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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: Teaching Marion's first generation of students years ago

MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Mary (Dickerson) Keller

Perhaps no pioneer had a clearer view of the development of Marion County than did Mary (Dickerson) Keller.

“Mollie,” as she was known, was born in 1853 in Ohio and moved with her family first to Iowa and then, in 1872, to a farm four miles south of what at the time was known as Marion Centre.

One of seven surviving children of devout Methodist parents Thomas and Hannah Dickerson, she taught for a year at the District No. 3 school east of Florence.

The school, which survived until 1919, was one of 34 that opened in the county in 1873, eight years after Marion Centre opened its school in 1865 and two years after Peabody opened its school in 1871.

Many of the districts taught only the minimum four months of instruction required. Even two decades later, the average district in the county offered only six months of instruction. In Marion Centre, however, the school year was 10 months long.

After receiving rave reviews for her teaching near Florence and graduating from Emporia Normal School (now Emporia State University), Mollie began at age 21 teaching in the Marion district — District No. 1, the county’s oldest and largest, known at the time as Marion Centre Union School.

A year earlier, in 1874, it had opened its showplace new building, which survives to this day as the Hill School, the oldest continuously used school building in the state.

The $15,000 ($340,000 in current buying power) building, later added to, was 58 by 60 feet with 243 students at the time. Many were from outside the district. They often were housed as boarders by members of the community and worked part-time to earn their keep.

The school featured two recitation rooms and two “regular” school rooms on the first floor. That floor is where the school’s primary (grades 1 through 3) and intermediate (grades 4 through 6) departments were housed.

On the second floor were two more recitation rooms and a 400-person auditorium, where the school’s so-called higher department was housed.

Before Mollie was hired, the school had just two teachers — one for the first floor and one for the second.

She was put in charge of the intermediate department while Jennie Melville continued to teach the primary department. The school’s newly hired principal, Professor Thomas A. Bogle of Leavenworth, taught the higher department.

Each of the two lower-grades teachers taught between 40 and 50 pupils, most of Mollie’s between the ages of 8 and 12.

Later that same year, a fourth teacher, artist Emma Holler of Peabody, was brought in to teach painting, drawing, and crayoning. Soon after, a fifth teacher, Professor A.D. Battey, was added to teach music once a week.

In those days, schools were seen as key to economic development.

“One of the first pieces of information an intelligent gentleman with family desires to acquire about a county to which he thinks of immigrating is, ‘What are the school advantages?’” the Marion County Record reported at the time. “Though the land may be cheap and the soil productive, if the school privileges are inferior, he will likely steer clear of the place and seek a location where he can educate his children, even though the land may be dearer and the soil poorer.”

The Record boasted that Marion Centre’s school was among the finest in the state, with each room “well-furnished with maps, charts, blackboards, globes, and all the necessary furniture fixtures of a first-class school.”

Among the features of the tuition-free school were “a museum including many curious and valuable specimens,” “a full supply of textbooks, so that scholars do not have to purchase the books they use,” and “a small but valuable miscellaneous library, including Appleton’s Encyclopedia, complete, to which scholars have free access,” the Record reported.

Mollie’s start as a teacher was delayed a few days because of an illness aggravated by a “fright,” as the Record reported at the time.

Just before school was to start, a man by the name of Niles Anderson, arrested on a charge of lunacy, escaped his guard in Marion, drew a large knife concealed in a boot, and frantically ran “coatless, hatless, and bootless” four miles south to the Dickerson homestead, the Record reported.

There he forced the household’s women and children, the only ones at home at the time, to leave and engaged in a lengthy standoff with a posse before eventually being subdued after a struggle in which he “resisted with demonic fury and superhuman strength” and sustained serious injuries.

Delayed by the ordeal, Mollie eventually took her place at the magnesian limestone school with its towering belfry and 500-pound bell — the first of two promontories from which she could view the county.

By the time she retired from teaching in 1878 to marry prominent attorney Lewis Keller and start their family of seven children, the number of school districts in the county had grown to 65, with 2,913 students enrolled out of a total county population of just 8,306.

On average, male teachers were paid a monthly salary of $35.46 (equal to $935 in current buying power) and female teachers were misogynistically paid $29.20 ($770 today).

After marrying Keller in 1878, Mollie found a second promontory from which to view the county — the signature cupola of the Keller family’s historic residence three blocks north of the school at 304 Locust St., now the home of the Edwin Wheeler Jr. family.

With a vista rivaling that of the school belfry, Mollie — and, later, two of her children, Sadie (1881-1970) and Ruth (1886-1980) — could watch as Marion Centre became Marion and education matured into the school systems of today.

All members of her family, except for youngest son Howard (1899-1967), are buried in Marion Cemetery.

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MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO

Mary (Dickerson) Keller

Last modified May 15, 2019

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