Duluth Education (Early History)

The greatness of a community may not be properly measured by its material progress alone. The city or state which neglects to cultivate the morals and intellects of its people is guilty of overlooking one of its most vital interests, and, no matter how prosperous in a business sense, cannot be a success in the full significance of the term.

The importance, of training the minds of the rising generation was realized by the pioneers of Duluth and steps taken for supplying the needs of such instruction, even while the means were lacking to supply the physical needs of the people. And equal care and forethought have been shown by their successors, not only in providing for the instruction of youth, but in affording the means for cultivating the finer instincts of the adult population.

Confirmation of this statement may be readily found in the numerous religious organizations, public schools and higher institutions of learning, as well as hospitals, libraries, charitable and benevolent institutions and a multitude of fraternal, social, literary and other societies.

The public schools of Duluth are the special admiration of not only her own citizens, but of all the strangers who come within the city’s gates.

In 1869 the only school house of Duluth was on Minnesota Point, and was the center and headquarters for a number of years of everything outside the pale of business. Church societies, election meetings, public rallies, literary organizations, all met at the school house. The “Weekly Minnesotian” of August 21, 1869, contains the following announcement: “The public school is having a vacation of four weeks, and will reopen Monday, September 21, 1869. A series of text books 633  has been ordered as was adopted by the legislature of the state.

The school will be graded as far as can be like the public schools of our large cities, and the higher branches, to a limited extent, will be introduced. The Saturday previous to the reopening the children will have a picnic on Minnesota Point, the weather permitting, when all are expected to have a pleasant time generally.

Parents and others are respectfully invited to join.

“J. Germain Hussey, Teacher.” The first known record of any movement in the cause of education within the present city of Duluth was the building of a school at Fond du Lac by the Rev. E. F. Ely, who was sent to northern Minnesota by the American Board of Foreign Missions in 1833. He spent about one year at Sandy Lake, where a school for Indian children had previously been established, and then removed to Fond du Lac, where he performed the combined duties of teacher and missionary for several years. In the former capacity he was assisted by his wife and other teachers, and was subsequently stationed at La Pointe, Pokegama Lake and elsewhere in this region. About 1849 the school at Fond du Lac was abandoned owing, doubtless, to the fact that the Indian families had removed from that location. Mr. Ely afterwards became a conspicuous citizen among the pioneers of Superior and Oneota.

The next instance of a school within the boundaries of the present city of Duluth was in 1856, when Miss Nancy C. Barnett opened a school at Oneota, where schools have since been maintained without interruption save for the usual vacations. The first school on Minnesota Point (or Duluth proper, as it was then known) was taught in 1865 by Miss Emma Clark. At that date the total enrollment of children of school age in St. Louis county was eighty-seven. An interesting comparison may be made by noting that the total enrollment of the city of Duluth alone for 1909, excluding the rest of the county, amounted to 13,000. If the total enrollment of the county were used for comparison this total would be more than doubled. Were private and parochial schools added several thousand more would make this comparison yet more striking.

The school district of Duluth was organized April 10, 1870, and the first superintendent of schools, R. D. Haynes, was elected the following year. In July, 1872, in the records of the board of education, appears the first mention of a high school. In 1873 a program of graded schools was adopted, and in the same year was issued the first printed report of the board of education.

The financial depression followed and for several years progress was not only blocked, but salaries were reduced and the length of the terms depended upon the available funds. No reports were issued. In 1880 the system could boast of but two or three buildings, with a valuation of between $4, 000 and $5, 000. At the present time (1910) there are thirty-four school buildings completed and occupied, while two others are in course of construction, one, the manual training school, at a cost of $250, 000.

The present investment of the city in its schools and school sites is close to $3, 500, 000. So fast is the city’s growth, however, that every year finds the school capacity taxed to the utmost, and it has now become almost a settled policy of the board of education to add at least one, if not more, school buildings to the city’s educational equipment each year.

