Utah Centennial Studies


Schools: Then and Now Packet A


Deseret News Archives, Sunday, July 3, 1994

By Twila Van Leer, Education Editor

It was an age of wonders.

Utah school Superintendent John Taylor proclaimed it a time when "the agency of steam and electricity, by which also time and distance are apparently obliterated, makes cosmopolitans of us all and brings us into close communion with the whole world..."

The year was 1877-- just 30 years after Brigham Young and the first party of Latter-day Saints had entered the barren Great Salt Lake Valley and set about making it a fit habitation for the thousands and then hundreds of thousands who were to follow.

Taylor, an educated Englishman when he joined the LDS Church, became its third president in 1980. But he first helped to carry out a congressional mandate to create a system of common schools in the Territory of Deseret.

When Mormon pioneers came to the Great Basin, they hoped to isolate themselves as a group but soon found the general westward movement in United States brought people of all faiths to the Great Salt Lake Valley. The fledgling public school system competed with "every religious denomination in the territory" in establishing schools, Taylor reported to the territorial legislature.

Persuading families in any camp to send their children to public schools was a challenge, given the mutual suspicions among the Mormons and their "gentile" neighbors.

Taylor assured legislators that efforts were being made to avoid religious instruction in the public schools, "although it would be believed by the majority." He said, however, the schools were beginning to thrive "under the powerful influence of the family and aided by the Almighty."

Funding a common school system out of the pockets of financially strapped pioneers was a challenge. The Legislature first authorized communities to tax residents to support education, then in 1878 passed the first territorial tax, raising $20,000, which Taylor declared to be "quite liberal." Salt Lake County, the most densely populated, received the lion's share of the first state aid at $4,288, while Rich County got only $173, based on student numbers.

Taylor encouraged communities to construct school buildings, but many classes continued to meet in local LDS churches. Even after statehood, Salt Lake County funded 20 "districts" that correlated with Wards 1-20 of the LDS Church.

A lack of architects was a deterrent to Taylor's call for well-designed buildings that were well-lighted and airy, not awkward in appearance and constructed on a high-and-dry site. The first consideration after a building was in place, he said, should be a neat, strong fence and shade trees.

Seats and desks should be, so far as possible, of home manufacture, he advocated. He recommended that school officials borrow on the expertise of one G. Lundberg of Logan, Cache Valley, to learn how to build such furniture.

To help meet the demand for qualified teachers, promising young students were provided tuition-free training in the "normal" school that was part of the University of Deseret, founded in 1850. They were obliged to teach in the public system for at least as many years as they attended the university-- usually two or less.

In his 1877 report, Taylor told legislators that the university "continues to fulfill the expectations of its many friends and furnishes a very superior course to those desiring academic and collegiate opportunities. In future years, it will be regarded as one of the successful pioneers of education among us." Among the furnishings listed for the university was a spittoon for the office of John R. Park, who was then being paid $3,061.35 annually to head the budding institution.

The university in that year had 103 male students and three faculty, including Park. He later headed the public school system for awhile, then returned to the university and ultimately was honored by having the school's current administration building named for him. The school later became the University of Utah.

Taylor's successor, L. John Nuttall, bemoaned the fact that Utah's hinterlands were being settled by "young people who have not had much experience in scholastic matters." He called for more able trustees in communities to head up school efforts, including record-keeping, even though it was admittedly "a thankless task."

Each succeeding state superintendent, in fact, carped to the Legislature that local school officials most often failed to get reports in on time, if at all. In the 1880s, P.L. Williams suggested court action to "force reports." The state leaders also kept up a barrage of complaints about the niggardly funding for their own offices and for the local superintendents-- most often civic-minded community leaders who managed the schools out of a sense of duty. They were entitled to compensation from the county courts, but more often than not, it was not provided.

The superintendents were not making the required semiannual visits to each of their schools, Nuttall said, but he leniently excused the failure, noting travel challenges and the niggardly rewards the superintendents could expect.

On entering the office, Williams reported shoestring conditions for his own office. He had no space, expense money, supplies, furniture, stationary, printing capacity or travel funds, he said. Out of his own pocket, he provided local school officials with copies of state guidelines.

He also complained that his predecessor, Nuttall, was "absent from the territory or concealed within it for something over a year previous to my appointment." The report appears to be an allusion to polygamy during a period when persecution was at its most intense. Many Mormon men were in hiding to avoid arrest.

Nuttall had reported that "a very large percentage of children of school age are not in attendance at the district schools," but the buildings were, nevertheless, "filled to excess." In Salt Lake County alone, only 27 percent of the eligible children were enrolled in the public schools, but 16 of the 64 districts in the county had no building in which to hold classes.

Nevertheless, Utah proudly reported an illiteracy rate of only 5 percent.

Most districts didn't want female teachers, and when they got them, they paid them less than their male counterparts. Marriage for a female teacher often was grounds for dismissal.

All teachers got plenty of advice from the Public Schools Manual printed in 1894: "When you refuse, refuse finally; when you consent, consent cheerfully. Often command, never scold. Do not talk too much. When reading, always have a bright picture behind each word or sentence, which the child shall see vividly with his mind's eye." Duty extended to before and after school, when the teacher was charged to "prevent all quarrelling, disagreement, rude and noisy behavior in students coming to and from school."

