“Sufferers’ Land” Post #27 – School and Tragedy –

The year Samuel Preston moved his family to Norwalk, the men of the town, with Platt Benedict in the lead, established the Royal Arch Chapter of the Masons. Platt had been a Mason for over ten years, joining the fraternity when he lived in Danbury, Connecticut. On St. John’s Day the following year, the chapter planned to install officers, and looked for a place large enough to accommodate the audience. They decided that the Court House was too small, so they built a large bower of branches on Prospect Avenue. The next year, Lucy went to school in this bower. She thought it was a pleasant place, except when a shower came up, which later she said made the pursuit of knowledge very difficult. [1]

Starting in 1816, when the first school opened on the border of Norwalk and Ridgefield Townships, private schools were the only educational facilities in the area. They were small affairs, funded by subscriptions of farmers in the townships or the tuition of tradesmen and professionals in the villages. [2] Teachers were generally young women, most working away from home. They often boarded with families of their pupils. Many met the men they would marry while living in their homes. [3]

After several years, the leading citizens of Norwalk decided to establish a more advanced center of learning in the village. They determined to build an academy and formed a committee to oversee construction. On Wednesday, May 14, 1823, a notice appeared in the Sandusky Clarion, the only newspaper in the Firelands at that time.

The subscribers having been appointed a committee for the purpose of building an Academy at Norwalk, do hereby give notice that they will receive proposals until the second Monday of June next, for erecting and completing said building. Application may be made to any one of the subscribers.
“F. Forsyth, H.G. Morse, H. Gallup, Moses Kimball, David Gibbs, committee. Norwalk, May 6, 1823.”

Work began that same year on a site between Main and Seminary Streets. By the fall of the following year, a man passing through town noted that the roof was almost completed. The unfinished building was three stories, with the third floor set aside for the Masons, who were a major contributor to the academy. The children of the village loved to play amid the construction, and Lucy Preston was no exception.

One day in early February 1825, she and other children met at the unfinished school to play. Among her friends was Esther Ann Gibbs, a girl of ten who was the daughter of Samuel and Debby Gibbs, relatives of the Gibbs who had sheltered the Benedicts when they first came to Norwalk Township.

Esther Ann had brought her four-year-old sister Susan Gibbs, with the admonishment to look after her by her mother. The children climbed to the third floor to play. They were in the middle of a game of “Ring around the Rosy,” when they heard someone cry out that a child had fallen. Crowding to the edge of the building they gazed in horror at little Susan Gibbs, lying on the ground. Passers-by rushed Susan home where she lingered through the night. She died the following morning from her injuries and her family buried her in the cemetery behind where the Episcopal Church now stands.

How the loss of her sister affected Esther Ann Gibbs, we can hardly guess. It certainly must have been a blow to Lucy. She had lost a sister earlier in life, and sympathized with the grief of her friend now. However, she was soon to know grief herself, as death struck her own family. [5]

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[1] History of the establishment of a Masonic Chapter in Norwalk is from “Centennial of Norwalk Masonry,” The Firelands Pioneer, April 1925, p. 448. Story of the construction of a bower for the installation of Masonic officers and subsequent use as a school is from “Memoir of Mrs. Lucy Preston Wickham,” The Firelands Pioneer, January 1920, p. 2399.
[2] Quoted from the History of Norwalk Schools, prepared by the late Theodore Williams by request of the Board of Education in 1876.
[3] An example of a young female teacher marrying a man she met while teaching away from home was Harriett Underhill of Ridgefield Township daughter of David and Mary Underhill, who married Col. Nathan Strong in Lyme Township where she was teaching at the home of Col. Strong’s son. “Memoirs of Townships” by Charles Smith M.D., The Firelands Pioneer, November 1859, p. 12.
[4] Story of building the Norwalk Academy is from “Some Historic Facts About Ancient Norwalk’s Famous Academy, Seminary, and Institute,” by James Gibbs, The Firelands Pioneer, January 1920, pp. 2295-7.
[5] From “Memoir of Mrs. Lucy Preston Wickham,” The Firelands Pioneer, January 1920, p. 2399.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

2 Responses

  1. I have been looking for information about the Ottawa chief Ogontz and New Series Vol. X of the Firelands Pioneer has a story “Philip, the Ottawa” by J.M. Seymour that references him. I came across your site in my search and have been reading your wonderful stories. I’ve been sidetracked, but enjoyed every minute. Thx.


  2. Thanks for your interest and kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed my stories, and hope you’ll return again to read more.


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