By Sylvia Neely
A beautiful historic brick school building is clearly seen by Prescottonians traveling down East Gurley. This is Washington School, built in 1903, and Yavapai County's oldest continuously used school and one of the oldest in the state. Few people know that there was another beautiful brick school building on this same site. It was known as the Prescott Free Academy, and was built in 1876. It was Arizona Territory's first graded public school.
The first school house became too small, and Governor Anson P.K. Safford saw the need to build a bigger and better school. By October 1876, the four-room brick building containing classrooms on the first floor and a large auditorium above was completed at a cost of $11,894.75. When completely furnished, the total came to more than $17,000. It was the custom that schools paid all expenses as they went, raising funds primarily by public subscription. Under a special act, Prescott issued bonds in 1877, for $7,200 to cover their remaining indebtedness on the school; this seems to have been the first of such issues in Arizona Territory.
The July 28, 1876, Prescott Journal Miner reported: "The roof timbers are all on the main building and the workmen are laying the shingles. The tower is up above the top of the second story walls from whence a steeple of wood will be put up extending from 20 to 25 feet higher; this will be the belfry as well as an ornament."
The bell for the belfry was carefully chosen by Moses H. Sherman, the new teacher and principal. Mr. Sherman had the 500 lb. Bell shipped from the East, without cost to the people here. It was cast at the Baltimore Bell Foundry of McShane and Co. The bell hung in the Washington School belfry until 1952, when it was purchased by St. Luke's Episcopal Church, where it remains today in their belfry.
The Oct. 20, 1876, Journal Miner told: "Having just completed the finest and best school house ever built in the Territory, complete in all its appointments, well ventilated and lighted as the Rock of Gibraltar, not even a crack in the plastering, showing the foundation to be solid as if set upon adamant, the people of Prescott are justly proud of what they have done; and we, as a chronicler of events as they transpire, take especial pleasure in announcing that on Monday morning next, the fall term of Prescott Graded School will commence in the new school house, under the principalship of M. H. Sherman, assisted by his sister, Miss Lucy Sherman, late of the State of New York."
Gov. Safford persuaded the Shermans to come to Prescott. The average price paid for teachers was $100 per month. Professor Moses Sherman was recognized as a leader in education in Arizona, therefore was appointed Territorial School Superintendent by Gov. Fremont in 1879. Several teachers taught under the direction of Principal Sherman, one being Kathryn Dunning for the school year 1879-80.
In the fall of 1878, the enrollment was 163, primary, intermediate, and High School. The age ranged between six and twenty-one years.
When John C. Fremont was the fifth Territorial Governor, one of his duties was to inspect the schools, so his wife Jesse accompanied him. She talked with the students about history and was so well received she was asked to come back every Friday for the entire term.
The book, The Arizona Diary of Lily Fremont 1878-1881, edited by Mary Lee Spence, tells of Jesse's visits to the Prescott Free Academy. Lily was John C. and Jesse Fremont's daughter.
Friday 20th, 1879:
"Mother went up for her really last talk at the School, where most unexpectedly to her she found the desk all dressed with flowers and a pretty present - silver sugar tongs and spoon - given to her by the class and Mr. Sherman; the presentation speech made by Harry Thibodo. All the boys and girls were as tidy as could be, nearly all with blue cravats and blue ribbons as they thought that was Mother's color and the boys each with a flower in their buttonholes and all wearing coats. The children have really enjoyed Mother's talks; one girl today told Mother she was reading 'Lucile' which would have been incomprehensible to her in many parts, she said, but for Mother's accounts of European ways to them and Mr. Sherman tells Mother that in many ways the class has improved visibly."
By 1903, the school had been outgrown, and there was a need for a larger school. Gail Gardner attended the Prescott Free Academy and tells his story in the Echoes of the Past, Vol. 2 (p. 237). He mentions that Washington School was being built while school was in session in the old building. They could watch the bricklayers and carpenters at work. He speaks of the well and the one dipper used by all. The plumbing was in the back school yard, one outhouse for the girls, one for the boys. He also mentions the white picket fence surrounding the grounds with the date 1876, inscribed on the gate. Every child remembers or "thinks" he remembers the paddle that kept the unruly boys in line. Gail said, "Discipline was maintained with no nonsense." Teachers were no doubt respected. Gail also said, "Regardless of scholastic achievement, the principal and all male teachers rated the title of 'professor.'" Gail had a way with words, he wrote with fond memories of his school years.
This was another interesting page in Prescott's school history and with a new year starting one hundred and twenty-two years later, there will be many more pages to unfold in the future.
Sylvia Neely is a Sharlot Hall Museum Volunteer and Researcher since 1973. Her main interest is in school history of Prescott.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (bus5026pb). Reuse only by permission.
1: The Prescott Free Academy, which sat where Washington School is now, was built in 1876 with a belfry. The bell is now at the St. Luke's Episcopal Parish on Marina Street.
The 1902 class from Prescott Free Academy was one of the last before Washington School replaced it. Prescott's famous Gail Gardner remembers watching the workers from his school house window.