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Freeport, Dixon and Pittsfield, Illinois

At the close of the school year we decided not to continue in public school work, although the Spencer school board expressed an enthusiastic wish that we remain in charge of the academy. My dream of private school work reasserted itself and sometime in August I visited my schoolmate E. B. Sherman at Belvidere, Illinois. Together we went to Freeport, Illinois where purchasing a small run-down business college equipment we advertised that in September we would jointly open a school called the Freeport Business College and Academy.

Freeport was then a thriving city of ten thousand people. Mr. Sherman and I did all of the teaching conducting both day and night sessions. Since our patronage was generous, I can now see that there were great possibilities connected with our enterprise. Our maximum attendance was in the neighborhood of ninety students.

Dr. McKendrie Tooke of Rock River University, Dixon, Illinois, hearing of my work at Freeport, in March, 1876 described in glowing colors the future of his new institution. At that time a Western university was approximately the equivalent of a first-class Eastern academy. It took me some little time to make this discovery.

After much persuasion I decided to abandon the Freeport enterprise. Dr. Tooke purchased our equipment and in April I entered Rock River University in the capacity of principal of the Normal department. Mr. Sherman went to Beatrice, Kansas, to engage in business.

At the end of four weeks I discovered that Rock River University existed in the imagination of Dr. Tooke, and to a limited extent on paper. Here I met Dr. Tooke's associate worker, the Reverend O. J. May, formerly a Congregational minister. His qualifications for organizing a university were on a par with those of Dr. Tooke. I never received full pay for the business college furniture I had sold to these gentlemen. We managed to live because we boarded in the main university building. We collected a part of our salaries and continued to grow wiser as we grew older.

The patronage was never sufficient to pay the running expenses of the institution. The university property was hopelessly encumbered. In the fall of 1876 I occasionally gave a political address. In Dixon, Democrats were scarce; in Lee county, democrats were scarce; in Illinois, Democrats were scarce, consequently the few had to do double duty in the Tilden-Hayes campaign.

On one occasion I had agreed to speak before the Young Men's Tilden Club. When Dr. Tooke learned of this he called upon me suggesting that the university secured its patronage from Republican homes, in a Republican city, in a Republican county, in a Republican state and that if a Democrat represented the university, a loss of patronage would follow. On questioning the doctor I learned that he was representing the Dixon postmaster, the Republican boss of the city and county. Feeling quite sure that I was master of the situation, I wrote out, in his presence, my resignation to take immediate effect. This he would not accept.

While giving the address I had the pleasure of relating the doctor's request to the Tilden Club in the presence of the postmaster. I mention this incident in order to encourage the reader to assert himself whenever he feels that an important principle is at stake.

In September, 1877, withdrawing from Rock River University, we organized, in rooms over the post office, the Dixon Business College and Academy. Professor J. L. Hartwell, formerly superintendent of schools in North Dixon joined me in an equal partnership. Our patronage from the beginning was liberal. The character of this school was a duplicate of the Freeport Business College and Academy.

At the close of the first year, purchasing the interest of Professor Hartwell, I conducted the school alone for one more year. I employed excellent teachers and through superior work commanded the respect and admiration of the best people in Dixon and vicinity. I discovered the university property would in all probability be sold to some school men or men who had capital. This meant a kind of competition that would ultimately drive me to the wall. I concluded to re-enter the public school field in the capacity of superintendent.

While we lived in Dixon we made many delightful acquaintances, in fact, we formed friendships never to be forgotten. Dr. Henry Paine was a fine type of New England physician whose influence was always gracious and inspiring. He and his good wife frequently invited us to their home. The doctor who was fond of the best books was a fascinating conversationalist, a man to whom I owe much. I could mention scores of other good people who entered into our lives, who always extended to us the choicest hospitality.

It was while I was in Dixon that I heard, on the lecture platform, Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton. On a cold, sleety day in November, 1876 or 1877, I drove sixteen miles to Sterling, Illinois for the sole purpose of hearing Theodore Tilton. His subject was the "Human Mind". For two hours I listened to a lecture, an oration, that was free from anecdote, free from humorous illustrations, a clear-out discourse, magnificent in philosophy, suggestive and inspiring. That night I learned that the human heart is the open gateway to the intellect, that out of the heart are the issues of life. This one lecture has been a beacon light to me in my educational work all these many years I have had the good fortune to live. In the autumn of 1900, I wrote to Theodore Tilton, then living in Paris, France, asking for an outline of this lecture. Here is his reply:


73 Avenue Kleber,
Paris, France,
Oct. 18, 1900

Mr. Ferris,

My dear Sir,

I was touched to the quick by your letter. Accept my best thanks. Your testimony that, after a quarter of a century, you still value one of my old lectures and that it has ever since influenced your professional career is a tribute whereof any public speaker would be proud. It shows that words are not always wasted, and that a wayside-seed may sometime become a mustard-tree.

