attending the first six grades at Seminary School this year. At the opening of school next fall these students will be moved to the college building, which will be made into a grade school.
All high school students will be attending classes in a new modern building which will be completed in the next few weeks.
The feeling of most of the oldsters regarding the closing of Seminary School was summed up by Miss Peckinpaugh.
She says: “There’s nothing really wrong with the school that a little fixing up couldn’t correct. I guess it just isn’t modern enough for folks nowadays.
“I’d sure hate to see them tear it down, but I guess that’s what they call progress.”
(The Methodist parsonage now stands on the site of the old Seminary School. Ed.)
After 90 years of steady use, the second floor of Seminary School has a tired time-worn look of cracked and peeling plaster walls and battle-scarred wood floors. The second-story peeping Tom at left decided to “case the joint” before returning to his third-grade classroom.
Miss Lillie Peckenpaugh is the granddaughter of the man who built Seminary School in 1867. Her memory-filled scrapbook highlights her early education at the school in 1885 and the 40 years spent as a teacher at the same school.
Contrasting desks present a striking parallel to te thre generations of the John Wetzel family who have attended Seminary School. John F. Wetzel, class of 1885, shows his son, John W. Wetzel, and granddaughter Claire Ann, how the top of the old desk folded down over the book compartment.
Playground mud, crumpled paper, broken pencils, a girl’s hair ribbon and a multitude of other things cover the floors of Seminary’s classrooms at the end of a school day. It’s the job of Theodore Durbin to put things in order so the cycle can be repeated, but there’ll come a day when all will stay undisturbed.
Spelling matches were the most remembered classes by the older graduates of Seminary School. Today, this time-tested method of teaching is still applied in the fourth grade class of Miss Tina Hill who has taught at the school for over 25 years.
Seminary School today is much the same as it was back in 1867 with the exception of the front fire escape and interior improvements. The fate of the building is still uncertain, but it is certain that the high-ceiling classroom will be deserted when other schools open next fall.