The progress of the public school system of the city has fully kept place with the growth of population; no city in the country has better reason to be proud of its substantial and commodious school buildings, which have been constructed in accordance with the most modern and approved ideas of school architecture, while the apparatus and equipment is up to date in every particular.

Free text books are furnished, a system of fines being arranged for careless handling or destruction of books by the pupils, so that books last on an average from six to eight years each, much longer than when owned by the pupils. This plan has been found to be economical, satisfactory and efficacious in every way.

A corps of capable and experienced teachers are in charge of the work under the direction of Superintendent R. E. Denfeld, who has filled that position since 1885. The administration of the city’s schools is placed in the hands of a board of education of nine members, besides the superintendent and clerk. As membership in this body is a purely honorary position, affording no pecuniary advantage, but requiring a great sacrifice of time and personal interests, the gentlemen who do now, or have, composed the board are entitled to much credit for the standards which have been established and rigorously maintained.

A better idea of the methods in the schools and of their general character could not be given than to quote from Superintendent Denfeld, the superintendent of schools. He says: “The course of instruction is the same as that generally adopted throughout the state, eight years preparatory to the high school and four years in the high school. Each grade to the eighth is divided into an A and B class. Promotions from the B to the A class of one grade, or from the A class of one grade to the B class of the next, occur semi-annually. In addition to these grades there is also a kindergarten connected with the training school; thus the spirit of the kindergarten is exemplified in all the work of the grades, and teachers, mostly graduates of our high schools, are being prepared to properly take up, from a professional point of view, the instruction in the city schools.

“Duluth was the first city in the state to adopt the free text book system, which has long since passed the experimental stage.

Providing children with books and supplies has demonstrated that better results can be obtained than under the old plan.

Books are always at hand when needed, and children are provided with variety and taught the care of property, while from an economical standpoint considerable is saved for those who have children to send to the public schools.

“Beside the so-called common school branches, wood carving, map moulding, drawing, modeling, penmanship, physical culture and music are taught.

“Duluth is supplied with specialists in the different branches and the work is carried on systematically and thoroughly.

Throughout the public school system there is a tendency toward the practical side of education. It is safe to say that no city in the country provided more liberally for the instruction of its school children than Duluth. All that is required for thorough training, according to the modern educational ideas, has been introduced.

“The school buildings are solid, substantial structures, built either of stone or stone and brick, finished in hardwood and provided with the Plenum and exhaust system of heating and ventilating, there being both direct and indirect radiation in each.

Every class room in the newer buildings is provided with natural slate blackboards of from three and a half to four feet and a half in width, a cabinet with glass doors for the display of natural history specimens, collected by the pupils in their science work; also drawers for holding paper, pencils, etc., as well as closets.

There are also separate wardrobes for girls and boys. Nearly all the rooms have light entering from two sides-that is, from the left and rear, thus giving an abundance of light, which can be regulated by the Venetian blind, with which each window is provided. The financial condition of the district is in most excellent shape.” The delight of every visitor to Duluth and the especial pride of its people is the magnificent Central High School building, which is acknowledged to be one of the finest and handsomest high school buildings in the United States. This superb building was completed in 1892 at a cost, including the grounds, of $500, – 000. It is centrally located on an entire block of ground at Second street and Lake avenue and commands the admiration of every visitor to the city, being visible from long distances and especially noticeable to those approaching the city by water.

The structure, built of native brownstone, occupies the center of a block 300×400 feet, in the most thickly settled section of the city and near the dividing avenue. Its location is commanding, overlooking as it does the city and the lake. The style of architecture is the Romanesque, the structure being nearly in the form of a letter T, 282 feet front, 90 feet wide on the two wings, the center portion 182 feet deep and 86 feet wide, with a massive square tower rising from the front and center of the building to a height of 230 feet, surmounted by a pyramidal cap. The tower contains a clock movement with four dials, which are illuminated at night, these dials being each ten feet six inches in diameter, and a chime of Westminster bells, four in number, which ring out every quarter hour. The woodwork of the interior is for the most part of quarter-sawed oak. The assembly hall and library are finished in white birch with cherry stain, the offices of the board being finished in sycamore beautifully polished.

