I remember when I first went to the Norwich Free Academy on a Thursday in September 1962. I had left St. Pat’s as an eighth grader, top of the heap, but I was heading onto the vast campus as a Greasy, oh sorry, I mean a freshman. There were almost 1,000 freshman students (980 incoming students, 876 graduates) for the Class of 1966 on campus when I arrived, the largest ever entering. It was nice to see some of my friends, but the size of campus and just remembering where I would have to get to on time seemed a bit confusing.
I ended up in a homeroom in the basement of Commercial with Mr. G., a science teacher and football coach. Attendance started my day, and then my locker assignment came next but, where it was – well, I got lost, and it would not be the last time.
During the middle of the 19th century a new push in education spurred the population to seek a free education for students who graduated from eighth grade regardless of social and economic standing. At that time, those who attended high school matriculated at private schools with great cost to their parents. A staunch proponent of free education was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who believed that an educated person would continue to evolve our country into a nation heralded by other counties. In Norwich, William P. Greene of Greeneville fame followed this idea and established a high school in the village of Greeneville for its students, but it was short lived.
Historian Ellwood P. Cubberly wrote this statement in 1919 for his biography of Horace Mann: “No one did more than he to establish in the mind of the American people the concept that education should be universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aim should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian end. ”
This non-secular attitude towards education evolved as a way for the community to create a system to promote free education for poorer students and enhance their knowledge.
Years before, the early education reformers considered giving monies and other assistance as a way of making the students rely on the money of others and not allow them to prosper for themselves. These educational proponents wanted to increase accountability for the students in allowing them to make a decent earning and a better lifestyle by controlling them through accountability.
As time went by, new and educated workers would be needed in all jobs, thereby leading to a better world.
In 1854, the Rev, Dr. John Putnam Gulliver, a highly-educated cleric, conceived the concept of offering a free education above the elementary level in Norwich. Dr. Gulliver, with the aid of the social and economic leaders of Norwich, sought to raise monies for an endowment to provide a ‘free’ academy, not a public school, run without political influence for all “deserving” students.
Three very generous benefactors gave $ 12,000 each ($ 395,000 today). Records show that the sum of about $ 100,000 was raised. In today’s value it would be about $ 3.3 million.
Half of the raised money would be a fund for maintenance of the facility and salaries ($ 1,650,000 today). One source, found online, states that Russell Hubbard gave $ 11,000, yet another respectable source noted that he gave the amount of $ 12,500. The benefactors felt that this was a way of improving and providing economic growth, because knowledge was the way to economic power.
New machinery and inventions would be needed to address economic growth which would be run by educated people.
The donors and incorporates are an impressive group due to their influence in their Norwich industrial, economic, social and cultural pursuits. I chose to list all contributors as an avenue for awareness. They are: Russel Hubbard, William P. Greene, William A. Buckingham, Winslow Williams, Henry B. Norton, J. Breed, C. Rogers, W. Farnan, David Smith, CC Brand, Joseph Otis, JS Webb, H. Thomas, AJ Currier, E. Edwards, Rev. JP Gulliver, Charles J. Stedman, William W. Coit, JL Greene, D. Tyler, Lafayette FS Foster, John Fox Slater, Charles Osgood, E. Williams, L. Blackstone, AH Almy, John A. Rockwell, EO Babbott, L. Ballou, C. Johnson, Ebenezer Learned, JP Spalding, C. Tracey, CS Morgan, Lucius W. Carroll and SW Meech.
These gentlemen represented much of the wealth of Norwich. They were well educated in the requirements of a growing nation’s need. Banking, medical, merchandizing, transportation, religion and construction were their expertise.
Please remember that this was a large amount of money in the 1850s, given without the benefit of a tax write-off. The background of the establishment of the Norwich Free Academy shows pure philanthropy. I doubt that “noblese obligue” (French for “to do reform to make themselves feel good about themselves”) is relevant.
Supporters of the creation of the “Free Academy” were concerned citizens of Norwich such as:
* Rev. John Putman Gulliver: graduated Yale University, 1840, Doctor of Divinity, Iowa University, President of Knox College, professor of Andover Theological Seminary, 20 years pastor of Broadway Congregational Church, and promoter of the Norwich Free Academy.
* William A. Buckingham: Mayor of Norwich twice, Governor of Connecticut, merchant, philanthropist, benefactor of Yale University, Broadway Church, and Norwich Free Academy.
* Lafayette Sabin Foster LL. D .: Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, United States Senator, Acting Vice President following Abraham Lincoln’s death, Professor of Law at Yale University, Connecticut Supreme Court Judge, Benefactor of Yale, Otis Library, and Norwich Free Academy.
* General Daniel Tyler: West Point Graduate, Brigadier General of Connecticut Volunteers, commanded at the Battle of Bull Run, Grandfather of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, and benefactor of the Norwich Free Academy.
* John A. Rockwell: Yale University graduate, Connecticut State Senator, New London County Court Judge, Involved with the development of Laurel Hill, and benefactor of the Norwich Free Academy.
* William W. Coit: Owner of the New York and Norwich Stream Line, who took President Andrew Jackson from Norwich to Groton in 1833 for the dedication of the Groton Heights Monument, and benefactor of the Norwich Free Academy.
* John Fox Slater: Proprietor of the Slater Cotton Mills in Jewett City, Benefactor of Park Church and United Workers of Norwich, future owner of the Ponemah Mill in Taftville, receiver of the Congressional Gold Medal of the United States for establishing a $ 1 million fund for the education of freedmen ($ 33.2 million today), and benefactor of the Norwich Free Academy.
* William P. Greene: Industrialist, mayor of Norwich, owner of the Norwich Water Power Company, founder, developer, entrepreneur of Greeneville, and benefactor of the Norwich Free Academy.
* Amos Hubbard: decendent of Christopher Leffingwell- paper manufacturer who brought a Foudrinier continuous paper making machinery to Norwich where a continuous roll of paper could be manufactured when the only way before was to produce one sheet at a time. Mr. Hubbard ran his business for 42 years and moved to Greeneville into a larger building between the power canal and the Shetucket River (about where the old Mr. Bigs was located). His company made paper for book and newspaper companies. In 1860, Mr. Hubbard’s manufacturing company was the largest paper factory in the world. He built a mansion on the present site of the Norwich Post Office. The front gate can be found at Norwichtown Cemetery, and he was a benefactor of the Norwich Free Academy.
This is just a partial list of those benefactors of the Norwich Free Academy who had the forethought to take a powerful step in the education of students, allowing them the possibility and responsibility to grow and prosper in this social and economic world. A few years after the founding of Norwich Free Academy, part of this concept would be known as the ‘Social Gospel.’ This effort changed the previous concept of the best education. This effort gave students the ability to earn the best education available if they wanted to.
There are excellent sources online to fill in the information on the remaining benefactors. Additional material can be found at the Otis Library. The Norwich Free Academy has grown into a fantastic institution enhancing the lives of students for 167 years. Education is what you make of it.
Bill Shannon is a retired Norwich Public School teacher and a lifelong resident of Norwich.