In 1890, Superintendent Jacob S. Boreman bemoaned the fact that half of the state's teachers remained uncertified, largely owing to the "tender nature of county superintendents."

Utah was the last territory in the nation to provide a free public school system. The Legislative Assembly enacted a law effective March 13, 1890, that eliminated tuitions and made public education compulsory for students up to 14 years of age for 16 weeks a year.

The following year, Boreman wrote that it was "gratifying to be able to state that the free school law is working remarkably well. It has given a great impetus to the cause of general education." By 1892, he said, the free system was "becoming more firmly fixed in the affections of the people of the territory."

The law provided compensation for state and local school officials and created tax provisions to finance education, although Boreman said the tax rules were "confusing to school officers and others."

The new law also allowed communities of 1,500 or more to organize a high school upon a favorable vote of local taxpayers. Boreman urged such schools and advocated that they be "all that the name implies." Students coming out of the common schools were required to pass a test to get into a high school.

Districts were advised, as well, to establish kindergartens as the "most powerful means of overcoming slums by getting possession of the children at age 3 or 4."

School curriculum-- another area of chronic dissatisfaction-- was standardized and expanded over the years, through conventions in which school leaders met to choose textbooks. After one such meeting, Boreman told the Legislature that a publisher had offered to pay the expenses of some rural superintendents so they could attend-- "essentially the offer of a bribe," in his opinion. He also reported that some publishers had claimed to have shipped books, but they hadn't arrived. In addition, he was concerned that teachers were having to attend the conventions gratis, "which ought not to be allowed."

Corporal punishment was acceptable in the territorial schools, but "the best teachers never use it," Superintendent Park advised.

When Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887, it effectively spelled the end of polygamy and opened the way to eventual statehood for Utah Territory. It also put some unusual burdens on the territory's public schools. Each year they were required to report, by category, the numbers of LDS and non-LDS students and teachers in each school.

Just as Utah Territory matured, the school system also evolved, causing Superintendent Park to proclaim on the eve of statehood that there was a "growing sentiment that the energies expended in efforts to throw around the children of the state the very best educational environment is sure to redound to the prosperity of the state and the perpetuity of republican institutions."

Records chronicle school history

When the State Office of Education building at 250 E. 500 South was vacated last year to allow for renovation, state school officials found two old boxes in the basement. The boxes, which were nearly discarded, were found to contain annual reports of state school superintendents dating back to the 1870s, when Utah was a territory and a public school system was just beginning.

"It is really interesting that the (early) superintendents had a limited enough number of students and professionals in the system that they could stay really close to them," said State Superintendent Scott W. Bean, who deals with almost a half million students and tens of thousands of educators. He also was amazed that many of the pre-statehood problems chronicled in the official reports have been "recycled into our time."

The records, which cover the period from 1877 to 1914, ultimately will be copied and the originals donated to a state repository where they can be preserved, Bean said. Information for this Sunday Extra comes from these reports.

Education in the territory

Growth of public school system during Utah's pioneering period:

Dates Districts Schools Teachers Children Enrolled
1862 50 62 102 7,612
1873 163 251 355 27,723
1883 262 411 491 45,908

Item from list of university expenditures

  • Books from Washington, D.C. $5.00
  • Freight for same $5.40
"I am justified in congratulating the people of this territory on a gratifying progress in the present and a healthy promise for the future in matters of education...in an age that has become so eminently inquisitive, so devoted to the investigation of universal truth and has found such wonders in the laws of force and matter that the enjoyment of the intellect through the acquisition of knowledge is valued more and more." -- John Taylor, Superintendent of education, 1877

Report on school enrollment as of July 1, 1887

LDS girls 4,446 LDS boys 4,527
Non-LDS girls 1,182 Non-LDS boys 1,278
Total enrollment 11,433    

Excerpt from 1880 Census

    Average national teacher pay
  • Male teachers $35 per month
  • Female teachers $22 per month
List of equipment at the University of Deseret (Precursor to University of Utah), 1877
  • 1 telescope
  • 1 microscope
  • 1 circle
  • 1 pair small scales
  • 1 solar microscope
  • 1 pair large scales
  • 4 sextants
  • 3 hydrometers
  • 1 box chemicals
  • 1 barometer
  • 1 theodolite (surveying equipment)
  • 1,597 library books


Comment of T.B. Lewis, territorial commissioner, to first Utah Legislature as state, 1896:

"Utah starts forth on her career of statehood upon so firm a foundation as is laid in her free public school system. Under a so divinely appointed environment, we bespeak for her and her people a growth and development that will make her a welcome sister in this great commonwealth of sovereign states."

Admonition to teachers from Superintendent L. John Nuttall, 1882:

"Teachers must be earnest, full of life, animation, enthusiasm, for no teacher will succeed who is not interested in his pupils...Whilst there are no religious tenets being taught in our district schools, I would be sorry if the fact compelled me to admit there were no moral or even religious influence used or principles taught whereby the fundamental truths of morality and virtue and the duties of citizenship might be imbibed by the children."

© 1995 Deseret News Publishing Co.