The heating and ventilating system is very complete, known as the Plenum and exhaust, with steam heat, direct and indirect radiation.

There are the usual four courses open to the pupils in the school. There is a well-equipped manual training department.

The department of domestic economy is also a feature, as well as that of stenography and typewriting. Drawing and vocal music as special studies are carefully attended to, as well as the physical culture exercises in the excellent gymnasium. For the convenience of the pupils, many of whom come from a distance, a lunch room is maintained in the building and is conducted as near to cost as can be figured. During the last school year the receipts of this restaurant were $3, 431. There are about 1, 000 637  pupils enrolled at the high school, but many of these either bring lunches with them or live close enough to the building to go home to lunch.

The capacity of the high school is now pretty well taxed.

After the new manual training school is completed, however, considerable relief will be afforded, as the space now occupied by this department will be vacated and much additional room for classes thus acquired.

The teaching staff of the Duluth schools, according to the last annual report of Superintendent Denfeld, numbered 338. Of these thirty-six, fifteen male and twenty-one female teachers, are employed in the central high and industrial high schools. The remainder are apportioned among the various grade schools.

The average salary paid to male teachers was $123.51 per month, and to female teachers $65.96. The cost of text books for the year was $6,299.32. The entire cost of the school establishment for the year was $483,790, of which $228,073 was paid in salaries to teachers. The average cost to the school district per pupil was $37.57. In addition to the day classes a night school is conducted at the central high school, which is yearly attended by several hundred scholars, a large proportion of whom are over twenty-one years of age. Practically all the attendance at the night school consists of wage earners who are unable to attend in the day time, but who seek to overcome the deficiencies of their early education and better their condition in life by study.

The members of the board of education are: W. E. Magner, president; E. R. Cobb, treasurer; W. G. Crosby, L. A. Barnes, L. D. Campbell, S. H. Boyer, J. J. Moe, D. E. Stevens and F. A. Brewer, with Superintendent R. E. Denfeld and C. A. Bronson, clerk.

Superintendent Denfeld, in his twenty-five years of service as head of the Duluth schools, has not only won the confidence and approbation of the citizens of the city, but has gained high reputation among the educators of the country. He has been engaged in the work of education practically all his life. He is a graduate of Amherst college, class of ’76, and while pursuing his studies in that institution taught a district school. During his senior year he filled the position of principal of the Peters high school, Southboro, Mass., returning at the close of the year to pass his examination for graduation. He remained as principal of the Peters school for two years and then filled a similar position at the Needham, Mass., high school. lere he spent three years, resigning to take a course in law at the Boston University. At the close of the year Professor Denfeld was elected principal of the Western high school, and after a term was offered the position of principal of the Weymouth, lass., high school, which he accepted, and remained in that position for three years. While filling this position he was admitted to the Worcester county bar. At the close of his three years’ service the opportunities which the West offered attracted his attention, and he was about to accept a position in Minneapolis when he was urged to take the superintendency of schools at Mankato, Minn. Here he remained one year, winning a unanimous re-election and an increase in salary, but his reputation had reached Duluth. A committee from the board of education visited him, and by the aid of strong financial inducements and a larger field for his labor they induced him to come to the Zenith City. Superintendent Denfeld has, since his entrance upon his duties in 1885, won steadily increasing favor in the eyes of all.

His wide experience and acknowledged ability combine to fit him thoroughly for the post. He is a man of big, broad ideas; thoroughly alive to every interest that will better methods of instruction, and he has played no small part in rearing the Duluth school system to its present height.

