FORCED TO LEARN
By Caesar Carrino
One-hundred-five years ago, Ohio mandated every child from age six to sixteen would have to go to school for at least 180 days a year. This became what was known as the Compulsory Education Act. Before that date in 1918, parents could choose to send their children to school, and, as a result, many children did not attend regularly and some did not attend at all. It was not unusual for families to keep their children home for farm work, weather conditions or myriad other reasons that were quite ‘legitimate’ at the time.
Massachusetts had the first compulsory education law in 1852 that required children to be educated in a public school setting. [When it was under British rule, the British passed a similar law in 1647.]Parents who refused to abide by the law were fined, and, in some cases, had their children taken from them. The cogent word here is ‘public’, because, at the time, most education was meted out in church related schools, principally Catholic, but Lutheran and other Protestant and Jewish denominations as well. The 1852 Massachusetts law had two platforms for passing the law: Fear that the religious schools would try to proselyte children, and fear that if children were idle, they would fall prey to being forced to work as adults.
Wadsworth was ahead of the game. One of the first efforts of the first families that arrived from Connecticut was to establish a school. The first settlers arrived in 1814, and almost before they had cleared all the trees or made any semblance of a road to get from one place to another, they built a school in 1818. The first school was at the end of what is now Hartman Road and Broad Street, almost directly east of the traffic light. It was so small, that the next year they built a school at what is now the other end of Hartman Road that meets Route 261. There was no road there, and the students – as well as the teacher – had to wend their way to the school through dense forests. Although the first settlers set up their first camp in what is now Western Star, there were families farther north, principally the Beach family whose original barn serves as the foundation of the Haynes barn on Route 261.
The ‘come when you feel like it’ that prevailed in other places did not take hold in Wadsworth. The first settlers came from English-dominated Connecticut, where the old English tradition of education was well established. As a result, even though there was no compulsory education law, students were all but forced to attend school. It might be said that going to school was the ‘cool’ thing to do, so parents and students alike made school attendance a priority.
Education was a priority for many. One that stands out is Burke Hinsdale, who became President of
what is now Hiram College, was a nationally known educator. He went to school only when farm
work on what is now Reimer Road waned. He confessed in his memoirs that he yearned to go to
school and found ways to do so despite overburdening chores. A brilliant student, his knowledge far
exceeded what he could have learned from the teacher who taught at the one-room school just north
of Wadsworth and into what is now Sharon Township, so he begged his parents to let him go to the
Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio. The WREI became Hiram College, and its
President was James Garfield, who later became the President of the United States. Garfield’s
student aid was Burke Hinsdale, whose prowess as a stellar scholar shone even at a young age, so
much so, that the trustees of Hiram named him President.
However, not all were enamored with the new law: When the law was passed in 1918, many parents
rebelled, basing their opposition to the law on taking away the right of parents to educate their
children. Many accounts of ‘forcing’ children to attend school at least until age sixteen, but permitted
until age nineteen, was contested by many groups, especially the agricultural people who depended
upon their children to work the farms. Also, in 1918, the Spanish Flu became a pandemic and
parents were afraid to send their children to school. Although we have the same problem with the
Covid19 pandemic, there were no other options for purveying knowledge to students as we have today
through virtual means.
The Spanish flu lasted at least for a couple years, and many people died. Parents railed against the
school administrators who were forced to uphold the law. Parents also found every means imaginable
to keep their children from attending school. There are accounts of people not revealing birth of
children, citing religious reasons for keeping them home, feigning ill health, etc. School
administrators – usually Principals or Superintendents – would go to individual houses to ferret out
the students. Some parents complied, but others did not. The Wadsworth Town Marshall was
charged with the responsibility to ‘convince’ the errant students to return to school. At the time,
there were only about 4000 people living in Wadsworth, with only about 800 students between the
ages of six to nineteen. One account indicated that, at the height of the pandemic, many classrooms
had only five or six students in attendance.
In addition to students refusing to attend classes, there were many teachers who refused as well.
They were told to keep their students away from them and to apply a soap made with lye to wash
their hands, forearms and faces several times throughout the day, and to rinse their mouths with salt
water frequently. In the high school, P. V. Kreider, was Principal and an English teacher. There were
only six teachers, a minimal number that was appropriate for the inconsistent attendance that
existed before 1918 but a number that bloomed after the pandemic. Only twenty-five students
elected to graduate. Approximately one-third of the class that started in first-grade in 1908 dropped
out by age sixteen.
Seniors who were prominent in Wadsworth many years ago and who graduated at the height of the
Spanish Flu pandemic in 1920 were: Clara Beck Brenneman, a pharmacist; Elva Hartman
Brintlinger Baldwin, a teacher in Wadsworth schools; and, Mike Motzko, a barber. Although senior
activities were not as profuse as they are today, what few they had were curtailed during the
One of the conundrums that plagued Ohioans was that the Legislature enacted a tax on every home
owner in Ohio for education in 1825, despite the fact that there were few who attended schools
regularly. At the time there was an outcry from the general public about the tax, insisting that it was
totally unfair since only so few took advantage of it but every homeowner had to pay. Property taxes
supported other elements of local government, but today approximately 65 percent of all property tax
dollars go to education. The controversy still remains, with groups protesting having to pay property
taxes for education when there are so many disparities in the quality of education throughout the
The practice of the school administrator going to every home in Wadsworth for ‘census’ purposes
lasted from 1918 until about 1936 in the Township School District. The Wadsworth City School
District continued the practice for only a few years beyond the enactment of the law, principally
because fewer city students would not have the need to work on farms.
Human Nature is always and everywhere the same. People resisting being told what to do; people
resenting paying for someone else’s advantage; people fearing personal contamination through
disease; people agonizing over expected pleasure only to have it extinguished by a pandemic; and
people believing the government should not legislate any law that restricts freedom. All the above
occurred over one-hundred years ago. It could have been written today. All we would have to do is
change the dates.