Lafayette Bliss

Educator, Magistrate and Good Citizen. By B. D. Pearson.

Lafayette Bliss. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Lafayette Bliss, municipal judge of Virginia, although highly respected in that capacity because of eminent fairness in the disposition of the problems of that important court, is best known to the people of this section as an educator of unsurpassed ability, a reputation that is by no means confined to St. Louis County, nor even Minnesota. In matters of education Judge Bliss was far in advance of his contemporaries. His school system was frequently studied by men and women of note and given high praise in leading influential magazines and newspapers of the United States, besides being the goal of progressive and forward-looking superintendents and other school officials everywhere. Certainly he was a pioneer in education on the Iron Ranges. The better the school system, the nearer it approaches the Bliss standard, it seems.

It is a matter of note and interest that the Bliss family, on the paternal side, has been American since 1636, when settlement of its ancestors was made in Hartford, Conn., in the heart of New England, the birthplace of much of this country’s history. It follows that the colonial forebears of Judge Bliss were active and powerful in the events of their day. The maternal inheritance is Scotch-Irish. His father, William A. Bliss, left Yale College in his junior year and became one of the pioneer citizens of Chicago. It is of record that in preparing to build a house in the future metropolis of the west he transported the requisite lumber on a raft across Lake Michigan. For many years he was a leading manufacturer in Chicago, but in the great fire which swept the city in 1871 he met with losses that left him in straitened financial circumstances.

Judge Lafayette Bliss was born in Chicago and received his early education in the public schools there. When but eleven years old he was forced to depend entirely upon his own resources, owing to the fact that his father’s affairs some years before had become involved by losses suffered in the historic Chicago catastrophe. He entered school before he was five years of age and such was his precocity that he had finished the Seventh grade before his eleventh birthday. Through his own earnings, made ir all sorts of work, he defrayed the expenses incident to pursuit of a higher education, when thirteen years old entering the academy of Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, studying there for three years.

Previously he had attended public schools in Kenyon, Red Wing and Hastings, in this state. After the academy term he completed a fouryear course in Carleton College and was graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Arts, finishing the classical-scientific course. While an undergraduate at that institution he won several eagerly-sought prizes in debating and oratorical contests. For two years he was editor of The Carletonia, the college paper, was active in athletics and literature, and founded the Adelphic Literary Society of Carleton College.

Upon graduation from Carleton College Judge Bliss engaged in the teaching profession, achieving noteworthy success wherever the field.

He served as superintendent of schools in Henderson and Waseca, Minnesota, and in 1900 made his first visit to Mesabi Range of Northern Minnesota, in the capacity of state summer school inspector. Genuinely interested in the possibilities of the iron-mining region, he welcomed the overtures which led to his appointment, in 1904, as superintendent of public schools in Virginia, St. Louis County. During the nine-year period of his superintendency the Virginia schools attained an unusually high standard, that favorable and enviable situation that is only observed when the head dedicates his life to the work, with no thought of the monetary reward. In educational circles of Minnesota he gained the reputation of conducting the “best and most effective school in the state.” Out of an intimate experience with all the phases of real education he has gained so thorough a knowledge of the essentials that enter into the building needs that his advice has frequently been sought by architects of countrvwide repute. While serving as a school superintendent he supervised the erection of some nineteen school structures in this state and, in this connection, the Technical high school, the North Side school and the Homestead school, all in the Virginia district, are examples of near- 1224perfection, respectively, in high, grade, and rural school buildings. Nothing better appears yet to have been developed.

Post-grade courses in pedagogy and the sciences he studied at the University of Wisconsin, receiving high merit there. He has conducted several state summer schools for teachers, and for two years was inspector and lecturer in connection with the activities of the teachers’ training schools of Minnesota. He has served as president of the Minnesota High School Council, secretary of the Minnesota Educational Association and chairman of the Classical Conference of the National Educational Association. Judge Bliss has made careful surveys and studies of several of the great school systems of the eastern states, the resources thus acquired having been put to service in his own school organizations.

In school work Judge Bliss proceeded upon the premise that civilization is an art that can only be possessed by virtue of intensive work; that it is at once a restraint and an impetus, and so bound up with good citizenship that the two are inseparable. Not least among the virtues he impressed upon school children-the voters of tomorrow-by reason of that premise may be numbered courtesy, morality and a wholesome regard for public and private property. There was always a high morale in a Bliss school organization. Body-building, mind-building, spirit-building, truth-discovering, opinion-forming, man-conserving, thought-expressing, society-serving, wealth-producing, comrade-seeking and life-refreshing activities were the essentials of the Bliss-supervised institution. Bodybuilding activities were not fostered for a few. Athletics for the whole was the practice, and there was always a fine spirit of co-operation between the various school departments; it was insisted upon, it had to be.

The opinion-forlming attribute Judge Bliss impregnated in students by frequently conversing with them, by shaping the school courses to include the reading of proper literature, poems, novels, and constructive literature.

History and biography had a high place as aids in the development of fair-mindedness, judgment and a broad outlook on the practical things of life. A pupil might be lame in reciting history but strong in ability to form sound opinions based on his reading. He would be graded accordingly.

To be on the right side of the big questions and to gain the ability to form sound opinions, were motives in the broad plan.

Discernment of the truth was helped by studying science in the right way, physiology, physics, botany, chemistry, physiography, and biology.

These sciences were studied in the Bliss school in a way to produce alertness of mind, thoroughness, skill in observing, skill in experimenting, and in manipulating apparatus, soundness in interpreting results; in fine, an application that gives the ability to see the truth and stick to the truth.

Thought-expressing he developed by the study of Latin, English, the modern languages, mathematics, particularly geometry. Technical English grammar and logic were considered very important in building up truthfulness and accuracy, which is more important than the studies themselves.