A noted savant once said: “Sow a dollar in the ground of education and reap fourfold in the field of progress.” In no city of its age has the truth of this aphorism been more fully realized than in Duluth. In no other city has greater care been taken to lay the foundations of the lives of present and future generations upon the substantial rock of intelligence. So rapidly have the different phases of public life been unfolding in this city that many of its own citizens do not fully comprehend the manifold influences which have made, and are continuously making for the progress of mental, social and civil culture. For the development of educational forces has not been confined to children.

Numerous clubs, literary and musical societies betoken the awakened senses of both sexes which are grasping after newer and higher ideals. These circumstances are already realized by many people at a distance who are looking forward to rapid developments in this metropolis of the Northland and the congenial surroundings assured by these conditions. The material benefits accruing from the reputation which the city enjoys as a 639  Mecca for those seeking to gratify social, intellectual or spiritual desires should not be overlooked. Many individuals and families are attracted by one or more of these influences to become permanent citizens of the most desirable class for the upbuilding of Duluth.


From Dwight Woodbridge and John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1910.


Duluth Schools 1880 – 1920

The first schools, those of the fifties and sixties, have been referred to in earlier chapters, and some reference has been made earlier in this chapter to the Portland School of the seventies. It is more than probable that the children of Oneota families in 1869-70 still attended the little frame schoolhouse erected in 1856 (the first built in St. Louis County), but the Duluth school of 1870 was not the first built in Duluth, or Portland.

Duluth and Portland were in what was designated the Fifth School District of St. Louis County in 1858. Carey records that “a public school for the Fifth District was taught in the vacant United States land office on Nettleton’s claim in 1862 and 1863; next in a small building in Portland, situated about where the Ray block stands, east of Fourth Avenue East and Superior Street, Duluth.

Then in 1866 a larger building was erected, in the block between Third and Fourth avenues east on the lower side of East First Street, also in Portland, where school was regularly kept until after the new birth of the City of Duluth in 1870.” With the reorganization of municipal affairs in 1870, made necessary when Duluth became a city and had increased thirty-fold in population within a year, almost, the school system necessarily had to be reorganized. That was done on April 10, 1870, and then, for the first time, a “superintendent of schools” was appointed, R. D. Haynes being given that responsibility. It is therefore probable that there was more than one school in the Duluth district at that time. In the winter of 1869-70 the enrollment was 103 when school begun, and perhaps there was not an appreciable increase during the winter months, but within a year there were “five times that many,” it has been stated, so that there would necessarily have been more than one school building.

The school announcement of 1869 promised that, in addition to the graded school, “the higher branches, to a limited extent,” would be introduced and there was mention again of a high school in 1872.

Just before the financial crash of 1873 came, the “Board of Education had perfected plans for the maintenance of a high school,” which, however, because of the depression, could not be inaugurated, and indeed was hardly necessary, for many years afterwards. ‘Had general conditions continued as they had been from 1869 to 1873, the Duluth school system would have been a comprehensive organization by 1875. A “programme of graded schools” was adopted in 1873, and the first report of the Board of Education was printed in that year. The financial “chill” of the fall of 1873 checked the normal growth of the school system, but in 1877-78 a two or three-year high school course was organized, the first graduating class being that of 1879. It consisted of two members.

Duluth District.- Regarding the schools of the 1880s. The Washington school was designed in 1880, begun in 1881, and completed in 1882, at a cost of $51,000. The Jefferson was completed in 1883 at a cost of $15,000, providing eight class and four recitation rooms. The Jackson was completed in 1884, at a cost of $20,000; it had ten class and three recitation rooms. In 1885, the old Adams school house was vacated, the new Adams being in that year completed, at a cost above $20,000.