The discourse to which you refer and of which, lackaday! you ask for a copy was never published. In fact it was never written. It existed in the form of notes like a lawyer's brief nothing more. The same may be said of all my lectures; they were prepared only for oral delivery, not for the printing-press. I have occasionally been asked to publish them in book-form; but I do not possess a scrap or fragment or skeleton of any discourse that I ever delivered. Such a book would be impossible; of, if achieved in part, would exhibit not the old utterances but a new set, possessing in a very meager measure their former identity. "Cast thou draw out leviathan with a hook?" This would be easier than to put back the winds of Aeclus into a bag!

You do me the honor to intimate that I would be welcomed on the lyceum platform during the coming winter; and certain reports that I am to make such a re-appearance have crept into the newspapers. All these paragraphs though amiable and friendly are without other authenticity than the good wishes of certain old-tie journalists with whom I was once a fellow-craftsman.

I am eager to see my country again. This impulse sometimes comes upon me to such a degree that I half-resolve to catch up my carpet-bag and start off by the next steamer. But I happen to be engaged at present in some task that need [sic needs] my best attention at my writing-desk. So I am living in an ink bottle.

You ask, who is my publisher? I reply, since Mr. Worthington's death I have had none in New York. But Mr. Brentano, 37 Avenue de l' Opera, Paris, has a large volume of my collected poems.

I repeat, your letter delighted me. They were merry days, those! Yes, and your happy allusion to them comes to me like a whiff of lavender!

Cordially yours,

Theodore Tilton

Two or three years ago I read an abstract of this wonderful lecture to my school. So many students were captivated and inspired that reducing the abstract and Mr. Tilton's letter to the form of a leaflet I printed five thousand copies. Although his philosophy was not new the manner of his appeal took permanent root in my mental constitution.

I heard Henry Ward Beecher in Dixon, on the "Ministry of Wealth". Fortunately for me I had heard him in his pulpit. Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York, in October, 1873. Beecher on the lecture platform was an orator, in his church the greatest pulpit orator I ever heard.

In Dixon, I also heard Frederick Douglass on the "Self-Made Man". He read from manuscript, and when half through stopped suddenly, closed his book and without explanation left the platform. Fortunately I had previously heard him at Oswego, New York in the Greely-Grant campaign then he was at his best.

I recall hearing Susan B. Anthony in Dixon. Her audience was small and scattered about the auditorium. After inviting us to get together, she gave a sane, enthusiastic lecture on "Rights of Women". I am not sure that my wording of the title of the lecture is correct.

December twenty-third, 1878, I read in a Chicago daily that Professor O. S. Fowler, the phrenologist, was giving a course of lectures in Chicago. I at once went there to hear him give one of his famous speeches before a large audience in a church.

The next morning I called upon him at his consulting rooms in the Palmer House. Having little money I felt obliged to accept an oral delineation of my character. I paid his secretary two dollars and fifty cents. Presently Professor Fowler coming into the room without so much as a good morning proceeded to analyze a genuine stranger. In twenty minutes he described my traits with a clearness and vividness that would have astonished my most intimate friends.

Today I would give a large amount of money for a verbatim record of that interview. His statements were not glowing generalities. He was specific, definite, sometimes seemingly brutal. I thought I knew something about myself and I did, but Professor Fowler knew more. His suggestions for improvement were pointed, rational and practical. Notwithstanding the fact that our expert physiologists and psychologists call phrenologists mountebanks and charlatans, Professor Fowler was "on to his job". This is only another indication of my enthusiasm for the study of human nature.

I am aware that not a few critics will say "Doesn't every man know his own characteristics?" My answer is emphatically "NO". Every aspiring soul needs an x-ray exposure of his elements of strength and his elements of weakness at the hands of an expert analyst.

In September, 1879, I began work as superintendent of the city schools of Pittsfield, Illinois. The city under a special charter elected annually its entire board of five school officers. For some unaccountable reason there was an annual strife for membership. During my five years of service some of the leading citizens served in the capacity of school directors. These men were as diplomatic and conservative as professional politicians. They were desirous of meeting the demands of every religious and race faction. The board consulted the superintendent regarding the hiring of teachers, but ignored any advice he saw fit to offer. The interests of the pupils were subordinated to the wishes and limitations of the teachers and school board.

At the close of five years I was asked to remain, but I declined. I then resolved that I would never resume public school work. That resolution has been kept. There are school boards in the United States for whom I could work that recognize the functions of an efficient superintendent. I feel justified in saying that I rendered Pittsfield high grade service. I awakened in the community an educational interest that is enthusiastically remembered to this day.

While at Pittsfield I did not so much as discuss politics. As a rule, I voted for Democrats. Pike county [sic] was overwhelmingly democratic, but it did not occur to me that there were any political prizes that I cared to seek.

While a resident of this city I had the pleasure of hearing Honorable Richard Oglesby deliver a lecture. It was also my good fortune to hear Honorable John A. Logan speak in the presidential campaign of 1880.

Reverend W. W. Rose was pastor of the Congregational church. He was a genial, scholarly preacher.

Many of my Pittsfield students have reflected credit upon themselves and no small degree of honor upon their native city. One of the most remarkable instances is that of Stella Reel who was graduated from the high school in the early eighties and later became state superintendent of Public Instruction for Wyoming and later superintendent of Indian Affairs for the United States.