Wealth-producing directions include manual training, which should develop manual skill, initiative, diligence, perseverance, honesty and organizing ability.

Spirit-building, in the Bliss code, is made up of loyalty to high ideals, in efforts to do the best possible work, in trustworthiness, and power to will to do the right. What the world needs most today is loyalty to well-determined principles.

Society-serving impulses are developed in the young by teaching obedience, respect for law, faithfulness in office, interest in the community (not merely a selfish interest), and punctuality.
The man-conserving quality he induced by inculcating a spirit of generosity, the spirit of helpfulness and homemaking.

Contributing to the comrade-seeking ability, for example, the so-called “gang spirit,” are the elements of co-operation, courtesy, agreeableness, and frankness, all of which if not developed in the right way become perverted, selfish and anti-social.

Play-interest, as Judge Bliss conceives it, should develop a sportsmanlike spirit, courage, self-control, and resourcefulness, providing the means are proper, all of which contributes to the life-refreshing characteristic.

Judge Bliss is known as the originator of the night schools of the Mesabi Range, which were started in 1904. They were the result of an earnest desire to advance the true Americanization of the foreign element of prospective citizenship in this section and. under him, at one time, in one year, had an enrollment of 700 students, a valuable service to the community. In night school direction the same inflexible principles that were the fabric of the day-school theme, governed. According to the dictum of the Judge, the aim of school education should not be to impart knowledge merely, but to open the minds of students, to arouse interest, aspiration, create enthusiasm, and develop determination of the right sort, accuracy of observation and of judgment.

The aim was always at vital orderliness, discipline, self-control, evolving all the way through a course of study, patience, power of adjustment, and habits of social team work. Intellectual and moral integrity he determined to be of higher worth than mere smartness not based on character.

As an educator, Judge Bliss had a peculiar genius both in initiative and in execution. He had vision. He it was who first pressed for industrial training in Minnesota and on the Range. He started the first school gardens and made the school farm possible. Under his direction the school boys cleared the “State Eighty,” known as the school farm, of trees, underbrush and stones. His school took the first prize at the State Fair, for the most complete exhibition of work in all departments of education, a beautiful silver urn, appropriately inscribed. This exhibit from the Virginia school was selected by the State Education Department to represent the state of Minnesota at the World’s Fair in Nagoya, Japan, where it was given the highest award. The beautiful Public School grounds for which the Range is noted, with flower beds, and wellkept lawns, were first started in Virginia, under the leadership of Judge Bliss, as he believes that environment has quite as much to do in the training of a child as has heredity. His genius for initiative also made him one of the pioneer leaders in securing public parks, municipal light and water, paved streets, white ways and other city improvements, but in all these matters he planted his feet firmly against extravagance and waste.

In 1913 he resigned as superintendent of the Virginia schools, at a time when his work was beginning to attract nation-wide attention, as witness about that time the interest in his system manifested by the publishers of the Century magazine and other agencies. That a good man can leave his impress on a system for years after his departure, has been proved in Virginia. The almost automatic operation of a well-developed school organization can be of tremendous assistance to a successor. By the same token a poor school man leaves a bad heritage for those who immediately follow. That Virginia could ill have afforded to lose him in 1913 was indicated in the alacrity with which proffers were made to Judge Bliss by representatives of school boards in some of the most important and most highly-populated cities in the United States. He has refused all such offers, fidelity to this section causing him to appreciate the consistency of remaining in a single community and there fulfilling the functions that are the duty and pleasure of a good citizen. Several important laws for the advancement of education in Minnesota were made part of the statutes while he served on the legislative committee of the State Educational Association.

As a man of broad intellectual ken and civic loyalty, he has naturally taken a lively interest in political and economic matters, and has been a delegate to various Republican conventions. Judge Bliss is a staunch advocate of the basic principles and policies sponsored by the Republican party, but in local affairs, where no definite general issues are involved, he is not constrained by partisan lines. He was a member of the commission that prepared the present city charter of Waseca, Minnesota, and personally wrote much of that document, and is a member of the present charter commission of Virginia. While a resident of Waseca he was for some time the editorial writer for the Waseca Journal-Radical, the leading newspaper of Waseca County. During the period of his residence in Virginia he has been indefatigable in his efforts in directions of public good, his work in the field of education and his furtherance of community progress being markers that will ever reflect honor upon his name.

It was primarily through his labors that school playgrounds were provided in Virginia, and in the establishment, of the public library he was a chief figure, later serving for a number of years on the library commission, for three years being president of the board. Mrs. Bliss, a woman of culture and gracious personality, has proved a’ helpful and inspiring coadjutor.

They were married in Mantorville, Minnesota, where Judge Bliss taught his first school. Mrs. Bliss was a daughter of one of the highly respected families of southern Minnesota, Mr. and Mrs. A. R. Cohoon.

In the great war Judge and Mrs. Bliss aided in the many undertakings designed to help their country and her allies win. He was a member of the first registration board in Virginia, and gave especial attention to stimulation of local Red Cross work. In 1920 he was elected municipal judge for Virginia and it is certain that he will exert a kind influence in that capacity, a path that he is now well on. It is his first political office.

Justice is dispatched without superfluous condiments, mature judgment brought to bear in every instance. One individual gets no consideration that all do not get. It is natural that Judge Bliss should take his duties seriously and discharge them so rightly and impartially. The elevation to this office is a public testimony of the people’s esteem. Previous to assuming this post he was engaged in the investment securities business, taking to it after leaving active school work. Being a man of strength in. mind and body, many years of useful work in behalf of the common good is predicted for him. He is a charter member of Virginia Lodge No. 264, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, and a Congregationalist in church affiliation. He is also a member of the Adelphic Society of Carleton College, and the Phi Kappa Psi College fraternity.


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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