Answer Man: Did Belleville have the nation's first kindergarten?

News-DemocratNovember 16, 2013 

In answering the question for its gas giveaway last Wednesday, KMOV-TV said that St. Louis had the first kindergarten in 1873. I always thought Belleville had the first. The Belleville Chamber of Commerce website says: "By 1870, an estimated 90 percent of the city's population was German-born or of German heritage. They began ... the first public school system, including the nation's first kindergarten ... " (No date given.) So, is KMOV right or wrong? -- JKL, of Belleville

Any historians worth their salt will tell you that when you start throwing around terms like "first," "only," "biggest," etc., you're usually cruisin' for a bruisin'. That's especially true 150 years ago when people couldn't hashtag, tweet and twerk every time they changed TV channels, so who knew if someone in Schenectady, N.Y., started a kindergarten?

Last week I had to shoot down the oft-heard boast that Belleville was once the "Stove Capital of the World." Alas, now I must pop the bubble on the idea that Belleville had the nation's first kindergarten.

Well, sort of. To be fair, I don't think anyone knows who opened the very first school for the little ones. But if you're talking about major publicized efforts to establish a kindergarten, St. Louis did indeed beat us by nearly two years.

That honor goes to St. Louis native Susan Blow, who traveled to Germany to study where the kindergarten movement had started. After she returned, her father convinced the superintendent of schools to let his daughter open St. Louis' first public kindergarten in September 1873 at the Des Peres School in Carondelet, according to the Missouri Historical Society. Reports say that unlike most classrooms of its day, the kindergarten was bright and cheerful for the pupils, who were taught colors, shapes, fractions, etiquette and the importance of exercise.

Now, there were individuals offering kindergartenlike classes in Belleville long before that. In 1898, the Belleville Advocate reported that as early as the winter of 1849-50, a Mr. W. Frank kept an "infant school" during the day. In 1852, the Illinois Republican newspaper had a Mrs. Mary Johnson offering a "school for small children" for $2 a quarter. About this time, too, John Kraus reportedly ran a short-lived "kindergarten" at the late Gov. John Reynolds' former Belleville home. I leave it to you to decide whether these merited the designation of kindergarten or were more of an early day-care program.

What I can tell you is that the first serious push for a kindergarten in Belleville came on Nov. 12, 1874, when nearly 150 prominent local women formed the Kindergarten Association. The group was spearheaded by noted educator Henry Raab and Sophia Koerner, wife of the former Illinois lieutenant governor, Gustave. To finance the school, the group announced a month later that it would sell 70 shares of stock at $30 each.

By then, however, the Advocate reported in its Christmas Day 1874 edition: "The (kindergarten) system is being presented with gratifying success in some of the Eastern cities and we doubt not can be carried out successfully in Belleville." So, St. Louis likely was not the nation's first, either, as you see claimed on some websites today.

According to the News-Democrat centennial edition on March 5, 1914, Belleville's kindergarten opened on April 5, 1875, in Turner Hall. Five months later, it dedicated a new $5,000 building on North Jackson Street that was modeled on a similar structure for a Milwaukee kindergarten. By late 1876, it had offered three grades for 201 children at a cost of $20 per year.

For 20 years, the kindergarten flourished. In 1877, Henry Raab was picked to a committee that was asked to study the importance of kindergartens and report back to the State Teachers Association. In 1893, director Augusta Weymann was asked by the state commissioner of education to represent the Belleville kindergarten at the Chicago World's Fair.

But the next year, it started to flounder when Weymann returned to her native Germany to care for her ailing mother. In 1897, the association went bankrupt and its building became the current Belleville Philharmonic Society Hall at 116 N. Jackson.

The desire for a kindergarten, however, continued to smolder, and, on Sept. 30, 1907, the association re-formed with the blessing of Mayor Fred J. Kern, who allowed it to use the City Council chamber at City Hall as its classroom. Then, on April 17, 1915, voters approved a proposal to establish kindergartens for all children ages 4-6. In September 1917, kindergartens opened at Franklin, Henry Raab and Douglas schools, according to a history prepared by District 118.

So while we probably weren't the first, the kindergarten movement has been strong in Belleville for nearly 150 years. Now, just don't try to tell me that Stag Brewery produced the first canned beer; I know that honor is given to Krueger Brewing Co. in Newark, N.J., in 1935.

Today's trivia

Who coined the word "kindergarten"?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: You can't dig them up there, but in 1970 Florida designated the moonstone as its official state gem -- for obvious reasons. It was designed to honor the astronauts who had walked on the moon after being launched from the Kennedy Space Center. Moonstone is a form of feldspar and was prized by the ancient Romans, who believed it to be the solidified rays of the moon.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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