For the last few weeks, my articles have been focused on a string of early social movements and support for those movements in Mason County. Abolitionism, African-American suffrage, and women’s suffrage all trace their roots to the Second Great Awakening and the Age of Reform, though their respective ends were decades apart. Abolitionism reached its end in 1865, woman suffrage in 1920, and African-American suffrage finally in 1965. Though, it must be noted that disenfranchisement continues today.
These were not, however, the only reform movements of the 1800s. Prohibition was another, though America’s experiment with that particular movement only lasted from 1920-33. Prison reform and efforts to end capital punishment were two others, but these are not this week’s focus. The two I’d like to cover this week, child labor and education, are intertwined and were perhaps the quickest to be adopted here in Mason County.
The general idea, the reason the two were so closely tied, was that children should not be working in the mills and mines. They should be in school, learning and becoming good citizens.
Like abolitionism and suffrage, efforts to reform child labor and public education began in New England. There, free schools had operated since the Puritans came to America. Elsewhere in the United States, including here in what would then be Virginia, subscription schools were the norm. Mason County had a subscription school as early as 1794 and had nineteen by 1833.
In 1837, reformer Horace Mann began his work in Massachusetts. His vision for universal, tax-supported education quickly gained support across the North, but his ideas were not as popular in the South. Yet, as time went on, his ideas gained widespread support in Mason County. The reasons for this are two-fold.
First, just across the river is Ohio. Since its time as the Northwest Territory, when Section 16 of each township was set aside as the “school lot” and New Englanders made up many of the early settlers, there existed strong support for public education. Naturally, with our close ties to Meigs and Gallia Counties, we were greatly influenced by our neighbors.
This is why, in or around 1846, Mason County was one of the few counties that adopted Virginia’s General Free School Law, and a new free school was soon built in Point Pleasant. Unfortunately, this building (seen in the picture above) was recently demolished.
Second, especially after 1850, many of our leading citizens were from New England. George W. Moredock, founder of both Hartford and New Haven, was from Connecticut. Kellian Van Rensalear Whaley, our first congressman, was from New York.
Thus, when West Virginia broke from Virginia in 1863, Mason County joined Wheeling and Morgantown in calling for free schools to be established around the state and supported by taxes. Within each county, each district had its own board of education to oversee the schools. Major towns often had larger graded schools, and dozens of one-room schools dotted the countryside. Mason County, for example, had over 100 one-room schools, perhaps a dozen of which are still standing.
It’s interesting that in Mason County both the rise of industry and adoption of public schools began in the 1850s. Perhaps because of this, we never had a problem with the problem that sparked educational reform in the first place. As far as I can tell, children never worked in the Bend Area’s coal mines or salt furnaces, nor did they work in Point Pleasant’s factories or mills.
This is not to say that children did not work, for they certainly did, often to help support their family. School terms, especially in rural areas, were typically arranged around the growing season so that children could help on the farm while their father worked in the mines or mills. It was also common for older children to be taken on as apprentices by blacksmiths, storekeepers, or even newspaper printers between school terms.
We were certainly more fortunate in that aspect than other regions of our state, where children as young as eight worked in and around the mines.
Information from the writings of Mildred Gibbs, various newspapers from the tri-county area, and WV State Archives.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be April 11 at 5 p.m. Location TBA.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.