It was situated “near Rice’s Point, where the large and growing population justified the construction of a commodious building fitted with steam.” All those school buildings were of brick or stone, but the “rapid growth of the city … compelled the construction of three frame buildings to relieve the larger ones.” The Madison was built in 1882, to take the overflow from the old Adams; it was a two-roomed frame structure. The Monroe, a four-roomed building, “farthest west of all the schools,” was in charge of Miss Hicken. The Franklin, “a beautiful and commodious structure” at the corner of Seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, east, was intended to “relieve the crowded primaries of the Jefferson and Washington buildings. It cost, including site, about $7,000.” The high school was “crowded into rooms of the Washington building” prior to  the building of what is now known as the Liberty School in 1887, the new school, a three-story brick structure, located on Third Street and First Avenue, east, being “intended for the exclusive use of the high school.” It was thought, in its excellence, to be “a model of its kind,” and was undoubtedly the best school building in the county.

The first graduating class of a Duluth High School was that of 1879. It consisted of two members, and the course was then a “2-3 year” (optional) one. In the ’80s the course was made four years.

R. E. Denfield, a graduate of Amherst, became superintendent of Duluth schools in 1885, and was destined to hold that office for more than a generation and to bring the school system of Duluth to a very high state of excellence.

In 1886, the enrollment was 1,600, and the appropriation for school purposes in the Duluth District increased from $20,000 in 1882 to $80,000 in 1887.

In 1888, the Lincoln school was built, and in 1890 the Endion.

Between 1890 and 1895 five other buildings were erected, all of first class, there being an enrollment in 1895 of 8,650 pupils.

The enrollment for the school year 1919-20 was 17,924, more than double the strength of a generation earlier; and the present Duluth school property, which is estimated to be worth $4,355,487, includes one stone school house, the Central High, 36 brick school houses, and four of frame. By name the schools of today are: Adams, Bryant, Central High, Cobb, Denfield, High, Emerson, Endion, Ensign, Fairmont, Franklin, Grant, Irving, Jackson, Jefferson, Lakeside, Lester Park, Liberty, Lincoln Junior High, Longfellow, Lowell, Madison, Jerome Merritt, Monroe, Morgan Park, Munger, Nettleton, Oneota, Park Point, Salter, Smithville, Stowe, Washburn, Webster.

In addition there are the State Normal, the Villa Sancta Scholastica and several parochial schools.

Central High School.-The Central High School is worthy of its place. It is an imposing structure, and is a conspicuous landmark.

It was completed in 1892, although the building was partly completed in 1891, presumably, for it is recorded that the first sessions were Vol. 1-22 337held in it in 1891. The Central High has ever since been used, as its name implies, as the central high school of Duluth, and is still the outstanding feature of the Duluth school system. It occupies “a commanding site” and is “marked by educators all over the country as being the embodiment of all that is desirable in architecture and equipment.” It is of Minnesota brownstone construction, with interior finishings of quarter-sawed oak and white birch. The Romanesque style of architecture predominates in the building, which is in the form of a T, with a front of 282 feet, a width of ninety feet at the wings, the central portion being 182 feet deep and 86 feet wide. The tower is 230 feet high. The cost of building and site was about $500,000.

In 1883, there was an enrollment of fifty-two in high school; in 1893, the graduating class numbered thirty-two. In 1894, there were 400 high school students; while in 1920 there was an attendance of 1,100 in Duluth High School, and the graduating class of that year numbered 189. The standard of education has been maintained at a consistently high level, with an ever-widening curriculum. Leonard Young, principal of Central High has held that responsibility for eleven years.

The Board of Education of the Duluth district consisted, in 1920, of: A. C. Le Duc, president; C. F. Colman, treasurer; C. F. Colman, W. J. Eklund and C. G. Firoved, committee on administration and finance; Mrs. Julius H. Barnes, F. Crassweller, Rev. J. G. Schailby, committee on schools; and F. D. Knight, R. J. Coole, and A. C. Le Duc, committee on buildings and grounds. Charles A. Bronson is clerk of the Board of Education.

The teaching staff includes 53 male and 539 female teachers, the former receiving an average salary of $171 a month, and the women teachers an average of $120 a month. One hundred and seventeen of the teachers are college graduates, and 385 graduates of normal school. So that the public school system of the City of Duluth is good.


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